Bee Says: I know this blog promises a whistlestop tour of Peruvian marvels, but first cast your mind back to where we last left you… loitering in the Lake Titicaca town of Copacabana, Bolivia. Our last meal in Bolivia, an early pre-bus breakfast, turned out to be one of the best ever. El Condor & The Eagle Cafe is owned by an Irish chap and his Bolivian wife, and if (like us) you are in dire need of a few home comforts… you will find them all here! We tucked into a feast of foods very absent from our lives lately including peanut butter, poached eggs, baked beans and SODA bread… a welcome change from Bolivian bread which is generally white sliced packed with so much sugar and chemicals, to keep it from going off, that it crumbles into dust under the knife/in your mouth. They also had BARRYS TEA! For any Irish readers, you will understand the importance of this. It’s the equal to Yorkshire Tea in my heart, and my beloved friend Chloe never fails to bring me back a box from her trips home to the Emerald Isle. It was a special moment as I slurped my first brew in seven LONG weeks!
From Copacabana we hopped on an international bus to take us the 3 hour drive around Lake Titicaca into Peru. The border crossing was unbelievably lax, not even a vague look at our backpacks, and off we zoomed into Puno, where we had very excitingly timed our visit to take in their annual PUNO DAY festival. Listed in the Lonely Planet as one of the top´must-see events in South America, our brains were filled with dreams of street parties, late night Pisco Sour sessions, fireworks over the lake, parades, fiestas, costumes, music, dancing, lights…..
Nick Says: How can we ever sum up Puno Day? The day dawned bright and clear. We´d been told to go down to the lake early to see a recreation of the legendary first inca, Manco Kapac, emerge from Lake Titicaca. So off we set down the road. Our first indication that something was wrong was the road itself. What should have been a parade route decked out in colour was actually a smelly and trash filled route which was only home to a giant, stinking pig rooting through all the rotting garbage, and who growled at us loudly as we passed. Getting onto the waterfront wasn´t much better. A few people milled around (what we thought was a crowd… was only people going to the bus station) and some woman tried to sell us Ceviche from a cart. Declining her raw fish which had been sitting in the morning sun for hours, we turned away defeated. Puno Day was a poo day.
Later on we eventually found the parade, and it was much tamer than anticipated. Basically, the people of Puno had dressed their children up in various costumes and forced them to march through the town dancing to brass band music. We stayed for a while and clapped at the infants to dance for us before turning away. Puno had disappointed our expectations and it was time to leave.
Our method for this was a bus service called Inka Express. About 10 times as expensive as a regular bus, it tackles the 6 hour route from Puno to Cusco in 10 hours instead. But what a 10 hours it is. And so worth the extra money. Rather than just a regular boring bus, Inka Express is instead an amazing tour of all the Inka sites between the two cities, MC´d by an amazing guide called Ronald. Ronald endeared himself to me within the first 10 minutes by theatrically intoning over the microphone that when using the toilet, ´ooo-ree-iny only. NO PO PO!´ A friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, he took us first to Pukara, the home of ceramic bulls famous throughout Peru.You put a pair on top of your house to bring harmony and balance to your family, so me & Bee got a couple of mini ones for our future Brighton house. I opted not to match it with a statue depicting a ritual decapitation also on offer, but I’m already regretting the decision. The Inka Express zoomed through the gorgeous natural scenery and we passed from the arid Alti-Plano into the more luscious Sacred Valley, where abundant agriculture fed the Inka Empire. But most importantly, we stopped at a high mountain pass where Bee got to hold a baby Alpaca, who proceeded to try and eat her. Heart melting.
What was obvious from only a short time in Peru is a) how much more developed (in a Westernised sense) the place and people were than Bolivia, and b) how much more geared to tourism they were. Take for instance the scenic mountain pass. We had seen several such beautiful locations in Bolivia, with nothing more than the shepherds for company. Here there was an entire world of shopping possibilities, and eating options too. This is something that seems prevalent all over Peru. Enter a shop and they´ll be falling over themselves to see if you want to buy their goods. A lot of the time in Bolivia it seemed a mission to even find out who was running the shop (they were usually found glued to a telly novella), and if they wanted to sell anything to you. Tourism in Peru is big business, and just another example of how far this country has come from 20 years ago – as a local guy explained to us, the country was on its knees from terrorist attacks.
Bee Says: The Inka Express dropped us in Cusco, which is basically the York of South America. Quaint, pretty, tourist tastic and jampacked full of foreigners on their way too or from Machu Picchu (it’s the closest big town with airport to it) – in fact people come here on week holidays from all over the world, so it’s less backpackers and more tourists. There is alot to like about Cusco, it is safe, friendly, and a novelty to be somewhere basically English speaking for a bit. We did some perusing of the artesan markets (both ending up with Inca Cola tee-shirts), had some wonderful meals and visited the Pisco Museum!
Pisco is the national drink of Peru, a really strong grape brandy. Very excited at a museum based solely around an alcoholic drink, we arrived to discover that it is basically… just a bar! It notched up another cultural fail at visiting museums, considering that the only museums we have been to so far are:
1. The one in Sucre full of scary horror masks
2. The one in Isla del Sol which was meant to be about a giant frog but ended up just being a room with human bones in
3. The one Inka Express Ronald took us to, which was entirely dedicated to Incan babies being born with elongated skulls in Inca times and maybe being extra terrestials?
Anyway this was our 4th museum and then it turned out not to even BE a museum, just basically a Pisco bar.
We really did need the alcohol though, as we made a horrific error in our hostel choice. We decided to save money by booking a dorm (which we did in Manaus and really enjoyed) but this one was a “party hostel” and full of 18 year old gap students raving all night, doing shots and running around our dorm at all hours. Every night was a different activity like “drinking games” and “karaoke” and there was a bar with photos of people being zany next to guides on how to say phrases like “mashed up” in spanish. They played “pumping ibiza anthems” all day long, until 4am with the speaker right outside our dorm, although that still didnt drown out the drunk teens yelling AAW MAHH GAWWWD at a million decibles at our door. Dont get me wrong, there is a huge target audience for this type of accomdation (and I would have loved it as a student traveller) but it certainly wasnt for us, and we set off from Cusco as bedraggled, sleep deprived wretches.
One thing to probably mention here, is that by this stage we had decided not to trek to Machu Picchu. We had both really fancied doing one of the 4 day hikes there, but my asthma was still being irritated by the altitude, and all the hikes took in mountains of 4500masl+. With only a certain pot of trek pennies to our name, we decided to save the dollars to instead do the Lost City trek in Colombia… which is nicely back on the ground and takes in some crazy jungle passes. Not hiking also gave us the opportunity to visit Ollantaytambo, an often-overlooked “taster” dish to Machu Picchu itself.
Nick Says: If you ever find yourself in this part of the world, make sure you take the time to visit the village of Ollantaytambo. One of the few places where the Incans defeated the Spanish, Ollantay consists of a incredible Incan fortress on a hill overlooking a Inca town. History truly feels alive here, with tiny cobbled alleys spilling into tradesman yards, trickling streams, or crazy bars like the one we ended up at. Called Gansos, it was set up like a tree-house attacked by a multi-coloured streamers, and as we sat around sipping drinks on the swing streets, we figured life was pretty good. Ollantay was a tranquil oasis after the party hostel, and one of my favourite places I´ve visited. It also helped that I ate the best steak of my life at a restaurant not far from the main square. Considering I´ve not really felt like food recently (vomiting incident), I was so happy I had a huge appetite that night. The Incan Terraces create high walled alleyways, so after our beef and booze we had to scuttle through pitch black cobbled passageways to our hostel, lots of fun and a relief to be somewhere safe enough to do this without getting set upon.
The next day (we wished we could have spent longer) we walked down to one of the most picturesque train stations in the world and awaited our locomotive. The setting was just a teaser for what was in store. Unable to do the trek, we thought the train was the booby prize. How wrong we were. For anyone who enjoys train travel, this is one of the best. Mile after mile of soaring peaks, tangled jungle, and glimpsed ruins kept our faces pressed to the window. We went the cheapest ‘expedition´ class, but didn’t feel we were short changed in anyway. A panoramic view enabled us to see everything next to and above us. Glorious. If you get the train, make sure you sit on the right hand side on the way there for the best view. But then all too soon we were there at our destination, Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo).
Bee Says: Aguas Caliente has a bad reputatution for being a rubbish place you have stay pre Machu Picchu (if you want to get on site early you have to sleep here and then catch a bus at 5am, as you can’t stay at Machu Picchu itself) and accordingly we had pretty low hopes, so the town was such a pleasant surprise! Aguas Caliente has a really different look and vibe to anywhere else we’ve been in South America, with everything built on stilts and stacked up over the river that runs through it, very much like places in Asia. Sure it’s touristy, but we had a nice day pottering aroud and opted to visit the natural hot springs with the locals (Aguas Caliente means hot water! So it would be rude not to) but it started storming after 30 mins so we had to jump out. Lightening + hot spring = muy peligroso. Our alarm went off at 4.30am on the most important day of the year… nicks BDAY! We visited a bakery for pan au chocolate and present giving, trickier to organise than it sounds when we have spent about 5 minutes apart in the past two months.
Nick Says: Birthday and Machu Picchu? What a combo. Leaping in the expensive bus there (you can walk, but it´s a beast of a trek uphill), the anticipation startled to tingle. I couldn’t believe I was about to visit one of the world´s greatest man-made wonders, and a place I´d been dreaming about since I was 18. And boy did it live up to the hype. The site itself is massive, far bigger than I ever thought. You could easily spend days there. In fact we spent hours circling the main site just soaking up the views. It’s iconic and you’ve seen it a hundred times, but nothing compares to actually seeing the place in reality. The photos will do it more justice than we ever could in words, so enjoy them. A little tip though, if you are unable to climb Huayna Picchu (the mountain in all the pictures) as only 400 tickets are allocated a day, then Machu Picchu mountain is a brilliant, and maybe even better alternative. It’s on the north side of the site, and offers you an incredible view of the Machu Picchu and the landscape it inhabits, as well as being a pretty tough and rewarding climb on its own. You need to buy tickets in advance, and its existance isnt mentioned in the Lonely Planet or …. well anywhere, except word of travel-mouth, so you will find it a tranquil spot to escape the crowds too. We were numbers 1 and 2 onto the mountain, what a birthday present.
Bee Says: We spent 8 hours on site and were hiking or walking the whole time, I actually doubt we would have got the most out of it if we had arrived tired straight from a gruelling trek. I cannot stress enough the importance of arriving early doors – as by 9am thousands of people were milling aroud everywhere and it was almost unbearable. I recommend taking the extra hike to the “sun gate”, a testing hour each way with another breath-taking view on arrival and it meant we could walk part of the original “inca trail”. Machu Picchu lives up to every bit of hype, it has a truly other-worldy magnetic magical feeling, and it’s certainly a wonder of the world in my eyes. If it isn’t on your bucket list, zoom it right up to the top… especially as we are already hearing rumours that visitor numbers will be capped soon, as the site cannot maintain the physical strain of thousands of tour groups rambling through. If that happens, the whole experience may well become prohibitively expensive.
After a dreamy day, it was back to Cusco to celebrate Nick’s birthday night. Except… he had contracted the Inca Death and spent the night vomitting. Poor guy, he was really really sick and feverish and all I could do was keep him dosed up on rehydration sachets. Luckily for a birthday suprise I had booked us into a swanky 5* hotel Aranwa (imagining romance, flowers etc) so Nick could spend the next day in a king size bed, watching movies on the giant telly and ordering chicken soup on room service. It aided a speedy recovery, enough to even eat a slice of the amazing surprise birthday cake that was wheeled out at breakfast – the whole staff singing Happy Birthday in English AND Spanish. The staff couldnt have made us feel more special, and generously overlooked our scraggy stinky appearences and treated us like royalty! To add to the special moment, due to the fact I booked the room there was a name mix-up and Nick will forever be known as Mr Barker.