The alarm went off at 04:15. I was conscious of being awake before the alarm sounded, perhaps due to excitement at the impending denouement of the trip, or just fear of oversleeping!
Just after 05:30 we joined the already long queue for the buses that convey tourists the 25 minute journey to Machu Picchu. Fortunately there also seemed to be a never ending stream of buses, although waiting in another queue at the top of the mountain I noticed that the flow of new joiners had stopped not too far behind us and had we been much later then we might have missed out on being in the first tranche of visitors.
About ten-past seven our early start was rewarded as the sun rose behind a near by mountain peak and began to light up the mountain known as “Huayna Picchu” in spectacular fashion. The Incas used a solar calendar and many of their temples were designed to allow them to predict important events such as solstices, so visiting just a week before the winter solstice meant that we could easily see their calendars in action. It is hard to avoid clichés when talking about somewhere as famous as Machu Picchu but as the sun rose there was definitely something quite magical about the way the light interacted with the geography and topology. The bright sun contrasted against the deep shadows also made it very difficult to take a good photo so there was much fiddling with camera settings as I tried to persuade it to capture the atmosphere of the ruins.
Our guided tour finished around 09:30 and we were then free to explore on our own. There are no facilities inside Machu Picchu so our first stop was the short hike back to the entrance where we also could not resist breaking into our picnic lunches. (It was four hours since breakfast, after all!) Suitably restored we decided to tackle the trail to the Sun Gate which is the entrance from the Inca Trail. By now the hot sun had fully cleared the surrounding mountains but occasional cool breezes seemed to blow through the valleys and the views were stunning—I can see why it is worth spending four days hiking at altitude and have this view be your first sight of Machu Picchu. The trail to the Sun Gate was also pleasantly not busy; the hikers all having come down at dawn and many of the coach parties were only just arriving at the ruins down below us.
After coming down from the Sun Gate, we explored some of the terraces above the ruins, and a narrow trail around the mountain to see the other valley—this is not a place to visit if you do not like steps or heights! Later in the afternoon, after a rest and a restorative ice-cream, there were remarkably few people in the ruins and we had a fun time exploring the Inca’s city at our own pace without a guide. The sun was now coming from the opposite side of the valley, highlighting a completely different set of details to the morning.
Since we had taken the bus up in the morning to save time, we felt it was only proper to walk the 3.5km back down at the end of our day. It proved to be a lovely walk—a great way to end a fantastic day.
Coming from Puerto Maldonado where tourism seemed a minority industry, it was quickly apparent upon arrival into Cusco (or Qosqo to the Incas) that this was a major destination on the international traveller circuit. Not that the city traffic authorities have made any concessions to international sensibilities as oversized 4x4s and even medium sized buses charged down narrow cobbled streets with pavements barely two foot widths wide!
Apart from the crazy traffic, the other reason that it is hard to get around Cusco is the lack of oxygen in the air. At 3300m, the air pressure here is less than what you experience in an aeroplane cabin (2500m approximately). Arriving mid-afternoon from near sea level our tour leader immediately sent us all to bed to help our bodies acclimatise, and after an exciting few days in the rainforest we found that an afternoon nap came quite easily.
Capital of the Inca Empire, (which they called Tawantinsuyu, meaning “Four Provinces” in the Quechua language), the Spanish converted the Incan temples and palaces to churches, although the colonial stone work is no where near as fine, or earthquake resistant. The pretty main square is dominated by the Cathedral, which appears to have been decorated in European style, but upon closer inspection you see many references and symbols associated with the Incan beliefs. However while interesting the admission fee was somewhat expensive, which made it feel like poor value compared to Qorichancha, a Dominican Priory where recent earthquakes have destroyed some of the colonial buildings revealing a large Incan temple complex which now co-exists as a museum alongside the Priory.
While in Cusco we also tried the lucuma fruit. With a texture a bit like potato in its raw form, it is not sweet enough to drink as juice on its own but with a little honey and milk mixed in it becomes a divine and highly addictive drink!
After the flat grey skies of Lima it was very pleasant to feel the warm sun on our limbs as we stepped off the plane at Puerto Maldonado, capital of Perú’s rainforest region. A short bus ride took us to the Madre Dios river, tributary to the mighty Amazon, and from there a motorised canoe conveyed us to our jungle lodge accommodation.
Lucy, our enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable guide, then introduced us to the rainforest pointing out the medicinal properties of the various plants (we got to test out the natural local anaesthetic which was fun!) and showed us which trees would bring forth an army of poisonous ants if touched. The lodge’s limited supply of electricity meant lights out at 10:30 but everyone was keen on an early night anyway after being told that at 5:30 the next morning we would be walking out to see grey headed parakeets.
On schedule, fuelled by just one cup of instant coffee, we were the first group to arrive at the bird watching hide and settled into the best seats. The parakeets come to eat the clay (it helps their digestion apparently) but a squirrel in the tree near the feeding area meant an hours wait before the flock felt safe enough to come down but fortunately for us they did eventually make an appearance.
After our own breakfast there was an hour of free time before our next adventure. Having expected (and packed for) the jungle to be hot, the overnight temperature had been very low so this was a good opportunity to relax and warm up in the morning sunshine. There were also four beautiful macaws, two red and two blue, to watch and photograph.
Sadly no monkeys came out to see us during our visit to “Monkey Island” although the hordes of large multicoloured butterflies were beautiful. An hour walk through the rainforest took us to lake Sandoval, a classic “horseshoe” lake formed from the rivers meandering bends, exactly as described in the school geography textbook. We toured the lake by canoe and saw a whole host of wildlife: birds, river otters, circling vultures high above us, a black caiman in the distance (same family as the crocodile so the distance was probably a good thing) and a solitary monkey (at last!).
After a long day and a long walk the hammock on the veranda of our cabin was a very comfortable place to rest our weary limbs. If only we had space for one at home!
Lima is the first place I have visited in South America and I was not sure what to expect. After two days I realise that it is too large and varied a place to sum up in even one sentence as the three areas I have visited so far have all been remarkably different.
The monied Miraflores is modern and trendy with high rise apartment blocks and a swish mall. But it also has some charming residential streets, peaceful green parks and a fantastic pre-European archeological site, Huaca Pucllana.
Our next stop was the superb Museo Larca which gave an overview of the independent development of civilisation in Peru in the 2000 years before Europeans arrived. This was in another pleasant and relaxed residential suburb with green park squares.
After seeing two such nice areas, the hustle and commercial ordinariness of Lima Centro was something of a disappointment. People seemed so intent with their business that they were indifferent to the grand (if slightly shabby) architecture around them. We were quite glad to head back our temporary home in Miraflores.