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/