We are travelling through South America for a few month starting in Santiago, Chile heading south to Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel and then wandering north through Argentina via Patagonia, onto Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and return home via Easter Island. Our journal is separated by country and while each stands alone, they are part of one journey. For many tourists Peru means Machu Picchu, but there are many other interesting places and sights to see.
Peruvian visa in place we are back on the bus following the lake shore past more villages and reed boats to Puno, famous for the local fishing villages built on floating reed islands. While this is quite unique, Puno itself is a bit dubious. The guide books and travellers heading south from Peru had warned us about theft in Puno generally and especially in Lima so for the first time on this trip we were cautious walking around downtown.
Early next morning we were glad to secure the top two front seats on the bus for Cusco via Juliaca, through some high, dry flat and dusty plains. What we didn´t know then, but do now know is that the bus only leaves Juliaca when it’s full and or the next bus from Puno has arrives. So we spent 3 hours watching as more passengers are recruited. The driver secures a family of three by promising they could put the double bed and mattress they had just bought on the bus, this gives the conductor a couple of hours work, and provides us with some comic relief along with a tyre repair and some muffler welding and the local market shenanigans kept us entertained.
Finally, all the seats and the isles are full with passengers, beds and produce and we leave. But not far up the road we break down, some running repairs with spare wire and we are soon mobile again. We leave the dry plains and descend into a long green river valley with high mountains off in the distance as the six hour journey extends to 10 hours. We are very, very glad to reach Cusco, the quaint historic hillside town with narrow cobblestone streets, original Inca and historic Spanish buildings all overrun with tourists, taxis, vendors and beggars.
We pass up the four day hike along the Inca trail for the 6.00am New Year’s Eve train down the valley to Machu Picchu at US$80 it’s expensive as is the park entrance fee at US$20 a day, but demand is high and a monopoly is at hand. The train takes a slow switchback out of Cusco across some more plains all the while soft Andean flute music is playing in the background. We start to descend rapidly down the valley and through the gorges, Inca terraces, towering mountains and raging rivers.
At the base of Machu Picchu is the village of Agua Calientes, the main street is also the train station when the trains arrive the town turns out and its wall to wall tourists and vendors. We catch the bus up to Machu Picchu. It’s exactly like the photographs but in real time, we save the guide fee by hanging on the back of other groups and looking studious but this only works for English speaking guides.
It’s New Year’s Eve and we stay over in Agua Calientes. Every restaurant serves pizza and the locals celebrate by lighting bonfires using plastic bottles. We celebrate with pizza and wine and make a New Year resolution to climb Huayna Picchu ‘Shrine to the Stars’ on New Year’s Day. Huayna Picchu is the mountain in the background of every photo you’ve ever seen of Machu Picchu, if you look carefully you will see us standing on the Inca terraces right at the very top, it’s a good 1.5 hours up a steep goat trail and the views are magnificent.
After a few days back in Cusco enjoying western food and wine, we avoid a 20 hour bus ride and take a fifty minute flight to Arequipa. We look out the window to the snow covered mountains which tower above the plane, when we fly into thick cloud we understand why planes disappear in the Peruvian mountains.
Arequipa: is the second largest city in Peru and is stuck in the middle of a sandy desert. The second storey restaurant overlooking the central plaza seemed a very good venue for lunch. Below a large crowd had taken over the plaza to demonstrate against the Government’s pension scheme.
We spend lunch watching the demonstrators and riot police play out their ritual. The demonstrators march with placards around the square chanting, followed by the police and water cannon. When the police get bored they fire the water cannon usually at the demonstrators but sometimes at the spectators and occasionally at the tourists dining on the second floor above the square. Our lunch ended unceremoniously when an overzealous policeman we assume accidently, shot tear gas downwind of the demonstrators and upwind of the onlookers and diners – ‘oops’ we are quickly ushered into the back room and down the stairs, with video of the tear gas wafting over the tourists and onlookers featuring on local TV news.
We take a two day tour to the Colca Canyon. We travel through more desert, plains and passes over rough gravel roads and spend the afternoon and evening at Chibuy, a small village that specialises in making rubber sandals from old tyres. It’s very cold but the hotel supplies hot water bottles! Early the next morning with condors floating on the thermals overhead we look down 4,000m into the deepest canyon in the world.
Nazca: We sleep as well as can be expected on the night bus from Arequipa to Nazca. Set in dusty plains, this small town owes its existence to some pre-Inca lines drawn in the sand. From a light plane the lines are big, graphic and easy to identify and photograph. Despite Von Daniken’s theory of spacemen landing sites it seems that they were probably ceremonial walking paths which can bring good fortune and rain to the creators.
The small town is full of even smaller taxis that constantly beep at any pedestrian that dares to walk. They assume that you must be walking by mistake, that you meant to catch a taxi but somehow forgot and their beep is a constant reminder. On the way to the bus at 4.30am the next morning just when we need a taxi they are all at home asleep so we walk to the bus stop making beeping sounds.
We have secured allocated seat tickets for the six hour ride from Nazca to Lima but when the 5.00am bus arrived it’s already full, the driver shrugs and drives off. The 6.25am bus arrives and has spare seats but the chances of us meeting our 12.30 connection in Lima for Trujillo seems pretty slim.
Heading north we are surprised by the extent of the coastal deserts occasionally interrupted by irrigated valleys. We pass through Ica an oasis in the desert, a destination we decided to sacrifice and reach Lima at 12.27pm with a good three minutes up our sleeve for the connecting bus.
Lima was grey and shrouded in mist, the bus station was secured by high fences and security guards with automatic weapons. We get special clearance and are hastily boarded onto the connecting executive bus to Trujillo. We are videotaped getting on the bus and again when seated on the bus, but this was not a promotional video but a security measure to help prevent bus high-jacking. While the high level of security gives us some confidence it also makes us a little nervous and confirms other traveller’s advice to avoid staying in Lima.
Huanchaco: The coastal landscape north of Lima is best described as lunar, sandy desert with dunes down to the ocean. After a night in Trujillo we take a taxi a few kilometres to Huanchaco beach. Huanchaco is famous for its reed fishing boats called caballitos de totora that fisherman ride the surf on and same huge pre-Inca adobe ruins close by at Chan Chan.
It’s the first Sunday after the New Year so most Trujillo families are at the beach, drinking, eating, fishing, sunning and generally making merry. Partly covered in mist a big swell was running and local surfers are making the best of it, along with a couple of locals on reed boats.
We find nice room in a comfy guesthouse and settle in for a few days at the beach. We visit Chan Chan, the largest adobe city in the world covering 28 square kms of pre-Inca ruins. Some fine restoration work has been undertaken that gives a sense and scale to the place, for although it seldom rains here, a thousand plus years of weather has turned the adobe buildings into undulating barren landscape.
Travelling north we sacrifice a visit to Huaraz and the 6,700m Cordillera Blanca in the high snow-capped Andean mountains and instead head to the hill town of Cajamarca, the historic site of the first Spanish-Inca confrontation.
Cajamarca: The scenery is a great contrast to the coastal desert as the bus climbs up through the hills and valleys, through the mist and rain, on through windy passes, and then down into the small Cajamarca valley. The locals dressed in traditional clothing and loaded with produce get on and off as the bus passes through villages, slowing the journey but increasing the enjoyment. This is where Pizarro captured and held Inca King Atahualpa for ransom, after their first confrontation. We walk the square where the slaughter of thousands of natives took place in 1532 and visit the original building where Atahualpa was held.
We travel back down the valley to the coast and then north to Chiclayo, more desert interrupted by irrigated valleys. We eventually find a place that can download our photos, a department store that sells computers has an adapter, and we are clearly novelty value on a slow day as six staff members demonstrate the procedure of burning the CDs for us.
Lambayeque: We ride out to Lambayeque to visit the Museum of Sipan which houses the original artefacts from the royal tombs in the pre-Inca adobe pyramids discovered in 1987. It’s a spectacular museum in the shape of a pyramid, but again the original site after 1500 years of weather looks like a large barren hill.
Puira: We head to Puira through more desert, we are now only 5 degrees south of the Equator so it is getting seriously hot and humid. Puira is a small, hot dusty town one of the first to be proclaimed by Pizzaro in 1532 on his way inland, his statue stands proudly in the local square. We spend the afternoon trying to find a bus to Ecuador and eventually secure tickets for the next day.
In the local hotel we spend a hot restless mosquito and sand-fly ridden night. Early the next morning just as we get to sleep a local vendor sets up his breakfast cart outside our window, and then a troop of soldiers runs past singing and then for good measure run back again still singing. We sleep on the bus to the inland Peru-Ecuador border at La Tina and Macara.
Bus Music: Now we have spent lots of time on buses, but the Peruvian taste in travel music was really sent to try us. We had heard some great local bands in the streets and the squares with Andean flutes, string instrument and drums, and the train to Machu Picchu played Andean flute music a cross between mystical, meditation and new world. But the music on the buses was impossible.
The bus from Puno played a really loud out-of-tune radio, when there was no signal it just hissed and crackled. The bus from Arequipa played a badly, recorded pirated Spanish movies, the Spanish was inaudible over the background hiss. The bus from Nazca played really loud techno dance music with a Latin theme. On a mini bus from Huanchaco, John managed to find a join in the speaker wire which he ´accidently disconnected´. On the bus from Trujillo he just placed spare blankets over the speakers.
But the most ridiculous was the bus from Puira, where the video player malfunctioned so a cleaning tape had been inserted and the English voiceover took about 5 minutes to complete: ´This is a Sony cleaning tape, please leave it to play completely until you are asked to remove it, let us tell you about our other products while we are cleaning your tape machine, …………..……, please remove the tape now´. This is a Sony cleaning tape………, please remove the tape now´. This is a ….. please remove the tape now´. I´m sure you get the picture, we certainly got the message it seems no one on the bus spoke English, so we all listened to the cleaning tape for close on an hour!!! It’s time to go to Ecuador…