Archive for South America 2007

Lima

I think this is my last chronological posting for the trip, some two weeks after returning home!

Another early start for the 90 minute taxi ride back from Ollantaytambo to Cuzco airport, retracing the route we followed to start the Inca Trail a week before. My flight left on time, and just over an hour later we were landing in Lima under the mist which moves in towards the end of April and stays for most of the winter.

A friendly taxi driver was waiting to whisk me across the city to the district of Miraflores, to the pretty and friendly Hostal El Patio. My room was right next to the entrance but this didn’t turn out to be a problem. I took a late lunch of excellent ceviche in the restaurant opposite, and explored Miraflores on foot for what remained of the afternoon.

Lima has something of a bad reputation but Miraflores is safe at all times, given the usual precautions, and the center is safe during the day. So the next morning I took a mini-bus for the 60 minute journey – at a miserly one nuevo sole or 20p – to the impressive Plaza de Armas at the heart of the old colonial city. I visited the huge cathedral, again experiencing some unease at the incredible riches on display in the midst of a city with serious amounts of poverty. I strolled around the central area and some of the shopping streets and lunched in a cheap and cheerful pollo a la brasa restaurant on chicken and chips.

In the afternoon I took a taxi to the impressive Museo Larco in a western district of the city. Its remarkable collection of ceramics and other artefacts including precious metals and textiles chronicles the development and achievements of pre-Columbian Peruvian history, and includes a well-presented gallery of erotica too! Another collectivo took me directly back to Miraflores, just ahead of the rush hour.

I’ve already written about my last night in South America, following pizza and pisco sours at a restaurant on the main drag in Miraflores.

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My last morning in South America was spent packing and reading the paper at a cafe on the park in Miraflores. Then I walked to the sea, where the mist was rolling up the cliffs off the Pacific, and parasailers were appearing out of the mist from above in a very eerie fashion. There’s a big posh shopping mall perched on the cliff, and I lunched overlooking the ocean on sea bass stuffed with prawns, yum!
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Lima is a strange city. I wasn’t there long enough to understand it, but my impression was of a less rich version of Los Angeles, where there are exciting things to be found but all spread out around acres and acres of non-descript urban and suburban sprawl.
My final hours were spent, as needs be, taking a taxi to the very modern airport and then waiting for my evening departure to Madrid and thence London.

Perhaps I’ll post again with some reflections on my trip, but for now: that’s all folks!

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Ollantaytambo

A lovely breakfast fueled me for an exploration of the wonderful Inca remains at Ollantaytambo, a steep but compact mixture of terraces, fortifications and temples rising rapidly above the rear of the town. At ground level there are extensive water channels, fountains and pools. The gents is built into the side of the cliff! All this and more in the gallery. Ollantaytambo was one of the last strongholds against the conquistadores.

The old parts of the town are more-or-less Incan themselves: wonderful narrow streets with half-block courtyards hidden off to each side. Whereas they would have housed Inca nobles, now they contain colonial-style houses and townspeople.

After a salad lunch in a restaurant at the foot of the ruins I took a two hour walk out of town, across the bridge built on the original Incan pier, and along the opposite bank of the river upstream to the next bridge, returning through the fields and terraces to the town.

The rest of the afternoon was spent packing ready for the last phase of my journey, and taking another excellent sauna before dinner in the kitchen of the hostal.

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Pisac

After my brief second stay I finally checked out of the excellent Rumi Punku, leaving my bag – with instructions – in the hope that it would be collected during the day. This left me free to make my way by public transport along the Sacred Valley, visiting some of the sights on the way. A short taxi ride took me to the small bus station which serves Pisac, and within minutes I was on my way a medium-sized bus, climbing out of Cuzco and over the pass before descending and descending into the Sacred Valley and crossing the river Urubamba on the edge of the town of Pisac.

Pisac is famous for its craft market, especially on Sundays, but also on Tuesdays (which it was) and Thursdays. I was quite early and stalls were still setting up. I wasn’t in a souvenir shopping mood so all I came away with was a couple of nice photos (see below). I charged up on coffee and cake before starting the climb to and through the Inca metropolis above the town.

It’s an incredible place, climbing up the mountain, full of incredible terraces, fortifications, temples and dwellings. It’s more extensive than Machu Picchu but also more spread out and although the setting is dramatic it is not as outstanding nor as rugged than its more famous sister. I spent the best part of three hours there, most of the first two spent gradually ascending through the various parts of the site.

You can see my photos of Pisac in my gallery.

I jumped on another bus to take me further up the valley to the town of Urubamba where I hoped to find lunch, but there wasn’t much on offer. After wandering about for twenty minutes, I decided to carry on to Ollantaytambo. A trishaw saved me slogging along the main road to the bus station, where I caught my third bus of the day for another 45 minutes upstream to the main square at Ollantaytambo. Here I did find a late lunch in a bizarre but friendly cafe run by an Englishwoman.

Feeling content I strolled down to the station and negotiated security at the gate to reach my hotel, the lovely El Albergue. My bag hadn’t arrived but I was assured it was en-route. No problem, I relaxed first in a hammock in the garden and then in the gorgeous wood-fired eucalyptus sauna. Fantastic!

I finished the day by having a pizza in a small restaurant built against an old Inca wall. I got chatting (in Spanish) with the owner and he showed me around his ceramics shop and workshop.

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Aguas Calientes to Cuzco by train (mostly)

The morning after the Inca Trail was wet wet wet. It rained all night and was still raining when I woke up. The bedroom in my mini-suite at the Rupu Wasi Ecolodge was up a stepladder from the main room, with space for a double bed and little else, but surrounded on three sides by big windows. So I had great views of a very wet Aguas Calientes and its enfolding mountains from my bed. By the time I’d finished breakfast the rain had stopped.

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I decided to walk to a local waterfall. Twenty minutes along the road past the bridge at the foot of the hairpin bends up to Machu Picchu, followed by twenty minutes picking my way along the railway track. The S/.5 entry fee got me into slightly disappointing tropical gardens although there were bananas and pineapples to make up for the lack of promised orchids. The 20m falls were fairly impressive after the rain. On the way back I had to dodge three trains along the tracks. Lunch and a little more internetting filled the gap before my 5pm train to Cuzco.

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The first ninety minutes were fantastic, winding along the valley and canyon, descending to Ollantaytambo. I’m sure the next two-and-a-half hours would have been great by daylight too, but a bit dull in the dark… I should have listened to the agency and elected the faster minibus transfer from Ollantaytambo to Cuzco, What’s worse, our locomotive broke down twice during the arduous climb up out of the Sacred Valley. We all feared it had broken down again, but in fact there are forward-and-back switchbacks at one stage to climb the side of the mountain. I elected to jump train at the top of the pass and take the 15 minute bus descent into Cuzco instead of the 45 minute train trip through further switchbacks and Cuzco suburbs.

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At about 10pm I was back at the Rumi Punku, reunited with my heavy bag of junk / city clothes. I nipped out to Jack’s Cafe for a juicy burger and chips, and back in my room unpacked everything ready to reconsolidate in the morning, before finally giving in to sleep once more.

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More pictures

I have now uploaded pictures from my second day in Cuzco and from the Inca Trail:
http://www.michaelgray.org.uk/gallery/v/cuzco2/
http://www.michaelgray.org.uk/gallery/v/inkatrail/

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Safely home

Another out-of-order posting to be followed later by accounts of my last few days in Peru.

Graham met me at the coach stop on Parkside after a smooth but long journey home from Lima. The highlight was an unexpected upgrade to business class for Lima to Madrid. My name was called over the tannoy at the gate, I was asked for my boarding card, and presented with a new one with “you’ve been upgraded tonight”. Whopee! I guess the flight was overbooked in economy and having an Iberia frequent flyer card I struck lucky. So it was a comfortable and slightly pampered ten-and-a-half hours across the Atlantic.

It was lovely to get home and to be with Graham again.

I’ve been in a bit of a daze today, I don’t think reality has set in yet.

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Inca Trail – Day 4

It was still raining at 4am when the porters woke us, this time without tea. Packing and breakfast in the dark, but fortunately the rain eased off, and had all but stopped as we arrived at the checkpoint at about 5:15. We were about the third or fourth group in line, and were swiftly through and underway when the checkpoint opened at 5:30.

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A slightly surreal route-march followed, initially by head torch and then with the dawn. A snaking line of hikers weaving along the slippery flagstones of the trail, slowly cllimbing towards our goal of the Sun Gate at 2730m. Unfortunately the group ahead was rather slow and so it felt like walking in a traffic jam. Our group took it in good humour but one or two other hikers forced their way through extremely rudely. I wasn’t awake enough to ask them why they hadn’t got up earlier if they wanted to be at the front, and they seemed so charged with adrenaline that they would probably have hit me.

A final steep flight of stairs took us up to the Sun Gate and the magnificent view of Machu Picchu spread out below us. To be honest it didn’t really sink in until a couple of hours later: what a wonderful way to arrive! At sunrise, from above, with the whole site unfolded in front. A completely different experience to arriving from the valley floor in a bus.

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The size of the place is such that it took us twenty minutes to descend to the spot for the group photo, and another twenty to reach the entrance gates so that we could leave, deposit our backpacks, and re-enter! Initially we only had other Inca Trail walkers for company, but soon people were arriving from the on-site hotel and from the first buses up from Aguas Calientes.

Uriel gave us a good tour of the main areas of Machu Picchu, before dropping the mad four at the start of the path to Huayna Picchu. The mad four being myself, Harry, Kieran and Alex. Huayna Picchu is the emblematic cone-shaped mountain immediately behind Machu Picchu, and provides an amazing view of the site. But the path is some 600 steps and is extremely narrow and steep in places, and the terraces and ruins at the summit are quite vertiginous. Although starting at a reasonable 2400m, the 240m climb is hard work after walking an Inca Trail. It was worth it for the views and extra sense of achievement, but I felt a touch of vertigo at the summit and started back down rather quickly.

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There was still time for a slow wander through the various quarters of the sacred city, soaking up the quality of construction and the awe-inspiring location, surrounded by deep valleys etched out by the rivers far below, each valley rich in cloud-forest vegetation. Although there were lots of tourists panting around, the place is big enough to find your own corners away from the main temples and highlights.

I caught the bus down the hill to Aguas Calientes at about 12:30 and found my rather lovely eco-hostal, where the lovely receptionist upgraded me to a split-level room with a bed surrounded on three sides by views over the town and surrounding mountains. My shower and shave were the subject of some envy from the others at lunch, most of whom were returning to Cuzco that afternoon.

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I said farewell to the group just before 4pm, when they headed off to catch their train to Ollantaytambo. Aguas Calientes is a strange place, driven almost entirely by its crucial location at the head of the railway and the foot of Machu Picchu, but has its own charm. I decided to give the eponymous hot springs a skip as they’re not reckoned to be a match for the ones I enjoyed at Chivay in the Colca valley. Instead I caught up on some email and made a CD of my precious Inca Trail and Machu Picchu pictures in a cyber cafe.

The day ended with a lovely dinner with Mark and Janet, the only others of the group to be spending a night in Aguas Calientes. I then slept very soundly in a lovely comfortable real bed.

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Inca Trail – Day 3

Day three being the easiest, we were able to lie in until the awesome hour of 6:30am! Away before 8, a gentle climb along an excellent Inca path took us to the third pass at 3680m, but although it was dry there were low clouds and the views of snow-capped mountains eluded us. There followed an incredible descent of 1000m including two Inca tunnels and approximately two thousand steps. We slowly entered richer and richer cloud forest as we descended.

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Shortly before arriving at camp we explored the Inca ruins at Yunkapata. We arrived in our narrow two-terrace camp site in time for a late lunch and a quick trip to the bar to buy well-deserved bottles of beer! A touch of civilisation, with electricity, although everything is carried up by porters from the valley below.

After lunch Uriel gave us a tour of the impressive Wiñaywayna site nearby, a taster for the following day. It’s named after the orchid and means ‘forever young’.

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The foolhardy then descended with Uriel and Marco to a lovely waterfall for a wash in fresh – very fresh! – water. Invigorating!

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Dinner was a final fling, with salvers full of excellent food, and a glass of wine to wash it all down. But the rain set in and it was with a certain sense of trepidation that we headed to bed for a few hours’ sleep before the big day…

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Last night in South America

Another out-of-sync posting, but needs must.

It might be the three pisco sours talking, but I think they’re just making it easier to express my rather emotional state.

Firstly, I cannot go any further without thanking my wonderful husband. Not only did he let me go away for four months while he looked after everything at home, but he gave me the courage to go in the first place, and he came out to Argentina for two weeks in the middle to see me. Graham: thank you. You’re my one in a million.

Secondly, this continent has got under my skin. The people here have a way of making the best of things in the face of adversity and of enjoying life to the full no matter what it throws at them. It’s also a continent of incredible natural richness and diversity, of which my stay has only sampled a few aspects. I hope I will be able to return.

I’m left feeling incredibly fortunate in many ways. If I’d been Peruvian or Argentinian it would have been many many times harder to give up a good job to travel to another hemisphere for four months.

Enough for tonight. When I get home, I’ll finish up the chronological postings, and I’ll try to upload a few more picture galleries from the Inca Trail and the Sacred Valley. ¡Hasta la proxima!

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Inca Trail – Day 2

I was woken at 6am by a porter bearing hot drinks, and soon after came a basin of hot water, soap and a towel for a morning wash. The dawn view from my tent was simply superb.

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At 6.30am breakfast was another treat: a beautiful fruit salad, oatmeal, toasted bread and jams, fresh fruit juice, and plentiful hot drinks. The standard didn’t slip for the rest of the trek either. By 7am we were ready to start, and the porters already had most of the tents down.

The hardest day. First challenge was the last 400m of ascent to the top of Dead Woman’s Pass at nearly 4300m, the highest point on the trail. I was well aclimatised but that didn’t make it easy by any means. Walking with a backpack at this altitude is extremely taxing. Five or ten minutes of forcing oneself to take one step after another is followed by a minute’s rest to get one’s breath back. Even the porters find it hard work at this altitude and take frequent breaks, although they’re all moving faster and carrying heavier loads than us.

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Reaching the summit brought a real sense of achievement and was occasion for another group photo. We were lucky with the weather and had great views behind and reasonable views into the valley ahead. A steep descent of mixed steps and path followed, taking us to our lunch camp in the valley at 3580m. Recharged after a good rest, we tackled the second pass of the day, this time to 4000m. More Inca ruins broke up the ascent and the gentle descent to our second campsite at Chaquicocha (3600m), set in a cloudy shallow valley.

Rain fell heavily during dinner, but after the meal and a couple of mugs of ‘brave tea’ – spicy tea with a shot of rum – we didn’t mind in the least! Everyone was in good spirits due to a combination of a real sense of achievement after the two high passes, and the spirits in the tea. The chef pulled a rabbit out of the hat in the form of an amazing birthday cake for Mark. Iced sponge with candle and handwritten greeting, all at 3600m without a real oven.

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