by Jane | Jan 21, 2014 | My travels, Peru |
The town of Cusco centres around its main square the Plaza de Armas and radiates upwards and outwards on three sides. Deep red terracotta tiled roofs march up the steep hillsides whilst dark skinned small people stroll around bent under their heavy loads. Everybody seems to be carrying something on their backs stuffed into brightly coloured blankets. Babies, shopping and firewood are tied tightly in place and women with oversized bowler hats perched on top of long hair tied back in plaits stand or sit on street corners and stare as life passes by.
We spent a few days getting our bearings and then me, G, and now H and C – our new band of happy travellers set off early one morning for the Sacred Valley. We had hired a private taxi and set off for the Sacred Valley. Once we got him talking, Ronaldo turned out to be a real gem. He took us to Moray first. Moray consists of three massive terraced amphi-theatres set deep into the hillside. The bowls are suspected of being crop laboratories where the Incas would have experimented, growing different crops at differing altitudes in little micro climates. The bowls were very simple structures with nothing fancy to see, but were strangely interesting, carved into the mountain. Our next stop was supposed to be the Salinas – a terrace of salt pans but Ronaldo assured us that they were not very spectacular at all now that the rainy season had begun and instead of the sparkling white terraces, they would be brown and yellow. We followed his advice and instead he gave us a bespoke tour of the Sacred Valley, stopping at view points to point out the history, geography and nature of the area. A couple of days later I was chatting to a Korean in our hostel who showed me his photographs of the Salinas. Ronaldo had been quite correct and they were not especially spectacular. They would not have compared to Pamukkale in Turkey where the blinding white calcium deposits spill down the hillside and the iridescent ice blue water glimmers in the sunlight and which I had paddled in a few years ago.
escape route map
Ronaldo dropped us in the small town of Ollyantambu where I would have loved to explore the Incan streets but a more pressing need was for breakfast. We sat in the sun for a time while the sleepy town woke up and then we rolled down the hill to the train station. The train was packed with tourists and it rattled along the tracks for nearly two hours along the bottom of a steep ravine. I have to admit to being slightly nervous as we gained speed – wondering if the next corner would be the one where we tipped into the frothy torrent of a crazy river which was running alongside us. We did however survive and we got out at the very strange town of Aguas Calientas. The four of us then found our hostel – who were not expecting us – but finally sorted out our rooms at the top of the narrow steep building. There was a moment of hysteria when we discovered that the bathroom door in the boys’ room had no panel and whoever was in there would be in full view of the other, a moment of panic when the largest hornet that I have ever seen crawled up the curtain in the room that I was to share with H and a moment of despair when we found out that our tour operator back in Cusco (never trust a man who operates out of a cupboard) had not reserved our tickets for the bus the following morning. The issues were all soon resolved – I eventually plucked up the courage to swat the hornet out of the window and our landlady sorted out the bus tickets and covered up the missing door panel with a curtain and some newspapers. Poor H was suffering with severe altitude sickness – I could totally empathise with her as I succumbed a few days later, but we were all so excited to be heading up to Machu Picchu the following day. Aguas Calientas may have a place in the guidebooks as the arse-end of the valley but it has scope for some hilarious people-watching. The town is sited on a very steep valley with the river boiling through it. Porters wearing welly boots transport all sorts of goods around on hand carts and can be seen everywhere, puffing and struggling to push the carts uphill, or else standing in front of them and straining back against them to prevent them from running down the hill. They are invariably forced into a run and in some sort of sick way you are forced to watch, perhaps wondering if they might trip and be run over by their own carts. Two small boys wandered up the main road swinging huge machetes around their heads and then to our horror had an impromptu sword fight with them. They couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old, and next a tiny toddler hurtled down the main street on a little push-along tricycle and ended up wedged underneath the back of a bus. I was concerned that the bus may start its engine but his mum just wandered up with not a care in the world and fished him out. Trains rumble slowly along their tracks on the main street, whistling as people and dogs walk in front of their path and everywhere are large posters and signs indicating the escape routes should a flash flood or a mudslide envelop the valley – BBC News
I distinctly remember the pictures on the news nearly four years previously in the rainy season and as these pictures from the BBC show, it is a wonder that more people didn’t die. The river is a noisy, fast flowing beast contained by the steep valley walls and dominates the town.
At four am the alarms woke us up and we set off to get onto one of the first buses of the day. A convoy wound up the tight hairpins on the mountainside and then pulled into the car park at the top. We queued up to show our tickets and our passports and then we were in. My reliable Lonely Planet advised us to swing a left at the entrance and to climb. We did, albeit slowly as we were all suffering from the altitude and as we rounded the corner at the top, we were rewarded with the classic view above the ruins. Photographs cannot do the place justice. If the ruins were placed in a field they would be special but set high on a plateau with towering mountains clothed with dense green jungle looming above, and the edges of the settlement scooping down to the river which looped far below, it is magical.
We had arrived before the crowds and could spend a good half hour sitting quietly and absorbing the energy of the place. And it does have an energy. I don’t know if it is because of the mountains which surround it or the remoteness of the place, but probably because it has long been my dream to visit Machu Picchu and Peru – I felt such an elation and achievement to have finally arrived.
The hut of the caretaker of the funerary rock
As we sat and watched, a fog began to roll up from the river weaving like a spirit among the ruins, clothing everything with its grey shawl and casting even more magic around. We had a tour guide who explained much of the supposed history of the place and then we were free to explore by ourselves. Me and G wandered off to see the Inca Bridge. This was just a twenty five minute hike away but it felt like a lot more in the rarefied atmosphere at that altitude. The narrow path clung to the edge of a sheer cliff and ended with a large gap bridged with a couple of wooden logs. It was now out of bounds because some adventurous tourist had plunged to their death from it but to be honest, there was no way that I would have dared to cross it. The views were spectacular and we watched condors and eagles swoop around us before returning to the main site. The soft grey stones of the ruins looked a part of the mountain, built in staggered rows and arranged so that none blocked the sunlight of another, and mirrored by the terraces below which looped around the impossibly steep mountainside. A pack of some eighteen alpacas quietly moved amongst the buildings, cropping the grass and unintentionally posed for photographs. As the crowds began to swarm around the buildings we found a quiet corner and sat in the shade. H had made her way down the mountain earlier but me G and C chose to walk down rather than taking the bus. It was a long steep walk but we surprised ourselves by doing it in forty five minutes, flopping down the innumerable uneven steps and trying not to slip on the gravel. Back in the town we mooched about for a bit until the return train arrived, did some more people watching and then set back off for Cusco in a downpour
selling medicinal plants
The following day was Christmas Eve and the Plaza de Armas was converted into a massive street fair with hundreds of people flocked in from the surrounding countryside. Stalls were selling the usual alpaca goods but there were also peasants from the country with piles of dried grasses (apparently medicinal plants) and men nailing together miniature wooden stables for people’s nativity scenes. The poverty was tangible as women with grubby babies strapped to them squatted under the arches where they would later settle down to sleep. Smoke from the many food carts hung over the square but even a sudden sharp downpour couldn’t put off the crowds as whole families came to buy their Christmas gifts. I visited the Inka museum and later that evening a few of us gathered for a meal on the outskirts of the town. A couple of the volunteers from the NGO were also in town for Christmas and were staying with their friend from their home town of Madrid who was living and studying in Cusco. They had prepared an amazing meal of typical Spanish foods which we washed down with plenty of wine, the language swinging between Spanish and English. At midnight on Christmas Eve families in Peru typically sit down to their Christmas dinner and let off a barrage of fireworks which resounded around the valley for the next hour or so.
High above Cusco
Christmas Day in Cusco was bright and sunny (to begin with) and the now cleared square was host to some very bizarre sights. Villagers had come into the town and were displaying their various dances, accompanied in the main by choirs of women and the odd musical instrument. Costumes varied widely from village to village although there was a loose theme to the tune which they were all warbling. This was the first year that the villagers had presented their stuff and quite a crowd of inquisitive locals and tourists had turned out to watch. Walking around among them were people parading their little cribs containing dolls (Jesus) covered over with pieces of net curtain who were on their way to or from the countless churches and the cathedral. Me and C had a bit of a wander down to the artisan market where we bought a few little bits and pieces and then in the afternoon I took an open top bus tour around the city. The bus climbed the hill high above the town and stopped for fifteen Peruvian minutes (thirty minutes to the rest of us) while we photographed the view and the large white stone statue of Jesus standing aloft in a similar but smaller way that the statue stands above Rio. I didn’t visit the Incan site of SexyWoman (not spelt like that but it is how it sounds) as after Machu Picchu I was all ruined out but the next day I did spend a good couple of happy hours wandering around Qorikancha and the monastery of Santa Catalina. Christmas night I blagged my way into a theatre and watched a performance of traditional dance after wearing down the man on the front desk. In response to his continuing request for twenty soles entrance fee I continued to whirl my arms around like a mad women repeating ‘mis amigas, mis amigas’ until he eventually shrugged and indicated he was giving up and I should go in and find said amigas
On Boxing Day I discovered a quiet little backstreet vegetarian restaurant and I had a Mayan hot chocolate in the Cocoa museum – hot chocolate with honey and chilli. I wanted to spend a quiet day alone as I had struggled a bit the previous day with the emotions of Christmas and being apart from my children and friends. I needed some time out to sit and think. I have come on quite a journey but I think constantly of my children back in the UK and I would love to be able to share my experiences with them.
Later that evening I met up with M once again and together we headed off on yet another overnight bus for the border and our next stop -Bolivia
by Jane | Jan 7, 2014 | My travels, Peru |
The dancing kicks off
Chocolatada kicked off my Christmas adventure. This occasion is the highlight of the year for many of the children in our NGO and for days leading up to the big event, volunteers had been wrapping presents and labelling goody bags, the volunteer house full of debates about how best to wrap a football or how to disguise a doll.
Early on the Sunday morning a posse of mums gathered in the school yard to cook lomo saltado (beef, onions and peppers) in huge cauldrons over open fires. Seven hundred bread rolls were cut and filled with this mixture, gallons of hot chocolate drink was mixed and stirred and as the sun beat down on the sandy school yard the huge metal gates were opened and families tentatively began to trickle in.
Volunteers wearing Christmas hats and tinsel-edged capes were joined by a Father Christmas (in flip flops) to form a welcome tunnel through which the guests would be cheered and whooped before taking their seats on the stone terracing around the stage and plaza.
Groups of children sang and danced and showed off their skills, a talented volunteer dressed as a clown entertained the crowd and certificates were issued to children who had tried the hardest. By now, most of us had a couple of children each sitting on our laps or pressing as close as they could to us, playing with our sunglasses and cameras and generally vying for our affections, until we gently shook them off and went and distributed the food and drink. Somebody turned up the volume and there was some wild dancing all together in the sun with siblings bouncing younger children on their hips and a conga chain weaving through the throng. After the bags of presents and food parcels were distributed everybody began to head for home, anxious to get back before it got dark; but not before queuing up to kiss and thank each of the volunteers. Best clothes were shown off – the girls were adorned with bright hair accessories whilst many of the boys looked smart in what was probably their one decent shirt.
waiting patiently for chocolate and a present
After a quick tidy up there was the usual squash for taxis and it was back to the volunteer house for chifa – Peruvian style Chinese food – or should that be Chinese style Peruvian food?. There were some sad goodbyes to those who would not be returning after the holidays and then at ten thirty pm I, with my fellow travellers M & G, set off to catch the ten hour night bus to Lima.
With a few hours to spare we mooched around on the beach at Miraflores for a bit before heading back to the bus station for a long sixteen hour journey. Luckily, despite all of the horror stories that I had heard beforehand about the buses in South America, the long-distance tourist buses are actually extremely comfortable. Yes, of course there are plenty of ‘chicken buses’ and rolling death-traps but for not a lot of money by UK standards, you can buy an almost fully reclining seat, an aircraft type meal and with a TV screen set into the seatback in front of you you can pass the time with films, music and games.
After quite an alarming ride swaying and rolling around the hairpins through the mountains in the dark we arrived at Arequipa. Known as the white city because of the colour of the buildings we duly bought our coco leaves at the local market which would hopefully combat altitude sickness and gawped at the mummified body of Julietta , a fourteen year old sacrifice victim in her glass freezer inside the Santuarios Andinos UCSM Museum.
The Canyon de Colca
what goes down, must go up
Volcano Misti puffs smoke
The following day the three of us joined a two day expedition to hike into the Colca Canyon. It all began gentle enough, albeit at the alarmingly early hour of three am. We breakfasted in a tiny little courtyard with snow capped volcanoes standing proud along the distant horizon – and yes – that was smoke puffing cartoon-like out of the top of one!
At seven thirty we were standing on the edge of one of the deepest canyons in the world, totally mesmerised by the massive condors which soared at eye level, floating majestically on the invisible thermals. Although crowded with tourists and the inevitable souvenir sellers, the experience was amazing and a collective hush fell over the valley as the birds made their appearance. The early morning air whispered of the heat that was to follow and the morning light bounced off the rocks with an amazing clarity. It was easy to see why the ancient people revered the mountains and the entire region and how even now, they are considered sacred places. And then an hour later we began trekking down into the canyon.
The canyon is nearly twice as deep at the Grand Canyon and as the sun got hotter and the track steeper we had to negotiate a very real, very live, happening at that moment, rock fall. The guides anxiously scanned the slippage above for the tell-tale clouds of red dust and instructed us when it would be safe to individually cross the loose scree slope. After a grueling descent there was to be no let up and we began the scramble up the other side, panting up stone steps, some of which were more than knee high. Overall we would cover over eighteen kilometers in seven hours. There was a brief lunch stop and then we were off again, meandering up huge ups and steep downs whilst traversing along the valley. The tracks presumably followed ancient pathways but there were rather too many ups that downs for my liking. I was really feeling the effects of the altitude and plodded along in my own pocketful of misery, encouraged along by M, G and our amazing local guide Vanessa who didn’t even break out into a sweat. My spirits were revived when I eventually staggered – and I do mean staggered – into an oasis at the bottom of the canyon.
Lush green grass, butterflies, hummingbirds and a swimming pool were waiting. The evening was spent in great company eating and drinking cocktails and watching the full moon rise above a cleft in the mountains. The glow worms and the fire-flies put on a magical display of little neon orange lights as they danced in the bushes and trees and with no roads in or out of the canyon the place was a true haven of tranquility.
its a long way up. Straight up
The narrow, stoney track
The following morning, after a deep sleep in our little cabin close to the roaring river I agreed that it would be wise to follow the advice of our guide and to hire a mule up and out of the canyon. The route out of the gorge was a steep three hour climb up a series of tight, narrow switchbacks, gaining over one thousand meters in altitude. I was initially VERY nervous when the two mules ridden by me and G began to jostle on the narrow path for first place but I soon relaxed when it became clear how sure-footed they were. I did wonder why they had to sometimes choose to stand on a pebble literally on the edge of the precipice and I would shut my eyes and hold my breath at that moment, the deep silence only broken by the clatter of sixteen hooves and the constant calm murmuring of Rafael as he whispered to his beloved animals.
Reaching the top long before M and the intrepid hikers, me and G sat in the early morning sun. I shared a packet of chocolate biscuits with three local ladies who proudly posed for photographs for me in their colourful skirts and bodices. They chose one lady to be their main model and turned her embroidered waistcoat inside out to display the clean, fresher colours and fiddled with her hair and her skirts, then giggled excitedly and babbled away in their quechua language when I showed them the pictures.
Friends relax and chat in the sun
The rest of the day was spent travelling in the minibus, stopping for an hour or so to cross a horribly swaying rope and plank bridge and visit some hot thermal springs at Chivay where we slowly boiled ourselves in the waters, Once over the mountains we stopped for lunch and later shrieked with excitement when we caught sight of our first wild alpacas and dainty vicuñas (their deer-like relatives) grazing on the vast sweeping plateaus, before shivering at the highest point where countless travellers and pilgrims over the years had built small sharp cairns of pebbles. We then had a quick, much needed freshen up back at our hostel in Arequipa. The incredibly friendly owner of the Hospedaje La Posada del Kuraka had not only held our main rucksacs for us, but he supplied us with clean towels, a hot shower and a room in which to change, and then we were off to the bus station for yet another overnight bus, this time to Cusco and for Christmas.
(I apologise for the incorrect spelling of Canyon – it should be spelt Canon with a squiggle over the middle ‘n’ but I can’t seem to fathom out how to do that within this template)
by Jane | Dec 18, 2013 | My travels, Peru |
children of El Porvenir
Christmas is approaching fast but it all seems so far removed as the sun here in Peru is getting hotter every day and plans are afoot for a three week break from our work.
By the time you read this I will be on the road, although I am not entirely sure where I will end up. These plans are fluid and subject to change, but coaches and flights are being booked, hostels researched and ideas swapped.
I will have attended a ‘do’ to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the NGO and I will have experienced Chocolatada – the main Christmas event for the children and their families. Nearly four hundred presents will have been wrapped and distributed – a humbling experience when you consider that the football or that doll may be the only toy that the child receives this Christmas and the gifts of panetone and milk to the parents may be rare luxuries. Many of the volunteers are planning to travel throughout South America over the holiday period, some are returning home to the States and sadly some will be moving on from the NGO or returning home.
I have only been in Peru for five weeks but it seems like a lifetime. Despite the complete chaos that is Peru, the language barrier and bombardment of different food, culture and customs, I am loving it. The children at the NGO are all adorable, I love the street food (plastic bags containing hot quails eggs for breakfast are a staple on my walk to work through the parks) and of course, pisco sours. In the few weeks that I have been in Trujillo I have met some amazing people and I will be very upset to say goodbye to them. The volunteer house crackles with emotion and drama (think of it as an international Big Brother), and living is conducted at high volume in several languages but I know that I will remain friends for life with some people here.
I have tentative plans for a VERY long road trip with a couple of friends, first to Lima and then onwards to Arequipa from where we hope to trek into the Colca Canyon. Christmas day may be spent in Cusco – from here it is a train ride up to Machu Pichu, then from there possibly more buses to Puna, Lake Titicaca, over the border into Bolivia and La Paz, but all of this is subject to change.
I will travel as light as possible so I will be leaving my net-book behind. I will bring you up to date in the new year with my adventures and experiences, so please excuse my absence for a while.
Thank you everybody for taking the time to read my blog and I wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a very happy, peaceful New Year from South America. To my family who have mastered Skype, thank you for your love and continued support, to BF, what adventures we are having in our respective countries and to my VERY best friend and your family whom I love as my own, a million million hugs and kisses – and yes Father Christmas DOES manage to squeeze down there!
For my children, where ever you are, I send you heaps of love and I hope that next Christmas I can send you more than a card. Stay safe, be happy and live your lives to the full. It is too short and too fragile to waste on hate or bitterness. My greatest wish is that you will forgive me and allow me a second chance during 2014