Darkest Peru

Trip Start Oct 01, 2002
Trip End Aug 08, 2005

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Flag of Peru  ,
Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Well, it's probably fair to say that we have seen the best and the WORST of Peru over the past few weeks. Once the ancient home to the Inca empire and the now the new home of the tourist hordes, we noticed the difference practically as soon as we stepped over the border from Bolivia. It is quite unbelievable just how many foreign tourists are in the country, by far more than any other we have visited for a while and the locals are certainly cashing in on it one way or another.

As we left Bolivia and caught a local bus to Puno on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca it was straight back into the hassling tourist touts offering taxi's, hotels and restaurants. We were shown to a nice enough place and after a bit of bargaining and a promise that the dodgy door lock wasn't a problem, we left to book a tour of the Peruvian islands on the lake. We found a tour agent offering the tour at a decent price (most were ridiculously overcharging for the same tour) and then on to a restaurant where we tried Alpaca steak. Alpaca is a relation of the load bearing Llama that is reared for its soft, warm wool that is made into every possible garment that a tourist could wish for.

We were quite happy to be heading off early the next morning as our boat drifted (the engine wouldn't start) away from the polluted shores of Puno. There was a good mix of people on our boat and it was fun to swap stories and learn a bit about the roads ahead in Peru. First stop was a visit to the floating reed islands of the Uros people, who took to the water to escape the Incas and hundreds still live there to this day, albeit with Solar panels and international telephone lines and or course supported by the tourists. The islands are replenished with new reeds weaved on top of the island several times a month and it was all quite intersting but terribly touristy and we were ready to leave after an hour for the next island of Amantani and our overnight stop. We joined up with a nice Danish couple, Reikke and Martin, and were met at the dock by our host for the night, Geni. We trekked up the terraced fields dotted with quaint cottages until we got to the family home where we were shown to a nice room with a comfy bed and loads of blankets (we were still over 3000m and the nights were cold!). We lunched on soup and an assortment of strange potatoes then headed off to climb the local hill topped with ceremonial ruins, to watch the sun set and to be mobbed by the local girls selling colourful wristbands. Back in the family home we were then dressed up in traditional costumes for the night`s festivities. Sian and Reikke donned in heavily embroidered blouses and high sitting skirts finished off with a long shawl, while Kev and Martin got away with a knitted pom-pom hat and a poncho. As we were led off into the night to a lantern lit hall with a local band playing traditional instruments, we had no idea that the locals would soon be dragging us on to the dance floor with no chance of escape. Thankfully the dance was relatively easy, each time ending with a sort of a conga. It was all quite good fun but there only seemed to be one type of dance that was repeated all night, so it was all over by about 11pm.

The next morning we were on the boat again, bound for the island of Taquile where we had a nice hike through the countryside to the centre of the island where the men knit their own hats and then wear them according to whether they are single, married or `looking` and also to show whether they are happy or not! It was then back to the boat for the 3 hour trip back to Puno. Unfortunately, at this high altitude the sun got us a bit and it was a very hot journey back.

We were on the road again the the next day, this time to the pretty town of Arequipa where the surrounding volcanoes have provided an abundance of white stone for the impressive cathedral and ornate churches. It is a very nice town with a pretty central square (another Plaza de Armas, which every town has) and plenty of tourist restaurants offering the usual food, but the best attraction is the museum of the Inca `Ice Princess`, Juanita. This perfectly preserved mummy of a young Inca girl who was sacrificed to the mountain gods, was found by a National Geographic team on the slopes of nearby Mount Arupato when the preserving ice melted due to a nearby volcanic eruption. Three other mummies were also found along with a massive collection of artefacts that were on display have all been perfectly preserved for the past 500 years. The funny thing is that the woollen shawl that Juanita wore is just like those worn and sold everywhere today.

Our hotel that night had the added treat of cable TV so we had a late start the next morning but still had plenty of time to visit the peaceful monestery complex (twice, as it was closed for lunch) and decide to leave that night on an overnight bus to Cuzco, capital of the Inca Empire. We had thought that we had plenty of time to catch the bus but it all turned into a mad rush with us getting the last two seats on a packed and smelly bus for a 10 hour journey. Sian somehow slept through it but Kev was so glad to get off the bus at 5am and by 6 to be happily sleeping in a nice hostel, even if we had to change rooms at 8, to one with another dodgy door lock.

After lunch we trekked round the many tour companies in town checking out last minute places on the famed Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Over the past weeks we had tried to book places on the trail as it is world renowned and some of our friends had a great time there. However, we had also heard the many terrible stories of tours gone wrong, miserable weather amd massive queues up the trail and overall everybody we met that had done it complained of the terrible commercialism that has taken over. In the end we decided to sacrifice doing the trail for the benefit of being the first people at Machu Picchu when the gates opened. Cusco itself is an extremely pretty town with quaint cobbled streets, terracotta roofs and pretty plazas dotted all round town but literally every doorway in the centre leads to a tourist shop, restaurant, internet cafe or travel agency and those locals that don't have shops continuously hassle the toursists on the street. In saying that, it is a nice town and the cathedral and the churches, some built on massive stone Inca foundations, are really impressive and really ornate. The cathedral has one funny attraction, a Peruvian version of `The Last Supper` with the local specialty of roast Guinea pig (cuy) being served up to Christ and the Apostles! It might as well have had Inca Cola on the table too, which strangely enough tastes exactly like Scotland's Irn Bru!!

Having decided that the Inca trail wasn't for us we headed for Machu Picchu via the town of Ollantaytambo where the Incas successfully defended their cliffside fortress and temple against the invading Spaniards. The ruins that remain today are really impressive with massive pieces of jigsaw puzzle shaped stonework, terraced fields and an amazing system of aqueducts and underground water channels. The late train to Aguas Calientes, (the village that serves the tourists heading to Machu Picchu the easy way), arrived in time for us to find a cheap hostel and grab a few hours sleep before we were up at 4am to climb the steep 90 minute trail up to Machu Picchu itself, only to arrive 20 minutes before the first coach, but at least we had practically the whole place to ourselves for long enough to take a few photos. The site itself, perched high on a cliff edge has an amazing system of temples, living quarters, cemetaries and terraced fields and is incredible but perhaps not quite wild and overgrown enough - it was a bit too manicured. It is very impressive though and so massive that the numbers of tourists arriving didn't overwhelm the site until the early afternoon, by which time we were just leaving having spent over 6 hours wandering around.

We attempted to leave town that night but the local train ticket officer had a scam going on (the train is the only way in or out, other that the 4 day trail) so we had to wait for another ticket officer and for the train at 5.30am and the next morning. We then very efficiently caught a series of buses to the market town of Pisac which unfortunately had turned into another tourist trap and the local Inca ruins were absolutely mobbed with tour groups, but we joined up with another couple Emma and Cam and made the most of the day. Back in Cusco that night, Kev wasn't feeling that great so we rested for a day before catching yet another night bus, this time to Nazca. It is a shame to say it but Peru has become like so many touristy countries that we have visited and they will do or say anything to part you with your cash. The bus companies are typical of this and you really can't believe a word they say about the service that they offer. So it was, another sleepless journey, only to be dropped at the roadside at 6am to be picked up by a tout for a local airline offering flights over the mysterious Nazca lines. The Nazca people pre date the Incas by about 1000 years and created these lines in the desert by scraping off the top layer of the sun scorched earth to form loads of lines, shapes and a variety of animals. Some relate it to UFO influences but the most believable thoughts are that the lines are ceremonial paths to and from significant landmarks and sources of water, and that the figures were meant as offerings to the Gods when the area went through a long period of drought that ended the civilisation despite it`s impressive underground water channel technology. The half hour plane ride across the area, although a bit rushed to pack in all the figures, was fascinating and put the whole spectacle into perspetive before we were on the road again bound for Ica and the oasis town of Huacachina.

In the middle of the desert, surrounded by sand dunes this pleasant oasis (although again a bit touristy) had a relaxed backpacker hostel with bar and hammocks that we really couldn't resist for a couple of nights. They put on a pretty decent barbeque every night, the local dogs certainly enjoy it, and the next day we booked ourselves on a dune buggy and sand boarding trip. This proved to be immense fun, with the V8 buggy cruising the massive dunes, allowing us to sand board (it's a lot harder than snowboarding) or just lie down, hold on and go for it, safe in the knowledge that it doesn't hurt when you do eventually come to stop. We absolutely loved it and Sian even stole the buggy for a quick ride before sunset while the guide wasn't looking!

The next morning, Sian's birthday, we were off to Pisco, a dodgy little town near the coast with a big security problem. We arrived a little late and tried to get on a trip to the wildlife sanctuary of the Ballestas Islands but had to settle for a trip the next morning instead. It was quite a good trip in all, the small speed boat got very close to the nesting birds, including yet more penguins, lazy sea lions, and performing seals and it was really good to see. We were back in Pisco by lunchtime and after a quick snack, we decided to move on to Lima. We caught a taxi to the Pan American highway and boarded a bus for the 3.5 hour ride to Lima. Unfortunately when the bus stopped at a small town just half an hour later, a guy sitting in the seat behind us, reached under our seat and snatched our daypack before running off the bus. We are normally so careful and had purposefully put it on the floor between us, safe in the knowledge that it was too big to fit under the seat, or so we thought... We went off to the Police Station to file a report for the insurance company, only to find that this happens everyday to tourists as professional gangs ride the buses between Pisco and the town of Chincha where the robbery took place. We were really upset, our almost new digital camera and memory cards, complete with fresh pics from Nazca and the Ballestas islands, was gone. Also in the bag were all of our souvenirs from Bolivia, mostly presents for friends and family, but worst of all was the loss of our diaries which we have been keeping for the last 2 years.

We finally got on a bus to Lima later that afternoon, feeling very despondant and highly paranoid as we guarded our remaining luggage. Arriving in Lima, we were lost because our guide book had also been taken but we found a decent enough hotel with the help of a taxi driver who ripped us off despite knowing of the theft and who took advantage of the fact that we had no map to judge distances and didn`t know at that time what the fare should be. The rest of the night just turned into a really surreal experience. We met a local lawyer, Jose Antonio, who spoke English and was eager to show that Peru and Lima were indeed civilised places. He took us on a tour of the main University in Lima before kindly taking us to his house for a bite to eat. The next day we met him at the consumer complaints office to lodge a complaint against the bus company as they were helping the thieves, he is a lawyer afterall and he was determined to do something about it! Unfortunately, he then crashed his car and whilst he waited at a garage to get it fixed, we headed off to the police station for another police report as the first had errors in it due to language difficulties. Alas, a taxi driver again tried to rip us off before the police agreed to write a new report but only for a bribe. We headed off in search of the tourist police and were finally rewarded with a new report at no extra cost before we ended up at a trade event with Jose which was aimed at helping the local poor community. We had quite a nice time as we met many of his nice friends who somewhat restored our faith in Peruvian people.

Finally, we boarded another overnight bus to the town of Huaraz and managed to get a little sleep before we arrived at the town of Huaraz from which you can take trips into the supposedly spectacular Cordillera Blanca the same mountain range where mountaineer Joe Simpson had his massive accident and later wrote the book, Touching the Void. Now, we know we were depressed after the robbery but to be honest, we were failed to be impressed by the Cordillera Blanca and it`s `top` attractions. After a lot of hassle with the tour company who put us on and off three buses changing our trip destination each time, we went to Llanganuco Lagoon which took the best part of the day and was in the end, just a small but very blue lake in the mountains. We arrived back in town very late but in time to book another tour with a recommended tour agency, to Pastoruri which has spectacular ice caves. At 5250m we were expecting a bit of altitude sickness but it surprisingly didn`t happen and we arrived at the mountain only to be told by the `guide` to climb to the top whilst he waited at the bottom! So off we trekked (or at least Kev did whilst Sian took a horse part of the way!) and arrived at the top only to find not the spectacular ice caves we had been promised, but hundreds of kids sliding down the ice on plastic bags. ¨Where are the ice caves¨ we queried only to be told that the trip was not afterall going there anymore. Another rip off, no surprise there then. We resigned ourselves to just getting out of the country asap as we were completely fed up with the constant attempts to take our cash with no positive returns.

We headed back to Lima that night on the overnight bus, slept at the hotel for a few hours then headed off to Chincha again where the robbery took place, in the hope of maybe tracking our diaries down if we offered enough cash. A slim chance that didn`t work out but at least we felt like we had tried our best.

So that`s about all for now. It`s fair to say we have very mixed feelings of Peru. The ancient ruins were indeed spectacular but unfortunately modern Peru has fallen foul of the tourist trade and it`s worst consequences.

Hopefully our next and last South American country will be much better!

Take Care all,

K & S.
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