Coups & Quito

Knowing that transport could be a bit dangerous in Ecuador we’d pre-booked a transfer to our hotel. However, maybe because we had caught a short haul domestic flight we ended up touching down away from the main area and were taken to a small building away from the main Terminal. Result, no-one was waiting for us. Linz set out to find where the main terminal was and to try and track down if anyone was waiting for us there. Ascertaining that it was quite a way away she went back to Colin, and picked up the hand luggage whilst he carried our two big rucksacks. We had a bit of a walk to say the least. Thankfully, when we did arrive our driver was waiting. Valiantly he took the two rucksacks off Colin, felt their weight and then called someone else over to help him, still struggling, a third man arrived to help. Wow Colin felt like superman, although his back did not thank him for it later. The journey from the airport to the hotel took ages though so we were grateful we’d pre-arranged transport, and of course the fee!

The hotel was basic but just off one of the main squares in the old town. By the time we got there, got checked in and relaxed for a few minutes it was pretty late in the day. We set out to find food in the old town. The guards at the hotel door alerted us that tensions were high in Quito and then as soon as we stepped out of the hotel we were amazed by the presence of so many soldiers and armed police on the streets. In one way it made you feel safe as one yell and we’d have had 5 different groups of soldiers to help us. On the other hand though, it made you wonder why so many were needed and what kind of trouble they were prepared for.

We found ourselves a restaurant and had a decent dinner despite being the only people in the restaurant for a long time. Lonely Planet’s statements about the old town being buzzing and lively seemed a bit far fetched. The people on the street generally seemed to have somewhere to go and that didn’t seem to be to the restaurants!

We were in Quito for 3 nights which translated itself into 2 and half days. One of main priorities was to go to ‘Mitad del Mundo’ the town situated on the equator. The name means middle or half of the world. Actually, despite it’s claims science has now decided that the equator actually is a few metres north of their line but still the attraction is where it is and we couldn’t resist a visit!

We’d been assured by our hotel that we could catch the local transport system out to Mitad del Mundo so gallantly we set off armed with a map of the various routes. Very quickly we realised if we were aiming for door to door service we would need to change buses about 3 times. So, looking at the distances on the map we thought we’d walk the first stage. As we walked we started noticing groups of people with red banners proclaiming “NO”and t-shirts heading our way, and then, a few minutes later we saw a band of people with green “YES” banners and t-shirts. A demonstration of some kind we realised and we were glad to be on our way out of the city.

And 'NO' we're not getting involved either!

Eventually we found the right bus stop and headed out of the city on a very crowded bus desperately trying to keep an eye on our pockets, belongings and each other. Out of town we had to change buses again, this time we narrowly missed a crowded one which turned out to be good news as an empty bus arrived minutes later. In Mitad we grabbed a buffet lunch before heading into the park where we could see the equator mark. The park itself was in dire need of repair. It all looked as though it could do with a paint job, even the equator line itself.

A foot in two camps....

We had fun hopping from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere for a while and even managed to get our passports stamped to state we’d been to the equator. Cool or naff? You decide!

That's the equator below us - or not quite actually!

Does it feel colder on the North side Col?

Some of the exhibits themselves weren’t that bad, particularly one that took you through the history of the various tribes of Ecuador and it’s neighbours, showing you how they had adapted their living, clothes and livelihoods to their very different environments. it also indicated the vast differences between the peoples living in altitude in the mountains and those at sea level. The park also housed a planetarium so we stopped for a show their too and had a good look at the stars over the equator!

Bus ride back and we were almost done for day. After our ‘all you can eat’ buffet lunch we only needed a snack so we decided to see what the old town had to offer once again. We found ourselves in a little bar, listening to local music, eating empandas (like deep fried Cornish Pasty’s or deep fried tacos) and drinking Canelazo an Ecuadorian concoction of aguardiente (sugar cane alcohol) and orange juice, served hot like mulled wine. It was actually a lot of fun and the atmosphere was great. A nice side to Quito.

Honest Linz, it's lovely!

Our last full day we had given over to exploring Quito itself. We wanted to take a ride in Quito’s Teleferico. It is a  gondola that took us basically from Quito’s city centre up the side of Volcán Pichincha to the top of Cruz Loma which stands at 4100m. We took at taxi to the base of the ride and were surprised to find the place deserted. Obviously we have no idea what the Ecuadorian government were thinking when they spent a few million US$ building it, but basically it is not being used very much now. It was still running but the buildings that housed it were dilapidated to say the least. Not a time to think too much about health and safety. The views on the way up and at the top were awesome though.

Stunning but explosive landscape!

Quito sits in a bowl of Volcanos. Volcanos as far as the eye can see of varying sizes. It seems like it is just one step away from an eruption & the same could be said for its political situation!

The top of the world, until it erupts that is!

We learned a bit more about this after our descent from the mountain. We return to Quito’s old town for a bit more of an explore, stopping at the Presidential Palace where we ran into the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigners from the previous day. It turns out that Ecuador was building up to a referendum. One with a difference to those we’ve come across in the UK though, this one asked the public 10 questions including ‘Can the President have full judicial power?’. The various groups were out and about campaigning but as you can see the ‘Yes’ group had the ascendancy. (The referendum eventually was declared as a Yes win).

Let's not go that way

We were told that the Palace was closed today for visits and we backed off anyway. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office had warned about the volatility of Ecuadorean crowds and advise us to stay away so we did! We also learned that in September the previous year troops and some of the police, had attempted an armed coup, with an attempt on the President’s life. It had failed and since then a state of emergency was in place in the capital.

As close to the President as we were going to get

We spent the afternoon shopping for a Panama hat for Colin. We’d learnt that Panama hats were not actually invented in Panama. Instead, they were worn there by South American workers, often Ecuadorians during the building of the canal. In fact, authentic Panama hats actually have to come from Ecuador. So we set out on a mission. A really good hat can hold water without leaking and be folded into a small enough shape to pass through a wedding ring. However, we didn’t want to pay a £1000 for that privilege! Instead, Colin settled for a hat he could fold up and put in his pocket and left it at that!

Shopping over, we deposited the hat in the hotel and headed out to Quito’s New Town. Here we found a plethora of bars and restaurants and had a lovely dinner, restoring our faith a little bit in Quito’s restaurants. The decision flew against the Lonely Planet’s advice that this area of town is dangerous at night. Once again we felt this publication seemed either to exaggerate or err too much on the safe side, probably stopping the visitor from seeing the real country, and not just the tourist traps.

Linz particularly liked the new town - well one sports bar anyway!

The next morning we had a flight booked to Guayaquil. We spent the bit of the morning we had skyping friends and family then we were off to Ecuador’s second city. We booked in an economy hostel and it was a bit grim. A lot of insect repellent was needed! Heading out for dinner we found a lot more armed police and big demonstrations. Again we stayed away. We struggled to find restaurants other than Burger King and MacDonalds so eventually settled on a Pizza Hut even though there was a wait for a table! We ordered a large between us and were a bit surprised when they delivered it on a tray with a pizza box underneath. It was only when we were leaving they told us it was buy one get one free and the free one was in the box underneath. Oops. A homeless person down the road benefitted hugely from our mistake! Morning dawned and we were off on a mammoth session of traveling.

Poor man’s Puerto

As soon as we landed in Guayaquil, Ecuador our plan was to jump on a bus to Puerto Lopez a journey that would take us approximately four hours. We were heading there on the advice of our friends in England, Bryan & Rob who had both been to Ecuador. They gave us mixed reviews but agreed that Puerto Lopez, and especially an island off the coast near there was worth a visit. The island off the coast was called Isla de la Plata and apparently was a “poor man’s Galapagos”! Well, we’d see!

Handily the airport was just around the corner from the bus station, but being lazy backpackers we jumped in a taxi. We bought our tickets, had lunch and boarded the bus. Now, up to that point we’d done a lot of bus travel. Actually an amazing amount of bus travel so far in South America. Without a shadow of a doubt the buses we saw in Ecuador and the bus we were on were the worst we’d ever seen. Thank goodness we did not need to use the toilet on the bus but we were still disgusted with the condition of the seats and the “Italian air conditioning” there was no door and the window’s didn’t shut. The holes in the floor capped it off nicely. We were also a bit nervous before we got on, having read the Foreign & Commonwealth’s warnings about Ecuador, which included warnings about traveling on buses due to the number of highway muggings, at gun point and a variety of other horrors. That nicely ruled out traveling at night for us but we decided we were hardy enough for a daytime trip.

We decided the standard of driving also needs to be covered by the FCO website. If you’ve been in a car with Colin, then you’ll appreciate that when HE’S scared and thinks we’re going too fast for the road, the bends and the probable capabilities of the bus’s brakes, that it might be a little hair raising to say the least! Thankfully we arrived safe! We reckoned that our guardian angels were holding the bus up a fair few times. At this point Colin wanted to apologise to anyone his driving has made feel the way we did on that trip!!

We were so glad to be out of a bus!

In Puerto Lopez we caught a mototaxi, a bit like an Indian put-put, which only just had enough space and oooomph for us and our luggage to Hostel Mandala where we had booked to stay.

An eco hostel in the middle of nowhere!

The hostel was lovely, the rooms were actually little cottages with a big double bed and a bathroom, they also had some outdoor space with veranda and seats outside. The setting was beautiful too, the owners had encouraged the rain forest so the cottages were set in the forest with flowers and plants brightening the way. The hostel also had a restaurant so we had dinner there, feeling incredibly blessed that we’d landed in such a great hostel, picked entirely at random, in what can only be described as the Ecuadorian equivalent of a Wild west frontier town on the coast.

Clearly our friend Bryan's visit here had left it's mark....! Explanations needed at some point Mister!!!

Fishing was a major draw, for the town and the Frigate birds!

The next morning we woke up late, grabbed some brunch and following the advice of the hostel owners we bundled up all our washing and headed into town with it to the local launderette. This turned out to be a woman’s house in our neighbourhood one horse town. Fishing is basically the only industry, otherwise Puerto Lopez seemed like an outpost awaiting some development. Laundry dropped off with the very friendly family laundry, we wandered through the town, amazed at the amount of Frigate birds circling the fishing boats. We walked back along the beach, stopping for a drink on the way back at a deserted beach bar, where the bar lady had to borrow some stuff from the next bar to serve us, a cooperative in action!

A bit of relaxing required then?!

At the hostel we grabbed a couple of hammocks and our books and set ourselves up in one of their sheltered areas on the beach. We’d only been settled a few minutes when Colin passed Linz the camera. Instead of taking it she dropped it & let out an almighty scream. Colin then recovered the camera before noticing that all was not well with Linz. She had a lot of pain in her hand and it was swelled up and was bright red….. something had bitten her. A worrying few moments then passed as Colin tried to calm Linz down whilst also searching for whatever had done the damage. We needed to know so that she could be treated in the right way, we were imagining all kinds of scary spiders or small snakes, but in the end it turned out to be a wasp. An extremely painful wasp sting on an extremely delicate part of her hand, but none the less, a common a garden wasp. Drama over, relaxation continued….permanently for the wasp.

Linz walks off the pain!

Beach day over, we booked in, via our hotel for our trip to Isla de la Plata the following day. It involved an early start so we had an early night.

We were picked up early but then Colin had to nip around to the cash point, we hadn’t realised that we could only pay in cash. A bit of hanging around for other customers and then we were on the boat and on our way. Our trip included a boat ride to the island, a guided hike around the island and then snorkeling in the bay. We also had lunch thrown in. Quite a full day.

You next Mrs Davies.....any sign of your husband?

The boat was fairly small and although the Pacific was a bit choppy we were sat out in the open air so Linz managed to keep down her breakfast without a problem. The hike up to the island was a bit tough going to start with but after our exercise regime in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and then Peru we were up to the task! Climbing up our guide told us about various plants and their uses. At the top of the hill our group decided to go for the shorter walk option with longer time then available for snorkeling. Walking around the most amazing thing had to be the blue footed boobies (yes Rob & Bryan they are still there). The slightly lighter blue feet belonged to the males of this seabird species, slightly smaller than the Albatross.

So what's causing the blues??

Back to the boat for our lunch. As we sat and ate, a group of turtles came swimming up to say hello.

Coming in for a swim then...?

It was just amazing how close to the boat they came……..for our crumbs maybe? After their visit we sailed around to another cove and even before we jumped in we could see amazing fish from the boat.

Wow....... just look at the colours

The snorkeling was brilliant. The fish kept their distance from Linz, so she was happy here too!

Swim over, it was back to the mainland for us!

Back to the mainland took another steady 4 hours in the boat. Back at the hostel we relaxed had a lovely dinner at our hostel/hotel and enjoyed the sunset.

Just stunning!

We had a decision to make before the following day. The original plan had been to take a bus to Manta, about 2 hours away, then catch an overnight “express” bus to Quito, Ecuador’s capital city.

OK Col, all packed up, lets go....Quito here we come

However the combination of the 4 hour bus ride we had already been on and the stories of buses being robbed at night on the road we needed to travel on, confirmed by the locals in Puerto Lopez, resulted in a change to the plan. We were able to book seats on a  plane from Manta to Quito. So off we went the next day, bound for Quito, the highest Capital City in the world.

Landing in Lima

We had an afternoon and an evening in Lima as the next morning we were heading straight off to Ecuador, Guayaquil to be exact, its second largest city. We’d arranged an airport pick up and this time we were staying in the Miraflores area of Lima, the more touristy area. We arrived and dashed to the bar hoping to see some Champions League football, not Chelsea this time unfortunately but Manchester United (even Linz was supporting the British teams).

No joy, however, we were too late. We set out instead for a tour of the neighbourhood. In our first visit to Lima the American couple we’d met (the ones who live in Panama) had recommended a visit to the Fountain Park. Diligently we set out to find it. We were then disappointed to find out that we were not only miles away from it but that it was also closed on Wednesdays, the day that we were there. Still, with our flight options using Lima as a hub, we had another day in Lima after we’d visited Ecuador. Instead we mooched through the Inca market and wandered around the area, buying ourselves some more native souvenir bracelets (hope you’re reading this Rob!!) and soaking up the atmosphere. We found a nice restaurant and had our favourite meal, Lomo Saltado, a fantastic beef dish with a soy sauce and wine gravy. Then back to the hotel and some sleep before yet another flight., and another new country….Ecuador…..Lovely.

Rushing, Raining and Regretting

We set our alarms disgustingly early for the following morning. Colin was aiming to catch the first shuttle bus up to the site at 5am to climb Wayna Picchu the mountain behind Machu Picchu towering over the city. We woke up with a start however at just after 6am discovering that for some reason the alarm had failed and Colin’s hopes of a morning climb looked to be shattered. Only 400 people a day are allowed to climb Wayna Picchu in 2 sets of 200, so getting there early to join the queue was your only chance. Colin grabbed only what he needed and ran off to get the shuttle, just in case. With no means of communication between us (Linz being phoneless) we just had to go for it & trust that we’d find each other on the site later.

The Inca's saluted Colin's attempts to get to the mountain on time!

Whilst he was heading there Linz packed up all the stuff and went to check out. Here, she was told that Colin would have no chance of climbing Wayna Picchu, not because of the time but because of the rain. It had rained for the majority of the night and it was still raining, very heavily. Apparently, due to the stone steps, which become slippy in the wet, insurance and health & safety reasons meant that the Machu Picchu authorities closed the Wayna Picchu path totally in the rain. By this stage Colin was probably half an hour to forty five minutes ahead of Lindsey, so thinking he would be hanging around waiting for her she skipped breakfast and headed up the mountain to meet him.

Pouring down with rain, misty & cold. Not ideal conditions!

Reaching the Machu Picchu entrances she then saw signs stating that travel and health insurances would be invalidated by climbing Wayna Picchu in the rain and that it had now been closed to the public she was glad she followed on Colin’s tail. Not seeing him at the entrance or in any of the covered walkway areas where people were sheltering from the rain she headed to the Wayna Picchu trail entrance, figuring he must be waiting for her there. Nope, no sign of Colin. Annoyed that she couldn’t find him, it took a while for it to dawn on her. He must have gone up. A quick chat with the guards at the door confirmed that some people had been allowed up in the rain at around 7.30. That must be Colin. Aahh. Now Linz was waiting for him. A climb that could take 40-50 minutes in the dry the officials were now saying would take a minimum of 3 hours. Hmmm, pouring rain, very little shelter, freezing cold, no breakfast and by now a 2 and a half hour wait. Great!

 

Colin was amazed that there weren't queues to go up. Weather? What about the weather?

Colin in the meantime had reached Machu Picchu and discovered that the rain had put off a large number of potential climbers. He was able to get his confirmation that he was in the number allowed and then just had to decide whether to go up straight away or wait a little while and see if the rain abated. After sitting in the cold and rain for 20 minutes, he decided that it was best just to go for it and off he went. Although he was wearing his ski jacket, it wasn’t long before he was soaked through. After a short piece of path that wound to the base of the hill, the steps up its steep sides started. Although now they resembled a small waterfall rather than a stairway. Colin also wondered what size the Incas must have been based on the huge rise of some of the steps!! The stairway wound back and forth gradually getting steeper as he approached the narrower apex of the hill. Also the drop to the side of the stairway became more and more sheer, which confirmed in his mind that Linz, with her fear of heights, had made the right decision not to come. At the top of the stairway the path splits. One side for ascending and the other for descending. The ascending path took you through a cave which was tight enough to force Colin to remove his rucksack to continue the crawl through. Once at the top the thick cloud that had enveloped him on the way up did clear a little enabling him to see the whole city below….what a site!!. Having enjoyed the exhilaration of completing the climb, it was time to start down and meet up with Linz…somehow. From the top which was marked by a collection of large stones, the path to descend was the steepest yet down through some Inca buildings. Although Colin had no fear of heights, looking down these very steep stairways which just fell away to the valley floor below, caused him a few heart flutters, until he was back to the main stairway down the hill. The descent was a little faster but in the continuing rain was still a bit treacherous. The climb up had taken 55 minutes, and by the time he had looked around, taken some photographs and descended, he had been on the hill for about 2.5 hours. Just as he arrived back at the entrance gate to Wayna Picchu, he heard Linz shouting to him through the crowd of people still waiting and hoping the rain would stop.

Back down & very wet (photo's from the top were lost on our camera). Read on....

Reunited we set off to find some hot food to help warm us up! It was still pouring down but we managed to find some shelter, hot coffees & pizza. After skipping breakfast Linz was very appreciative! We lingered, chatting to a Canadian couple who now lived in the Cayman Islands before braving the site again for a thorough explore.

Colin introduced Linz to a fellow climber, this guy kept his brolley up during the Wayna Pichu climb! Now that's style!

Despite the rain, which slowly abated we were determined to see as much as possible of Machu Picchu.

No Colin, not down there! You're steep climbs are over.

As the sun came out and the clouds drifted away we did a full circuit of the ruins, seeing all the temples and a lot of the housing and terrace farming areas.

A very early sundial. Not much use today!

Yes, this works as a shelter from the rain!

It truly is a stunning spectacle and their engineering is fascinating. Lindsey’s highlight was their water & sewage system which took clean rain water down the mountain to the river in channels but occasional pools had been created to allow the Incas a quick drink on the way up. Sewage also was sent down the mountain, in covered channels, carefully separated from the clean rainwater drinking supply.

You can just see the water channels by the steps, and Linz being a geek!

Yes, more water channels....

Visit over & dried out we caught the shuttle bus back to the village.

Bye bye Machu Picchu

Due to the torrential rain earlier in the day, we needed to get out train tickets reprinted as they, along with everything else were soaked through. Only when we’d got that done did we realise that we were missing our little camera. We still had our big SLR but our little digital that had been clipped on to Colin’s belt was missing. We knew he had it at the place we had eaten after his climb because we checked out how wet it was before clipping it back to his belt. Colin immediately grabbed a shuttle bus and headed back up to the site, hoping that someone would have handed it in to the gate security. Linz stayed in the town, trying to find the shuttle bus we’d come down on, on the off chance that it had fallen off in the bus. After Colin sprinted round the areas of the city we’d just seen having no joy with the officials he gave up and headed back to catch a shuttle back down to the village and the station. Linz had searched every bus so we reluctantly came to the conclusion that the camera was lost and gone forever. Gutting. Particularly as on the memory card were some pictures of Lake Titicaca that we hadn’t downloaded as yet. Sad, disappointed and angry with ourselves we headed to catch the train back to Cusco.

After searching the buses Linz had picked up some takeaway pizza and some Inca Cola. At least we had some sustenance whilst we got over our disappointment. We also had a good chat with the Aussie couple sitting opposite us!

Back to Cusco and the same hotel we began operation dry out. Colin had been wearing his bum bag whilst at Machu Picchu and we discovered it was not in any way waterproof. Everything in there was soaked through including our passports and quite a few notes of different currencies. Oops. If someone had come in they would have thought a money laundering operation was going on with notes hanging on the back of chairs along window ledges etc. We also had a fair few receipts that we needed to keep, all in all, a surprising amount of paperwork to dry out! Worn out, we had a coca tea and went to sleep.

Next morning, we got up early enough to skype Lindsey’s parents, to say a belated Happy Birthday to her Mum & check on her Dad’s health, then we caught the flight back to Lima. Amazingly for Taca it actually left on time!

 

Marvelous Machu Picchu

The surrounding mountains grew ever higher as we approached Aguas Calientes

Disembarking the train we quickly discovered that not only did we have to buy our bus tickets in Aguas Calientes for the trips up to Machu Picchu, we also had to buy our entrance tickets before we got there.

Former Inca homes and terraced farms on the approach to Aguas Calientes

Good job another friendly tourist clued us up, otherwise we’d have had a wasted journey to the entrance. The Machu Picchu entrance tickets were only available from the local ‘civic centre’ which again thanks to other tourists was found quickly by Colin whilst Linz saved the place in the long queue for shuttle bus tickets. Overall it was not cheap but we still decided that paying the extra to have two days for the visit was worth it.

Trains approaching Aguas Calientes, as seen from the transit bus up to Machu Picchu

We made it up to the site just in time to take advantage of a meal voucher that came included in our train ticket. We celebrated Easter at the Machu Picchu hotel with a buffet lunch, finally allowed to break our Lent fast (we’d given up beer this year) with two local brews, Cusquena’s for both of us. Not quite a traditional service but Jesus’s resurrection celebrated none the less!! It was also Lindsey’s Mother’s birthday and whilst Linz was a bit gutted that she couldn’t skype her Mum, she did manage to send a few texts, then we were off to see the place & see what all the fuss is about!

Linz taking in the entrance to the Machu Picchu site......why have we got these coats??

The holy Inca city of Machu Picchu was discovered by Highram Bingham, an American Professor at Yale University in 1911. Amazingly, despite the total Spanish conquest of the Incas their ravages had not uncovered this site.

The Llamas had found the site.....but not the Spanish!!

......and Linz soon found the Llamas....

Deserted since their invasion and decimation of the Inca population it was known about by local herdsmen, and ultimately it was an eleven year old boy, the son of a local man hired by Bingham as a guide who eventually opened up Machu Picchu to the world.

The view of Machu Picchu as Highram Bingham first saw it in 1911.......100 years ago

It is situated in a circle of high mountain peaks with the river curling around the base of it’s peak forming a semi circle around the base of it’s mountain, some hundreds of metres below. It’s location is magical, even without the formation of the city there it would still be a beautiful spot.

The classic view of the site from the "Sun gate" side of the city

A bowl of peaks with sheer drops revealing the valley below. The city itself with its stone buildings and clever terraces enhances the beauty of nature and demonstrates man’s gifts.

Fabulous view of the centre of the city with the intricate terraced fields to one side

Built in the 15th Century the majority of buildings stand fairly intact, losing only their, most of their straw roofs to the winds and rains.

Linz tending a llama outside one of the main buildings with its restored thatched roof

Where erosion has done more damage you can still make out the building’s style and substance and have a real impression of life in that area. The most amazing thing about the Inca building method was that it involved no mortar, with the individual blocks held together through the use of angled blocks effectively wedging the whole tightly

Intricate design of the buildings blended into their surroundings...the mound of the 'Observatory in the background...

We confined ourselves to one area on the first evening. Realising that we didn’t have to rush our explorations.

We climbed to the top of the terraces on the South face, heading out of the main clump of buildings, following signs to the ‘Inca Bridge’. On our way we saw a film crew setting up but thought nothing of it, assuming the Peruvian tourist board were filming or something similar.

OK lets get ready to shoot the scene....excuse me Madam who are you?

We carried on, following the trail that led us around the perimeter of the mountain, causing Linz to have the heebie-jeebies a number of times with the drops to one side of our path, of 1000′s of feet to the river below. However, she was persuaded out on a rock to have a photo taken. Not sure she looked down at any point to realise what she was doing!!!!

Just sit here like this Linz....its safe...honest!!

Told you it was OK.......just don't look down

Nerves finally overcame her though and Colin turned the final corner to the bridge on his own. Even Peruvian health and safety kicked in at this point, with actual walks over the bridge banned. You can see why.

The Inca bridge....a real test of your head for heights and balance!!

We headed back, not having long before the park closed, eager for more glimpses of the quintessential view of Machu Picchu. On our return visit we finally saw what the film crew had been setting up for. Some local tribesmen and women, in the old Inca tradition had come to the summit of Machu Picchu for a sunset ceremony.

Sunset ceremony on the edge of the Inca's holy city

Bidding goodbye to the sun as it disappeared over mountains to the west, casting the whole site into shadow & dusk. Just stunningly beautiful. We said “see you tomorrow” to a couple of llamas and headed back down to Aguas Calientes.

We had arranged for a representative from the hostel to meet us in the village and take us to it but when we arrived no one was waiting. We made a phone call but still no one turned up. Another phone call later we discovered that someone had been waiting in a different part of town for us, despite our description of our location. Not a good start. We were approaching this hostel with a certain amount of trepidation anyway. The reviews had been more on the negative side on Tripadvisor, but we were learning to take these with a pinch of salt. We’ve discovered that a lot of western tourists seem to expect a five star service for a two star price and complain bitterly on forums like Tripadvisor if there expectations are not fully met. Well, everyone’s different, and everyone’s entitled to a good whine, but we’d advise against making too many decisions of where to stay on the basis of peoples cast away comments on these sites.

This was a case in point. The hostel was called Rapa Nui and to say it exceeded our expectations was somewhat of an understatement. The room seemed nice and clean, there was hot water and a good shower. It was an ecological resort, set in the centre of town but up an alley, allowing you a bit of an oasis amongst the trees. The restaurant there was excellent. Unfortunately after our huge buffet lunch we were unable to do it full justice, but as Colin would say “the combination of flavours” was unusual and very effective.

Peruvian Paths

As we’d splashed out on the train ride to Puno, we went for the more budget option on the way back. The bus journey was so long as it made several stops to places of interest on the way back including La Rapa again. Plus Andahuaylillas, the “Sistine Chapel of America” named because of the paintings & another Inca settlement Raqchi, exhibiting some of the same style ruins that we would eventually see in Machu Picchu and a great hall which is widely recognised as the largest structure the Incas ever built. Whilst not quite the sistine chapel the art work in the church was interesting, including two big frescos either wide of the main entrance showing the paths to heaven and hell. The guide told us that the paintings showed that the path to hell was wide and easy to walk along whilst the path to heaven was narrower and took more effort, care and discipline.

The remains of the Inca great hall

The Inca village, Raqchi was interesting to walk through, and imagine the once bustling streets and temples. A good warm up for Machu Picchu. Another highlight was passing a small spring that could be seen high up in the mountains to one side, forming a small waterfall, called Andromeda.

The birthplace of the Amazon, high up in the Andes

The guide informed us that this was actually the starting point of the Amazon river. Amazing that from something so small something so big could come! Maybe not when you think what came from the birth of a small baby in Bethlehem just over 2000 years ago.

As we’d seen most of the sights on the train going the other way only days earlier we took a break from sightseeing. Instead we sat on the bus and disturbed the other passengers on the bus by laughing at episodes of Yes Prime Minister. We’d managed to download the series from iPlayer onto the Mac and listened through our headphones. We just couldn’t help laughing out loud sometimes though!!

Back to Cuzco, and the same Hotel. (The Hotel Ruinas – very good if anyone’s thinking of making a visit). For the trip to Machu Pichu starting the following morning, we had decided to just to take our hand luggage with a few items of clothing to wear whilst we were there. This meant moving luggage around and storing the big rucksacks at the hotel. When this was all sorted we had a wander around the town. We decided to succumb to the markets and purchased some souvenirs for ourselves and some gifts for people back home. Dinner in a restaurant around the corner from the hotel complete with a Peruvian band finished the evening for us. Unlike one tourist from the USA (showing off to his girlfriend!!) we again resisted the temptation of the guinea pig. Yet another early night, ready for yet another early morning to catch our next train to Machu Picchu.

We woke very excited about our next trip. We’d booked the intermediate cost train which meant that we got bigger windows to enjoy the views and breakfast onboard.

Views from the train windows were stunning as we wound further into the mountains

Before we got to the train though we had to take a 2 hour bus ride as the track between Cuzco and a place called Ollantaytambo had been damaged by heavy rains causing a mud slide. Bus (well minibus actually) ride completed, once on board the train we settled down opposite two Brazilian sisters for the final 2.5 hours of  our journey.

We hugged the banks of the river for most of the journey

To visit Machu Picchu you actually end up staying in a town called Aguas Callientes (Hot Waters) at the bottom of the valley and take a shuttle bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu entrance. Our train would drop us into Aguas Callientes where our plan was to go straight up to Machu Picchu, enjoy Easter Sunday afternoon and evening there before heading to our hostel when Machu Picchu closed. This was all going swimmingly until our train stopped. Looking around we quickly realised that there wasn’t a problem with our train. It was the one in front. We could see, using the binoculars we’d got with us, that the last carriage of the train in front had derailed. Clearly then, the passengers in this carriage had all moved further into the train and then that train had left, leaving its stricken carriage behind.

We were very glad the carriage and our train did not end up in there!

There were a group of railway officials doing the required standing, looking and scratching their heads, then they came up with the idea of using our train to pull the carriage back on the track. This thinking and acting process took about an hour, with the Peruvian workers eventually using a combination of there own strength and our train to haul the carriage back into position. Our train then shunted it in front of us for the rest of the journey to Aguas Calientes. This caused a lot of congestion on the line, with two other trains visible behind ours and a lot of concerned passengers. It turned out that a lot of people were only visiting Machu Picchu for a day trip which had now been cut worryingly short for them. We were very glad we had that evening and a full day the following day to enjoy it.

Lake Legends

After a good second night’s kip, we set off on our second morning early once again. We had booked a tour of the Lake, including visits to the Uros and Taquile Islands.

Taquila Island native watching for visitors....Single man by the colour of his hat

The Islas Flotantes (floating islands) inhabited by the Uros people were the relatively well known manmade floating communities found about 2 kms out on to the Lake from Puno. It was fascinating to learn how the islands were constructed, literally cutting up sections of the reed beds and tying them together.

One of the many reed islands!

The need to form these homes was allegedly to escape the Spanish invaders. Nowadays, although the houses on the islands look lived in, the inhabitants actually live on the mainland on a nearby peninsula, and only inhabit the islands in the daytime as part of a tourist attraction. It was surreal to see the sleeping huts with their beds, still as they had been for hundreds of years, alongside black & white TV sets and radios powered by solar panels mounted on poles outside the huts fixed into the reeds. Some people said this made it all fake, but really it does show how they used to live in the past and on that basis it is a fabulous facility.

They took us for a ride around the islands in one of their traditional boats

It is one that should be maintained, as part of Peru’s history. We likened it to re-enacting the civil war battles in the UK, or places like Warwick Castle, which helps bring history alive to all of us. Unfortunately, as you will find out, we lost the camera that had the photographs we took of the floating islands, but there are plenty available elsewhere on t’internet :-)

Terrace farming at altitude - these guys have good lungs!

Taquile Island was different in that the 3000 inhabitants on it actually still live today as their ancestors have for thousands of years. There are no roads on the island, and all the inhabitants are largely self sustaining, just trading with other islands or the mainland for goods they do not grow or produce in their own back yards. There were very strict crop rotation and animal rearing systems in place and a very fixed textile production procedure. The colours of the clothes and hats worn indicated social status and marital status. For example single men wore hats with red as the main colour, with the red section was worn on one side of the head or the other based on wether or not he was looking for a wife yet or not. Also marriage was for life, no divorce allowed. It seemed a very gentle way of life and very stress free, which may be a reason why the average age of the inhabitants was well over 90. We did wonder if, with such a restricted community, inbreeding was a problem, but the guide assured us this was avoided with men often taking brides from a different community on the island or from a neighbouring island where a similar lifestyle was followed.

Archway denoting entrance or exit from one community to another on Taquila Island

The whole trip involved almost 8 hours cruising actually on the lake between Puno and the island stops, during which the guide gave us some interesting facts about the lake itself. The name Titicaca, was actually made up from two words, Titi meaning Puma and Caca meaning rock. He also reminded that the lake was partly in Peru and partly in Bolivia, at which point he claimed all the Titi was in Peru and all the Caca, was in Bolivia!! Maybe he was being a little disparaging about the Bolivian neighbours, but we weren’t sure :-) . The lake when seen from above was actually in the shape of a Puma, and the map did confirm this, but how would the original inhabitants know this……freaky!

Overall the Lake is 100 miles long and 40 miles wide at its widest point, making it one of the largest lakes in the world and definitely the highest at 13,000 feet. its deepest point it is 281m. To put it in context, it is 8400 sq. Kms which puts it approximately 40% of the size of Wales.

The Lake looks so vast....as we look out to Bolivia in the far distance

It was a glorious day out on the lake and we finished off back in Puno watching the Good Friday parade in the town by the local inhabitants and a couple of military bands (the Band of the Royal Marines they were not!!). Then a nice dinner and bed before we left on the 10 hour bus trip back to Cuzco.

Titicaca Train

From Cuzco we wanted to visit Lake Titicaca & Machu Picchu. Looking at what trains we could book on the Perurail website made the decision for us. We were going to Lake Titicaca first. A town called Puno on the lake was our destination, and from there we could organise trips onto and around the lake.

Let's go Colin, I'm in need of some luxury!

To get there we opted for a bit of luxury. An opulent train called the Andean Explorer, part of the Orient Express chain. As it was a 10 hour journey we wanted to enjoy it.

A posh train - how good is that!!

Included in the ticket price was lunch, a high tea, entertainment & use of the vista dome bar carriage. The money was definitely worth it.

We skirted the river, following the valley through the mountains

Sometimes getting a little bit close for comfort!!

The train cut through the Peruvian countryside, skirting the Andes & giving us beautiful views of snow capped mountains, vast plains as we approached the ‘Alto Plano’ (the high plain containing the Lake at a height of 3,900m – 13,000ft).

Crossing rivers was via rail only bridges

The mountains seemed to rise out of nowhere!

Just breathtaking scenery

The train climbed from Cuzco to an even higher altitude, reaching the height of 4,321m at a stop called La Rapa, which to give you some idea is 3.3 times the height of Ben Nevis (the UK’s tallest mountain). That’s on the valley floor too!! It was ear drum popping, dizzily high. Walking was a real effort, everyone felt some effects of altitude.

I hope this sign holds me up linz.....

As well as the scenery we also past through some rural Peruvian villages. The glimpse we saw of traditional life was fascinating. The Peruvian people were really friendly as we passed by, waving and smiling at us as the train passed through.

Hi kids...

Life goes on after the brief interruption of the train passing through

After about the seventh hour & a large lunch, Colin promptly fell asleep missing the Peruvian band as they paraded through the carriages. Even the drummer couldn’t wake him!!

Waky wakey Senor Davies......

....... no he's still asleep, and ooops isn"t that a possible bald spot?

After the entertainment we passed through the city of Juliaca. Here, stalls lined the streets and the railway track reminding us a lot of India. You could buy literally anything, parts for cars, parts for mobiles, you name it they had it. Something we’ve really noticed, traveling through South America has been their ‘repair it’ don’t ‘throw it away’ culture.

Is that Lindsey's iphone????

Things are not so disposable & they are still retaining the necessary skills to maintain their goods. If your mobile breaks, don’t get a new one, mend your current one is more the philosophy. Having less disposable income than the west has meant their skill base has developed with the technology not floundered in the face of it.

We arrived in Puno at about 6pm & after a coca tea at our hotel we set out again. We had splitting headaches from the altitude. Puno at the lake edge stands at the lofty height of 3,860m (12,421 ft), high enough for us to struggle. We persevered though, just taking it really gently till we got used to the height, and having an early night to recover from our strenuous (!!) train journey.

The next morning, we took the advice of Anthony, the Hostel owner, and went to another village called Chucuito, further round the shore of the lake to see statues of phalluses, which represented preoccupation of the Incas with fertility.

Insert your own caption here....

The indigenous peoples of this area of Peru were actually Quechua and Aymara. The Quechua were more friendly and fun loving, according to Anthony, who of course was actually Quechuan!! This first visit helped with our continued acclimatisation, and introduced us to the local ‘collectivo’ system. Basically they were minivan taxis you could share, with whoever else was going the same route as you, up to and often over, the capacity of the vehicle. Back in Puno, we headed out on a walk of discovery.

Linz had read about the first boat to navigate Lake Titicaca and wanted to go and see it. Tonight was our only opportunity as we planned to spend the whole of the next day actually on the lake. The third day would then be spent heading back to Cuzco. Our new accelerated traveling plan!

The hotel owners suggested again that we caught another ‘collectivo’  to where the boat was moored which also happened to be next to a large posh hotel. We caught the collectivo as directed and made it to the boat whilst it was still open for visitors. Result. We were very excited (especially Linz) to discover that the boat was actually built in Birmingham, England.

Started in Birmingham, England.... only quality comes from there, hey Linz?

Through the agency of Anthony Gibbs & Sons, the Government commissioned the James Watt foundry in Birmingham, England (where steam was first harnessed for industrial use) to build the ships that would collect goods from around the lake. Without a rail link to the lake at that time, all cargo had to be carried up on the backs of mules. Therefore, the ships were built in kit form, with no piece weighing more than 3 ½ cwts, the maximum carrying capacity of a mule.

Scale model of the original boat found in the main cabin today

On 15th October 1862, the “Mayola”, bearing the two ships and eight British engineers from London, having rounded the Horn, docked at Arica – a Peruvian port before the War of the Pacific – and discharged the packing cases and pieces of the Yavari, and the Yapura, the two boats that had been commissioned. The Peruvian Navy then faced the daunting task of getting 2,766 pieces and two crankshafts transported to Lake Titicaca, 12,500 ft. (3,810ms) above sea level.

Linz hunted high and low but couldn't see a Birmingham badge

From Arica to Tacna 186ft.(550 ms) above sea level, the packing cases travelled the 40 miles (64 kms.) on one of the oldest stretches of railway in South America. In Tacna the 2,766 pieces weighing a total of 210 tons were unpacked and arranged in order of how they should arrive at Puno on the Lake. It took 6 years for them to make it over the Andes & assemble it on the lake, but only the Yavari still exists today.

Colin was being a geek... enough said!

Sightseeing over we had dinner at the posh restaurant & headed back to our hotel in a normal taxi, on the advice of the hotel staff, who considered our proposal to walk back into town as lunacy, based on the area we needed to pass through. We arrived safely back at the hostel and settled down for a good nights sleep.

Cuzco Coca!!

From Cordoba we decided to head to Cuzco, a former major city of the Incas in Peru. It also represents the staging post for trips to Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca. Getting there however, was a bit of challenge.

Central Cuzco is a very good looking and interesting city

First we had to catch a plane from Cordoba to Buenos Aires, change airports in Buenos Aires, hang about a bit then catch a plane to Lima.

Linz experiencing a calm moment before the storm at Gate 13 the next morning....

We arrived in Lima late in the evening but the heat change hit us. It was toasty! We’d arranged for our hotel to collect us, we’d managed to get a cheap deal on a hotel in the financial district, perfect for an over night stay as our flight to Cuzco was early the next morning. We saw nothing of the city. We slept and returned back to the airport bright and early. What we didn’t know was that we were in for a frustrating wait.

Troops appear everywhere we go.........hope they're not needed today

We got to the gate well in time but no plane turned up for us to board, so it didn’t take a brain surgeon to guess our plane would be delayed. After an hours extra wait we suddenly noticed that the information screen stated that our plane had been cancelled. Oops. What we then found out is that some people’s flight yesterday had been cancelled too and that they’d been promised a flight today. Double oops. To say that the passengers kicked off was a bit of an understatement.

Gate 13 was starting to look like a pitch invasion......or more like a large scrum

No punches were thrown but there was a lot of shouting, pushing and shoving. The main problem seemed to be that Taca, the airline we were meant to be flying with, were going nowhere but their main rival, Lan were flying as normal. In the end we took the offer from Taca, of a free nights accommodation in a Lima hotel and 3 meals.

We made friends with an American couple who lived in Panama and were stranded with us. We all headed to the Thunderbird Hotel and had a lunch on Taca together, even though it was on a restricted menu. Taca were smart even though they were definitely not organised. No drinks included either. Just no fun. After traveling all the previous day and only having 5 hours sleep we promptly went for a nap. We’d been told by Taca that they were going to pick us up at 3.30am for a 6am flight so it was going to be another night of no sleep. Linz promptly slept from after lunch until 3am. Colin, however couldn’t sleep so he took the computer up to the bar and did some emailing chores.

The taxi turned up as promised and this time the flight went on schedule. We were on our way to Cuzco and 3400m  (11,000 feet) altitude!

Flying over the Andes in daylight was a real bonus

Starting to leave the Andes behind

We arrived at 9am and had the whole day ahead of us to acclimatize to the altitude, check our train for the next day, book accommodation for when we’d be back in Cusco and generally relax.

The valley containing Cuzco signalled the end of the flight

The hotel we’d booked in seemed nice so we decided to stay there when we came back. Train tickets were confirmed. Then it was time for yet another nap. Moving at this altitude (actually 3,399m above sea level) was tricky. We both had headaches and felt a bit strange all over. Climbing up stairs meant that we were massively out of breath and had to stop and relax. Looking around the city could take a while. One of the main solutions for altitude sickness was something called Coca Tea. This was made from leaves from the Coca plant. The very same leaves that are taken and eventually formed into cocaine. Coca Tea however had all of the goodness but none of the danger, only being as addictive as coffee but less harmful. It seemed to work, apparently by increasing the bloods efficiency for handling oxygen. After a couple of cups of tea we decided to set out and explore.

Hold me up Colin, this altitude makes me all wobbly!

The town itself was very pretty. A blend of Inca, Spanish and modern Peruvian architecture, set in a bowl of hills and terrace farming.

The scenery was spectacular!

Walking around was fun. There were lots of markets and street vendors selling anything and everything, including lots of llama products, socks, jumpers and scarves. We looked but didn’t buy this time.

We had lunch, great Peruvian food, including and our first Inca Kolas together (Colin had a sneaky one in the middle of the night). Inca Kola is a Peruvian version of Irn Bru or Dandelion and Burdock and also was meant to be good for altitude sickness. It didn’t hurt that it was also was very nice tasting. We had heard of another Peruvian delicacy, known locally as Cui, but better known in the UK as Guinea Pig. It was on the menu, but if it wasn’t an attractive option before we sat down the picture of what looked like ‘roadkill’ settled the issue for us!!

Cuy.....Attractive option for our culinary delight......not

Another wander around the city and we were done for the day. Ready for our train to Lake Titicaca the next day, known as the Andean Explorer.

University Challenge

Our other day trip was in and around Cordoba city  itself. This time we managed to drive straight into the centre without getting lost. We’d read in our guide book, which advised that the University was worth a visit & that they did guided tours.

Can I pass as a student?

We were a little bit skeptical as to whether it would actually be any good but having completed the tour we were so impressed, we have recommended it to anyone who would listen. In 1610 the Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits, founded the Collegium Maximum in Córdoba. In 1621 Pope Gregory XV, granted the college the authority to confer degrees on students. Travel being what it was back then, the news only reached the town in 1622, and it was then that the University began its official existence. as was often the case, the Jesuits founded the college to spread their message of faith and to develop learning of all kinds.

South America as it was under the Spaniards!

Originally they were funded by wealthy benefactors but when a major promised legacy from a powerful local bishop didn’t turn up, due to his untimely death, they turn into farmers, funding themselves with sales of their produce, including a very nice variety of wine.

Some work went into the University Chapel

The University itself houses some of the worlds oldest books and some fascinating bibles. One of the oldest bibles was wrtitten in seven languages, with each line of text translated into 7 different languages concurrently, just amazing and such a great source of learning for biblical students.

You can't take pictures in here Colin!!!

The guide was very knowledgeable of the history of the place and its ceremonies, which would still be recognised in modern universities, which Linz was very ready to confirm.

Cordoba cathedral

Cordoba itself was a nice town to walk through. We did laugh at the huge monument they had, lifting the white flag of defeat…..

Yes, a monument this big to the Falklands War....

And a close up!

Their covered walkways and flower markets with local art on the walks were good to see.

No Linz you can't have all those flowers

Thumbs up to street art

The day was topped off by the best steak we’d had in Argentina. At the Sheraton hotel. We had tried to find a local more ethnic restaurant but ended up in some dodgy backstreets and gave up. The Sheraton steak was good though, restoring our faith a little in Argentinean cuisine.