El Amazón místico, mágico y monstruoso.

We considered an adventure into the deepest, darkest Peruvian Amazon as the “tent-pole” event of our 6 months in South America. As older millennials, we grew up with school plays about the Amazon, BBC nature documentaries – bless you, David Attenborough -, and news of increased deforestation centred on the rainforest. Our unwritten Bucket List had a trip to the Amazon placed firmly in the top three.

With all that said, no amount of plays, documentaries or news bulletins can prepare you for the impact that the Amazon Rainforest has on you. Until you have experienced everything that the Forest offers, you’ll have only seen a fraction. And once you’ve witnessed Rain that can only be described as “biblical”, you’ll understand the sheer power that exists above and below the canopy.

However, before the excitement began, we had to get there and our journey, or course, started in Cusco.


The Forest

After a few days hopping between The North Face, Patagonia and Rockford, as well as myriad knock-off travel shops, we were packed and ready for 5 nights in the Refugio Amazonas and Tambopata Research Center (TRC) in the Tambopata Reserve. Our early flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado began with an in depth explanation from the girl behind us regarding her anxiety of flying- this should have been a clue! Before we knew it we were traversing the Andes and soaring over the rainforest and muddy waters of rivers and oxbow lakes below. The views were interrupted by a call for medical assistance, Daisy disappeared off to see what was happening along with several other doctors, wisely she retreated leaving many doctors discussing the anxious girl and the need for oxygen!

Departing Cusco and arriving in the rainforest was a tale of two humidities; one crisp and dry, the other sweltering and damp. We gave each other knowing looks at baggage reclaim, which is to imply that we knew it was going to be a warm wet week. Of course, we were correct, but we couldn’t have been more wrong.

To reach the TRC we took a plane, a 1-hour minibus between Puerto Maldonado and Comunidad del Fuego, then a 4-hour boat ride up the Tambopata River, which sits in the Madres de Dios region of Peru, to Refugios Amazonas for our first two nights. Technically, it is the Amazon Rainforest, but it’s not on the titular river. The reason that we chose TRC (via Refugio Amazonas) is that the center is a working research center, specifically for Macaws and jaguars, so while you get to visit the deep jungle, you get to do so surrounded by scientists and volunteers. It was a nature nerd’s dream.

Our final destination was the TRC, which sits a total of 8-hours upstream, however, as divulged, our first two nights were at Refugio Amazonas. Undertaking the entire journey to TRC would be impossible to finish in daylight from the city of Puerto Maldonado. No captain in their right mind would sail up the river at night as there are logs everywhere! Nevertheless, this mandatory stop was welcomed by the whole group.

Safety briefing complete and rooms assigned.

It was time to get into the green stuff.

While walking through the forest, every angle – up, down, close-up, wide – offered something different. On hikes we often had to stop –

Oh, look at this mushroom! … Wait, is that a huge ant? … Did you hear that bird? … Was that a monkey above!?

Couple of Voyagers, Amazon, repeatedly.

5km hikes took far longer than they should have, because, with every forward step, we had something new to look at, smell, touch (although only when our guide said we could) and to listen to. It was a sensory overload. At one point, before the rain had started, our guide was teaching us the difference between the Reserve and National Park when, not 100 metres away, a tree collapsed. The accompanying sound was like nothing we had ever heard: perhaps a giant had uprooted and snapped a 40 metre tree and slammed it against the jungle floor? No, it was just the immense power of nature that surrounded us. Like the best roller coasters, we were not in control and it was thrilling.

Obviously, while not in the …relative… safety of the research center, we were dressed the part. There was something comforting about our head-nets, especially when the others in our group were swatting away mosquitoes throughout our excursions. Under the canopy only 5% of daylight reaches the jungle floor, so insects are active during the day, but at night is when even nets cannot reliably protect you. Everything was bigger in the Amazon; bigger mosquitoes, bigger crickets, bigger locusts and bigger spiders decided to invade every corner of our room, or posted up on walkways and staircases. In fact, even the baby tarantulas, despite their cute pink feet, occupied handrail space and caused momentary lapses of muscle movement.

Is that a t-t-t-tarantula?

Not Shaggy or Scooby Do

Our room, a loose term for the 3-wall, ceiling-less space that we slept in, was an adventure in itself. Much like the best Brechtian theatre, the fourth-wall didn’t exist; there was a vast space that looked out into the dense jungle, which gave us a fantastic view and the insects a fantastic point of entrance. We frequently showered with gigantic beetles, avoided hand-sized crickets and hoped that no tarantula would join us. Every evening we dashed from the shower, crept under the mosquito net and spent the next 20 minutes tucking in the net and inspecting the corners, all in preparation for a bug free night! One morning we realised we had not been alone that night. A monkey or possibly a possum had been roaming around and pooped on our clothes. Another moment of realisation, this was their rainforest and we were mere guests.

Night time!

If we weren’t walking around in awe of nature during the day, we were running around being literally bombarded by nature at night. Nevertheless, the Night Walk around the TRC was fun. In a moment reminiscent of the movie Arachnophobia, we were being taught about species of spiders that spin webs together. Our guide shone the torch at a lone spider at chest-height, explaining that these are often found in large groups. As he was talking, he moved the light up, above head-height, revealing a huge web system with hundreds of spiders busying themselves within the 1m cubed white mass. A few of our group recoiled in horror, and encouraged a swift departure from that particular tree. Later on during the nocturnal jaunt we saw the Two Stripe Poison Dart Frog, the second-most deadly frog in the world, which was extremely small but incredibly cute. I mean, it could have killed every human inside the TRC but it looked really cool.

One of our most treasured sightings was the juvenile Harpy Eagle. Despite being less than a year old, this male bird of prey had a wingspan of just shy of 2 metres and was calling loader than anything in the vicinity. It was such an amazing experience to witness, and he was by far the most badass character we saw during our time in the jungle.

Though perhaps this Yellow Caiman comes in a close second, especially considering there was a possum in his jaws

The greatest aspect of the TRC was being able to choose different activities to do in the jungle. We were spoilt for choice during our time there, with our days filled with trips to mammal and parrot Claylicks; a trip up a 30m tower to the jungle canopy, from which it was possible to see the sunrise, parrots, other birds and wasps; a hike to the Oxbow lake followed by a boat ride; daylight and sunset walks, boat rides to find jaguar and the aforementioned Night Walk.

The non-exhaustive list of animals that we saw over our 5 days in the Amazon is below. There was a whole load more insects and reptiles, but we didn’t reliably identify them via our guide.

Mammals

Possum 
Red Howler monkey
Dusky Titi monkey
Black Spider monkey
Tiny monkey
Agouti
Bats

Birds

Scarlet Macaws
Red and Green Macaws
Blue and Yellow Macaws
Harpy Eagle (yeeeeeeees!)
Hoatzin (double yeeeeeeees!)
Osprey
Great Potoo
Roadside Hawk
Classic Toucan
Chestnut throated Toucan
Jabiru
Black Vulture
Greater Yellow-headed Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Snowy Egret
Great White Egret
Blue-throated Piping Guan
Red capped Manakin
Undulated Tinamou
Red Curusow
Grey-winged Trumpeter
Pale-winged Trumpeter 

Reptiles and Amphibians

Two-Stripe Poison Dart Frog
Yellow Caiman
Gecko 
Giant Toad
Leaf Toad

Fish

Yellow Bellied Piranha 

Insects

Pink Footed Tarantula 
Hunting Spiders
Wandering Spider
Leaf-Cutter Ants
Bullet Ants

The Rain

Have you ever seen rain so hard, and so strong, that it collapsed trees mere metres from your bed? Until our third night in the Amazon, we were in the group of individuals that could answer “no” to that question.

The night prior to the rains we were given a heads up by mother nature; while having a beer at the bar a sudden infestation of insects descended on the white sofas in the communal area. Quite a shocking site to see the white cushions turn black. The barmen hastily attempted to brush them off with little success exclaiming ‘the rains are coming’. You’re telling us!

For 22-hours, we were surrounded by torrents of rain. “It’s rained off” took on a whole new meaning that day. The pathways on which we walked not a day before were flooded; the banks of the river burst and 2.5 metres of water had crept closer to us. The day we arrived we had surmised the reason, but after the rain we saw why the walkways existed and our room was held up by 6m stilts. It became impossible to do any trips outside of the lodge.

Breakfast and lunch were not rained off, and we ended up chatting with the rest of our stranded group for the majority of the day. Many topics of conversation were navigated, until we were interrupted by Tabasco, one of the Macaws, or “chicos”, that the old conservation programmed helped rescue. That original programme no longer exists because the birds became too fearless of humans, which harmed their numbers. Fearless birds are much easier to catch and smuggle, with Macaws fetching $2500 each in the US. The older birds had also taught their partners and offspring to visit the TRC for a free meal which although lovely for us was damaging to them. It’s very much a “hands-off” programme now, which is to say that there is minimal human interaction to help protect the birds and keep them as wild as possible.

That said, for Tabasco, old habits certainly die hard, and he was the start of the lunchtime show for an hour. We snapped at the chance to get a selfie with him before he pestered the chefs for bread.

It rained so much that talk of delayed boats, minibuses and flights was a real possibility. We didn’t have the luxury of spending extra nights in the rainforest due to our plans, but it looked at one point like our hand would be forced.

Then, just like that, the rain stopped. And 12 hours later, the river retreated, leaving a brown, muddy mess that required gumboots to traverse. Thankfully, by the time we left the TRC the water was back down to the same level as when we had arrived. In fact, the only evidence that we had witnessed such a biblical rise in water were the felled trees and stained foliage by the riverbank.


Since our Amazon experience, any slight sniffle or sneeze has been followed up with “do you think I have Dengue?”. And the mosquito bites have only just subsided. Nevertheless, our memories remain, and our time in the rainforest will be long in our thoughts.

The end of Peru began with an extended week in Chucuito, a terrible birthday and a proper illness, and ended with a border crossing, but more on that when we return.

Until next time.

I & D/

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Woman haggling at the market

Machu Picchu y Sacred Valley

One of the Modern 7 Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu is the undisputed main event in Peru. A quick #machupicchu search on Instagram reveals a daily photo deluge of gringos in wide-brimmed hats and ponchos, llamas and Peruvian school children proving that they’ve been to the Incan citadel. If you follow us on IG, you’ll have seen our proof…

While Machu Picchu played a key role, it was not the only highlight in the Sacred Valley. Our adventure started in the Inca capital, the “Puma City” of Cusco.

Cusco

The city of Cusco
Cusco from the hills

Our home-from-home, Cusco will end up as the city in which we have spent the most time by the time we say goodbye to South America. At 15 days/14 nights, we’ve seen a lot of what it offers; it has been a base for day excursions into the nearby valleys; and the hostels and hotels have been a backpack storage solution for our travels further afield. The barrio of San Blas was where we chose to settle, which is a district steeped in history, has great places to eat and drink, and is a short walk to the main tourist attractions.

Umbrellas in Cusco
Umbrellas only required occasionally

The city of Cusco was wonderful. For a place its size, it enveloped us into its warm, winding streets, artisanal “Concept Stores” and world-beating chocolate caliente; the darker the chocolate, the better the flavour.

It’s also a city that contained, and was surrounded by, a huge amount of history.

Travel tip: if you have more than 72 hours in the city,  purchase a Boleto Turistico del Cusco for 130 soles. This ticket gives you access to 16 sites and museums in the Sacred Valley Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara, Tambomachay, Ollantaytambo, Moray, Chinchero, Pisaq, Tipon, Pikillaqta, Monumento a Pachacuteq, Centro Qusqo de Art Nativo and Museos Art Popular, Historico Regional, Arte Contemporaneo, Sitio Qurikancha. Many of the sites that are outside of Cusco can be reached on day trips.

Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara and Tambomachay

All of these sites were on the outskirts of Cusco, and our first excursion was to Saqsaywaman, which can be reached on foot from San Blas. The site was huge, with a number of different miradors of the city, as well as some very well-preserved Inca walls. In general, the masonry on show in Cusco was very impressive, not just in Saqsaywaman.

Our next trip was to the other three sites. After a lot of haggling, we got a taxi to Tambomachay for 17 soles. Our advisor in iPeru said that we could walk there, but we would not recommend it because you would need to climb up a very steep hill.

Conversely, the hike downhill back to Cusco was great. The route took us along the main road, which only had a few cars passing through the small villages; this was an easy way to see the three sites on the tourist ticket. Overlooking Cusco, there was also a beautiful forest near Q’enqo, which provided an excellent vantage point for photos. This excursion was around 6 miles, and the distance added to the time taken to explore the Inca ruins resulted in a full morning trip.

Cusco did provide one scare, and remind us how the Andes came to be. A few days into our stay, we were woken up in our 4th floor apartment by a Richter Scale 6.49 earthquake. Everything was shaking. Sunday mornings are supposed to be restful, not utterly terrifying.

Machu Picchu 

Daisy looking at Machu Picchu
Sans poncho

During our time in Peru we have become more comfortable taking excursions without guides. Frankly, it goes to show how easy the country is to travel, with only the distances and night buses being the main drawback. Nevertheless, Machu Picchu was very easy to book and travel, and the distances were short enough to make it a comfortable experience.

Machu Picchu Self-Guide Itinerary

  • Machu Picchu entrance ticket & added ticket to hike Machu Picchu Mountain: 200 soles per person
  • PeruRail Vistadome train from Cusco Poroy Station to Aguas Calientes: $75 USD p/p
  • Taxi to Poroy Station: 25 soles
  • Inka Wonder Hostel private room in Aguas Calientes: 110 soles (inc. ensuite and breakfast from 4:00 am)
  • Machu Picchu Museum ticket: 11 soles p/p
  • Machu Picchu bus to Aguas Calientes: $40 p/p

After much deliberation, we decided to go with Peru Rail over Inca Rail due to price. Cusco Poroy Station at 8:55 am on the Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes was fantastic. The Vistadome seats had windows above, which allowed for great views of the Sacred Valley, and even though the journey was only around 3 hours, it was an attraction in-and-off itself.

We departed the train around lunch and had a half-day to kill in Aguas Calientes, which was very chilled because we had a big day the following day. We did go to the Machu Picchu Museum, which was a great idea in hindsight because we got a map of the site and a complete history of the site. Win!

The Day of Machu Picchu Hike

3:45: Our Machu Picchu day started at an eye-watering 3:45 am and 2040m. We’d arranged to have breakfast at 4:30, however upon glancing out of the window we saw the rain was pelting it down, which delayed us by an hour. “Let’s not get soaked before we get to the entrance” we decided.

5:20: We were on our way, the rain just about stopped. Aguas Calientes to the entrance of the mountain trail was a 30 minute walk, and most people chose the bus option so we had much of the walk to ourselves. The only frustration on the way up the mountain trail were the school kids playing loud reggaeton on their smartphones and taking photos of us. Why does no one in South America have sodding headphones?

7:20: The climb up to 2430m to the citadel was over, but we only had a short rest and photo opportunity of Machu Picchu shrouded in clouds before we started the ascent up to Machu Picchu Mountain. “It can’t be that difficult?” we thought.

8:20: Just over halfway up the mountain and it was way more difficult than we had thought. Thankfully, the rain hadn’t started again so the steps up to the summit weren’t slippery. We also met Alfonso, an eccentric Ecuadorian bloke who was in Peru to watch the partido, and he made the climb much easier. It was here where I made my first joke in Spanish…Duolingo was paying off.

9:00: A few more steps to go and we reached the top of the mountain, and were standing at a cool 3064m, making our ascent of over 1000m in less than 4 hours. Crisps and biscuits were devoured and then it was a waiting game to get “that picture” of Machu Picchu. “When were the clouds going to clear? It won’t be that long, surely?”

11:00: It was amazing to be on the summit of a mountain and see the valleys below, however 2 hours standing up looking at clouds dissipate was the hiking equivalent of watching paint dry. Nevertheless, we got “that photo” and began our descent. Not 5 minutes into the steps downwards and Daisy’s knee gave up, so I removed my sweaty knee brace and lent it to her. Delightful.

12:30: Ouch, step, rest. Ouch, step, rest. 90 minutes later and we were at the wooden shack entrance to the mountain. More biscuits, selfies and a short rest, and it was time to explore the citadel.

15:00: Machu Picchu citadel was so interesting. We spent a lot more time exploring the many different parts than other people who had guides, which was a blessing because we were knackered. After a few hours walking around taking photos, we decided to meander our way back to Aguas Calientes. We also chose the bus as an option because of our knees…


Photos and videos on the internet do not do justice to Machu Picchu. Yes, you will want to get “that photo”, but the citadel had a lot more impact on us than we thought before going into the experience. The audacity to build a city perched on top of a mountain is a true feat of human ingenuity.

One additional point of interest is the town of Aguas Calientes. Not often mentioned, Machu Picchu “base camp” was pretty awful, save for an excellent craft beer and burger restaurant called Mapacho. Aguas Calientes felt like a mini Vegas, or a new theme park in on the outskirts of the M25. Either way, if you plan on making a go of Machu Picchu yourself, spend as little time here as possible.

Ollantaytambo

Possibly our favourite place in the Sacred Valley, the small town of Ollanta was a short train journey from Aguas Calientes. It’s not in the cloud forest, which meant very little rain, and a chance to enjoy the sunshine in our hostel’s garden. Mama Simona was slightly out of town but easily walk-able, and was so good we extended our stay by a night.

The immediate area around Ollanta had lots to see, with the main attractions rising up on either side of the town; the Ollantaytambo Ruins (70 soles or included on the tourist ticket) and the Grain Stores (free entry between 7:30-16:00). After an early morning breakfast, we opted to visit the former, which not only was a fantastic ruins to explore, but we missed the tourist rush and had the place to ourselves for thirty minutes. The early bird and all that. 

 Our hostel recommended a restaurant in the main square – Apu Asugate – which did the menu turistico, a 3-course meal for 15 soles. That’s less than 4 quid! It was a family-owned place, and the food was muy bien. We ate there twice and have no problem admitting that!

Moray, Maras Salt Mines and Chinchero

Our final jolly through the Valley was a day trip to Moray RuinsMaras Salt Mines and ending on what we thought would be two nights in Chinchero.  

Moray was undoubtedly our favourite tourist attraction beginning with “M” on that day. The ruins are set into the base of a small mountain and are surrounded by amazing views. Also, and perhaps our most interesting fact from Peru, historians have a number of theories as to why Moray exists. Our favourite is that the terraces were used by Incan famers to perform agricultral experiements! Apparently, the temperature can drop as much as 5 deg C for each terrace, making the perfect way to test how to grow the best fruit and vegetables. Interesting!    

After spending an hour in Moray, Dante con su familia drove us to Chinchero, via Maras. The salt mines in Maras were an odd tourist attraction. Of course, the story behind the centuries-old, Inca salt mine was super intriguing. Salty water is channeled from the nearby mountains into flat pans the traverse the edge of a cliff. 

One frustrating thing that we witnessed in Maras was the behaviour of a handful of tourists. Of course it’s a unique site, but it is also a working salt mine, and I am sure that the workers and owners would rather not have people walking all over the salt pans to get selfies. 

A few audible tuts and visible displays of disbelief later, we were in the taxi on our way to Chinchero.

Chinchero

In Chinchero, our bed for two nights was supposed to be in Chinchero Boutique Hotel. To our horror, upon arriving we discovered that the lights were not on and indeed no one was home. Date and his wife hammered on the door for twenty minutes but we were out of luck. It was our first “Holidays from Hell” (ITV, circa 2004) experience! 

We gave up and asked Dante to drop us at the only other hotel in the area, the significantly more expensive Casa de Barro. Perhaps we were in luck after all, as Antonio and his staff/family at Barro were amazing. The hotel, and Chinchero itself, were clearly a day-trip stop, and once all of the Cusco-bound gringos left the restaurant, Antonio turned off the Peruvian panpipe music and replaced it with early 90s techno

Call him Mr. Raider, call him Mr. Wrong, call him Mr. Vain.

Mr. Vain – Culture Beat, 1993

Antonio had great music taste.

The main draw to Chinchero was the Sunday market. Every week, the little pueblo hosts many local, rural communities who sell their produce, crafts and skills. On show was the centuries-old bartering techniques of the local women; it sounded like a fight was starting before we realised it was a debate over the cost of flower petals. 

Before we left, we bought a few Christmas presents to various friends and family, and Dante picked us up for our last half-an-hour to Cusco.


If you are still reading, thanks for sticking around. This post was lost twice, which is why it is a bit late. The next part of our adventure began not long after we got back to Cusco, but instead of being high in the Andes we actually went to deepest, darkest Peru.

The Amazon Rainforest.

Until then.

I/

Daisy and Ian on top of Colca

Arequipa y Colca: monjas y rutas de senderismo

Arequipa, Peru’s second most populous city, oozed with historical importance while also being an obvious hub for thrillseekers; look out of a window in any tall-ish building and you will be greeted by one of three surrounding mountains.  

Misti Mountain towering over Arequipa

The city had a bustling, verging on hectic feel. As we soaked in the atmosphere, it slowly began to remind both of us of Trujillo, only bigger and prettier. Spoiler alert, but outside of Cusco, the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa was the most beautiful that we’d experienced in Peru up to that point. The central grass, flowers and fountain were strafed by bars, restaurants and a convenient el Super – the freshly-baked bread reminded us of home and was available from 10:30am – which we visited most mornings to stock up on essentials, and never ice cream for 2 soles. 

Of the many cultural experiences available to visit in the city, and after a lot of discussion, we opted for two; the Santa Catalina Monastery for a window into a working nunnery, and the Alpaca Museum for a window into, arguably, the most cute of South America’s camelids.

Despite being 40 soles each, the Monastery offered an interesting look into how the Catholic Church maintains what can only be described as a patriarchal hold over the women that dedicate their lives to their God. From tiny rooms to underwear made of barbed wire, the beautiful architecture of the centuries old building retains a difficult past.

Fortunately, the residents in the Alpaca Museum did not have to suffer such abuses. While we were unsure of what to expect, on arrival, we were ushered away from the shop, which based on prior experience was odd, and sent towards our furry friends. There were six alpacas lounging in the sun, sadly not close enough for a cuddle. The museum told the history of alpaca farming in South America. Nevertheless, we saw how the shorn alpaca wool is graded by hand, and then walked through a collection of machines that cleaned and sorted the wool, then turned bunches into yarn. Personally, I never thought yarn would be so interesting. 

Post-museums we headed up to a rooftop bar that some friends had told us about; it was one of those “head to this corner, then go up some stairs into a restaurant and a woman will take you through a dilapidated bar onto the roof” type recommendations. Not only did this hidden gem serve amazing chocolate caliente, but the Andean sunsets were out of this world. 

Daisy looking at a sunset on a rooftop bar
Rooftop sunsets galore

Colca Canyon

Our bags at the top of Colca Canyon

Outside of the cultural significance, one of the mains draws to Arequipa is to use the city as a base while joining hundreds of other gringos in Colca Canyon. However, what we didn’t know before we got to Arequipa was that we would opt to self-guide the canyon; living by our own recommendations at last! Hours of research took us from a starting point of 3D/2N guided tour to 2D/1N self-guided hike; our chosen route was –

  • Day 0: Arequipa (6hr bus) > Cabanaconde (sleep)
  • Day 1: Colca 1200m decent (10.5km / 5hrs) > Llahuar (sleep)
  • Day 2: Colca 1200m accent (10.5km / 6hrs 15mins) > Cabanaconde (6hr bus) > Arequipa

Self-Guided Return Hike to Llahuar

We left Arequipa on the 11:25 Reyna bus scheduled to stop in Chivay before arriving in Cabanaconde. The Terminal Terrestre (travel tip: 7 soles taxi from Plaza de Armas, make sure to negotiate) was busy and we were delayed, which didn’t dampen spirits. 

On the journey, Daisy got through the majority of season one of Serial, and I some of season one of Quickly Kevin, will he score? The 90s Football Podcast, which passed the time before we arrived in Cabanaconde. The town is used as the main hub for hikers and adventurers of Colca Canyon; there isn’t much there, and expect to pay increased prices for snacks and water. Leg stretches, carb-loading at dinner and an early night.

Alarm at 6:15am: no snooze!

Before we left, we bought a Colca map from Pachamama Hostel (10 soles), which told us that the return hike to Llahuar was not recommended due to the accent – it’s much further than Sangalle, the oasis town also at the canyon’s bottom. Of course, we took the advice as a challenge and left for Llahuar at 8:15am.

The decent took us over agricultural land occupied by American Kestrels and Andean Condors; winding down rocky switchbacks; over rickety, old wooden bridges and along stretches of cliff edge that had unparalleled views of the canyon. The most difficult stretch of the hike was before the Geyser and bridge at the bottom of the canyon; 90 minutes of steep, blister-inducing gradient that got tiresome by the time we reached the bottom.

Daisy and Ian on top of Colca

An hour beyond the bridge, and post snack break, we arrived at Llahuar, a tiny place famous for hot springs. There were two places to sleep there – the bigger Llahuar Lodge and Casa de Virginia, which was smaller and our home for the night. Owned by a small family, Casa de Virginia was a little bit of escapism after a tiring day. We were made to feel incredibly welcome, with lunch and dinner made at our request; pasta, rice and more carbs please! We even got to pick fruit from their orange grove to eat fresh. Delicious!

Our room was a 7x7ft stone shack with no electricity, which needed candles to light at night. It was very rustic, and despite the barking dogs and crawling insects, we both slept well!

Breakfast at 5am
Banana pancakes, coffee and tea. A breakfast of champions!

After a 6:00 am departure, on our 1200m accent we were fueled for at least 3 hours by our banana pancakes, and until hour 5, it was “fairly easy going”. We powered up the sections that we thought would be tough, which allowed for strategic photo and water breaks. Clearly our memories of the previous day were hazy because after hour 5 we began to struggle; perhaps we should have listened to the map…

As we stopped for our final snack break, we bumped into some new friends – Huacachina Wild Rover buddies – who were heading down the canyon; they looked far more spritely than us, the pain fairly obvious on our faces. It took some mental strength, but the final hour was hiked and we arrived back at Cabanaconde after 6 hours and 15 minutes.

Selfie after the hike
Did it! Now, where is the bus…

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we would have stayed an extra night in the Canyon because it was so beautiful. Nevertheless, Cusco wasn’t going to see itself, and after a night in a complete dive hostel – Flying Dog Arequipa 1/5 – we hopped on our 5:15 am bus and headed to the Sacred Valley.

Cloudy Machu Picchu

Next up, Cusco, and that fairly unknown cultural site in the Sacred Valley. What’s it called? Machu something.

Until next time.

I/

Lima, dunas de arena y cerveza

It feels like an age since we immortalised a few days of our Peru experience. The last time we spoke we had just settled into Lima, which was a welcome change to the mountainous Huaraz.

Majestic Miraflores, Bohemian Barranco & Culinary Central

Staying in Miraflores and having the Pacific coast to traverse every morning was a pleasure. The walk south to Barrio Barranco was lined with parks, quirky architecture – for an unknown reason evoking feelings of GTA Vice City – and a surprising number of different birds; red ones, blue-eyed ones and ones of the humming variety. And pigeons. Further south, Barranco itself was far more arty, with coffee shops, artisanal restaurants and much older architecture, much of it in desperate need of repair. Although the dilapidation does add to the huge amount of charm Barranco possesses.

When we weren’t walking around museums, looking at art or learning about the many pre-Incan communities, we were eating. As an early Christmas treat, and as a counterbalance to the regular dinners of tomato, onion & pasta, we managed to snag a lunch service at Restaurant Central, featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table.

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Altitude food was on the menu; from sea bed to mountain top. For us, every dish had new fruit, vegetables and fish to eat, and it was not always entirely pleasant. There was also something quite theatrical about the food; without trying to sound pretentious, it was culinary storytelling, highlighted by Course 8 – High Valley: 2800m. Raw prawns, lukewarm brown broth and cool mushy avocado. It literally felt like we were consuming a river bank. Fascinating.

 

If you know us and our travel history, you will know that we often find ourselves in odd situations. At Central, this historical trend was not bucked. As Course 7 arrived – Coastal Foothills: 450m – an American woman on the table adjacent to us screamed

“Is anybody here a doctor?”

“She is.”

As I pointed at Daisy, I thought “sorry, it’s not my fault I am a proud husband.”

Obviously overcome by the thought of eating piranha skin, the American’s compatriat had collapsed. As thirty minutes passed by, and Course 7 was removed from our place settings in hushed tones, the restaurant continued to serve meals while a gringo lay on the floor, being comforted by another gringo. Long story short, the volunteer fire officers turned up to treat the stricken American, Daisy returned and Course 7 was re-served to us. Thankfully, the rest of lunch had us eat our courses as soon as they were served. And no one else collapsed.

A few days in Lima ended up being quite eventful, all things considered.

Deserts, dunes and dancing to Oasis in an oasis

We had already decided to book the second half in Peru with Peru Hop; one ticket, a number of key destinations on the Gringo Trail, and the flexibility to change travel plans last minute seemed like an attractive prospect, especially after spending hours stressing about buses for the first 3 weeks. After a short stop in the Peru Hop office, and a few hundred dollars later, we had our wristbands as well as tickets to Paracas, Huacachina and Nazca!

Our first “hop on” was an early start from Miraflores, destination: Paracas. Before we arrived we hopped off at the Chincha Tunnels for a sombre tour through a small section of 17km of slave tunnels outside Lima. The 18th Century San Jose Hacienda was home to a family who owned thousands of slaves forced to work in the cotton and sugar fields. The evidence of this horrific time in human history were uncomfortably screwed to the walls. According to our guide, the owner of this Hacienda was brutal; when the government passed legislation to give freedom to the slaves of Peru, the owner hid the truth for over a decade. He met his end on the front steps of the Hacienda when the slaves found out the truth, removing his head in the process. As we made our way back to the bus we were both quiet. Walking around San Jose was a thought-provoking experience.

Hop on, hop off; Paracas.

Paracas, a tiny, walled beach town, is located just outside a massive, desert nature reserve, the boundaries of which extend into the ocean; Isla Ballestas, off the coast, is nicknamed the “poor man’s Galapagos“, and is home to a lot of bird and marine life. As you know, we spent 3 weeks in the real Galapagos, so decided to save our soles (we took the free Peru Hop Reserve tour) and spent our extra time playing Rummy and organising our backpacks in the hostel; Kokopelli Paracas had a decent vibe, and the mixed dorm rooms had “pods” rather than bunk beds. Privacy maintained.

Hop on, hop off; Huacachina.

We’d heard mixed reviews of Huacachina; located 10 minutes outside Ica, this tiny town surrounds a desert oasis, which itself is surrounded by enormous sand dunes. It’s a one-road-in-and-out location, which, as alumni of UEA and University of Portsmouth respectively, is a geographical scenario that causes people to go a little loco.

The desert oasis has the reputation of being a party town, and the weekend on which we arrived was Peru Hop‘s 5th birthday; the Irish owners of the transport company threw 3 days of festivities at the newly-opened Wild Rover Hostel. After a night of “celebrating Peru Hop‘s birthday”, Daisy rolling back the years with a rendition of “Wannabe” while dancing on the bar, a club beckoned; for a town that has 97 inhabitants, the 1000+ attendees of this club was a surprising sight. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then this one is a novel –

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Accidental Renaissance

Scrambled eggs, chicken sandwiches and sandboarding filled the itinerary for Saturday. Our hostel provided the sandboards and a dune buggy driver, who drove like an absolute maniac. Hanxiety was usurped by the overwhelming fear that our lives were to end that afternoon; the ride was bone-rattling, fast and uncontrolled. Ignorantly, we asked our driver if he needed a license or special training to drive a buggy in the dunes. Or if he’d ever rolled it. You can guess the answers.

During our adrenal downtime, we relaxed at our hostel – Banana’s Adventure – and spent it with new friends; three Mancunians, a fellow Hertfordshirian (? that doesn’t look correct…) and a lad from Florida/Texas. We navigated many conversational topics, yet only hovered around Brexit and Trump twice. Result.

Hop on, hop off; Nazca.

We actually changed our plans for Nazca. Originally, we wanted to spend the night in the town and take a flight over the lines the following morning, but after speaking to fellow travellers and reading up on the aviation experience, we decided thirty, vomit-inducing minutes didn’t sound as good as climbing the tower and then continuing overnight to Arequipa.

Travel tip: the Nazca Lines themselves cover such a huge expanse of desert that it is possible to see just a few. Before committing, we recommend reading up on the flight safety record, the Lines and the town of Nazca, as they all have hugely varying reviews. We are glad it was just a short stopover for us.


Thankfully, Gonzalo, our Airbnb host, let us check-in to our apartment at 6am, so after an overnight bus we decided that the first order of the day was a long nap. Exploring the second-largest city in Peru, Arequipa, could wait until later.

Until next time.

I/

 

Mil doscientos noventa kilometros (y el resto)

And then we came crashing back down to Earth.

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Goodbye, Galapagos!

After the unrivalled high that was three weeks in the Galapagos, at the end of last week we embarked on the next stage of our travels. The plan was a four-day trip from San Cristobal Island, Galapagos, to Chachapoyas, Peru; that’s approximately 2200 km in planes, taxis and buses spread viscously over 96 hours.

We always knew it would be a challenge.

Back to the mainland

When you leave the Galapagos, the conventional wisdom of getting to the airport with ample time before your flight is excessive. Arriving with 90 minutes to spare had us sitting outside catching up on podcasts and books after checking in our backpacks. San Cristóbal Airport is only down the road from the town center, which would be been a much more pleasant area to spend our final hours on the Galapagos. Nevertheless, hours were killed and we departed without hassle.

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Criminal barnet on the way to Guayaquil

We’d heard fairly interesting reviews of Guayaquil, both online and on our cruise, and upon arrival we really felt the contrasting atmospheres between 3 weeks in Galapagos and 3 minutes in Guayquil.

Thankfully, we had an overnight stay at the Courtyard by Marriott booked, which is about four miles from the runway. The hotel had a gym on the 16th floor – my goodness did it feel good to get on the treadmill – a pricey but well-serviced restaurant and our room had two double beds. We joked about it being the last decent night’s sleep for a while.

Absolutely jinxed it.

Crossing the Ecuador & Peru border

After a morning of packing and planning, we checked out, fixed the hotel printer, had our last proper meal for 24 hours and ordered our taxi to Guayaquil Terrestrial Terminal, which is the international bus station that is situated inside a shopping mall next to the airport (!?).

The hotel cab driver confirmed the location with his dispatcher and we were off! …to the wrong place. The driver confirmed the destination with a guy on the street and we are off! …shit, it’s not there either. One final confirmation from a second helpful Guayaquileno and we are actually on the right street. Evidently, Marriott guests don’t slum it on buses from the Terminal.

Acting out our best “we know exactly what we are doing” impressions, we arrived at the Terminal with plenty of time to spare yet still managed to flap around trying to decipher the gate system. “Tú hablas inglés?” Of course not. The bus terminal was 3-storeys tall, each with 20 gates, surrounded by shops and Ecuadorians enjoying their Sunday afternoon. Our bus was on the top floor, our bags went in the hold and we decamped. Easy enough.

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Leg room, air conditioning, entertainment. Peru buses are great!

Five hours, and one absolutely stunning sunset later, we were pulling into a car park that looked suspiciously like a land border. Our Cruz del Sur representative ushered us all to the front of the very long queue – much to our British embarrassment – and the chaos ensued.

One queue desk was for exiting Ecuador; done. The next queue and desk was for entering Peru, but we were told to wait outside. For more than five minutes we existed in no country. We’d exited Ecuador – we had the stamp and everything! Before the cortisol got too active, were taken to another building back towards the entrance of the border, which turned out to be the Peru customs for tourists. Odd. Forty-five minutes passed and we were still waiting in the customs building, wafting hats and books in an effort to deter the mosquitos.

All-in-all, our crossing into Peru was chaotic but we expected nothing less; in total, the experience was about two hours, but it never felt sketchy. The final slog to Mancora saw us arrive in the “Peruvian Magaluf” at 23:40. Bedtime was the day after we had left, and we only had 32 hours of downtime until we had to endure the second part of the journey.

A travel tip for Mancora: unless you are staying there to do day trips into the desert, or planning on surfing, just book the Guayaquil > Chiclayo direct service on Cruz del Sur. It didn’t help that there was a local election, which prohibits the sale of alcohol, but it’s a very quiet, very small town not particularly worthy of a stopover.

“That was the worst bus experience I have ever had.”

Oof, a major claim.

From touching down on mainland Ecuador to Mancora we had travelled 376 km by Cruz del Sur bus in the VIP section.

As is evident here, we had a lot further to go to get to Chachapoyas from Mancora, via Chiclayo. We had researched the main bus companies, with Oltursa seemingly the only one that had a direct bus between Mancora and Chiclayo; a 3:30 am arrival did not sit nicely with us so we opted for a day trip on three different companies that looked like this

  • Morning – 3hrs – Mancora > Piura on EPPO
  • Afternoon – 3hrs – Piura > Sullana > Chiclayo on Linea
  • Overnight – 8hrs – Chiclayo > Bagua Grande > Pedro Ruiz Gallo > Chachapoyas on Movil Tours

We were led to believe that the bus agencies were in order of least good to best. What’s the worst that could happen?

That ended up being a total lie, and the worst happened.

A lot of nothingness

To our surprise, the first two buses, while rough around the edges, were okay. We didn’t have the luxury of air conditioning, but we paid £20 between us for both journeys and the windows opened enough to circulate air in the coach.

Our stopovers – Piura and Chiclayo – both had their charming parts, too. We were decanted on the street in Piura, so crammed our backpacks into a 4 soles tuk-tuk to grab lunch at a place called Piqa, which was fantastic; spiced rice fried with beans, stuffed red peppers with cheese and some delicious, spiced, grilled beef. Fast-forward a few hours, we jumped off the bus in Chiclayo and walked with purpose to Cuatro Once, a craft beer bar. After indulging in more cheese, fried carbs and delicious, hoppy goodness we made our way to the Móvil terminal.

The issues started when we were led to believe our coach was going to Trujillo before Chachapoyas, which if you look on a map would have added 8 hours to our journey. Wires were crossed: the bus was delayed coming from Trujillo, which wasn’t too bad. Then our luggage looked like it was put on the wrong bus, which was too bad. A few Google Translates later we were told tranquiló, our bags were safe. Both buses were going to Chachapoyas anyway, so even if they had messed up we wouldn’t be far from resolving the issue. “They do this everyday” we kept telling ourselves.

Then we got on the bus; seats 41 and 42 upstairs.

What we didn’t know is that seats 41 and 42 are above the engine, and that our bus didn’t possess air conditioning that worked or windows that opened. Have you ever had sweaty eyes? We tried to sleep, but for 11 hours (we made an additional 3 hours worth of stops) we sweated, and sweated some more, and breathed air that felt like treacle. It was such an unpleasant experience, and one we will not be repeating; VIP for overnight trips is the plan now.

The cool Andean air in Chachapoyas felt like a crispy, autumnal hug when we arrived. Our luck had changed: it was 07:30 and our hostel room was almost ready.

24 hours here in the Andes and we feel very welcomed by the local community; handshakes, “hola”s and helpful advice from many different people. It’s a shame that the local square is under reconstruction (as per the title image!)

Finally, we aren’t in transit; this is the Peru experience about which we were so excited.

Until the next time.

I/