Posts Tagged ‘Cusco

16
Apr
12

In Peru

The money-shot of Peru

Was it a moment of madness, when I decided to spend two weeks in Peru for hiking and jungle exploration? A little bit perhaps. But more so it’s just a natural progression from city sightseeing. When the best sights have already been seen, one needs a different kind of holiday.

Peru has come across as a good destination for those who seek more thrills. The Inca trail is famous for its beauty and physical demand. Other than that, Peru offers the sort of variety in landscape/scenery that deserves a long holiday. All these together brought me to Peru.

The story starts at Paris though. My plane ticket was so reasonable priced that there was a 16 hours stopover at Paris, and there was no better way to make use of the time than to visit the famous landmarks. It was a revisit after some 12 years but my comeback was greeted by familiar faces, that of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. Even the trains and the smell under the bridge have remained the same as that from years gone by.

Eiffel Tower, Paris

A night trip of Paris had not allowed much time for exploration, but Paris’s just a starter. In fact, one that i didn’t even ordered. The main course is of course Peru.

Flying into Lima, the capital of Peru, my expectation has been kept low. I had 2 half days in Lima and was told beforehand that it’s not best place in the world, which proves to be very true.

After struggling through the taxi bargaining and half guessing the Spanish, I got to Plaza de Armes, the central square of Lima, and immediately ran into their Easter week procession in front of the cathedral. It was an interesting sight, with a bunch of church clerics carrying a few obviously very heavy wooden statues slowly around the square, on the orchestral music of horns and cymbals.

Easter procession at Plaza de Armas, Lima

That was the high point for my visit to Lima though. Outside of the main square, things are dirty, crowded and generally uninspiring. The style is unmistakably Spanish, but the high pollution traffic and the desert nearby have left a layer of dirt over the buildings and roads.

Plaza de Armas, Lima, at night

At night, I was at the water circuit near the stadium, which despite being highly rated on travel forums, is only so-so. The clientele are mostly locals and at least there us quite some buzz and energy to the place.

Silhouettes at the water circuit

The next day I went to Mirafloras which is a rich people district but lacks any sort of character. Nothing’s worth mentioning other than the fact that I did get round to see the pacific ocean.

Instead of paying for the expensive flight tickets, I took the 21 hours bus ride from Lima to Cuzco. The bus is the most luxurious that I have seen with wide and almost fully lean-back seats, but with the raining season not quite passed away yet, the 21 hours journey turned into 22.5 hours, plus the non-stop nature of the bus meant that there wasn’t much opportunities to stretch my legs, it’s not a very comfortable journey overall.

Inside the Cruz del Sur coach

Getting to Cuzco was a nice change though. Cuzco, being the most popular tourist destination in Peru, definitely has a reason for claiming that first place.

Cuzco centre is overrun with tourists, there is no escaping from that. But it has a peaceful colonial atmosphere to it. Houses and building have a uniform red bricks exterior and red tiled roofs. The gardens are well-tended to and the city just ensnared visitors to stay for longer.

Cuzco, city centre

Saying that, I didn’t have much time in Cuzco at all and had to get to sleep early in preparation for the early start to the 5 days hike the next day. A gentle walk around the city was nice enough though was extra care has to be taken in order not to over exert myself with the 3000m altitude.

The next morning was the start of the Salkantay trek which started early at 4.30am. After 3 hours of bumpy bus ride, we got to our starting point at Malletta. Our trekking group was big with 18 people but has an interesting mix of people. There were 5 english, 4 germans, 2 Finnish, 2 Deutsch, 2 Canadians, 1 French and 1 Brazilian. And they were my hiking buddies for the next 5 days.

The start of the Salkantay trek

The first day of hike was mostly about getting used to hiking again. It has been more than 4 years since I have last done any hiking. There are also a few other perks associated with hiking in Peru at this time of the year, namely, altitude, mosquitos and lots of mud.

One thing which won’t be forgettable is the volume of coca leaves (main ingredient for cocaine) that everyone consumes to fight the effect of altitude. They are in our drinks in every meal and are eaten almost like a snack. It causes a slight numbness in the mouth, but whether it actually tackles altitude sickness I doubt if it has ever been clinically proven. I have got my proper Diamox tablets anyway just in case I fell ill.

As for mosquitos, they are our enemies. They spread diseases and causes so much itchiness. At this very moment I am typing, my hand and arms are still covered with the swells from mosquito bites over the past week and I can’t stop scratching. Let’s hope they won’t leave scars. Insect repellents do help, but only before they get all washed away by the sweat…

The first day of the hike was also the first time I discovered the real disgusting nature of mud, and also the utter deficiency of my walking shoes. The guide unhelpfully decided to take a shortcut which was really muddy, the kind of mud which is made of fine soil, sucky and slightly oozes water. At one point I took my feet out of the mud but my shoe was left drenched in the mud. That’s when I started hating mud with a passion. And my shoe was forever discoloured by the dried soil.

As I was saying, the first day of the hike is for getting used to hiking again. The terrain was mostly flat and the path was mostly wide and topped with gravel. The 6.5 hours of hiking we did was a nice warm up for the second day.

Campsite on first night

The second day was the most demanding of all days. We were warned by the guide the night before at our campsite that it would be 4 hours of constant uphill and then 5 hours of knee breaking downhill. Someone in the group then recalled a girl who did the trek cried on the second day for being too tough. All for the built up to the dramatic second day.

A few of us were down with cold and flu so took the option of horsing the upwards part of the 2nd day. But the rest soldiered on.

The scenery is stunning with the snow capped Salkantay peak being omni-present at more than 6000m. We weren’t trying to get to the top (lucky me) but instead took the mountain pass right by the peak at 4600m. The vegetation thins out towards the top of the pass and turned into more of a rocky barren landscape, with a odd few lagoons formed from glacier water.

Mountain pass of Salkantay

We were told that there might be condors but disappointingly I didn’t spot any. Too bad I have read so much about them in books but have never seen them in real life.

Anywho, it was a lung busting hike and  jealousy prevailed as the horse riders stroll past in style without the sweating and panting. Fortunately there were mules carrying our backpacks for us or else probably most of us will be all exhausted before half way.

Getting to the top of the pass is followed by the obligatory picture with the 4600m “we are here” sign, and a round of high fives with the others.

Sign at 4600m, the highest point of the trek

Incan rituals had it that people would carry a piece of rock from below the mountain to the top of the pass, a ritual which has been keenly taken up by hikers and that explains the eerie piles of stones at the pass. The reason for bringing the stones was explained by our nice friendly guide Hoace, but I just wasn’t paying attention. The scenery distracted me!

Top of the Salkantay pass

The downwards hike was rather uneventful. A lot of the time I tried to stay away from the main pack of the group and this time I did it particularly on purpose, because the feeling of having the whole world to yourself is just not something we can easily get in the hustle and bustle of the cities.

As we go downhill, the narrow pass opened up into a wide valley and the mist and drizzle came in. I raced down the valley and jumped from stone to stone, pebble to pebble, taking the occasional cinematic photo back towards the way we came.

Down the valley on second day

The path for the trek are mostly fairly obvious. The Salkantay is not as popular as the Inca Trail, which apparently brings in 500 trekkers daily. My own estimation for the Salkantay is around 40, including all the guides and horsemen and cooks. But everyone on the trek follows mostly the same route, so it wasn’t easy to get completely lost.

One thing that was easy though was twisting one’s ankle. It is not like walking up or down the stairs in a building, where each step is essentially the same. Each step can involve a different change in height, a variation of terrain and have a different levelness. Smooth rocks in the rain are the most dangerous and there have been more than once when I slipped on one of those. Hiking generally is a slow sports, but on slipping thinking fast on where to take the foot can avoid the disastrous ankle injuries.

And mud. I knew they would feature again. This time round, there was a never-ending stretch of mud which covered the full breadth of the path, and it was the worst kind of mud I can imagine. One step into it, all of my shoes, socks and trousers could be wet, yucky and disgusting for the rest of the trek. Being aware of the consequences, I played ninja and walked among the bushes on either side of the path, jumping from side to side using exposed rocks and tree branches often when the bushes became impassable or just ended in a cliff. But little did I know that so many of the plants have thorns. My palms and fingers are still bearing the cuts and scars from the occasion. In the evening I was told that most of the people in the group behind me took a detour which avoided that stretch of mud altogether. I told them they were missing out on the fun.

Second day campsite, with shower

The campsite of the second day surprisingly came with a shower, and we all queued up to use it. The water was freezing cold as it comes from the glacier but it was at least refreshing after 2 days of sweat and soil. My teeth was clattering for half an hour but tea and dinner came soon, where we had our now beloved coca tea and salty popcorns.

Food at the start of the trek wasn’t great. The rice is always under-cooked and hard, and the portion size too small to fill up anyone who has done a full day of exercise. The amount of meat provided isn’t the most generous either and there was a running joke around for people who always try to get a second serving. But complaints shouldn’t be too harsh since the cooks had to carry all the cooking equipments and the food along the same trek that we did. Despite what some might think, under the warm weather, the hot soup at the start of all lunches and dinners satisfyingly rehydrates and calms us down.

The food gradually got better, especially as we moved away from the wild and into towns from the third day on. The lunch on the third day was actually in a little shop and two additions to the staple of our diet were pasta and squash. The squash was a welcoming relief as we were hiking down to lower altitude at around 2000m, which means hotter and more humid climate around us.

Santa Teresa Hot Spring

We also had our afternoon of relaxation at the Santa Teresa hot spring. In normal times, I am not a big fan of hot springs. Having been to those in mainland china and seeing how artificial and over-the-top some have became, I was even planning not to visit the hot spring at all. But on this occasion, it would have been a mistake if I hadn’t gone. The 3 days of hiking meant that my muscles were tense and skin dry and itchy. Jumping into and then soaking in the 35 degrees pool was the ultimate alleviation of all the stress and tiredness. Whoever thought of combining the hiking and the hot spring deserves an award for the clever trip planning. It gets rather hot after half an hour in the water, but then there was the cold pool as well!

The third day’s night was also a bonfire night where people just sat around, got some Cusquena (local beer) and Pisco Sour (local cocktail), chatted and listened to the random selection of mostly western music.

I was told that some people stayed up until 2am. Not for me though as we had to start relatively early again at 7am on the fourth day. My feet and knees were starting to feel the effect of my abuse of them but it’s not quite the time to stop yet. Besides slipping and then dipping my right foot fully in the stream the first thing, the hike in the morning wasn’t the best of all the days, since we were passing next to the construction work for the new hydroelectric dam and there were trucks and cars passing through every 5 minutes or so. The sunshine was also punishing and led to people scouring for hats and suncream. I am looking at my skin right now and it just dawned on me that it might be the day that turned my skin colour dark brown.

4th day of trek at upper jungle

The afternoon was a nice little stroll along an in-use rail track to our overnight stay location Aguas Calientes. This was probably the most tourist-oriented town one would ever find. The whole existence of the town is predicated on the Machu Picchu nearby and the fact that many tourist like to stay the night before ascending early the next morning to catch the sunrise at the ancient Inca site. Besides all the tourists and hence the street touts, it is actually a nice atmospheric small town. A fast flowing river cuts right through the town and the sound of the galloping water can be heard throughout. Buildings and houses are mostly quiescent as long as one looks away from the touristy restaurants and market stalls.

Aguas Calientes

Prices in the town are exuberantly high, as would be expected in a tourist town. Fortunately dinner was included as part of our trek and for the first time in 4 days, we were eating in a proper restuarant. I wouldn’t say the meal was particularly good though as my chicken dinner was mostly potato and rice but had very little chicken.

Early morning the next day, at 4.30am, we started our trek from Aguas Calientes to Michu Picchu. This might not actually be generally recognised, but I think this is actually the hardly part of the trek. The torchlights guided us through one hour of knee-breaking steps climbing, before we even had time to eat breakfast. Coupled with the tiredness from previous days, my knees were destroyed by the time I got to the top.

Machu Picchu is the destination of our trek and reaching it signals our accomplishment of the 5 days hike. It is not the largest of the remaining Inca sites but it must be the most photogenic one. Our guide mentioned that it used to be a village for the elites among the Incans though it baffles everyone as to why they built it in such an inaccessible location. Nevertheless, the result of this is its own mountainscape among the mist and clouds and a feeling of being on top of the world.

Machu Picchu, with the morning mist

After 2 hours of mindless wandering in the little maze of stone houses and temples, and ignoring the pain in my knees, I climbed another 300m of steps to the top of Wayna Picchu. This is not the easiest of climb especially in the rainy season and steps often have to be accompanied with ropes and handle bars. And the view looking back to the Machu Picchu site is just so-so since it looks rather small from the distance away. Still, the entrance tickets to Wayna Picchu is one of the more sought after tickets and only 400 are available per day. Maybe I could have just sold mine to spare the searing pain in my left knee after coming back down…

Rest under the hut at Machu Picchu

After a farewell drinks with my hiking buddies, the trip back to Cuzco consisted of a combination of comfortable train and bus journeys, but were generally uneventful. A hot shower and a nice sleep prepared me for the next day.

Comfy train back to Cuzco via Ollantaytambo

At this point, I should be talking about my trip into the Amazon. But no, because my flight to Puerto Maldonado the next morning got cancelled. I arrived at the airport plenty of time before the departure time, and waited patiently. But every hour the airline StarPeru would announce that the flight would be delayed by another hour. First the airplane arrived at the airport late. Then there was a problem with the oxygen pressure and they had to fly in spare parts from Lima. Then they were having difficulty fixing the oxygen pressure. Only when it was after 5pm that they decided it was too late and cancelled the flight altogether. This was the only flight that day from StarPeru into Puerto Maldonado, and since my plan was to fly back out 2 days later, it would be a waste of time and money to take the flight the next day. So then I had to sort out the refunds and alteration to the return ticket. It wasn’t until after 6pm that I managed to sort out all of this, and such was the wonderful way of wasting one day of my trip plus the opportunity cost of going into the Amazon!

To make up for all this, the next day I went river rafting. I have never done this before and all the others (except the guide) on the same raft were inexperienced as well. But it was definitely one of the most fun I have had. The adrenaline from the constant fear of falling out of the raft and the stimuli from the cold water splashing from the waves onto the raft, plus the interaction we get between us, the raft and the rapidly changing river, are a millions times better than any rollercoasters or other theme park rides.

River rafting; photo taken by the operator, not me

Rafting apparently isn’t regulated in Peru and I would not be surprised if something like what I did would be completely banned in countries like the UK, as there are definitely places along the river where I wouldn’t call 100% safe. But no matter, it was plenty of fun and I am still alive. We managed to flip our raft on hitting a big rapid within the first 15 minutes, and I was stuck underneath the raft not being able to breath for a brief moment. The Israeli guy sitting in front of me, after climbing out of the water, kept saying he thought he was going to die. Perhaps that is also why there were so many times he didn’t listen to the instructions from the guide since then. Maybe he should have listened if he really didn’t want to die! The river was apparently only up to class III+ though and that is supposed to be an easy rating. Well, that means there is plenty of room for higher difficulties next time.

A nice big chicken dinner at Los Toldos ended my last day at Cuzco and the next morning I headed to the airport to start my marathon journey back home. After 1 flight delay of 2.5 hours and another flight which failed its first landing attempt, I got back home at 11.30pm, still plenty of time for sleep before work the next morning.

Overall Peru was an interesting destination. The trip was definitely more fulfilling than some others that I have had recently. There were disappointments, mostly not being able to get into the Amazon. But halfway through my trip I was already saying to myself that everything has been going too smoothly and with my tightly packed schedule, something was bound to go wrong. And so it did. This trip was not planned to be a sightseeing holiday and it ended up as I wanted. Interestingly most of the other travellers I met in Peru were treating Peru the same way. The typical traveller portrait is a 20-odd adult with a huge backpack plus outdoor hiking trousers and hiking boots. Peru is just that sort of a destination, one for people seeking for the active holiday of their lifetime.

And not to forget my inappropriate hiking shoes




May 2017
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