A Travellerspoint blog

Peru

So Machu (Picchu)

sunny 22 °C

Our alarm went off at 4.30am and we were in a long queue with our guide, Isaac, to catch a bus to Machu Picchu before 6am. We're getting good as this early morning stuff! Apparently on a busy day there can be 7,000 visitors, so we were glad to be up and at it before the real crowds kicked in.

We had a thirty minute bus ride up the mountains that had me squirming in my seat as I looked down the steep drop offs around every hairpin bend...

I read a little known fact that apparently you cannot enter the site dressed in the traditional costume of another country. Phew, thank goodness we left our bearskins behind!

As I got my first glimpses (Ant's been here before) it was pretty special. The sun hadn't yet reached over the peaks so we got to see the sun rise over the mountains around 7am. It was definitely worth the effort to be there for that moment.

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Our guide (the same one for the two-day trek) came from a farming background and speaks Quechua as his first language. His viewpoint was interesting, culturally he doesn't identify with the Spanish heritage. It was fascinating to hear 'his peoples' side of the story, where he considers the Spanish as invaders rather than conquerors. It's not hard to see why when the Spanish came and destroyed in their quest for Inca riches and gold.

So much about the Incas has been lost because no records were made of their temples when the Spanish tore down some of their buildings. To this day we still don't know how they managed to achieve such perfection with the limited tools they had available - theirs was a spoken language and nothing was written down.

Isaac gave us a two hour tour of Machu Picchu and then we had our own time at the site to explore. In Quechua 'machu' means old, and 'pikchu' peak, therefore "old peak". The site is 2,430 metres above sea level and close to the edge of Amazonia. Where we'd trekked was part of the "brown Andes" but here it's much warmer and forms part of the "green Andes".

Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. It was built around 1450, but the Incas abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

Machu Picchu was brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. It wasn't until 1983 that it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and more recently in 2007 it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

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The Sun Temple

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One of the 16 wells - an ingenius water system throughout the complex

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A chinchilla!

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Once we were left to our own devices, we decided to climb to the sun gate 'Intipunki' to see another iconic viewpoint of Machu Picchu. The day was already becoming very hot so we had to take a few breaks on the way up!

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The road up with Machu Picchu looking like a tiny cutout in the rock

We were so glad we did it as the views were fab, even though we did time it with lots of American teenagers who were 'whooping' constantly and being annoyingly loud!

It was a nice chilled walk back down and for our final views, we sat on one of the terraces that had been packed first thing but were now quiet.

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After leaving MP it was the train journey back to Ollantaytambo and an onward bus trip to Cusco. It was about 8pm by the time we got back to the city so we were pretty knackered after an early start and full day.... but wow... to see one of the seven modern wonders of the world was fantastic, and it completely lived up to my expectations!

Posted by Galavantie 13:46 Archived in Peru Comments (2)

Trekking in the Andes - Huchuy Qosqo

sunny

We meant to do the Inca Trail but we were so busy having a good time at the end of last year, that we didn't get round to booking it when we should have. When we finally got round to looking at it in February all the day permits had gone. They only allow 500 permits a day, and 300 of those go to the sherpas.

Initially we were a bit gutted, but the more we researched, the more we realised that some of the alternative treks offer a totally different experience and are a lot less busy.

We decided to do the two day Huchuy Qosqo trek with Machu Picchu as an add-on for day 3. The most frequented treks are generally three days so the one we went for was a little-known, barely walked trail. We saw just one other group of 8 doing it, and then there was our group... of two. Well three if you include the guide. We were quite happy to have the trek just for us!

It was a 6am start and we met up with our guide, the head chef and sous chef. They cooked up a fab breakfast in the middle of a field in a tiny settlement outside of Cusco. There was still frost on the ground and it was bloomin' nippy.

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The horseman then arrived with three horses to carry all the gear. Apparently to get to us he'd been trekking since 1am! Good grief! It was a strange feeling having a support team of four people for just us two.

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Breakfast clearly didn't satisfy Ant and he'd resorted to eating his trouser leg

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Our entourage

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It was uphill straight away and we had to go through a couple of mountain passes until we reached a plateau for our lunch stop.

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The food was unbelievably good considering what the guys had to work with - basic cooking facilities in an erected tent in the middle of nowhere.

We passed loads of llamas and alpacas out in the open, a couple of lakes, and then finally descended to reach our overnight camp spot.

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An old Inca water channel

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The village where we camped just on the outskirts

The sherpas had set up our tent already on a narrow strip of ground above a small village. We relaxed for a bit when we could hear children coming up the hill, then they started peering into the tent saying "hola", it was pretty cute. They were all grubby, dirty feet and faces... definitely living the rural life.

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Then the mamas started traipsing up to our campsite and before we knew it, they'd set up a mini-market of Peruvian crafts between our tents and the kitchen tent! Talk about awkward. We've already practically doubled our bag weight in souvenirs and we're pretty much done with the 'scooby-doo' stalls you see everywhere. But we were the only tourists and they looked so expectantly at us! As we politely browsed through the wares, I felt about 100 eyes burning into us willing us to buy from each mama... it was bloody awful! We felt so obliged we ended up buying a material bracelet each and had to take our leave with a "gracias" whilst they all looked back as us very disappointed.

By now, around 5pm, it was already worryingly cold with the sun no longer on the hills. The order of Andean trekking days is early to bed, early to rise, so after dinner (where we were sat in the kitchen tent shivering and just wanting it to be over), it was straight to bed. It was only about 7.30pm! I think that's a first.

I admit I was dreading this bit. I know, I've got a brilliant idea! Let's camp in a tent, at altitude, in the Andes, in winter!

The company had supplied top quality mummy sleeping bags which was a relief, along with two thick blankets, but it was cold. More to the point it was below freezing. The Titicaca homestay was positively balmy by comparison!

We kitted ourselves out in thermals, hats, scarves, gloves and an extra layer, and settled into our mummy-bags. The good thing was going to bed so early gave us plenty of opportunity to get some kip. It wasn't as bad as we had thought, we woke several times conversely either cold or roasting hot, where the sleeping bags were clearly very effective. Dogs barking in the village kept us awake, but at 5.20am when it was time to get up, we felt refreshed and wide awake. (Anyone who knows me will know this was nothing short of miraculous!)

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Frost on our tent in the morning

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Our pitch and distant loo tent

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Brrrrrr!

The second day was a fantastic walk - challenging at times - but such awesome scenery and vistas. Because we started walking at 6.45am we reached the first mountain pass before the mountain clouds had burnt off. Far below us stretched the Sacred Valley of the Incas covered in cloud. It was breathtaking!

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Farmers' crops

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An Andean village

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The path took us through an impressive gorge and over some rickety bridges which led to a perfect rest stop overlooking the now clear valley. To top it off we saw a condor circling and casting an enormous shadow on the mountainside.

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The final point of interest, and what gives this trek its name, was the remains of the Inca site Huchuy Qosqo (little Cusco). It's still being uncovered from the mud so it could be 50-100 years before the site is fully restored, but it was an impressive site.

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By this point the sun was fierce, and as we were continually descending it was getting hotter and hotter. We both started to overheat and it was a long arduous descent down a steep scrabbly path which was parched and giving off a lot of heat. Despite some of the climbs we'd done, this was actually the hardest part, and we weren't far off suffering from heatstroke. So weird that it was the same day we'd set off with frost on the ground!

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Stunning view of the Sacred Valley of the Incas

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It was a wonderful feeling getting to the site where the sherpas had set up for a late lunch. Throughout the trip they had fed us so well, three courses for lunch and dinner, and a choice of five dishes for breakfast. And they left after us at each stop, ran past us at some point on the trail, and set up at the next stop before we'd got there... ridiculous! We had so much respect for these guys.

Tired and aching feet, but having had a brilliant couple of days, we then had a bus transfer and train journey to Aguas Calientes in readiness for Machu Picchu - our reward!

Posted by Galavantie 19:35 Archived in Peru Comments (2)

Inca ruins, wee smells and tonnes of touts

sunny 20 °C

We can't deny it was a nice feeling to be in a comfortable B&B again and have the facilities of a town after our Titicaca homestay. It was also exactly three weeks to the day we would be flying home.... so these two things combined put us in the mood for a few drinks back in Puno.

Several hours later, several cuba libres downed, and we'd had a great evening... but, oh boy, I seriously paid the price the next day. Urgh!

We had to be up at 6am to catch a 7am bus to Cusco. When I first came to I really didn't think that was going to be possible. But we managed to get the bus with just a few minutes to spare, and had a long 10 hour journey ahead. Just what you need with a raging hangover...

The journey to Cusco is only 6 hours if you go straight through, but we'd chosen to do a tour bus with about 6 stops at various points of interest. I have to say it was really good all-in-all, and thankfully the hangover subsided surprisingly quickly.

Soon after Puno we passed through Juliaca, a city not recommended for tourists. It was a chaotic state of a place, incredibly dusty with a poor infrastructure. It's renowned for its black market with smuggled cheaper goods from Bolivia, and it's pretty much left to its own devices with authorities turning a blind eye to the illegal activities. Residents don't pay taxes and therefore the government don't invest anything to improve the city... so it's Catch 22.

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We then drove through the altiplano (high plateau) of the Andes, getting glimpses of rural folk going about their daily business.

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The stops the bus made ranged from archaeological sites to small village churches, one of which has been dubbed "the Sistine Chapel of the Andes", on account of its painted ceilings and murals.

High altitude souvenir shopping... I tell you what, Peruvians don't miss a trick...

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Pukara, an historic village where the pre-Inca Pukara people were famed for their ceramics and stone carvings...

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Very errr... Catholic

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The locals have two (surprised looking) ceramic bulls on their roofs - the bulls signify power to bring strength and protection to the family

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Raqchi, an Inca site...

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Churches en-route...

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Being an idiot

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St Peter's - the 'Sistine Chapel of the Andes'... no pics allowed inside but it was beautifully painted

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Great views from the bus as we got closer to Cusco...

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The white 'blob' on the hill is a large figure of Christ overlooking the town

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There's no denying Cusco is quaint, and as the "navel" of the Inca civilisation is an absolute must on any Peru itinerary, but my God it's touristy. Depressingly so. You get mithered to death on the streets to buy paintings, keyrings, massages, coins... you end up permanently saying "no gracias" to everyone. It definitely takes the edge off.

Oh, that and the wee smell everywhere. Well, almost everywhere. Down narrow Inca streets and around smaller plazas it really reeks of urine. Ant said he doesn't remember it from his 2006 visit, so we're not sure if it's a new problem or not. But either way it's pretty gross and gagworthy.

Cusco's Plaza de Armas is gorgeous, and probably one of the finest examples (ignoring the open top tourist buses and the touts) that we've seen. Cusco has some extremely narrow cobbled streets which give the city real character, and are great to wander around (ignoring the endless touts, shop assistants trying to lure you in, oh, and those wee smells).

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Cusco streets

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The most famed of Inca kings - Pachacuti... he is acknowledged to have established the Inca Empire which reached from Ecuador in the north to Chile in the south

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Plaza de Armas

Mainly due to our unexpected extended stay in Arequipa we weren't left with much time in Cusco, so to maximise our time we booked on a city coach tour which took in the key sights. It was fascinating seeing the Inca buildings with their interlocking wall perfection very apparent in the stonework.

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We did feel incredibly herded around and every place we went to was so overrun with tourists, that I didn't like Cusco as much as I'd hoped to.

I suppose ultimately its proximity to Machu Picchu is inevitably going to mean it's a tourist mecca. And of course it has itself been declared the archaeological capital of Latin America - the surrounding area of the city is jam-packed with fascinating Inca sites.

But Cusco has to win the most touristy place we've been to award, and not just in South America but of the whole trip.

Posted by Galavantie 20:29 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Puno & Lake Titicaca

sunny 19 °C

The 5.5 hour journey from Arequipa to Puno (located on Lake Titicaca) was really enjoyable. We chose a tour bus this time which was a small mini-van with guide and some stops along the way to break it up.

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El Misti, one of the big volcanoes in this area

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During the drive we reached a height of 4,500m which will probably be the highest point of our whole trip. It's definitely enough to feel the effects... a bit of a headache and shortness of breath. The locals living at altitude have more oxygen per blood volume than the rest of us, giving them the ability to cope with the reduced oxygen in the air. Apparently at 4,000m the oxygen level is only about 60% of that at sea level.

Puno is a relatively new city, and the first thing that strikes you is it's a very 'brown' town. The majority of the buildings are identical in colour and really blend into the background hills when viewed from a distance.

Rather than jump straight on an overnight tour of Lake Titicaca, we gave ourselves a day off to chill out and do some 'travmin'. There's not a great deal to do in Puno itself but we found a fab restaurant in the evening and browsed a few shops. The main square was small but attractive with a beautiful compact cathedral.

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It's really sad to see older women wrapped up sitting on cold streets selling wares to make a few Peruvian soles

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Our B&B was good - our room was decorated in bright reds, oranges and yellows so it looked very cosy but the first night was pretty cold. Thank God for our New Zealand head to toe thermals! The altitude is 3,800m and at night the temperatures plummet to around -3c. During the day the sun is fierce, it's very warm in the sun but quite cool in the shade so it makes dressing appropriately a challenge.

Our tour started early and a boat trip took us out to the Uros islands, the floating islands made of reeds. There are 80 islands in total, thankfully most are not 'open' to tourists.

We saw a demonstration of how the islands are built. From the many reed beds in the area they use the deep root systems, which naturally float, as a 1 metre foundation. They then cover this with a metre deep surface of layered reeds. The base lasts 30 years before rotting away.

The experience was super touristy... after the demo, we were ushered to the women sat down with all their crafts and wares and we all felt pressure to buy something. We didn't appreciate that part but it was interesting to see the reed islands and how the communities live.

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Puno viewed from Lake Titicaca

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You gringo! Buy stuff!

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We headed on to Amantani Island which took about 3 hours! You probably know this already but Lake Titicaca is the world's highest navigable lake, and when you're on it it does feel a bit like being at sea, albeit much much calmer.

Amantani was where we were staying the night in a family home. We were paired up with another couple, Karl (UK) and Malin (Sweden), and we met our host - a mother, Rosalia - early 30s with the cutest baby carried on her back.

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Our accommodation, as expected, was very basic - two single beds, no heating (cripes) and an outside loo.

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Our front door was tiny!

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What a cutie-pie!

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Karl and Ant playing footie with our hosts' young son

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The small blue door was the outside loo

We met the rest of the group (around 20 in total) to tackle a hill just behind the village for views of the lake and sunset. It wasn't a massive hill but it's no mean feat walking uphill at altitude and we all took it slow and easy. Several mamas from the village had already got settled up the hill with various goods laid out for sale, not missing an opportunity to take the gringos' money. Bloomin' inflated prices too... we bought a KitKat as a summit treat for about £1.50!!

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Dinner was served back in our respective homes. It was a welcome sight to see a real fire burning on the stove after being up on the cold hill. The food was simple but delicious, particularly quinoa soup for starters.

It was very cute to see the family go about their daily business, feeding the baby and the other two children helping out. We met the father who was as welcoming as the mother, and we couldn't help but feel we'd been matched up with such a lovely family. Their living conditions were very basic, it really does make you think about how much stuff and comfort we have in our lives by comparison. It's very humbling.

The village put on a 'fiesta' for us, which again felt super touristy, but the band were excellent with traditional uplifting South American music. All the gringoes were kitted out in traditional dress which was very heavy (and tight), although I was actually quite grateful for the extra layers.

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Us and our lovely hosts. Because we were fully dressed underneath including woolly jumpers, the clobber was muchos unflattering... adding some serious girth!

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We stopped to admire the night sky for a while which was incredible. There's no light pollution, and being at elevation the sky glistens with more stars than is normally possible to see. The Milky Way was so clear, and because some of the stars are close to the horizon it felt like being under an enormous sparkling dome. A very special moment.

And so to bed, and our very cold bedroom. Bed attire consisted of top and bottom thermals, two pairs of socks, a scarf, a hat and a fleece! I was just about ok although my legs were cold whenever I moved in the night, as was the air in the room. The thick heavy blankets were pretty good at pinning us down and trapping the warmth, but we were grateful it was just the one night.

We had breakfast with the family and big goodbye hugs and kisses, even from the kids - bless!

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Bye bye Amantani... the middle hill was the one we walked up to see the sunset

The final part of the tour was a trip to the island of Taquile. It was so beautiful, and felt like a Greek island at the end of a hot summer. The brilliant blue lake shimmered like a sea as a constant backdrop, the terraced land was golden and the smell of eucalyptus filled the warm air. We were instantly transported back to Australia on first whiff!

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It was just stunningly beautiful

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UNESCO declared Taquile's textiles a 'Masterpiece of the Oral and Tangible Heritage of Humanity' in 2005. Bit of a mouthful but basically their handmade textiles are so fine and detailed they look like they're machine made.

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The locals seemed a bit tetchy. We were told they don't like their photos taken and we should ask first (fair enough), but I was taking a photo of some sheep along the path and a grumpy old woman stuck her hand out asking for money. I said no as I deliberately didn't take a photo of her and she angrily waved her hand in the air saying "no photo!". Payment for a sheep photo? They didn't seem put out by the experience. Baaaaaah.

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The islanders have developed a unique method of differeniating the married men from the singletons. The single men wear a red and white hat, which is then worn slightly differently once they are in a relationship, and once married they only wear red hats. Genius! Must make life a lot less complicated. You could also make out the married ones as they looked the most unhappy... ha ha.

A highlight was lunch in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the village and across to the snow-capped mountains in Bolivia.

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Such a fantastic trip, certainly one of the highlights of our time in Peru!

Posted by Galavantie 18:50 Archived in Peru Comments (1)

Arequipa's a keeper! (It's not easy thinking up blog titles)

A warning for the squeamish: contains pics of human mummified remains!

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It just goes to prove you have to make up your own mind about places rather than take too much notice of other people's opinions. As the crowd once said to Brian of Nazareth, "Yes! We're all individuals! Yes, we ARE all different!".

We'd briefly chatted to two Dutch girls in Nasca who were doing the 'Gringo trail' the opposite way to us. They were quick to say there wasn't much to do in Arequipa and that one day was plenty enough. We couldn't disagree more!

Arequipa was lovely, perhaps not as pretty as Cuenca overall, but we thought there was more to see - and what was on offer was either super interesting or very beautiful.

The guidebook describes Arequipa as having a relatively wealthy population of 750,000 and it "maintains a rather aloof attitude to the rest of Peru". It's also known as the "White City" due to the extensive use of white sillar stone (of pyroclastic origin) for its stunning colonial buildings.

Now, admittedly if you were up for full sightseeing days you probably could squeeze in all the main sights in two days, but this still (in our opinion) doesn't do the city justice. There are wonderful courtyard cafes, cute bars, a great choice of restaurants and plenty of souvenir shopping opportunities, which all deserve leisurely investigation.

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Most of the city's taxis are like this

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Coca leaves tea - good for altitude sickness!

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Amazingly tasty food!

Our time in Arequipa ended up being dictated by me being floored with a bad case of traveller's tum, and our planned three days became five and a half. However, despite having to spend nearly half the time holed up in the hotel room, we still managed to see all we wanted to, we just had to take the sights one by one and slowly.

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So, as well as the ubiquitous Catholic churches, a landmark Cathedral, a main plaza and a central market - all of which appear to grace South American cities, Arequipa also has some fascinating museums.

We only made it to two - Museo Santuarios Andinos and Museo Arqueológico UNSA.

The former explains the story of "Juanita" or "Ice Princess" - the immaculately preserved mummy of a young girl aged around 13, who was sacrificed atop a nearby mountain around 500 years ago. Her body was found in 1995.

A National Geographic video provides further insight into the sacrifices the Incas made, which were all children aged 16 or younger. A total of 18 graves have been uncovered. We then saw the various intricate offerings found within the graves, culminating with Juanita's tiny mummified body itself, displayed in a -20c perspex container in a darkened room.

It's very hard not to feel saddened and shocked by the practice of sacrificing children. It seems barbaric and cruel to us. But to the Incas this was a hugely important ceremonial offering to the Gods. The children to be sacrificed were chosen as young as one, and usually for their beauty, clear skin or health. They had to be as pure as possible, and their sacrifice would be made at a time of great need, for example, after a severe drought or a natural disaster.

They would sedate the child with a mix of chicha and a hallucenagenic plant extract, and a powerful blow to the head was delivered to make the sacrifice. It's not easy to understand, but they believed the child would become a deity in their own right, effectively Gods, and it was considered a great honour to be selected.

No photos were allowed inside the exhibition but the second museum, Museo Arqueológico UNSA, gave us the chance to photograph some of the gruesome displays. A number of gnarled mummies were on show, including some deformed skulls.

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The Plaza de Armas is dominated on one side by the white facade of the Cathedral, and on the remaining sides by colonial architecture and a series of arches.

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Cathedral

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The beautifully ornate Iglesia de la Compañía

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The central market was great for a wander, and although we've seen a few on our travels now, they never fail to fascinate. Just seeing the different produce available in different parts of the world (and generally how much nicer it is than our scrubbed and bleached supermarket fayre) is really interesting... and just a tad depressing. However, the meat stalls in developing countries, with the various 'bits' they sell, are ever so slightly less appealing...

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Purple corn

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Bet you didn't know there are 3,000 varieties of spuds in Peru!

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An impressive line of fresh fruit juicers

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Hanging meat products...

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Mmmm, stomach linings

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Those without stalls in the market spill out onto the street

The highlight, without question, was the Monastery of Santa Catalina. I had no idea a monastery could be so engaging. It was absolutely beautiful... a warren of cobbled 'streets', nooks and crannies, open kitchens, orange tree courtyards... it was a total surprise, and probably the most outstanding building we've seen in SA so far.

The monastery takes up a whole block on Arequipa's gridded street layout, and dates back to 1579. There are just 21 nuns here today, ranging from as young as 25 to 100!

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Arequipa is also the main base for trips to Colca Canyon, however as we were delayed here we chose to press on to Lake Titicaca as our next stop.

Posted by Galavantie 19:38 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Montezuma's revenge, Delhi belly... call it what you will

Ok there's more... the runs, traveller's trot, the shits, Peruvian plops (too far?)

You may have noticed, but this is a blog all about the squits. And why not?! As I lie here clutching my painfully gripey stomach wondering which end I'll need to hurriedly take to the bathroom next, I thought it was the ideal time to talk about one of the harsh realities (and infinitely least enjoyable parts) of travelling.

Staying healthy and well whilst being away from home for a long period isn't always easy. At some point, depending on where you go, it's pretty much inevitable that some nasty E. coli, salmonella or similar is going to get you. So if you're about to have a bite to eat you might want to put it down, or better still check in a bit later on. Or... skip this one altogether and wait for some scenic photos :)

Overall we've actually been pretty lucky in our 9 months away. Of course in some parts of the world a bout of TD (traveller's diarrhoea) is much harder to avoid, and for our delicate European tums, Latin America is high on the list.

I had, let's say, a minor digestive readjustment in Asia but it was very short lived and no big deal. Ant suffered badly in Ecuador's Amazonia which was the most unpleasant experience for him, and at the same time I had my head in a bowl for several hours so that was definitely a rough 24 hours for us both.

In New Zealand Ant had that severe allergic reaction to the cats in a homestay which was potentially the most serious problem of all. If you've ever seen 'Hitch', well his face went a bit like that...

And in Australia, I had a bad reaction to those revolting bed bug bites which caused diarrhoea for a few days... right in the run up to Christmas.

But... considering some of the places we've eaten and the new foods we've tried, I think the number of times we've got ill has been pretty good going.

However, if it wasn't for those aforementioned pesky bacteria, we would be continuing our sightseeing adventures instead of currently being holed up in our hotel room. We were meant to be moving on tomorrow but we're somewhat grounded. I've been ill for 3 days with stomach pains like I've never had before. I even managed to get a bit of sick on my forehead and eyelashes?!

I must confess it's possible it's entirely self-inflicted as I've stupidly become blasé about using tap water to brush my teeth, because we've been in cities rather than out in the sticks. A rookie error and one I am deeply regretting!

A lovely Peruvian doctor has given a prescription - or "recipe" as he called it - for antibiotics so hopefully things will start to improve!

So if nothing else but to serve as a warning to other travellers - don't get complacent, use bottled water wherever advised for brushing teeth and don't sing in the shower! I am definitely estúpida - this entry isn't about looking for sympathy.

PS Sorry if this blog grossed you out. To be fair you clicked on it despite the title ;)

Posted by Galavantie 16:09 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

The wonder of the Nasca Lines

sunny 24 °C

We made a decision a couple of weeks back not to go to Bolivia. We're both a bit disappointed as the salt flats look truly spectacular, but we dallied a bit too long in Ecuador and as a result our time in Bolivia would have been rushed. We agreed that it was better to do Peru well than speed through both countries not getting the best out of them. The upshot was we weren't planning to go to Nasca but our decision now made this possible.

Our bus journey from Paracas to Nasca was a pleasant one, and the scenery gave way from cloudy grey desert to blue skies and high mountains as we headed along the Pan-American Highway.

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An intriguing gathering in the middle of the desert... burn the wiiitches!

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Twisty mountain roads gave us some great vistas before reaching Nasca

Our guesthouse felt very homely and welcoming, it was family run with a mum, son and grandmother knocking about the place. They were all very sweet and friendly - the mother had a much used mantra "mi casa tu casa".

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The Nasca symbols are everywhere in town - these were the bus stops

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We'd read that a small planetarium in town was worth a visit before seeing the Nasca Lines so we headed there first. The planetarium is named after Maria Reiche, a German woman who dedicated 40 years of her life to unearth, map, protect and importantly draw worldwide attention to the lines. She's quite the heroine of the town.

The presentation was really interesting, there is so much unknown about what the lines signify... they may be partly astronomical, they are believed to have been used in religious rituals and ceremonies, and many point to mountain water sources. Oh, and then there's the whack theory that little green men made them.

The Nasca people lived between 100BC and 800AD. The lines were created throughout this period, with new generations adding their own, often criss-crossing existing lines. The famous animal figures are the oldest of all the lines. The drawings are all done with one singular line, and there are hundreds and hundreds across a vast area of desert.

They were found as recently as the 1920s, when the first commercial flights started crossing the Nasca desert. Sadly the Pan-American highway actually cuts a lizard symbol in half as they had no idea the lines were there when the road was being built.

As part of the Atacama desert, this is one of the driest places in the world - they receive just 5mm of rain equating to no more than 3 hours of rainfall per year. 'Nasca' in Quechua means 'pain' which sums up the harsh environment that past generations of Nasca people have endured. Water is such a precious commodity that even today the residents of Nasca only get water from the mains supply for one hour every evening.

The planetarium experience included some star watching and the guide pointed out several constellations including the Southern Cross, the zodiac symbol of Scorpio, the plough (which incidentally is huge by comparison to the UK night sky) and Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to Earth.

The next morning we were psyched up for our flight! There was a bit of a wait as early fog needed to burn off before flights were taking off, but by the time we were called up it was a beautiful clear sky.

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A service offered close by to the airport. But where are the treatment rooms??

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Our 8 seater Cessna

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Nasca River - dry as a bone

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The large distinctive white mound in the distance is Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world at 2.2km

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Pan-American cutting through the desert

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From his previous trip Ant had warned me that the flight is a bit bumpy and most people come away looking a bit green, but it was smoother than we were expecting. The plane banked left and right around each symbol and it was this motion coupled with trying to take photos which caused a bit of queasiness.

But any slight discomfort was completely worth it! Having watched documentaries on the subject, to see the symbols first hand was fantastic. Some are quite difficult to pick out as there are so many lines it's confusing to the eye. To help, I've enhanced the photos so the symbols stand out more.

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The whale

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The 'astronaut' on the side of a mountain

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The hummingbird

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The spider - hard to see at low-res, it's left of the triangular point in the centre of the picture

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The monkey

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The condor

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The tree and the hands - although we also heard the hands are meant to depict a frog

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Very clear geometric shape

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Coming back over fertile land

After the flight we booked a guide to take us to Cahuachi, a lost city of pyramids where the Nascans lived, now covered by mudslides and sand. It was a place of huge significance to them and separated by just a small mountain range, they've discovered that many of the Nasca Lines point directly to Cahuachi.

On the way we saw the sad sight of endless graves which were raided in the 1940s and human bones still remain scattered on the ground, bleached in the desert sun.

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The main pyramid is only half excavated and that has taken 30 years, so it'll be many more before the entire 24 sq km site is uncovered. Our guide said it could well be the 'new' Macchu Picchu when finished, it certainly will be an impressive sight.

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The views from the pyramid

As our visit coincided with the winter solstice, the guide at the planetarium had said it was possible to see the solstice sun setting down one of the Nasca Lines, which only points to the sun at this time of year. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss. The line was narrow but sure enough it vanished into the horizon directly towards the sun. It was extremely beautiful and serene watching the sunset over the desert with just a handful of others.

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Us and our guide, Raul!

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The winter solstice line

A short but very sweet stay in Nasca!

Posted by Galavantie 04:47 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

In the deserts of Peru

overcast 19 °C

We left Lima in style, in VIP seats on a Cruz Del Sur bus - one of the best companies which operate long-haul bus journeys across South America. It was super comfortable and although a lot more expensive than buses in Ecuador (which are $1 for 1 hour of travel), at £13 each for a 3.5 hour trip it still wasn't bad. You get mahousive seats which recline right back, individual screens to select different movies and internet. Highly recommended!

Our next stop was the Paracas region, and the small fishing village of El Chaco - the best base to visit Las Ballestas islands and the Paracas Reserve National Park.

In summary, we had a great time on the excursions we did, but neither of us much liked El Chaco - it had more than a faint whiff of desperation about it.

Perhaps it's partly the time of year. The skies were sheet white and the light almost insipid. It gave the village a gloomy, rather bleak feel. The other thing we've noticed is that wherever we've been (in Ecuador and Peru) there have been an abundance of restaurants, and tables within each restaurant, way over and above the number of tourists around. It makes places feel dead and there's zero atmosphere.

Although it's winter here, June-August are actually the peak months for tourism in Peru because it's the summer holiday period for North Amerians and Europeans. Plus we're guessing that summer temps here probably make a visit unbearable.

It didn't help that our hotel was so new they were still drilling and doing construction on the roof terrace right above our room. And their wifi was pants. It was fair to say we didn't warm to the whole place from the off.

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We did have a nice view even if it was a little grey!

Aaanyway, back to the good stuff. We did three activities in total and first up was a 2 hour boat trip to Las Ballestas islands. Everyone else on the boat were part of a tour group so we felt proud of ourselves for being the only independent travellers!

Billed as a mini-Galapagos, these are guano islands due to the vast numbers of guano producing seabirds which nest on the islands. The guano is 2.5-3 meters deep at its peak!!! Apparently you can smell it before you see it, but it wasn't too overpowering on the day we went. There were plenty of birds, but not the sheer number that can sometimes can be seen. The guide explained that due to El Niño phenomenon, the waters are currently warmer which meant less wildlife in general.

Ant did this trip on his first visit to Peru in 2006 and said that the abundance of birds was impressive.

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The jetty used to harvest the guano

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Nasca boobies!

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We were also shown a geolyph of a 'candelabra' cut into the land. They don't know the significance of it but based on pottery found in the area it is believed to be the work of the pre-Incan Paracas peoples, and dates back to c200 BC. The design is cut two feet into the soil and is 595 feet tall.

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The figure looks vaguely like a candlestick, thus its name The Candelabra of the Andes, but what it represents is unknown as it's unlikely that such highly stylised candelabra were in use during the period of its creation

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Fishing boats in the harbour, many the reserve of birds

Next was a trip to the Paracas Reserve - our first experience of Peru's desert which forms part of the Atacama line.

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Looking down on El Chaco

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A monument to something...

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Fossilised shells indicating this desert floor was once under the sea

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The strange light I mentioned earlier actually made the landscape very ethereal - it was very subtle and really quite beautiful. I love the photos as a result.

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The scenery almost looks like a watercolour

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The tour took us to Playa Roja (Red Beach) - the sand given its reddish tinge from the red granite cliffs nearby.

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We watched the pelicans muscle their way into the fishermen's activities, and Ant spotted a sea otter swimming which we were really chuffed about!

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In the Paracas Reserve centre. Grapple me grapenuts, who knew?

The third excursion was dune buggying and sand-boarding. Bloomin' brilliant! Ant had also done this previously, but it was my first time... soooo much fun. The buggy sped over the dunes and down slopes that looked impossibly steep - it caused a few squeals from the six of us. Then the guy got the sandboards out and we went down sitting up, lying down head first and Ant tried it standing up too.

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Looking confident!

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Slightly less so... going...

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... going...

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Goner!

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It was great to try something new, a super fun afternoon.

The evenings were very quiet in El Chaco. One night we braved a restaurant with no-one else in it - well, it was actually more of an unfinished house... bare breeze block walls, unplastered ceiling, plastic garden tables and chairs... very rustic.

An older guy and a young girl, presumably grandpa and granddaughter, jumped to attention and set to work together creating pizzas on a long floury work surface right behind us. It was really cute to watch, I just had to turn a blind eye when I saw the state of the rag they used to wipe the cutting surface, and the tinned mushrooms which came out as one of the toppings...

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We also tried some Peruvian food during our stay - lomo saltado - a marinated steak stew with rice which was absolutely delicious. Already Peruvian food is proving considerably more tasty than Ecuadorian, which we found a bit bland.

I mentioned the evenings were quiet, that was until our last night when a christening party took place a few doors up and they celebrated until 5am. For a christening?! The music was so loud we could Shazam it from our bed. Needless to say we barely slept a wink and were pretty unhappy about it. The police drove past around 4am when the music was turned off, but as soon as they'd moved on they switched it back on again. Inconsiderate *%&#*!

So the trips we did were very good but we were glad to leave the village behind. We were completely shattered on the morning we left!

Posted by Galavantie 19:58 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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