Amazing Amazon Basin, Action in Ayacucho and Cusco

Trip Start Sep 02, 2006
Trip End Sep 01, 2007

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Well Tony departed and I was all alone again...ah woe is me. Yeah life is going pretty darn good I can assure you. Anyway after sick boy departed I decided to go into the Amazon Basin for a few days of jungle fun. I donīt know about you but I personally didnīt know that Peru even contained any part of the Amazon basin. I thought it was all in Brazil.

Well it does contain a fair chunk of it and the area I went to is called Manu Biosphere Reserve. So off I went for an 8 day trip to search for lots of wildlife. You can do much shorter trips for as little a 3 days however there is a lot, a lot of traveling involved so I didnīt see the point in anything shorter. You can fly in most of the way during the drier season - after mid April - but as I went in late March I didnīt get that option, which would have been sweet as.

Instead out of the 8 days I probably spent 2 days on a bus and 4 days on a boat. That is a lot of time on my finely toned bum. However, the scenery was exceptional and the bus trips especially turned out to be highly eventful.

After turning up in true British fashion 15 minutes BEFORE our scheduled departure time of 6.30am and after the guides turned up in true Peruvian fashion 30 minutes AFTER our scheduled departure time we were offski in a real heap of a bus. Me again feeling a wee bit daft about even thinking that there was any point in turning up on time. I donīt think I will ever learn to conquer that one.

So we bumped along mile after mile, slowly getting higher and higher with the scheduled 8 hour bus journey instead taking a bum numbing 13 hours. Courtesy of 3 landslides (one which totally wiped out the road from existence), 2 flat tyres and one telephone pole falling on our bus. All pretty eventful and actually quite fun.

  After all I am always quite willing to go through a bit of hardship in the name of good bits for the blog...

Manu is muckle like offensively big. It is the largest tropical park in South America and is 1,800,000 hectares (which is a lot of zeros and a lot of wildlife too). Unbeknown to me 1/2 of Peru is jungle, I thought it was mostly the Andes mountain range, but actually itīs crazily diverse and apparently contains 24 of the 28 different types of ecosystems contained within this fair planet of ours.

Not surprisingly being so large it is supremely bio-diverse:  there are 1,000+ species of birds, and one tree was even found to have 40+ different types of ants in it. Also each square hectare of Manu on averages contains more than 250 different types of trees - that is more than Europe can boast in TOTAL crammed into only ONE HECTARE. Now that is what I call bio-diverse but it is not the most bio-diverse. No sirree, that crown is claimed by Madidi National Park in Bolivia. Now that is something I have got to see with my own eyes.

The really cool thing about Manu is that it is extremely well protected (something which you apparently canīt say for Madidi). Most of Manu is only accessible by scientists, another part normal tourists can go into and the final piece is reserved for VIP tourists.

Yip, you guessed it people like me...well I did cough up quite a lot of cash for this status and it was well worth it.

There was only our group of 11 tourists in the entire protected part of the area (that is about 300,000 hectares - again a lot of zeros)! So we spent 4 days not seeing any other tourists, just lots of pristine scenery, wildlife, fauna and flora. We had hoped to see some indigenous tribes people there but no dice. Probably not a bad thing as one of the last times some were seen by tourists they greeted them by firing blow darts at their boat...

Our first exciting piece of wildlife spotting was on the second morning when we were on our way to search for the Peruvian national bird which is oddly called the Cock of the Rock. Yes Peru is the proud owner of a national bird with a comedy name.

Meandering up to the bird hide a few Dusky Titi monkeys popped their heads out of the trees cool as you like. They had seen some locals in a broken down truck chomping on bananas and felt a bit peckish too.

Now this bit of wildlife spotting was high in the cloud forest so we hadn't even got to the true jungle, jungle bit yet. To get there was a bit of a case of trains, planes and automobiles. We first off hopped onto a mountain bike and piled down a 1,200m vertical descent along a windy, wet and rocky road. Lots of fun (ignoring the blisters on my paws) and gave me a bit of training for the 3,600m vertical descent that I was to do on the - concerningly named - `Death Road` in Bolivia.

Then we ook an allegedly īwhite-water` rafting trip. The only thing `white` about it was all the `white gringos` slowly meandering down the river whistling a few tunes.

Followed by jumping onto a long boat for another hour to our first jungle lodge. Being shattered we all crashed for an hour then got dragged out of our slumber to hike for an hour through the mud of the jungle.

None of us were all that excited by this thought but the end game was fun...we got to travel through the jungle canopy by zip line. Not as crazily long as the ones I did in Laos but wicked fun anyway, especially the abseiling down from the last platform to the jungle floor. Can't say I was too ecstatic about the idea of entrusting my life to a little s-shaped metal ring when I plumetted off the platform. However, as I am still here, it did it's job as advertised.

I spent too much time in the jungle on a boat however it was quite relaxing - playing cards, making new friends, listening to tunes and keeping my binoculars trained on the trees and riverbanks for the various birds and wildlife which would poke their heads out to be nosy. Then from time to time it became apparent exactly why it's called a rain forest as it would absolutely tip it down.

If we werenīt on a boat looking at wildlife - which generally seemed to be the best way as they didnīt get frightened off by plodding feet - we went on sweaty jungle treks.

Just saw too many types of wildlife to mention here, however the highlights were probably; the giant otters cruising around and feeding their bellies, spying 4 capybaras on the riverbank, monkeys, monkeys everywhere (I flippin love monkeys...) and being only about 10 yards from the colourful Hoatzin aka the Stinky Bird as they honk.

Also wicked and wild was the night time trek which started off badly for coming out of our dining hall one of the guides spotted a boa snake in the roof a few feet above our heads. After an emergency change of underwear for me he assured us it was not dangerous as unlike itīs boa constrictor brethren it was too small to do us any harm. So we plodded tentatively through the darkness on a creepy crawlie watch. There was a chance of seeing a jaguar too - as they are nocturnal - but we never.

After 7 thoroughly enjoyable days in the jungle we tiredly set off back and continued our run of (bad) luck with the roads. As this time we met not 2 landslides but 4 of them. The last one was about 11pm and was a real goodie as we had to lift a ridiculously big rock off the road. To do this it took 10 guys and a makeshift lever made from a tree trunk that the guides hacked down with their trusty machetes. Got back 5 hours late at 2.30am then I had to get up at 5.00am to get my flight to Lima to meet Emily. The (lucky) lassie whoīd be traveling with me for the next 2 months.

Now youīve heard of Emily before as she traveled with me in Belize and Guatemala and had such a cracking time that in a state of inspiration (or insanity) decided she needed to devour more of the drug that is traveling with Alan. So she quit her job, subleased her apartment and moved all her stuff into a friendīs house then hightailed it down to Peru for some adventure. I think it was a great and ballsy decision by her that a lot of people would not be able to do - regardless of how much they wanted to. So I take my hat off to the lady.

Really surreal going back to Lima, knocking on a hotel door to be opened by one of my best friends with the knowledge that weīd be spending so much time together. Surreal but clearly superb.

We didnīt spend much time in Lima. Just enough time to show Emily the suburb of Miraflores and Barranco, before leaving for our trip overland to take in the Easter celebrations of Ayacucho and descend on Cusco so Emily could also enjoy one of the new 7 Wonders of the World - Machu Picchu.

[By the way, congratulations to Machu Picchu and Peru for making the cut - richly deserved. Beats me why Angkor and Stonehenge didnīt make it and Christ the Redeemer in Brazil and the Roman Colosseum did. However I wonīt bore you with that rant.]

We spent a long and I mean long amount of time on public transport getting from Lima to Ayacucho then to Cusco - a whopping 45 hours. The scenery was simply stunning, however that was a seriously long time and really was even too much bus time torture for me. Especially when you consider that you can fly from Lima to Cusco in only 1 hour. A fact that was (fair enough) not lost on by Emily.

Poor lass thought she was going to melt on the first leg of this trip - to Huancayo. The bus broke down and in their divine wisdom when fixing the bus they locked us in with the heaters on full blast. Emily having a chair above one of the heaters didnīt help the matter. After much yelling and banging on the door they finally let us out and we were more than happy to embrace the cold mountain air.

This was Emily`s first bus breaking experience on the trip but it wasn`t to be her last...No sirree not by a long shot...

Huancayo is mainly an agricultural town with really little that was apparent to us for enticing tourists. More importantly there seemed to be no bars at all. Not one...nada..but they (like the rest of Peru) have more than their fair share of fried chicken restaurants, all of which were without Colonel Saunders face beaming out. KFC again you are missing a trick.

It does however have a train station to the poorest town in Peru - Huancavelica. I didn't know it was the poorest town before Emily's Dad informed us. However, I suppose when we saw someone throw out sewage onto the street then that should have been a bit of a giveaway. Any which way the train journey there is picturesque and while waiting for the train we got video interviewed about our time in Peru. So maybe you'll see us on a groovy promotional video sometime extolling the great time you will have in Peru.

On the train we met this really chatty woman called Flore. She talked and talked and talked until one of her teeth fell out...which she skilfully grabbed before it hit the floor and kept on chatting. By the look of her grill it wasn`t the first time this had happened.

We passed through Huancavelica as quickly as we could and got up early to get to Ayacucho. We could have got up really early - 3am - for the only bus of the day there. However, we decided that was just nuts so instead embarked on a marathon trip of shared taxis from one village to the next. In hindsight the bus might have been the better option as at each village we needed to change taxis, hang around for other people to share a taxi with and then argue over the amount to be paid. All in all we had to do this 3 times and it was a 24 carat pain in the booty.

We got a feel for how much of an ordeal it was going to be right from the start when we had to wait for 1.5 hours when the taxi drivers couldn`t decide who would take us and we kept waiting for that illusive one more person until we said screw it we will pay more. Of course they still ended up picking someone else up and....he honked of BO. Lovely guy but really wiffy and fortunately for me he was squeezed in next to Emily all the way.

Most of the taxi drivers drove like maniacs to try and get back home quickly. All except the last driver who drove so sssslllllllooooowww. He just trawled along at about 10 mph looking for more passengers. Then would stop at the side of the road for 10 mins. The other passengers didn't seem to care but us uptight westerners were nearly pulling our hair out at the end. We weren't helped much by meeting Max - a lecherous old man - on the bus who took more than a passing shine to Emily.

So eventually we trundled into Ayacucho. I was really excited as the main aim of going cross-country to Cusco was to take in the famous Easter celebrations in Ayacucho. In Latin America, Easter is called Santa Semana (you knew that anyway...) which literally means 'Saints Week' and the celebrations in Ayacucho are famous throughout South America so unsurprisingly it was really, really busy. 

So trying to be smart we thought we`d booked a hotel online but turned up at the hotel and they had no record of it and like Mary and Joseph found out...there was no place at the inn...

Panic mode being quickly activated and dreading the idea of having to search lots of hotels to only receive the same disappointing answer we ended up darting to a hotel which was being fully renovated and more resembled a work site than a hotel. However, after 8 hours in various shared taxis we were happy to take just about anything. Even a stall in a stable would have been acceptable at that point.

There were parades galore and more churches than you could shake a stick at. They've got 40+ churches in Ayacucho - that's a lot, considering it's not really all that big. There were parades during the day but the majority were at night with the biggest one being the candlelight procession on Good Friday night.

During the day in the main plaza, huge mural paintings were expertly constructed from dyed sawdust. As per the norm in South America everything was done at the last minute and many of the paintings weren't finished until 5 or 10 minutes before the procession started... That was a shame as the paintings were all a huge amount of work and the paintings didn't last long as all the people shuffling along in the procession soon destroyed them. They were however beautiful while they lasted.

This procession was huge and we think there probably was at least 10 or 20 thousand people crammed into the plaza to watch it. Not all of them were there purely for pleasure. As I was to find out later.

So I am gleefully watching the procession and there are stacks of people around us. I then become aware of something touching my bum so I turn around - naturally - expecting some supermodel who couldn't keep her hands to herself to be there. Nope just a lot of short Peruvian people. So I check my back pocket and find out that some light fingered and cheeky devil had undone the button on the back of my trouser pocket and was just about to empty the contents of it. Being a little stunned and having no idea who it was I said to Emily that I thought I was being pick-pocketed. She found an effective way to find the culprit by shouting to everyone...back the hell off...followed by a young lad dashing off and disappearing into the crowd.

I had about US$100 in my pocket and luckily he didn't get any but still not the best of experiences. It was also amazing how many times after that, that locals would come up to us and say be careful with our valuables as Ayacucho's Easter celebrations apparently attract a lot of petty thieves with their favourite 'customers' being foreign tourists.

Easter Saturday proved to be an absolute quality day. As many are it was because of the unexpected.

I didn't expect that part of the Easter celebrations there would 'Running of the Bulls' - how cool is that?

I don't think it is as crazy as the one in Pamplona in Spain as the bulls all come out one at a time and were initially on a long tether attached to a horse galloping through the narrow streets. However it was tip top fun.

As far as I could see I was the only gringo running with the bulls. Quite often the bulls would get loose, stop and turn around and charge the crowd causing everyone to crap themselves and pile down the first available side street.

One over eager toro even jumped over a fence pursuing some people and got stuck in there. This proved to be quite a problem as the only way to get him out was to haul him over the fence and he really did not want to be grabbed. However he was more than keen to charge the folk who were trying to help him. After 5 minutes he got tired enough that 5 or 6 brave lads got him over the fence and back onto the streets. 

Easter celebrations behind us we still had another 24 hours on the bus to enjoy before getting to Cusco. We didn't have the heart to do it in one slog so after 12 hours we were meant to change buses and continue on. But instead decided to stay put that night in a rather non-descript town called Andahuaylas.

Finally, finally, finally we got into Cusco on Easter Monday and Emily got to set sights on my favourite town in Peru. She didn't see much of it initially as it was dark and the parade there was meant to have been must have got canceled. Didn't really matter though as we found a decent bar, had food that was not....chicken and rice..., got a nice warm shower and slept in a comfy bed...ah luxury.

Waking in much better spirits we enjoyed the day just toddling around the cobbled streets, popping into galleries and cosy cafes and fending off women with llamas wanting me to pay for a photo. I tried my best to resist them but eventually folded as llamas are just so damn cute. They are no pandas but still...

Being active little devils we decided to go white water rafting in Cusco. Emily is a veteran rafter but this was the first time I had done it.

Grade 4+ rapids sounded a tad scary to me at first but really it wasn't.

Mind you it fairly got your heart rate going but you never got anytime to be scared as the guide was shouting at you to paddle like your life depended on it. Great fun paddling like a madman and was welcome exercise after my last couple of weeks of wandering around seeing sights or having my bum welded to a bus seat. We nearly tipped over once but manfully and expertly held it together.

After drying off and enjoying being in a comfy bed for another night Emily went to Machu Picchu and I took a detour to the famous Pisac market. Pisac is a village in the nearby Sacred Valley and is stunningly set below Inca carved agricultural terraces. Now they are really impressive.

The market is famous and undoubtedly popular - especially with the French for some reason - however I thought it was only so-so. I am sure it was amazing back in its day but most of it now seemed to be taken over with locals selling various box standard things to tourists and only a small section is left for the interesting stuff where the locals are selling vegetables, fruits and local goods to each other. Actually my day's highlight was playing peeky-boo with a little girl on the bus back to Cusco. She was also fascinated by my camera and it kept her entertained for ages.

Now Emily had many more highlights that day as she got to see Machu Picchu and came back with her face full of smiles and a camera full of photos. We spent another couple of days just chilaxing in Cusco then set off for what we were told was going to be a 11 hour bus journey to La Paz. Now that proved to be more than a little optimistic...

My other memories of Manu, Central Andes and Cusco are:

(1) Our guide demonstrating that for (at least some) high end lipsticks the deep red - you ladies so covet - is achieved by crushing an insect which lives on cacti.

(2) Peru is a little like Scotland with all the mountains, though to be fair there`s are a lot, lot bigger. Also there are less sheep than in Scotland but definitely more llamas...

(3) I just saw a ton of different types of wildlife in Manu. Over 40 different species of birds, reptiles and mammals. Plus plenty of creepy crawlies.

(4) We stayed at one lodge which was now perched perilously next to the river. The river having washed away 60m of the jungle next to it, including 10m the day before we arrived there. It was a great lodge however sadly I suspect now it is swimming with the fishes

(5) Finding out that Brazil Nuts actually come from a much bigger nut. Also this outer nut is a seriously tough nut to crack. Simon spent 20 minutes bouncing rocks and a machete off of it to no avail. (It took a local 20 seconds to skilfully open it...).

Another discovery was that Coca Beans come from a fruit.

(6) Meeting a tour group of rich tourists who had paid for the `luxurious` jungle trip. Glad I wasn't in their group as they were all as miserable as sin, complaining how it wasn't 'luxurious'. Hello people what do you expect? After all it is the jungle. Another example of how money can't buy you happiness.

(7) Walking the narrow mud laden plank back to our boat and somehow keeping my balance as I lost my footing and very slowly spun around a full 360. I was sure I was in the did everyone else on the boat.

(8) The jungle lodges we stayed at were all pretty basic but all cool in their own way. One of them had funky rustic wooden showers and toilets where you did your biz by candlelight.

(9) Getting a massage in Cusco and getting more than I had expected. Partly my own fault as I should have probably rolled off my stomach at the start to check the sex of my masseuse when they came in...

(10) Simon standing as still as a statue as a Coral snake slithered 2 foot away from him across the jungle path. This is one seriously potent snake as if you are bitten there is no hope for you - with there being no anti-venom. Hence the reason we didn't pick up the slithery little devil.

(11) Macaws like humans but very few other animals are monogamous. They go everywhere with their life mate - unlike humans.

(12) On one of our jungle treks we encountered a group of woolly monkeys above us in the jungle canopy. They are extremely territorial and decided to mark their territory by peeing on us. I thought having left my job that was the last time I would be pissed on from a great height but I was mistaken...

(13) The Manu river meanders aimlessly through the jungle and each year it moves it's bank by 50-100m. Thereby, destroying jungle on one side and on the other side creating land for new areas of jungle to grow.

(14) Lima centre is pretty skanky overall. However, there are a couple of cool suburbs next to the ocean. Miraflores I had been to see with Tony and has a bit of an art deco vibe to it. Next to it is an area which was new to me - Barranco. It's worth a visit too.

(15) When getting a taxi to our bus from Lima, at the entrance to the bus station a local lady of the night flashed her wares at us.

(16) Our guide telling us that butterflies drink the tears of turtles. Ah isn't mother nature a wondrous thing.

(17) Got to see a Peruvian wedding in a small village near Ayacucho. Pretty much similar to ours except that a 6 piece band followed the happy couple which included some harp/guitar like combo and a man with a drum set which he struggled to pick up and put down every 10 yards as the band followed the happy couple out of the church and into the village square.

Passed a family in the same village who were out in their garden making sausages from a carcass slewn across their garden.

(18) They really get into their Easter celebrations in Ayacucho. Crowds would march along streets shouting 'agua, agua`. They must have been thirsty and a bit the local residents duly complied and soaked them by throwing buckets of water from the windows above them.

On Easter Sunday we got awoken with them setting off fireworks at 4-5am and as we went to get our bus at 6am  we saw torrents of them going to church. They definitely know how to burn the candle at both ends.

(19) Before the running of the bulls there was a big crowd gathered around a shallow stream running through the city. Wondering what they were looking at I went to investigate and wished I hadn't. They were all gawping at some poor fellow who was dead in the stream.

(20) Emily is primarily a cider gulper but we couldn't find one bottle in all of Peru. So as an alternative chilled white wine would hit the spot. However, everywhere we went we either couldn't find white wine or it was all warm. Much to the disappointment of the lass. She couldn't get a decent drink anywhere besides Cusco. Maybe that was the reason she liked the place so much...

(21) Meeting undoubtedly the finest Brazilian Tapir in the world - his name is īPanchoī and was an inquisitive beggar. Always had his long snout in everyoneīs stuff.

(22) A couple on our Manu tour group - Jan and Marty - met at a rather unusual location...the South Pole. Both of them were working there and fell in love in the most chilliest of locales.

(23) Unfortunately one of our Manu party eat something that disagreed with him and after holding it in for (a commendable) 3 hours he dashed to the toilet...but the poor lad couldn`t quite make it in time. Subsequently he wasn't exactly smelling of roses and his 30 year old son weaselly wouldn`t sit next to him, so I had to...and he hummed.

(24) We had a Peru vs Europe football game in the jungle against the guides. Best moment was when Simon was so determined to stop the ball going out of bounds he ended up disappearing totally from sight into the undergrowth as he fell down the hill. Funny as - one minute he was there the next he was teetering on the edge trying to regain his balance and then he was a goner...As reenacted here.

(25) Being a little miffed about not having my digital SLR with me. I would have been able to get much better wildlife photos in Manu. That is why I am not going to the Galapagos Islands this trip, but will be returning fully armed in the near future.

(26) Seeing the biggest toad I have ever seen. It was a Cane Toad which must have been nearly a foot tall. As if being absolutely massive is not enough it has a super power - if you lick it it`s hallucinogenic. This particular quality did not seek favour in Australia so they deemed it illegal to lick any.

(27) Watching a great film in Cusco called īStranger than Fiction` with Will Ferrell and Emma Thompson, which potentially has the best line in cinematic history - `I used to be engaged to an accountant but she ran away with an actuary`` - ha!. Also watched īPerfumeī or rather endured it for an hour then walked out. Must be one of the worst films ever made - be warned.

(28) Finding out that another fellow Alan is also making a bit of a splash in Peru. This time it is a guy called Alan Garcia who was made president last year. Be warned Alan's are taking over the world and there is nothing you can do about it...

(29) In Ayacucho they have quite a few shop combos which are rather unusual - most notably internet/ we passed did not paint a favourable image as one woman was stumbling out in pain with a hankie clasped to the side of her face.

(30) Making the girl in the laundry in Cusco blush as she asked me as I was Scottish did I have a kilt. So I showed her a photo and in my excitement did not realise that it was one that showed my 'cheeky' side.

(31) It was that humid in the jungle we couldn`t light matches.

(32) One night in the jungle I had a call of nature and when stumbling outside it was so dark I thought a tree root was a snake. So I stayed rooted (nice pun) to the spot for a couple of minutes as my heart made its best efforts to escape from my chest cavity.

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vicbaker on

Poor Gabriel!
Is that the only mention of your most friendly of friendly masseurs?? Come on, I think he deserves more glowing accolades. Or maybe you can fill people in on why after turning over onto your back, you let him continue!!

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