Peru Day 8 – Machu Picchu Part 2

Machu Picchu under cloud

The following morning we had another 4:30am start so that we could get to the top of Machu Picchu before sunrise. Unfortunately our guide insisted on coming with us despite the fact it said on our itinerary that we would have a free day to roam Machu Picchu. The early morning was very cloudy and it seemed weird to be sitting above them waiting for them to clear. By the time the clouds began to fade the sun had already been up for a couple of hours and as the clouds parted it started to give the place an eerie atmosphere. We waited until about 7am to get some decent shots from where we had been waiting, but we gave up and let our tour guide finish her tour which only lasted until 9:30am anyway. We didn’t really see much new this day, but we did see a pair of Condors circling the ruins and we managed to get some photos we didn’t get the day before.

Northern Viscacha (Lagidium peruanum)

Back down in Aguas Calientes we still had a bit of extra time to waste so we wandered around to see what the town had to offer and found a Plaza de Armas with a couple of statues to take pictures of before returning to the Hanaqpacha Inn for a quick meal. Whilst waiting around in the hotel to pass time before our train back to Cusco we got talking to some Australians who had been touring South America and were working their way up. They’d been evacuated from Chile into Peru after the volcano erupted. Again, the train journey was long and came with a light meal. This time we also had some short entertainment in the form of a fashion show where people would get the opportunity to buy traditional Peruvian dress afterwards. It didn’t really interest me, and the past few days had been very long so I took a short nap to pass the time.

Eventually we made it back to the Samay Hotel in Cusco, where we’d be staying for the next few nights.

Aguas Callientes Train

Peru Day 7 – Machu Picchu Part 1

On the seventh day, it was not a day of rest for us – it was one of the most anticipated days of the trip with a 4:30am start. We were going to Machu Picchu. The reason for the early start was that we had to be at San Pedro station for 6am so we could make it to Aguas Calientes (spanish for “warm water”) as early as possible. We actually made it to the train station with time to spare despite the hotels promise of a 5:00am breakfast arriving at 5:20am with no time to eat it. The train we took to Aguas Calientes was a little different to British trains – it was called a Vistadome as it had windows in the roof too. PeruRail use these trains so that tourists can see everything around them on 4 hour train journey.

Machu Picchu

As the trains are short on space, all we could take were our backpacks – our luggage had to be left at the Samay hotel in Cusco for a couple of days until we got back. What was nice about the trip, despite the tiredness was the breakfast we got on the train and the amazing views of the the valley, and the Inca trail that we could see on the way. Strangely we didn’t get to check in to the hotel (the Hanaqpacha Inn) so I took my backpack with lenses and cameras up Machu Picchu to the ruins without being able to empty what I didn’t need. We didn’t climb Machu Picchu (that’s the name of the mountain and not the ruins on it), we instead took the bus up to the top which took around 25 minutes. It’s the easy way to do it and doesn’t really give the same experience – but it meant we could spend more time looking around the extensive site of ruins.

Machu Picchu is both a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a UNESCO World Cultural site with it’s very distinctive ruins, and the nearby Huayna Picchu which features in almost every photograph  people take at Machu Picchu. The best observation point for the ruins is where we headed first – to the guard house. It was from around this point that most of the “famous” views of Machu Picchu have been taken due to how amazing it looks to have the ruins offset by Huayna Picchu behind them; photos really don’t do the place justice. From there we gradually worked our way around the ruins taking a phenomenal number of photographs.

By 13:00 our guide had left us to explore by ourselves; it was a good thing really as she commented on the rocks (their size and shape) almost continuously. We took this opportunity to go around taking more photographs and to sit around admiring the view for a while. One of the places we visited during this time was the “Inca bridge”. It was a reasonable walk round to it, but along a precarious path that was less than a metre wide in places with an extremely large drop at the edge of the path. It’s not like England where we insist on putting barriers up everywhere to keep people safe – if you got too close to the edge you’d be plummeting quite some distance. After finally making it round to the Inca bridge there wasn’t much to see – just a huge gap in the path with a few planks of wood stretched across.

Once we’d done at Machu Picchu we went back down the mountain to Aguas Calientes to look around the market we’d passed earlier that day. It was quite a large market and took us about few hours to look around buying souvenirs to take back home. Other than a statues of Timu I’d bought for $30 in Nasca I hadn’t really bought much up until then, so I bought a Machu Picchu t-shirt, a couple of ornaments of Machu Picchu, an Incan Cross fridge magnet, and a couple of animals carved from the local stone.

As we hadn’t bothered with lunch and it was starting to get quite late we decided to see what restaurants there were. Most of them were pizzerias, but we went with a small restaurant called Julio’s where I tried a peppered Alpaca steak and a strawberry pancake – both were absolute delicious. If you’ve not tried Alpaca before then it tastes like beef, only sweeter.

Peru Day 6 – The Sacred Valley

Goofy Llama

On the sixth day it wasn’t such an early start – we were picked up by our tour guide at 8am for a journey through the Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley is more commonly known to the indigenous people as the Urubamba Valley which was carved over time by the Vilcanota river. The valley runs from Pisaq (also spelt as Pisac) all the way to Ollantaytambo a town which was once the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti. For this trip we had the American from the previous day with us, and a family of three Americans from Dallas, Texas. They were obviously Republicans who would have voted for Bush, so we decided to steer clear of any G.W. Bush related jokes.

To get to the Sacred Valley we had to drive high into the Andes past Sacsayhuaman and Tambo Machay before crossing a valley where were able to stop for pictures briefly – but then within an hour we were down in the Sacred Valley and driving alongside the Vilcanota river all the way to Pisaq. At the time we didn’t actually stop in Pisaq, we continued to drive back up into the mountains on the other side where there was an old Inca settlement called Puca Pucara which was built high up with many terraces below it. The view of the valley from up there was amazing even though we didn’t have time to look around the ruins we did get chance to take a few pictures there. The way sounds travelled through the mountains there was absolutely amazing – one of the locals was using a wind instrument and it could be heard all over the mountains there. Whilst in the Sacred valley we also visited a place where they kept various species of Llama and Alpaca and a gift shop full of Alpaca wool products.

The Sacred Valley

Pisaq

Once we were satisfied we had enough pictures, we escaped the sun back into the confines of the tour bus and headed back to Pisaq where we stopped to look around our first proper Peruvian market. There was quite a variety of goods available such as tapestries, ornaments, jewelry, and much more; everything being hand crafted. After about 10 or 20 minutes looking round we were back on the tour bus and on our way to where we’d be stopping for dinner. The restaurant was called Alhambra Restaurant and the food there was very nice. A lot of the food was the same as what we’d expect in England, though as with all Peruvian meals there were copious amounts of rice. One of the local cuisines that was actually very nice was a pie that contained pork, peppers, and banana – an unusual combination, but very nice. It was a very picturesque restaurant with a well maintained garden and a Macaw perched in one of the trees. It was a bit of a shy parrot, but I managed to coax an “Ola” out of it, but then didn’t manage to get him to repeat it in front of the others.

Three bells at Pisaq

Our next stop was at a place called Ollantaytambo which is situated 2,792 metres above sea level. Before the Spaniards arrived there it served as a ceremonial city and a royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti. Once the Spanish arrived the city became a refuge for the Incas, and a place from which they could fight back. Today there is a modern town at the base of mountain and is a common tourist attraction, and a starting point for the Inca trail. I believe this town also featured in a cartoon series called “The Mysterious Cities of Gold” before they travelled to Machu Picchu – though neither place was referred to by name.

Looking down from Ollantaytambo

From the top of the stairs you can see huge stones which have been carved, some of which had not yet been put in place before the city fell. It is because of this that we have an insight into this great civilisation moved these enormous blocks. From atop the mountain you can see a good portion of the surrounding area, and also two carved faces in the side of other mountains; one of which is of Viracocha. The journey back from here was long, but was broken up by various stops to give us chance to take photographs of the sun setting behind glacial mountains.

Peru Day 5 – Arrival in Cusco and City Tour

On the next day was time to move on, so at 6:20am we up and ready for another basic breakfast. Although the breakfasts consistently in Peru weren’t brilliant, there juices are brilliant. They are freshly squeezed when you want a drink so you can guarantee freshness, and the same goes for the orange juice at breakfast too. By 7am the guide from Amazing Peru had picked us up for the drive to the airport. On the way they picked up an American from another hotel who would also be flying to Cusco, but on an earlier flight. It was a fairly long drive to the airport through busy traffic, but I think it only took an hour to get there.

Since it’s only a domestic flight it’s quite a basic check-in and is quite quick, and by just after 10am we were up in the air. The flight only took about an hour to get to Cusco (also spelt as Cuzco), but it was an interesting flight as we never really had to descend much and we got to see a lot of settlements in the Andes below us. Another advantage of it being a domestic flight is that it only took 20 minutes from landing to get through baggage collection and be in the car park waiting for Amazing Peru to pick us up.

Since the airport in Cusco is right inside the town it didn’t take long to reach the Samay Hotel; which we had about 2 hours to settle in to before we were picked up for an afternoon tour around Cusco. The first place we visited was a 2-3 minute walk from the hotel, yet we drove there as we had to pick up an American first. The place was called Qoricancha (also spelt as Korricancha in some guides) which was an amalgamation of Spanish and Inca architecture – the first time we’d seen anything like it since arriving in Peru. The reason for this joining of cultures is that the  Incas’s “Temple of the Sun” was there before the Spaniards arrived, and when they did they knocked down most of the existing structure and built their church in it’s place – but incorporating some of the existing walls to try and make it easier for the Incas to accept Christianity as their faith.

Koricancha courtyard

It was whilst going round Qoricancha that we had our first experience with how high Cusco actually is – my friend had to wait outside on the mini-bus whilst the rest of us looked round due to him suffering with altitude sickness. Whilst at Qorricancha it was the first time our guide had commented on the inclination of the walls typical of Incan architecture and also on the smoothness of the large rocks. It is amazing what the Inca people achieved, but there are only so many times you can bear to hear the same piece of information
repeated over a few days.

Cusco Cathedral

Once we’d done there the mini-bus took us to Cusco’s Plaza de Armas – the main square; which again was in easy walking distance of the hotel (and with all the narrow roads and one way streets it would probably have been quicker to walk too). At the main square there are two cathedrals – one is the largest one in Cusco, and the other is the most important. Unfortunately, when we arrived the cathedral was closed for afternoon mass so we decided we’d come back to this later – so we drove higher into the Andes to the ruins of a fortress called Sacsayhuaman (pronounced Sac-say-wham-an) which overlooks Cusco.

Some of the stones from the fortress stand over 9 metres high and weigh around 250 tons. As you can see from the picture of me on the previous page, even the smaller of those rocks are really  massive! This place was still very much an archaeological site as students (some present at the time) continue to dig for Inca ruins and relics. The next stop on this tour of Cusco was slightly higher up in the Andes and was little more than a cave. It was called Tambo Machay, a place that was used to worship the trinity of the three worlds: the sky, the land, and the underworld (which the cave represented).

Me, a Peruvian and a Llama

Finally we returned to the Plaza de Armas (known as Huacaypata to the Incas), the main square, to finally go inside the cathedral there. The cathedral itself were built from stones the Spaniards took from Sacsayhuaman between 1560 and 1664. About a week before we arrived the cathedral had played host to their most important religious festival – Corpus Christii, and as a result there were numerous idols that had been carried from churches all over to this one place as part of the ceremony. Decorating the walls were many paintings; hundred of years old replicas of famous paintings produced by Incan artists – all of which had been changed ever so slightly by the artist during the copy. Making up part of the Cathedral is the Iglesia del Triunfo (Church of Triumph) which was the first colonial church in the city and was built in 1539.

Somethings a foot at Sacsayhuaman

Afterwards we headed back to the hotel for a short rest before heading back out with an American to the Tenupa restaurant for a folkloric show and a buffet meal Here they served a wide variety of traditional Peruvian dishes and performed traditional Andean dances and music whilst dressed in various regional styles of dress which differed depending on the tribe which they were from. The good food and entertainment made it seem that time had passed much quicker than we expected, and by the time we were back at the hotel my friend had about recovered from his altitude sickness.

Peru Day 4 – The Ballestas Islands

Pisco seafront

The next morning we had to get up quite early as we had to drive about an hour down the road to the fishing village of Pisco (home of the Peruvian favourite, the Pisco sour). The town looked quite rough and was being worked on quite heavily, whilst we were there our guide told us that they’d been hit quite badly by the earthquake in August 2007 and they were still recovering. From here we took a tourism boat out to sea where we would eventually reach the Ballestas Islands.

Boobies in flight

After about 10 minutes we reach our first island which had a large candelabrum etched into the side of a sand dune. It’s been there for hundreds of years at least and has never really got any damage due to it never raining there and being protected from wind erosion. Once we’d done taking photographs it was about another 20-30 minutes until we reached the actual Ballestas Islands where there was plenty of wildlife to see. One of our first shots of the islands was of all the birds perched on the rocks.  After seeing Peruvian boobies, cormorants, and various other types of bird it wasn’t long before we started to see a lot sea lions and penguins – neither of which I’d ever seen before in the wild so this made the trip really worthwhile. We got really close to the island and in some places close enough to touch, but the smell of the guano (the bird droppings) was extremely overwhelming, but tolerable just for the wildlife.

South American Sea Lions

When we got back to the shore we took a few pictures of a Pelican that was sitting on the beach and then headed off again in the tour bus to the Paracas National Reserve. The reserve isn’t really much more than rocks and sand, and some amazing cliffs. The roads are made by water soaking in to a special mineral that goes hard when it reacts with water. Paracas is a protected area full of wildlife, but nowhere near as good as the Ballestas Islands. They did used to get Flamingo’s here but since the earthquake they have moves slightly further round the coast to where it’s harder to get to them. Some of the views in the reserve were really amazing with patches of red sand on cliffs overlooking deep blue water.

Humboldt Penguins (Spheniscus Humboldti)

Of course, once we had finished here there was plenty more time spent travelling back to Lima, and the Sonesta Miraflores for our second stay in that hotel. As it was early afternoon there was plenty of time before lunch so again we had the chance to explore Lima. This time we found the shopping Mall that was mentioned during our previous tour of Lima. It’s different to most shopping malls in the UK as it’s built in the side of a cliff and you have to descend down into it. The cinema in there, which we visited the following week, feels a lot grander than most cinemas in England too despite the fact that the quality of the equipment was poorer, and the tickets cheaper. Outside the mall are people trying to sell their wares, and are pretty persistent and can take some effort to get rid of – just like in Cairo.

Peru Day 3 – The Nasca Lines

Nasca centre

Day 3 started with a light breakfast at the recommendation of our tour guide and then a short drive out to the airport we would be flying from. We were bundled with 3 Americans and after paying the airport tax (S/ 12.50) we were walked over to the small 6 seater Cessna plane we would be flown over the lines in.

The Nasca Lines

The flight was like no other plane ride I’ve ever been on – after reaching the lines and geoglyphs it started to bank sharply to one side and then to the other to give both sides of the plane a good chance to take pictures. Personally, I thought the drawings in the desert were pretty cool and tried my best to get some decent pictures – but it’s hard work from a moving plane. It was around this sort of time I was pretty pleased I listened to the advice we were given the night before, “Have a light breakfast”. Unfortunately I don’t think the American girls sitting behind us took this advice, and they were sick a few times. After the flight was over we were driven back to our coach and headed off to Ica. It took a couple of hours to get to the Las Dunas holiday resort, even though we stopped on the way at a viewing platform to see some more of the Nazca lines.

Cessna preparing for boarding in Nasca

Las Dunas was a really nice hotel, with plenty to do in the spare afternoon we had there. It was pretty unusual to have a spare afternoon, but we made the most of it and had a good look round (including going up a sand dune at the rear of the hotel), enjoying a game of mini-golf, and went for a swim. They did have plenty of other facilities that we didn’t use, such as for football, volleyball, golf, and dune buggies. There was also plenty to photograph, including the first Llama we’d seen.

In the evening we went back to the sand dune and climbed it to the top, which was very hard work due to how fine the sand is, so we could watch the sunset from there. From the top it wasn’t a great view as you could see Ica, and for the most part it’s a very poor town with most of the buildings made from mud bricks. The meals there were very good though probably among the more expensive ones of the trip (yet they were still cheaper than a restaurant meal in the UK). One part of their meals that really stood out was when we asked for cake for desert they actually bring out a trolley full of huge cakes and you point at the one you want a slice from. Very nice.

Las Dunas

Peru Day 2 – Lima, and the long drive to Nazca

The following morning we had to get up at 7:30 for a guided group tour around Lima. We were the first ones to be picked up, followed by a group of Americans and group of Canadians. The first place we visited was still inside Miraflores and was a very short distance from the Sonesta Miraflores as it turned out. It was a little park, and it wasn’t really anything special – it was called “El Parque de Amor” (Lover’s Park) and had a large statue in the middle. Or next stop was somewhere we didn’t get to look around, it was called Huaca Pucllana. The structure there was massive and made from mud bricks from a time that predates the Inca civilisation. Out of all the Huaca’s they’ve found, this one was found about 40 years ago by accident as it was buried underneath a hill that had collected rubbish, and people played football on it. Eventually the soil had worn down to reveal what was actually underneath the hill, and since then archaeologists have been working on the site. Some of the site however is open to the public though we did not get to go in. Here we also saw a breed of hairless dog that is unique to Peru. The next stop was at the Plaza San Martin – a memorial square dedicated to the Spanish general who liberated Peru from Spain.

After a brief stop for photographs we made another stop at another square, the Plaza de Armas where many monks and nuns from every brotherhood and sisterhood in the city were there to celebrate a religious festival. As part of the celebration they had laid out many flower petals and foodstuffs (mostly spices) into patterns on the road. I think this festival may have had something to do with Corpus Christii that was happening in Cusco at the time. From here it was a short walk round the corner, past the Presidents “house” and the train station to the Iglesias de San Francisco – a cathedral. We weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside, but we did get to go in the catacombs beneath the cathedral, where there are still many skeletons. There was also a pretty amazing library in there that they were working on restoring. Once we were done looking round, the tour coach picked us up just around the corner in a park that was built around a piece of the original city wall, and was taken down to the coast to a seafood restaurant – the Rosa Nautica.

Lima coastline

With our tour of Lima finished we then had a  5 and a half hour drive out into the Nazca desert ready for day 3 of the trip. It really did seem a very long drive, and with it being around 500km I guess it actually was a long drive. On the way we saw many “shanty” towns where the really poor lived in hovels and did their best to survive with almost nothing.

Nasca Lines Hotel at Night

The Nasca Lines Hotel seemed a very nice place to stay with a reasonable sized swimming pool in the centre. We never actually got to try the pool out though as we arrived at the hotel during the dark, and left the following morning before it opened. After we arrived at the hotel we went for a wander around the town and found it to have these really amazing, clean, polished granite pavements.

Peru Day 1 – The Flight…

The holiday started on Friday 23rd May 2008 even though the actual flight wasn’t until the next day. It started like any typical Friday – going work, doing the usual sort of work, and coming home again – but this time it was a case of not going sleep as we were leaving from home to get to the airport at 1am to give us four hours to check-in for the 6am flight. What we didn’t realise though was that as the first part of the flight was to Schiphol in Amsterdam, it was clashed as  internal flight so didn’t have to get there as early as we did.

The change over in Schiphol despite the waiting time, wasn’t actually that bad and it gave us time to quickly check out their duty-free shops (not that we were actually going to buy anything before getting to Peru). Then began the long flight to Lima which took just over 12 hours. It wasn’t a totally boring flight though as we had an in-flight entertainment system that included a lot of new films such as “Jumper” – so I watched 4 of them to pass the time as I usually find it impossible to sleep on aeroplanes. During the flight we also had 3 meals due to how long it was, but eventually  we had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and started to fly over islands and mountains; far more interesting seeing the Amazon river and glacial mountains from high up.

The Jorge Chavez International airport is near the coast, and we overshot Peru and approached from the side of the Pacific Ocean. As usual with foreign airports the security check and baggage collection wasn’t too bad – although my suitcase did seem to be the last off the plane. The security then checked my bags as I was carrying two cameras – a camcorder and digital camera which is more than the limit allowed in; but they were okay about it. Amazing Peru, the people we were touring with met us there and drove us to our first hotel which was just under an hours drive away.

Driving through Lima to the Sonesta Miraflores where would be staying that night was a good indicator of how contrasting the 42 different districts of Lima are. Out of all the different areas, Miraflores and San Isidro are by far the best looking, with the best shops, and mostly the best sights to see. It’s the main place where tourists stay when they’re visiting and where all the big businesses are.

Once we’d checked in to the hotel we went for a wander around Lima, but didn’t really see much as it was dark, and we didn’t know where anything was – but we did get to see the Pacific Ocean. The main point of the walk was an attempt to take a picture of the first Peruvian sunset, but by the time we got there it was already dark. By the time we got back to the hotel to get some sleep we’d been up somewhere in the region of 46 hours.