Can’t quite believe it but here we are in Peru. It’s funny how preconceptions can be so wrong. We imagined a country with a poor economy and infrastructure and terribly corrupt officials, so we are amazed to find good cars on the streets, excellent supermarkets and smooth asphalt roads. We have a good feeling about Peru especially when we notice a lot of the cars automatically turn their vehicle wing mirrors in, use their horns excessively and drive a little crazily - it reminds us of Asia with all the rickshaws and tuk tuks.
We have entered yet another desert, the Clemesi Desert, a landscape full of interestingly shaped hills and multi coloured sands where locals claim a plot of sand by placing a reed hut there - marking their boundary with stones. We have to wonder why - there is absolutely nothing here - no water and no greenery yet there are lots and lots of reed huts. It is only as we approach Moquegua we see why - fertile green valleys with full rivers and the promise of irrigation canals following the success of other areas.
Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city and yet few travellers mention it. We were amazed to find the most beautiful plaza we have encountered yet in South America and a historic centre that is packed full of lovely buildings and interesting sights. White volcanic stone called sillar is everywhere beautifully engraved and glittering in the sunshine. The Santa Catalina Monasterio was superb - a maze of lanes and buildings - a town within a town where only the daughters of the wealthiest families could enter. Luxurious living areas and even African slaves ensured the daughters maintained their standards. We find it very hard to leave this lovely city and Dave (for the first time in South America) mutters that this is a place he could live!
Arequipa Cathedral at night, the astonishing Santa Catalina Monasterio and the beautiful sillar stonework in Claustros de la Compania.
We hate to double our mileage so we decide to enter Canon Colca from the south - it was a painful decision - the first 10 kilometres were horrifically corrugated and the track after that was very rough. It took a few wrong turns before we found the correct route and slowly drove up into the puno (high altitude grasslands) area. A man on horse back welcomed us to spend the night on his land where he herds goats and cattle. It’s a hard existence up here - freezing temperatures, puma’s and other wild cats roam at night searching for easy prey so all the livestock have to be corralled at night with several dogs watching over them.
The next morning we are woken by the truck shaking - a cow has a itch that must be scratched! We follow our bumpy track through some gorgeous scenery into the second deepest canyon in the world - the deepest one lies a few kilometres north. Flowers and wild herbs cover the landscape and plains viscacha’s sit on the rocks warming themselves in the morning sun. The valleys are lush and fertile thanks to the ingenious endless irrigation canals that feed the entire canyon and a elderly woman has spent the morning gathering vegetables to sell in the nearest village. She waves us down for a lift and fills the entire passenger seat resplendent in her multi layered embroidered velvet - 4 skirts, 3 jackets/waistcoats with a very sturdy bodice beneath. What a great character to meet on the road.
Our herders house, viscacha’s warming themselves in the sun and our first hitch hicker in Canon Colca.
Our track gets ‘better’ by the kilometre - it’s still very rough but is now regularly narrowed by - fallen rocks, overgrown bushes, dead livestock and collapsed edges. We are loving it. But all too soon we reach the touristy area - Cabanaconde - a small village that is having a fiesta. What luck! Two bulls lead the procession of women around the plaza before they begin drinking beer outside the church. The chief dancer and beer drinker is a very old woman who is all of 4 feet high (1.2 metres). After two hours of parading around the village they re-appear by the church, by now some of the ladies need the assistance of the younger men to help them around the plaza - unbelievably they still continue to drink crate after crate of beer. What a great day.
Flower filled landscapes, women dancing around the plaza and the dancing bull team enjoying a beer.
We leave our party village to find a small section of asphalt - it’s a short lived relief of 10 km’s for our sore bones. We are now in the deepest area of the canyon - a staggering 3,191 metres (10,530 feet) - that’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the USA! What amazes us even more are the tiny villages on the far side of the canyon that seem to cling to impossibly steep dark slopes that are linked by horse trails only, when our road side of the canyon has plenty of arable terraced land to spare and is basked in warming sunshine? These Incan and pre Incan terraces rival anything we have seen in China.
A poorly maintained and a little scary tunnel gives us a extra thrill before reaching the village of Yanque which has thermal baths to soak our sore bodies in at the end of our canyon drive. Peru wakens early to enjoy the warmth of the sun - it’s dark and very cold by 6pm - so we are woken at 6am by the women in the plaza selling their wares. The children dress up in their traditional clothing to pose for tourist photographs before they have to go to school but we are a welcomed diversion this morning and everyone jumps into Nessie to have a warm comfortable seat and to look at our Scottish magazines.
We leave the delights of Canon Colca behind and drive toward Lake Titicaca picking up another hitch hiker along the way - our passenger wanted to travel one hour to the nearest junction to sell clothes. We arrived in Juliaca a large city of 200,000 people and followed what we were told was the MAIN ROAD out of the city - for a moment we thought we were in a back street of any large Pakistani town - there was no way this was the main route out but for us it was a very pleasant surprise that brought back some fond if chaotic memories.
When we finally reach Lake Titicaca it is not as we imagined - instead of a large open body of water with numerous separate floating islands it is actually very shallow in parts, has several inhabited rock islands and a lot of the lake is covered in reed beds creating the illusion of a marsh at times. Pockets of land appear in the shallower waters and this land is essential for the grazing of livestock belonging to the floating islanders. The islands are made with a floating base of reed bed soil (each section cut to a 2.5 metre depth and tied together with rope and wooden stakes) then topped with 1.5 metres of reeds. Incredibly, each island can last 20-30 years!
The floating reed islands that tourists are taken to are really just that - tourist islands - but if you look closely you can see hidden in the reeds real working floating islands where locals avoid tourists and still use small one person reed boats to fish or collect reeds. Now, most of the locals use wooden boats to get around the lake, the large reed boats are made purely to transport tourists around - each boat lasts about 2 years before rotting. The islanders used to survive by fishing the lakes waters but they now claim that the fish are very small in size and numbers and that although tourism has many negative impacts on their society it is now essential as an income for their survival. Back on dry land we wander the superb Saturday fruit and vegetable street market full of women wearing bowler hats and elaborate clothing. A real treat.
Life on the road is full of surprises like the time we were asked to star in a Indian MTV video, or the time we were asked to be in a Chinese soap opera. But in Puno we have a unusual opportunity - to visit the prison!! We have been invited to witness the land around the local prison being cleared of the last of it’s 4,000 land mines. It’s a fascinating chance to meet the team and their dogs who have spent almost one year undertaking this dangerous task. The prison in Puno used to be home to some of the most dangerous criminals in Peru - members of the terrorist group Shining Path. These men were locked in individual cages and the prison was surrounded by land mines, heavy duty artillery, police and military - the Shining Path prisoners have now been moved to another unit allowing this prison to clear it’s mines. In the international world of mine clearance it is very unusual for police to clear mines yet the Peruvian police proudly undertake this task with their unique unit called DIVSECOM.PNP. Many of them know colleagues who have been victims of land mines - at one time it was common for one member of staff per month to be injured or killed by the mines around this prison. Incomprehensibly each mine costs a minimum $1,000 to clear yet manufacturing costs per mine are only $3 - it’s a sad story we have heard around the world and although clearing the mines causes major security issues for the Peruvian police, they are still very proud to be doing something so positive for their beloved country.
Another hitch hiker, Juliaca’s ‘main road’ and a view from our tuk tuk in Puno.
A floating reed island, Dave getting into our large traditional reed boat and me sharing a moment with the local islanders.
Mine clearance team working at Puno prison by Lake Titicaca - the heroes of Peru.
We leave Puno in the grip of civil unrest - riot police and protestors fill the plaza and tear gas has been used - the protests that have closed the Bolivian side of the border have spread to Peru and within a week of us leaving Puno cars are being burnt on the streets.
I had wanted to visit the stone fertility penises further south on the lake shore but for some strange reason Dave wasn’t keen?! So instead we took the road north, past lovely traditional homesteads to the ancient funerary towers of Sillustani - a really beautiful location that tempted us to spend 2 nights on the lake shore. We stop to visit a homestead as we leave and the proud owner is keen to show us her guinea pigs - a popular roasted meal in Peru! It’s not far to Lampa a village which is home to a very important church that contains a unusual tomb filled with Italian marble and decorated with the skeletons of Spaniards which were excavated from the catacombs. The friendly people of the village are all very keen to get their photographs taken and to show off their village to us - from the plaza to the alpaca wool merchants.
That night the skies were full of lightning and thunder and we had to abandon our hilltop sleeping area and seek shelter in a farm field lower in the valley. The farmer was happy to see us and allowed us to park on his field for the night - we offered a gift of a tin of peaches as a thank-you. The family are very poor, this is not a tourist area, they never see foreigners and we would guess they survive on as little as $50 a month using a nearby stream as a water source. Rural life in Peru may be beautiful to travel through but for the locals it is a very hard life where communal water wells are the norm and electric a expensive commodity.
The next day we see a sign for a canyon and turn down the track to investigate - only to find a great place to visit and spend the night. We spent the day watching the locals of Tanijani Canon herd their livestock, harvest their fields and return from the nearest town by truck with animals and food.
Another day, another hitch hiker - this time it’s a 80+ year old woman with a mouth full of coca leaves and only three teeth! We tried to find out where she was going but she did not speak one word of Spanish only some very strange heavy regional tribal language - so we had to rely on her signalling when she wanted out. After an hour our lady gets out and we continue on to one of the holiest shrines in Incan history at Raqchi - the lovely Temple of Viracocha.
We want to drive the infamous route to the jungle at Manu but it is not a easy route to access - the shortest route in via Huambuto is only open from Saturday 4pm until Sunday night due to major roadworks, so we enter the area from Urcos over a incredibly steep hill to Ccatca then along a very narrow, rough and cold route past some lovely un-named Incan ruins. We finally reach Paucartambo where the narrow streets lead us onto the jungle route. We climb and climb - through deep mud puddles and onto the landslide area - several sections of the road have fallen down the steep hillsides leaving rough debris and rocks to drive over with some deep undercuts to the road side and lots of running water. We can’t imagine a more dangerous combination on a route that is effectively single track with numerous blind corners.
We reach the top of the hill following some very deep ruts, where people have clearly grounded their vehicles, only to find a very thick blanket of cloud that completely hides not only the famous view of the jungle but also the road that plummets down the hillside. And it’s here that we have a problem - the route has turned to very thick mud after some un-seasonal heavy rain - normally we would spend the night and hope that overnight the cloud clears and the mud dries but Dave is feeling very ill with the altitude and a night at this height is not a option. So we have a choice - drive down a sheer hill with very deep mud on a single track route with blind corners and NO visibility or return to Paucartambo. We turn back, very disappointed but absolutely convinced that we’ve made the right decision.
Traditional houses and beautiful scenery around Sillustani and Conquistador skeletons in Lampa.
Tanijani Canon, our coca leave passenger and a Raqchi woman.
A superb drive toward Tres Cruces and Manu.
The narrow, cobbled and incredibly steep streets of Cusco await our arrival and with typical Peruvian humour and friendliness we are welcomed with shouts, waves, salutes and locals running into the street to stop traffic for us so that we can navigate some of the very tight street corners. We soon settle into a routine of wandering the city streets and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of the city and it’s excellent food markets.
A final few precious days spent in Cusco and we must leave to drive towards the coast to visit the famous Incan desert drawings. The Nasca Lines.
The only way to see the majority of the lines is to take a 35 minute flight over the desert and see them from on high - at ground level they are completely invisible and as a result they have suffered damage by roads being constructed over them. The crazy thing is that they are now ‘protected’ as a archeological site yet none of the drawings are fenced off - we could have driven our truck right around the desert and over these sites.
Dave did not want to pay to fly over the lines but for me it was a ‘top sight’ of Peru so I bravely climbed aboard the little plane clutching my tissues and complimentary sick bag. Out of the 4 passengers 3 agreed that another 5 minutes of rolling and pitching around the skies would have resulted in full sick bags but luckily for the pilots we all managed to control ourselves!
Many thanks to my lovely co-passengers for sharing their photographs with me - I completely missed the dog and spider drawings....
Ollantaytambo is a beautiful little village with impressive Incan ruins and narrow cobbled streets lined with water channels and traditional houses built using enormous Incan stones. But we have come here to visit the Incan city of Machu Picchu. A ancient city that to this day is still inaccessible by road, instead you must take the train which passes through numerous tunnels and clings to the landslide banks of a river to reach the nearest village of Aguas Calientes. Our time in Machu Picchu was a very precious memory that will stay with us forever. One of our top experiences in the world so far and absolutely unmissable!
Us overlooking Machu Picchu and on the Incan trail by the ancient drawbridge. Superb.
The indigenous villagers going home after a hard day of voting and beer drinking. Me by a giant Ollantaytambo house stone and us catching the 6am train.
The presidential elections are being held and by law ALL Peruvians must vote - not voting results in a 100 sole fine (£25) - a lot of money for a Peruvian. Officially the country must be ‘dry’ for elections, so no alcohol is allowed to be sold for 4 days and armed police guard the gates at the polling stations checking to see if you appear drunk.
Rather stupidly we decided to drive along the Sacred Valley towards Machu Picchu this day and an attempt to drive through one tiny village to reach a remote Incan site resulted in me being grabbed by a drunken woman who told me she had the perfect husband waiting for me as she began to drag me down a small lane out of sight from Dave! ‘Dry’ country? Everyone was drunk as hell on homebrew and beer - as long as they did this after voting the police turned a blind eye.
Eventually we reached Ollantaytambo only to find all the indigenous people from the surrounding valleys in this little village to vote. A real visual treat for us and, fortunately, a village where everyone seemed to have a husband! Pheww
Qorikancha - Incan meets Catholic.
A fiesta and the Saqsaywaman ruins.
The Incan aqueducts and the Nasca Lines with the bird and spaceman pictured.
We drive past fascinating Nazareth farmlands where the men and woman wear robes styled from the time of Jesus and turn desert sands into lush green agricultural and vineyard lands. Then spend a night in the mighty sand dune oasis of Huacachina before visiting the superb museum in Ica which displays skulls from a nearby tribe whose beliefs in head binding to elongate the skull are the most dramatic in Peru.
Next stop is the ‘Sahara’ type landscape of National Park Paracas. A coastal park with sweeping sea and sand dune views giving the illusion of being many hours from civilisation.
Mummies, skulls, oasis and great driving on coastal Peru.
We eventually arrive in Lima after finding some more beaches to sleep on, but we have to confess that Peruvian beach life is not so great - cloud and grey skies dominate most of the day and we are very lucky to glimpse the sun or blue skies.