Nancy Sinatra sings again....

Trip Start Sep 1999
Trip End May 2004

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Flag of Peru  ,
Sunday, May 18, 2003

"These boots are made for walking & that's just what they'll do,
one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over Peru.... or Peru is going to walk all over you!

My first few steps in Peru were straight into the corruption its famed for. I crossed a bridge at 2 in the morning from Ecuador to Peru. On both sides 2 opposing immigration guards watched me do this. Having just walked into his country, the Peruvian guard said I didn't do it (?) as I didn't have an exit stamp. He sent me back across the bridge to Ecaudor where his counterpart charged me $10 for the pleasure of getting inked. Thats a weeks wages, probably split between the two of them. Another gringo scammed.

I would have been less upset if both offices weren't perched over a river swarming with the biggest mosquitos I've ever seen. They had a penchant for bare white English limbs and were relishing eating me. They were quick as lightening. It was an agonising 5 minutes and I took some with me back on to the bus so they could have my fellow passengers for dessert.

Still, my choice of crossing was probably better than the coastal crossing, where armed hold-ups and robberies are common place. This mid-country route was less travelled and in the middle of nowhere, so would-be robbers had nowhere to hide out waiting for us.

The next stop after a day and a half of uneventful but slow travelling made up for the trauma of entry to Peru. I arrived in stunningly beuatiful and hauntingly empty Huaraz National Park. With my guide we climbed 4600 metres up to our lunch spot at a green glacial lake. I had it all to myself. The 3 gruelling hours of uphill hiking in gentle mist and sunshine and wildlife displays were also completely exhilarating. I have a love for cows, especially highland ones. I think the guide thought I was mad as I spent most of my film taking photos of the really pretty long haired cows en route instead of the mountains. Loco chica!

Our lunchtime entertainment was avalanche watching. It did cross my mind that it was potentially a pretty dangerous spectator sport at less than a mile distance. They were cascading down from the ampitheatre of snow capped peaks all around us. The thunderous cracks and rumbling as the ice started shifting were a little unnerving at first. Especaally as the day before I'd done a 22 km hike and in the bottom part of the hike I was walking on the top of a whole town buried 30 metres beneath me by an avalanche only 30 years before. It killed 20,000 people, sparing only the children in a school outside of town. That avalanche had descended over 30 kms at speeds of 450 km/hour to destroy the town. It was devastating but an awe-inspiring thought, as I sat watching more avalanches just across the lake! I ran down the mountain a little quicker than I went up it, breaking all known female descent records as the air got a little thicker.

My guide shared with me an insight into life as a single person in Peru. If anyone's contemplating a traditional Quechan wife, courting is a little easier here. The women all have long black hair, dark eyes and weathered skin. And they wear hats. Hat worn to the left with blue bands = single and looking for a man. Worn to the left only and no band = single and not looking. Anything else and they are married. If you can also get past the eighteen layers of clothes, sticky out skirts, bright cerise pink legwarmers and tonne of wood, corn or children all the women carry on their backs, it's easy to have a Quechan woman! They are also practical. During our hikes, they seemed to be doing all the hard labour in the fields and home. Feminism has yet to reach them. The men were just standing around contemplating life I guess.

Lima was a stark contrast to Huaraz. Huge, sprawling, fun - well, I was staying in the best district of Miraflores, cocooned from the real downtown poverty, crime and grime of Lima central. Sitting in a park I was accosted (pleasantly) by a colourful character called Larry. He was a part time guide, writer (of a book called People in the Park, funnily enough!) and local celebrity. Having signed up for "Larrys City tour", had a huge lecture on safety and dodgy characters, we got on a bus and within two minutes Larry had been pickpocketed. I nearly wet myself trying not to laugh. He padlocked my day pack to my chest and acted as personal security guard for the rest of the tour but maybe it should have been the other way around as I was doing much better than him so far on my travels.

In return for his hilarious stories, I taught him essential tour guide phrases. If you meet a mad man called Larry saying "Hold your horses", "talk to the hand" or "in your dreams" you'll know it's one and same. He even sat and made me about 300 cue cards, with Spanish words on one side and the English on the other, so I could learn Spanish vocabularly on my long bus journeys. He was a good find and without him I would never have really started flying with the old lingo.

Lima consists of 22 million people spread a fair and murky distance into the surrounding hills. I took a trip to the highest point to look at the smoggy sprawl. It wasnt very inspiring but it was high and smoggy. Peru is famous for its Nazca lines, strange representations of animals cut into the rock thousands of years ago by Inca (maybe?) artists. In Lima, its simply the young Peruvians who occupy their spare time by cutting their football team names and emblems forty metres high into every rocky hill surrounding the city. From the top of the city you can see dozens of them. Old customs die hard.

Heading out from Lima, I started my day in Ica sandboarding at an oasis. It was great fun except for walking up the hill on boiling hot sand and snorting plenty of it on my descents. I managed three attempts before collapsing. I then toured several vineyards to quench my thirst on local wine during a typical Peruvian wine festival. For any wine connnoisseurs, look away now. It's not pleasant.

Peruvian wine should possibly carry a government health warning. The wine production process is a strictly adhered to regime of dirt and dodgy practices. The result is a powerful but vinegary drink with unidentifiable sediment at the bottom. At the end of the wine tour, you have a pretty good idea about what the sediment might be.

The production process consists of vast outdoor mud pits, full of fermenting wine, open to flies and animals. The grapes are pulverised first by dirty feet, transferred to clay pots that are sealed with mud, then back to the outdoor pits. The liquid is left to bubble away under the blazing sun and acid rain swept over from Lima. There is a rudimetary attempt at filtration before bottling and sale.

The only quaffable version I tried was Pisco sour. This is a strong spirit drunk with egg whites, lemon and your eyes shut to try to block out memories of the mud pits. It was an interesting, tipsy day.

On the bus to Ica I met 5 young Peruvians from Lima - Sandra and company. Sandra was completely mad as a hatter. They fed and watered me and taught me Spanish all night. I'm now fully confident to converse with grandpas in market squares about the weather. I am also armed with enough words to have a logical argument with kids as to why Im not buying their postcards, not ever, no matter how much tearful pleading goes on, or their necklaces, lighters or uncles for that matter.

The next stop was the famous Inca trail to Macchu Pichu, meeting up with some old friends (Don, Cam, Brandee, Cassandra and PJ). The Inca Trail is something EVERYONE should do. Its an experience, not just a walk.

We shared the trail with 13 year olds and 50+ people. Some of them were finding it harder than others. Some of the pensioners raced passed me on the way up. I can recommend that you do the trail without food poisoning, unlike me. I spent 48 hours without food and with intermittant vomiting. This made the second day, 15kms uphill, a 6-hour "Whole New World of Misery". My endless thanks to Don and Cam for keeping me company and witnessing my own private hell of dead legs, nausea and breathlessness.

NB : Top travel tip - Wash food from the market before consumption and save yourself from this nightmare.

But the 43 kms were 43 kms of just incredible amazing vistas, people and experiences. Words cannot do justice to the walk, the first sight of Macchu Pichu at dawn and the company I had at the time. There was an overwhelming sense of awe, spirituality and achievement. I am glad I shared it with the people I was with as it is something that will stay with us all forever.

As if we hadn't had enough walking when we eventually got there, we decided to wrap-up our 4 am-start-day with a near vertical climb up the mountain (or rock!) overlooking Macchu Pichu. There were a zillion steps. It was straight drop off the steps with no railings, running water, slippery rocks and a complete health and safety nightmare, expecially for someone like me with vertigo. Still, I looked up the whole way and did it in half the usual time, spurred on by Fast Toby and PJ. At this stage were were firing on adrenalin and life. The view from the top of our hill was unforgettable. All around were endless misty mountains, the raging brown Riobamba river was snaking away through the valley below and we were looking down on that ancient Inca city that few people have seen. Once you are there you feel like there is no way in or out. You feel completely transported from and to another place in the universe and utterly removed from the rest of the world.

I sat there for ages, on top of the world, exhausted and delaying the time when I had to walk down again. Going down is always more tricky than going up as I had to look down. My stomach and head didn't appreciate what they were looking at, as mostly this was the river about 1000 meteres below us!

We passed the two Canadian boys, Don and Cam, on our way down. They dubiously claimed afterwards to have done the ascent quicker than us. They claimed this without having the benefit of watches or witnesses. But as they had long legs and youth on their side it is possible it happened. A rematch is scheduled for some mountain somewhere soon.

The boys' speed was probably vengeance for the third day of the walk, when I was feeling revitalised, having shaken off the food poisoning episode. My body was re-fuelled on a breakfast of two pancakes and firing on half of its cylinders. The day was a straight descent for hours. Having short legs, I was better equipped for scrambling down the mountain than up it, something akin to a physique like a mountain goat? I ran and skipped the whole way, with Fast Toby scurrying behind. In the pouring rain it was great fun. We arrived at camp first.

Better still, the boys hadn't noticed us pass them at a rain stop and they ran down to camp thinking themselves first, only to be welcomed by me and Toby, hot-shower-bound. We killed their smiles at 50 paces and the challenge was on!

Apart from a battering to their pride, the boys also took some serious forehead sunburn away as their souvenirs of Macchu Pichu. The Quote of this part of the Journey was "I need to pee and peel my face". The Incas built their cities on mountains to be nearer to the Gods. The boys just forgot that closer to the Gods also means closer to the sun....

At the bottom of Machu Pichu is Agua Calientes, a sleepy little town named after its hot springs and the hub of travel in and out. We were waylaid a few days from getting our train out due to a landslide. Unfortunately the land had slid straight on to a passing train. As there's only a couple of trains a day, this was very unlucky timing and the whole town was clamouring for the first tickets out of there. There wasn't much to do but sit and look at the 24 hour deluge of rain. Don decided to take out his frustration by munching on a poor hapless roasted guinea pig. Spreadeagled on his plate, little legs and claws curled in anger, I had to cover its baked head with a napkin to stop it staring at me. I ate a guinea pig leg and lung too BUT in my defence only to make Don feel better about his own horrible carnivorous habits. I was happier tucking into my own succulant alpaca steak! Alpacas are a great industry for Peru. They provide cute photo opportunities for tourists, fantastic soft jumpers and pretty great dinners.

Cusco, our resting place after the Inca trail, is a wonderful, winding-cobbled-streets sort of place you should all visit. Despite the tourism it retains bucketloads of charm and cosy sofa-filled pubs with subdued lighting and magical music. Fantastic to curl up in after the trials of hiking. Its steeped in history, old churches and fountains, alive with Peruvian music, jumper and poncho sellers, and filled by street kids selling postcards and cigarettes. You just have to sit on the terraces watching the rest of the world wander by. And it has the best soup this side of Mums. We can recommend Los Peros for quiet nights and Mama Africas for the complete opposite, a night laced with shots of strange liquids infused with stranger herbs. Its a Cusco tradition. I fell in love with a 16 string guitar and bought it. I still have no idea what the strings should be tuned to but it seems easy to play and makes a beautiful sound.

Everyone's now heading off to Bolivia. We are heading to to Lake Titicaca, which is half Peru and half Bolivia. The birthplace of the INcas and another week with the travelling crew. See you there. xx
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