From Cusco to Machu Picchu-Mystical, mindboggling, marvelous, magnificent!

Leaving Arequipa was done so with huge excitement, for now we were heading to Cuzco-the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, and the gateway from which we would be visiting one of the most enigmatic sites of world archaeology, Machu Picchu. Through the process of accurate planning, it would also be where I would be celebrating my birthday-bonus!

One of the things that we have had to be mindful of as we have travelled is getting ahead of ourselves-yes Machu Picchu is just around the corner, but prior to that we have the quite majestic city of Cuzco to explore first. As mentioned earlier, the city was the capital of the Inca Empire between the 13th and 16th centuries-until the Spanish conquests of South America, although the actual date of construction of Cuzco is thought to be in the 11th century. As such, in the Old Town there are pre-Columbian buildings, plazas and churches round every corner, and the atmosphere feels thick with history. With the city being the gateway to Machu Picchu, its UNESCO World Heritage Site status and the numerous Inca ruins and wonders throughout the Sacred Valley, it’s no surprise that Cuzco is absolutely swarming with tourists like us…Yet somehow it manages to maintain its dignity and charm! Yes you will be pitched for food, massage, trinkets and alpaca clothing numerous times each day, but it’s ok-no problem!

At 3,400 m above sea level, altitude sickness is an issue for some and so you are quickly introduced to the wonders of chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea. And yes we are talking about the raw ingredient for cocaine, although it’s important to distinguish between the drug and the plant. Coca leaves are something of a national treasure in Peru, and for thousands of years South American indigenous cultural groups have used the coca leaf in many of their significant ceremonies, as well as using it as a day to day supplement. Everything from improving oral hygiene and alleviating altitude sickness, to increasing stamina and improving your all round work ethic(!). Indeed if you believe everything that Wikipedia has to say (as I am guilty of sometimes), then you will also find that the Spanish actually encouraged the use of coca leaves to increase the productivity and reduce the appetite of their newly acquired slave workforce!
From personal experience I can vouch for the fact that neither Jo or I had altitude sickness-and nor did we tire over the next week or so hiking up and down various Inca trails…Whether that can be attributed to the benefits of coca or not I cannot say, but it was the the only adjustment that we made to our diets-I’ll leave it with you to come to your own conclusions!

So, what about Cuzco then? Well it is everything that you will read about it! Enchanting, historic, beautiful, magical-there are many superlatives that you can describe this city, and it deserves each one of them. You simply have to look around you to see the mountains that surround the city, and then the historic buildings at closer quarters-there’s enough here to keep you captivated for as long as you may wish, with no fear of it losing it’s sense of mysticism.

And we only really scratched the surface of the city….

 

One thing that you are never going to struggle with in Cuzco is finding a tour operator to take you to Machu Picchu-there are LOADS of them! In fact, choosing who you are going to spend your money with is one of the most difficult things about the place….More specifically-finding a tour operator who will accept anything other than cash! Fortunately we were introduced to ‘a guy’ by our AirBnB host, and (spoiler alert!) it was awesome!

Ideally we would have like to have done the full Inca trail, but you really need to book that in advance and have a set schedule-as were prepared with neither, we had to go for an option that was feasible as and when we got there! On good advice from a friend from our first placement way back in September, we opted to go for the Inca Jungle Trek-which goes a little something like this:

DAY 1: CUSCO – ABRA MALAGA – SANTA MARÍA 65km Mountain Biking.

Starting at 6 am, we were driven by minibus through the amazing sacred valley of the Incas.  Passing the indigenous town of Chinchero with amazing views of Vilcabamba and Vilcanota mountain range, enjoying the panoramic views of the small towns in the sacred valley. Eventually you reach Abra Malaga pass at 4350m, and at this point we started the mountain biking down to Santa Maria town at 1435m. Biking starts high in the Andes with the majestic view of the snow-capped Veronica mountain.

DAY 2: SANTA MARIA – QUELLOMAYO – SANTA TERESA – COCALMAYO HOT SPRING 22km Hiking.

Another 6AM start, although this time it is people power as you set off on the most challenging of the hikes. After just 45 minutes from our hostel we get onto the original Inca trail that used to connect Machu Picchu with Vilcabamba considered the last Inca capital, hiking through plantations of bananas, Coca, yucca, coffee, and many other ‘unknown’ fruits! 3 hours hiking on the original Inca trail with magnificent views of the Vilcanota valley and panoramic views of the hills before a lunch pit stop at Quellomayo. From there we continued the hike along the Vilcanota River for another 3.5 hours until we arrive at the ‘cable car’ to get to Colcamayo hot springs. The ‘cable car’ is actually a platform on steel cables across the river-and let’s just put it this way, it would never pass H&S sanctions in Blighty! Anyway, once you had braved the river crossing you find yourself at the stunning natural and outdoor hot springs.

DAY 3: SANTA TERESA – HIDROELÉCTRICA – AGUAS CALIENTES 19km Hiking.

After breakfast in Santa Teresa we set off on our hike to the hydroelectric power plant for 2.5 hour hiking on the road along the Vilcanota River. During the hike we see the power plant of Santa Teresa and Hidroelectrica. Before long you have the first view of Machu Picchu then we hiked along the train truck for 3 hours to Aguas Calientes town-the gateway to the mighty Machu Picchu.

DAY 4: AGUAS CALIENTES – MACHUPICCHU – OLLANTAYTAMBO – CUSCO

The most important day, and the earliest start! Up before the crack of dawn (4.30AM) to start the 1.5 hour hike up to the hidden city itself. On arrival there is a two hour tour with the guide and then we had the rest of the day to explore. Then you have free time to explore Machu Picchu by yourselves. We booked to climb Machu Picchu Mountain as well, which is a further 2 hour climb to majestic views of the ancient city from above! Machu Picchu is located in the middle of nowhere and up on the granite mountain edge, there is no any records about Machu Picchu of the Incas time. It is not mentioned in any of the chronicles of the Spanish conquistadors and archaeologists. Machu Picchu was under the dense vegetation until July 24th 1911. When the American historian Hiram Bingham ‘discovered’ it and called it “the lost city of the Incas”. We spent 8 hours exploring the city, before reluctantly going back to Aguas Calientes town.

 

The entire 4 days turned out to be as amazing as you would hope, and we had a really great group of people to share our experiences with. It didn’t start out so rosy though, to begin at Abra Malaga we were met with heavy rain, freezing cold and limited visibility-not the perfect conditions for a downhill bike ride! Still, after about an hour and a half the weather started to clear and soon enough we were hurtling down the mountain roads with little/no fear! It was exhilarating, however the biggest adrenaline rush actually came that evening in Santa Maria when Jo and I were attacked by wasps! We had taken some time to walk around the village and explore the surroundings when we found a path that lead down to a bridge over the river. As we walked down the path suddenly I felt a sharp pain on my head, and then another on my hand-so I start thrashing around not knowing what was going on-and Jo was soon in the same predicament. As it turns out, Avispa’s (South American wasps) are absolutely relentless, and will dive-bomb and attack you fearlessly! Fortunately the stings die down pretty quickly, but we didn’t know that and were soon running for our lives! Obviously this kind of incident couldn’t go unseen, and as we hightailed it away from the wasps we turned the corner to find a group of elderly locals watching on with some bemusement…funny now, scary at the time!

Day 2 saw me begin a two day celebration for my birthday, for as it turned out I shared my birthday with one of the other guys in the group, and how lucky we were to be able to visit the hot springs! The days hiking was superb, our guide was super knowledgeable and shared a lot about the fauna and flora, local customs and lives of the Inca’s. The Inca trail itself was stunning, and after a full day of hiking arriving at the hot springs were absolutely magical-as you will see from the pictures. Having had a couple of hours to really enjoy, relax and soak, we eventually dragged ourselves away and ended up having something of a night out in Santa Theresa-the entire group insisting that we all party past midnight to see in our birthdays! And party we did…hard! It was great, a really good giggle, but it made day 3 a little more challenging given the huge hangover and long walk ahead! Still, we survived the hangovers and made it to the wonderful town of Aguas Calientes-with excitement levels at maximum for the culmination of our journey the following day. Jo and I made an effort to hit the hot springs in Aguas Calientes as well-although they turned out to be something of a disappointment in comparison to the gorgeous tranquillity of the previous day’s experience! With an early rise in order, bed time couldn’t come soon enough-for now we were here, and Machu Picchu was waiting… The hike up to Machu Picchu itself was a lot more challenging than I was expecting-and hour and a half of relentless ‘Inca steps’ at 4.30AM really does get the heart racing and the core body temperature up-it really feels like your ‘earning’ the right to see this wonder. Of course there are other options-you can take a bus, or even a train-but for us that wasn’t a consideration. Much can be said about how you feel when you finally arrive and look over the city for the first time, but no words would do it justice-it was quite overwhelming. Something that we had seen pictures of throughout our lives was finally in front of us-and it was majestic, emotional, magical…Something that we are lucky enough to now have etched into our memories…..Which is quite lucky really, cos my camera had started playing up and I had managed to get water on the lens! Still, frantic times trying to dry and fix my camera to get some shots to help with the aging memory!

 

 

 

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From the beach of El Quisco to the Atacama Desert

Having spent a few days in Valparaiso, and with a couple of weeks teaching for the English Opens Doors program approaching, we decided to get some much needed coastal time under our belts. Over the entirety of our travels, the surprising thing is that we haven’t seen more of the sea-so we headed to the Chilean coast and  El Quisco. Most famous for being home to another one of Pablo Neruda’s haunts, Isla Negra, El Quisco proved to be the perfect tonic to the concrete jungle that is Valpo, a few stunning sunsets perfect to massage the soul and move us forward to our next volunteer placement. Aimless meandering up and down the stunning coastline certainly didn’t disappoint, and we even managed to happen across a Pablo Neruda artistic reserve on the cliff tops-the kind of place that you would never find if you were actively looking for it!  Walking around this hidden gem you find a number of sculptures hidden amongst the foliage, most impressive were the eerie stone faces that look over the shores, listening to the waves crashing on the rocks far below-it’s easy to understand how an artist would use this place as a source of inspiration: 

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Stunning scenery, great seafood, a perfect little cabana just 5 minutes walk from the beach-you couldn’t really ask for much more-apart for time! Alas that wasn’t something that we could afford ourselves, and in the blink of an eye our lazy couple of days were over, and we were headed back to Santiago once again-over the following two weeks we would be teaching assistants for the English Opens Doors Summer Camps. Nothing too taxing, we would be working with Chilean teachers delivering a number of activities for students who had enrolled in a free summer English language program- they’re run over the whole of Chile, so deep down we were both kind of hoping to be sent to Patagonia, alas that was not to be. For my first week I was placed in Los Angeles (Chile, not California!), and Jo in Concepcion-then for the second week we were both back in Santiago. With little spare time to explore the respective cities there’s not a lot I can tell you about the districts; as for the camps themselves-we got to work with some great people in an extremely positive and enthusiastic summer camp environment-so more great teaching experiences under our belts. The only negative being that we had to comprise a lip dub to Justin Bieber’s Sorry, which still haunts my dreams now…If I never hear that song again it will be too soon!

Having loitered in the central region of Chile for long enough, we now had some time to be tourists for a while, and from the recommendations of many, we were headed North to San Pedro, before making our way into Peru. San Pedro is the gateway from which to explore the Atacama Desert, something that neither Jo or I had considered before our trip to South America-but it is thought to be the oldest desert on earth, the oldest continuously dry region on the planet, (it has experienced extreme hyper aridity for at least 3 million years!) and is the home of the other worldly terrain of the Chilean Valle de la Luna. Not surprisingly at one point NASA tested their Mars landing equipment there and looked for signs of life in the earth of the desert-finding none …..You could say that this place is barren!
First we had to get there though, and it turned out to be ‘one of those journeys’. I feel like I haven’t had a proper travel moan for ages, this trip certainly gave me fodder for a paddy of epic proportions. It was simple enough in theory-there was a direct bus from Santiago to San Pedro. It was a night bus so we would get some form of faux chair/bed, hop on, fall asleep, arrive in San Pedro-easy! Alas that wasn’t to be the case in this instance. The chain of events that followed can’t really be explained properly as no one explained anything to us during the whole journey! What I can tell you is that our simple one bus journey evolved into a mammoth four bus marathon! First up our bus just stopped at one station and was there for what seemed like an age, there appeared to be some problem with the door-so we had to wait until a mechanic could come and fix it. Fast forward an hour and a half and we were set to recommence our journey, off we go again all happy and relieved that things were sorted. At some point during my broken slumber we shuddered to a halt and informed that we would now be changing buses, on some random street at an ungodly hour in the morning. Ok, so a grumble and a little bit of a moan, but the other bus was there so we quickly changed and got ourselves comfortable again….For about ten minutes, when the new bus pulled into another bus station and kicked us off! We were simply told that we would need to catch another bus to San Pedro-as our bus was now out of service! With our extremely limited Spanish, and the help of a fellow traveller, it looked like we would have to wait at this bus station for three hours for the next bus to San Pedro, or take another two buses which would get us there sooner-so we opted for the latter, adding an unwelcome 4 hours onto the total journey time. Eventually we made it-30 hours later-but for sure my patience with people when I’m tired and travelling is limited, and it hasn’t gotten any better over the last year and a half!

Having finally arrived during the dark of night, we managed to get a taxi (a random 4X4) to take us out to our ‘desert base’ and soon we settled into our tent excited about what San Pedro had to offer; yes, that’s right, we were going to be braving some camping in the desert. The Atacama is also home to the imaginatively named Very Large Telescope (VLT), for the very reason that there is nowhere better on the planet to look at the midnight skies. Unfortunately my camera isn’t up to the job of demonstrating the displays of stars that we were treated to each night, so you’ll have to take my word for it-it was spectacular, and as we were camping outside of the town where there is zero light pollution-we were treated to a wondrous show each night. 

When we actually managed to get into San Pedro the next day we discovered the town itself to be quite the tourist haven, with dusty ‘Mad Max’ type streets and adobe buildings-you really feel as if you are experiencing a time gone by-all be it truth be told I think that nowadays it purely exists as a tourist destination. That doesn’t take anything away from being there though, it really is a funky little town. 

Like everyone else arriving in San Pedro, you walk around a few tourist shops, have some food, and then set about organising your activities for the next couple of days-there are loads of tour agencies doing various excursions, from sand boarding and quad biking, to nightly stargazing walks. Our focus was on a visit to the unique Valle de la Luna, and to go and visit the nearby geysers. After exploring a few  options with the local travel companies you soon work out that they’re all very similar and you just need to negotiate yourself the best deal. Having gotten what we thought was a great deal, the next day we were on our way to explore the moon like landscape that the desert presents-quite simply it was absolutely gorgeous, a myriad of colours and surreal rock formations melting and pouring into each other-it was a little like being in a lava lamp: 

The entire day was breath-taking, the only downside being that our tour guide quite simply didn’t speak any English-it ended up being quite comical and forced us to try to use what little Spanish we had acquired to decipher the general gist of his tour. After a full day in the desert, the evening held nothing more than a beer or two and early to bed in the sweltering pod of heat that was our tent-but not for long, for at 4.00AM we would be getting picked up for the following days visit to the geysers. Now, for what happened next I blame on tiredness, although others may point to stupidity, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. As is the very nature of the Atacama, it’s hot….Really hot. So, 4 AM one morning getting ready to go and visit some geysers, where we have been told there are hot springs, Jo and I promptly dressed some nice lightweight shorts and t-shirts. It didn’t really occur to us that we would be going to 5,300m above sea level at the crack of dawn, and at that time, at that height, it may be just a little bit Chile (pun intended!!). It didn’t really sink in until we were surrounded by people on our minibus dressed for winter, looking at us as if we were crazy fools-and as such we arrived at the geysers to the amusement of many….Little freezing gringo couple-how funny! Anyway, aside from that the geysers were, again, spectacular, other worldly, wonderful….I run out of original superlatives so forgive me for repeating myself! The amusing thing is that unlike the UK there is  no real health and safety, merely the casual observation:

if you see a hole in the ground, try not to stand on it….

Arid desert, bubbling volcanic pools and hot springs, but still San Pedro wasn’t quite finished-to complete our stay we grabbed some mountain bikes to go and explore Pukara de Quitor, a pre-Columbian stone fortress overlooking the San Pedro river. With Machu Picchu looming in our futures it was a great introduction to the wonders that lay ahead. The ruins date back to the 12th century, and were built initially as a defence against internal threats from neighbouring villages and communities-upon the Spanish invasion they took on a more significant role in the defence from  these foreign invaders. It was to no avail though, as signified by two huge stone heads, carved into the rock in memory of the Pukará de Quitor leaders beheaded by the Spanish when they sacked the town in 1540. A few hours walk in the sweltering heat would stand us in good stead for future excursions, and obviously provided some more camera fodder!

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And so it was that we prepared to leave Chile for Peru,  with a feeling of a fair amount of unfinished business-as with Argentina, we have barely scratched the surface!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Salta, La Rioja and the Talampaya Canyon

Having said our farewells to the our ‘family’ at Aldea Luna, and having the fortune to get a lift to the bus stop from Martin and Anabella, our travels resumed and we set about having a few days of tourism before our next volunteer appointment in San Rafael. The unexpected expense in Argentina being a significant factor in restricting just how much sightseeing we were going to get to do. Still, we had 5 days and so we planned to go to the picturesque town of Salta, then onto La Rioja and the Talampaya National Park.
We easily managed to get ourselves back to Jujuy bus station and then a mere two hour wait for the bus to Salta-the perfect amount of time to catch up on a little bit of internet action-and eating some meat empanadas after our month of enforced vegetarianism!

Unlike the adventures across Asia, the journeys here lack much in the way of drama or terror-we soon arrived unscathed and not in the least bit stressed in Salta, and made our way to our hostel. It was here that we were greeted by the most delightful host, with no English and our very broken beginner Spanish-it was rugby that united us! As soon as I had managed to establish the fact that I was Welsh, the smiles were unstoppable as we shared in England’s demise at the World Cup, and Argentina’s emergence as an upcoming rugby superpower-oh how they are benefitting from inclusion in the Rugby Championship. Anyway, I digress, as it was late we managed to organise food to be delivered to the hostel and we ate and crashed, before rising early to discover the quaint and eerily quiet streets of Salta…It took a while for us to realise that it was Sunday, and not until the following day to understand that Sundays really are rest days in Argentina. It actually turned out to be to our benefit, as we explored Argentinian street vistas uninterrupted for the first time.

One of the ‘attractions’ of the city that we had highlighted as a must visit was the MAAM Museum, which is the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, and the home of the ‘Children of Llullaillaco’ in the Cryopreservation Laboratory. Basically these are mummified remains of Inca children that were sacrificed to the gods on the mountains of Lullaillaco 500 years ago, and as per the altitude and hence low temperatures they are the best preserved Inca mummies that have ever been discovered.
These remains are now actually kept frozen in the afore mentioned museum, and at any given time one of the mummies is on display. While it sounds pretty macabre and potentially bad taste, the exhibition is excellent-giving a real insight into the customs of the Inca’s and the background for these ‘sacrifices’. The children that were sacrificed were believed to have been the most intelligent and attractive, often from families of high standing in the communities. Even more surprising is the fact that the children were actually left on the mountain tops while they still alive, albeit sedated with coca leaves and a maize beer, and left to die in their sleep. Surrounding the bodies a number of artefacts and other offerings were found, rich collection Incan treasures laid out assumed to be part of the sacrifice to appease the mountain gods.
On our visit the youngest of the children to be found was on display, ‘El Nino’;

The boy
His age is around seven years. He sat on a grey tunic with legs bent and his face in-resting on his knees. A blanket of brown and red half covered his head and body. Like all men of the Inca elite he wore short hair and a trim white feathers, supported by a sling wool wrapped around the head.
He is dressed in a red garment; has in his feet leather moccasins light-coloured with brown wool appliqué; It has anklets animal skin with white fur on his right wrist and wears a silver bracelet.
His fists are clenched; The face is not visible and his eyelids are half closed.

With time limited before our start date at our next volunteering project-we left Salta after a couple of nights and headed onto La Rioja, with a view to visiting the Talampaya National Park-another UNESCO World Heritage Site for us to add to our already impressive list-the only place on the Earth’s surface where you can see all stages of the Triassic geological era, which witnessed the emergence of the first dinosaurs.
Our first challenge was getting there, as on our arrival in the pleasant surroundings of La Rioja we discovered, to our dismay, that any organised trips to the canyon were going to be way over budget! The canyon being around 3 hours bus journey from La Rioja, the trips we found were coming in at over £100 each-quite significantly more than expected. Not to be put off, we eventually found a way to get there for about half that cost-local style!! Basically this involved us getting a local bus and getting them to drop us off on the main road through the desert near the entrance, and in comparison to some of the adventures we had in Asia-it all went like absolute clockwork….Although not without a fair amount of apprehension on my part obviously!

So having negotiated our way there, we soon found ourselves amongst the sheered red boulders that had fallen from the walls of the canyon around us, upon which were a gallery of 1, 000 year old rock paintings, made by the Ciénaga and Aguada peoples who inhabited the area. The pictures ‘apparently’ depict various animals although I was pretty certain that they were more indicative of alien invaders….Riding llamas obviously!! At one point during the tour you are brought round to the botanical garden of the area where you find a huge carob tree, which is thought to be more than one thousand years old, as well as twenty or so different native cacti, shrubs and trees.
All in all the area was absolutely spectacular, as you will see from our photo journal…

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, our time was up and we hit a night bus to Mendoza ready to begin our next HelpX placement in San Rafael….La Carmelita here we come!