We left Copacabana in Bolivia on 20 May and by means of taxi, bus, collectivo (public minibus) and "trici-taxi" (a 2-wheeled platform with a bench covered by an awning hooked up to a half-bicycle on the back pedalled by a very red-faced Peruvian), we crossed the border into Peru. We later learned that only a few days later, tourists trying to cross that border were greeted with volleys of stones from locals and were unable to get through, buses went on strike and a national state of emergency was declared in Peru. We were blissfully ignorant of this fortuitous escape as we trundled along through the country.
First stop was the pretty colonial town of Arequipa in the south-east of Peru, home to Juanita the ice-maiden, discovered when spat out by the Ampato volcano in 1985, where her body had been perfectly preserved for 500 years in ice and snow. Juanita was a 12-14 year old Inca maiden who was sacrificed to the god of the Ampato volcano (no doubt pursuant to an eruption, in an attempt to appease the god's anger). She is supposedly the best preserved mummy in the world and it is very eerie looking at her - her hair is still perfectly braided, her teeth intact and her clothing in very good condition.
Also in Arequipa is the beautiful convent of Santa Catalina (over 400 years old) which is like
a miniature city within a city. The convent is vast with 25,000 square metres of colonnaded
patios and cobblestoned streets flanked by colourful houses or apartments which were formerly inhabited by 450 Dominican nuns and their women servants (the 32 remaining nuns now live in a modern section of the convent and fend for themselves). Apparently on Sundays the nuns can be heard playing volleyball in their play area - they have to wear their full habits while playing (well, they are allowed to discard their veils and roll up their sleeves) - must be quite a sight!
A 3 day trek through the Colca Canyon (famous for the majestic condors which circle overhead) was next. We were guided by 19 year old Roy who warned us to be careful if we heard wailing at night in the canyon as it would be the "fantasmas" (the equivalent of our banshees as far as I could gather) announcing the death of somebody in the canyon. No wailing to report the night we were there though.
From Arequipa we travelled to Cusco and were amazed to find a city full of beautiful squares, buildings, churches, cobbled streets and lots of charm. I hadonly ever envisaged Cusco as a jumping-off point to Machu Picchu - it is a lot more than that. We stayed
in a great little hostel in the Plaza San Blas which had opened only 3 weeks beforehand, run by Juan-Manuel from Spain. Free tea and coffee available 24 hours a day...this man knows his way to a backpacker's heart! The other unforgettable discovery we made in Cusco was the Fallen Angel restaurant where the tables were made out of old bathtubs covered by a pane of glass through which you could see fish swimming in the bathtub below. Seating consisted of old iron bedsteads piled high with colourful cushions. The girls' toilet was in a little cubicle painted red with barbed wire covering walls and ceiling with steel red roses attached to the barbed wire. And the food and cocktails were great too!
Reluctant to pay the USD200 now required to hike the Inca Trail, we decided we would get to Machu Picchu by other means. So we took a bus to the tiny village of Ollantaytambo (an adventure in itself - our bus had to constantly swerve to avoid huge piles of rocks placed on random parts of the road during the 2 hour journey; apparently planted there by the locals in protest against something. I think I just might have found a country worse than France for strikes and protests!). From there we caught the evening train to Aguas Calientes and next morning we started out at 4.30am to hike the endless Inca steps from Aguas Calientes up to the entrance to Machu Picchu. We made it there by 6am for the sunrise - worth the effort. At 8am the site was already swarming with busloads of tourists and I realised how lucky we were to have seen the site practically empty 2 hours
Back in Cusco, Ben headed for Santiago to join his family for 10 days while Irene and I signed up for a 4 day white water rafting and camping trip down the River Apurimac, home to class 3, 4 and 5 rapids. Those 4 days were probably the most enjoyable I have spent in South America to date though I ended up pretty battered and bruised overall. I had spent several minutes trapped under the raft when it flipped and in a panic I tried to breathe through the water (I do not recommend this); I suffered a bruised cheekbone after being
walloped by our rafting guide's oar when going through a particularly choppy rapid; Irene managed to split my lip open with her paddle when we weren't even in the raft (!!) and I had a swollen ankle that I cannot explain (no doubt Irene at work with her paddle again). On the minibus back to Cusco at the end of the 4 days, our guide gave a lift of sorts up a hill to a
random cyclist along the road, allowing him to cling onto the side of the minibus as we ascended the hill, while the guide poured a glass of cold beer out the window and into the clinging (and very happy) cyclist's mouth.....only in Peru!
After the rafting trip, Irene and I took various buses to get to Huaraz on the west coast of Peru (stopping off in Lima for a few hours to see Matrix Reloaded). Huaraz is home to the beautiful Cordillera Blanca - needless to say, another trek beckoned. We waited for Ben to join us from Santiago and then set off on the Santa Cruz-Llanganuco trail, deciding that we could do it, without a guide, in 3 days rather
than the recommended 4. The first day was not promising - we only made it as far as the first camp as Ben was suffering badly from the altitude (he had spent the previous 10 days pretty much at sea level all the time; our trek started at 3200 metres and we were climbing). Added to that, when we changed the gas cylinder on our camping cooker (luckily after heating up the dinner for that night), we managed to break the cooker and spray our precious gas all around the campsite. Undaunted by the prospect of having to cook with campfires for the next 2 days (we obviously had no idea of what this entailed, as we were to find out), we continued on, and managed to pack 2 days trekking into the next day. For 10 hours we climbed, over the Punta Union pass at 4750 metres where we were rewarded with incredible views of snowcapped peaks all around us, turquoise glacial lakes below us and the thunderous sounds of mini-avalanches crashing down the mountains. On
reaching the campsite at sunset, exhausted, cold and very hungry, we discovered the joys of cooking over a campfire. Suffice to say that a lot of coaxing, blowing and patience is necessary. We were even reduced to burning one of Irene's t-shirts (liberally sprayed with deoderant first) to see if we could heat the dinner up more quickly! Irene and I also contemplated spraying the deoderant directly onto the fire at which point Ben confiscated the can (probably just as well).The next morning (after being unceremoniously woken up by a horned cow clattering through our cooking utensils outside the tent) I went straight
to the tent next door and begged the use of their cooker to heat up our porridge. Luckily I was able to trade half a carton of red wine for this privilege (Irene and I had heated up said
plonk by the fire the night before to improve the taste and we thoroughly enjoyed it; Ben
refused to touch it of course!). On the last leg of our journey on that third day (which, to our dismay, was uphill), Irene and I (looking suitably pitiful and helpless (Liz, you have taught me well!) when asking a Peruvian man living along the trail for directions) were rescued by this kind gentleman who not only accompanied us on the last 45 minute uphill stretch but also carried both our rucksacks on his back for us!
Our last few days in Peru were spent visiting fascinating pre-Inca archaeological sites in both Trujillo and Chiclayo before leaving for (what we deludedly thought would be) the sunny shores of Ecuador.
More about Ecuador in the next issue.