I have just got back from two weeks in Peru and, by popular* demand, have come here to share my adventures with you! It was a long trip that covered a lot, so I’ve split the post in half and will break it up with book reviews. I went with a couple of friends, and we spent most of our time on a tour with G Adventures – based on our experiences, I am happy to recommend them without caveat! (Except this one: they seem to book flights and other transport over lunchtime, so if you decide to book a holiday with them, make sure you are equipped with snacks on travel days). We had an amazing time, and I think the expertise of the local tour guides in both Cusco and the rainforest was a big part of that. The company also work closely with local people, with the aim of reinvesting profits from tourism into individual communities, rather than ending up in the hands of politicians or big business – always good to know if you are going to a country with a somewhat sketchy record on corruption. It’s difficult to know how much of that is window-dressing, of course, but our guide told us that he prefers working with G Adventures as opposed to other tour companies for this reason.
Our trip started in Lima and we spent a couple of days there before joining the tour – necessary to recover from about thirty hours of travel (including the intensely stressful experience of passing through US Passport Control). Like every big city I’ve ever been to, Lima varies between extremely rich and extremely poor areas, often within a street or two – I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a marked contrast as I did during this trip. It was unsettling, actually – there were special designated Tourist Police in the rich areas, who all spoke perfect English and came up to us to make sure we were enjoying our visit, finding the city clean and friendly etc. If you accidentally ventured even a street or two away from the popular tourist spots, though, it was like a different world – chaotic traffic, crumbling buildings, obvious and chronic underinvestment. One of the things we found out later in the trip was that, due to a tax loophole, a lot of people in Lima province avoid finishing the construction on their homes and businesses, so that they don’t have to pay council tax – which means there were buildings with construction steel sticking up from the tops, or still missing roofing on a room despite clearly being inhabited. That contributes to the ramshackle feeling in these areas, and it’s hard not to feel that resources were being spent on us that should have been going on local residents. Still, the area we stayed in, Miraflores, is friendly and safe – we had a nice time exploring a coastal path filled with mosaics and statues, and began to accustom ourselves to the huge number of stairs we would be climbing in Peru.
The morning after we met up with our tour group, we flew out to Cusco, which was an interesting experience: we had a bumpy landing, and that coupled with the altitude meant we all felt a bit rough for a day or so. The hotel we stayed in was a popular starting and ending base for those hiking the Inca Trail, so there were people coming and going at all hours of the day or night – very noisy. Also, it’s the only hotel I’ve ever stayed at where the breakfast on offer has included onion pasta and little pieces of fried hotdog (I assume this is aimed at the hikers. I have a strong stomach thanks to years of night shifts, but I think onion pasta for breakfast would be too much even for me). Thankfully, there wasn’t a lot of effort required on that first day – we were booked into an optional cooking class at a local restaurant, Nuna Raymi, and once we’d found our way there we didn’t need to do much moving. The cooking class was amazing and I would very highly recommend it to anyone visiting Cusco. As well as cooking lomo saltado, a sort of beef stir-fry dish, we learnt a lot of interesting stuff from the chef about their ingredients and local farming practices. I love cooking, and it was great fun to do it with restaurant-quality equipment and ingredients.
The next day, we got up early to head to Ollantaytambo via the Sacred Valley. I was expecting the highlight of the trip to be Machu Picchu, but actually I think it might be the day we spent in the Sacred Valley – one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever been. I just couldn’t get over how beautiful it was. I mean, I am not a talented photographer and this is not a carefully staged picture – it was truly this stunning in every direction.
We visited a few different community co-ops and learnt about local techniques for weaving, pottery, and brickmaking, as well as visiting a community-run restaurant for lunch. The restaurant was a bit much – I mean, the food was delicious, but it was also something like six courses in about 45 minutes. (I tried guinea pig here! It tastes like a cross between chicken and pork, and it’s very bony). The co-ops, however, were fascinating, especially the weaving demonstration. A lot of the small communities in the mountains are run mostly by women during the week, as the men are away acting as guides or porters on the Inca Trail. The women split their time between managing their small homesteads, running the households, and, in the village we visited, making exquisitely beautiful textiles. The demonstration of traditional dyeing techniques was amazing – the woman teaching us showed us how you could get several different colours out of a single type of dye by changing the acidity. Sitting at the weaving co-op drinking fresh mint and eucalyptus tea, looking out at the incredible mountains, is one of the moments that will stay with me for a long time. Our guide grew up in one of the small villages in the Sacred Valley and used to work on the Inca Trail, so he was an excellent person to learn from all about the mountains – he even taught us a little bit of Quechua to use at the co-ops, although the only thing I can now remember how to say is thank you.
Another early start (almost the whole holiday was early starts) to catch the train to Machu Picchu – or, more accurately, to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes itself is an incredibly touristy place, all markets and cafés, but that doesn’t really change how beautiful the landscape is. Anyway, we spent the day exploring the surrounding area, and then in the evening I walked up to the hot springs with my friends. More stairs. Everywhere in Peru has many, many stairs. It was worth it, though: the view from the hot springs was incredible, and at 37C they were indeed hot. We ordered passionfruit pisco sours, the local drink, and stayed there for a long time just enjoying the water and the landscape. No photos from here because we’re all in our cozzies – but please be assured it was amazing. Our experience was slightly diminished by the fact that one member of the group turned up, got in the pool, looked briefly around – and announced that the hot springs in Costa Rica were better. I can’t imagine being in a natural hot tub, with a cold drink, looking around myself at actual mountains, and thinking “yeah but it was even better somewhere else”. (This individual was to continue on this path for the rest of the trip, including complaining that we didn’t see a tiger in the rainforest – which is interesting, because even a cursory google will tell you that tigers do not live in South America). Still – an otherwise lovely evening.
We went to Machu Picchu the next day, an experience that I can’t really put into words. It’s just impossible to believe that something so high up in the mountains and so elaborate has ever been constructed, let alone six hundred years ago. I had a similar feeling to when I visited the Roman Baths in Bath and saw the tunnels with water still flowing through them – that history is at once very short and very long. Our guide was incredible – I think we got very lucky with a guide who loves teaching, because he sat us all down when we got to the top to give us nearly an hour’s worth of information about the construction, purpose, and rediscovery of Machu Picchu, all delivered in an engaging way. As we were walking around, some of the guides we passed were clearly less knowledgeable or less interested, and I have to imagine that would affect your experience.
When I started this blog, I took care to obscure my identity and make it difficult for people who knew me in real life to find me. That was because I was working on a ward and wanted the freedom to grumble about it sometimes without worrying about patients or relatives shopping me to the NMC. My job changed years ago, though, and I’m much less worried about that, and – well, all this to say, here I am at Machu Picchu.
A note: I often hear people say they will visit Machu Picchu when they retire, but if you want to visit and and are in a position to do so, I recommend doing it sooner rather than later. Getting to the lookout point, which you have to reach in order to enter the site, is pretty demanding, especially on knees, ankles, and lungs. Like everything in Peru, it’s up many flights of stairs (25, according to my phone) with no natural resting place. Not to say that everyone who is retired would struggle – but I doubt that my mum could do it despite the fact that she’s fit and healthy, and the one older member of the group struggled despite being in pretty good shape. I saw people coming back down the stairs having not reached the top, which must be hugely disappointing. The altitude makes everything much tougher than you expect, even at the comparatively low height of 2400m above sea level. Although I climb several flights of stairs every day to get into my flat, I barely remember getting to the top lookout point because I was finding it so hard to catch my breath. The only thing I can liken it to is a panic attack – it felt like I was breathing in without the oxygen making any actual impact on my body. We’d climbed down a little bit by the time we took the photos so my memories are clearer!
My friends (and most of the group) climbed Rainbow Mountain the next day, but given that I’d struggled with the much lower altitude of Machu Picchu, I didn’t think climbing 2.5km further into the sky would be a wise choice, so I spent a very nice lazy day bumbling round Cusco. Actually, I didn’t even particularly bumble round – I found a coffee shop that had beautiful views over the main square, and spent most of the day reading there. 10/10 recommended. In the evening, when my friends had returned battered but triumphant, we went out for a steak dinner at Uchu, which is easily one of the best meals I have ever eaten. Actually, a lot of the meals I ate in Peru have joined the “best meals I have ever eaten” list – it thoroughly deserves its reputation as a great destination for food.
This is a very long post already, so I’ll write about our trip to the rainforest and our last few days in Lima next week. I hope you enjoyed all the pictures – it really is an extraordinary country!
*I mean, this very much depends on your definition of popular.