My plans are in ruins!

Trip Start Dec 03, 2005
Trip End Jul 19, 2007

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Flag of Peru  ,
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The results of the questionaire were as follows:

Was I enjoying myself? - Definitely
Did I want to keep travelling? - Yes
Had I seen everything I wanted to see? - No
Was it time to head home? - Definitely not

So South America won over Europe and I am still here. Or maybe I should rephrase that and say that Europe won over South America and can still enjoy the peace???!!!! With that I said goodbye to Monica and headed west towards Huancayo, a stopover on the way to Ayacucho. Monica has plans to head to Brazil in a few weeks and may be taking the route via Bolivia so with any luck we will meet up again to cross the border into Bolivia together.

In all my travels, I have found that when I am looking to buy a ticket, all the bus companies try to sell me the most expensive "cama" style ones relying on a need for comfort. But as I learnt in Venezuela (which so far comes tops when it comes to bus quality, except for air conditioning) it doesn't matter how good the bus is, I still can't sleep. So with eyes wide open and watching the views as I go, I have decided that bus journeys at night are definitely more interesting. The best one so far was by far the one between Huancayo and Ayacucho where the road was dirt track and barely wide enough for a bus. Not only that but it was the start of the high Andes coming into the Cusco region and I couldn't see beyond the lights so when we turned a tight corner, I had visions of the bus toppling over the side! And this was almost not far from the truth. Jess and Hugh were sat at the back and felt the back wheel fall off the road on the odd occasion!

Ayacucho was the first capital of Peru and was built by the Wari culture. I was looking forward to seeing this site and headed off to the museum first to get all the information that I could. My plans to see the site the next day were thwarted when I found out there was a nationwide strike against the TLC and all roads out of Ayacucho were blocked by the locals. Normally, this wouldn't matter as I could just go next day. Unfortunately, in an effort to be organised for once, I had bought my bus ticket to my next destination before I knew about the strike. Oh well, what better reason to have an excuse to come back to Peru!!! With all of you as witnesses, I vow that from now on I shall stick to my normal plans of no plans!

And so came the fabled Cusco, the archaeological capital of Peru. I had arrived to the heart of the south which every tourist knows well for the famous iconic site of Machu Picchu. Oh boy, was there a lot to see! I got myself the Boleto Turístico (at a whopping S/70 (USD22 / GBP12 / EUR17, not much in home currency but quite steep relatively speaking) which gives you access to 16 sites and museums in and around Cusco. There are four sites within walking distance of the city and another five which need transport. I saw all but one of these and would say that the best of them were Pisac, Ollantaytambo and Sacsayhuaman. My plan to see Chinchero was cut short as the trip I had wanted to do (Choquequirao to Machu Picchu) was leaving a day earlier than planned.

Cusco is fast becoming a place only for the rich and definitely not those on a budget. Unless you look hard, accomodation and food is expensive and entry to the sites on the Boleto Turístico is quite expensive unless you see all of them and they don't include a guide or information boards. This contrasted completely with the sites further north, particularly Huaca de la Luna where a guide was included and there were information boards. Entry to Machu Picchu alone cost S/70 and didn't include a guide or any information what-so-ever.

It would have been good to do the Inca Trail but you need to book about four months in advance for that (this is all due to a change in law that limits the number of tourists to 200 per day) and that just isn't my style, as you all know! Imagine if I had booked it four months ago, I would have missed it by a month or I would have missed so many other places and people that I saw with the stress of having to get here on time!

So I opted to do an eight day trek instead which would include a visit to the recently discovered site of Choquequirao which you can only get to by walking for two days averaging eight hours a day for a total of 30km (19 miles). Apparently, they are contemplating developing the site which is fair enough but I draw the line when in includes installing a teleferique! OK, so you have to climb 1200m (3937ft) on the second day which is hard work but it makes seeing the site all that much more worthwhile! Not only that, but because of the fact that it is only accessible by foot very few people actually go to see it which means you don't get the hoards that you see at Machu Picchu clambering around. There are something between 1500 and 3000 people per day that visit Machu Picchu and this is emphasised by the fact that in order to climb Huayna Picchu you usually need to start before 9.30am as the numbers to climb are limited to 400 per day. On the day I was there they had reached this limit by 10.20am. I was contemplating climbing but felt such relief when they said it was closed as I don't think I would have had enough energy after the 7 days it had taken to get there.

I went with a group of five in total of which two left us after four days to hike to Vilcabamba while the other three of us continued to Machu Picchu. Our highest point on the trek was 4700m (15420ft) which seems to have become so passé and standard that I now need something higher than 5000m to keep me interested. Nevertheless, it was still hard work with each day averaging eight hours of walking for which we required lots of food. Unfortunately it seemed they ran out of food on the fourth day so we had to go and buy a sheep. This was definitely not a trip for the vegetarian! On the last day of the trek, most of the trail was the same as what is now referred to as the "eight dollar back route" along the train line to Aguas Calientes. And then it was time for a shower!!! Needless to say, after seven days of no shower I spent quite a long time in the bathroom when we finally arrived in Aguas Calientes.

Imagine, if you will, New York, except with mountains instead of buildings and now you have an image of what Aguas Calientes is like. Obviously it's tourist city but that aside it has such a lovely setting. Being a glutton for punishment I decided to hike up to Machu Picchu in the morning with a wakeup call at 4am. And it was fantastic! I have finally got to see the site I have read about and studied so much in my days of youth! Who remembers the road runner? And who remembers the scenes that he would always paint to trick the coyote into running off the edge of a cliff? Well, I was so thrilled to see it that it looked like a scene the road runner had painted. Any second, I expected to find myself with nothing under my feet and about to fall 1000m down a narrow canyon to the river below!

The only unfortunate thing about many of the sites I saw is that they have been reconstructed and have not been left as they were found. Although I guess they wouldn't have as many people visiting if they had not reconstructed the buildings and walls. Six of one and half a dozen of the other really. Still, even if they have been reconstructed, it's quite amazing to think of the skill the Incas had in carving stone to fit exactly. I have to keep reminding myself though that they are not as old as I keep thinking, in fact, they were still around only five or six hundred years ago which isn't that long ago really in the grand scheme of things.

There wasn't much left now other than heading to Bolivia with a stop along the way in Puno to visit the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. Cuzco to Puno definitely wins on the worst bus journey so far. As always, I was promised a good quality bus with heating and ended up on one with windows that wouldn't shut and no heating. As a result, just before hitting Juliaca I had a quick peek out the cancel that...I tried to have a peek out the window only to find the inside of the window completely frozen over! We're talking travelling at night at an altitude of around 3700m (12139ft) so you can guess how cold it was!

So, after seeing some more ruins, Sillustani, I took a trip out to the islands to see what life was like out there. This included a quick stop on some floating islands made of reeds, which also come in handy if you're feeling a bit peckish as they are edible. Admittedly not quite the same as chocolate but enough to keep you going for the time being. Then it was off to Amantaní for an overnight stay with a family on the island. After seeing some more ruins it was time to head down to the local "disco" all kitted out in the local attire! Now I understand why Bolivian women seem so large as I had about four layers of clothes beneath what they gave me in order to stay warm!

It felt quite strange down here to be honest as I felt like I was in lots of different places all at once. Sillustani felt like Stonehenge, Newgrange and Dublin all rolled into one what with the circular stone structures which reminded me of Stonehenge and the funerary towers that for some reason reminded me of the Marino towers in Dublin and Newgrange with the conical roof structure on the inside. On Amantaní, I could have sworn I was on the Aran Islands with so much stone and small narrow "streets" lined with stone walls and instead of selling Aran sweaters they sold Amantaní hats.

By the time I had finished Peru, this time round, I had been completely ruined! I had a fantastic time and the people I met were just amazing. I'm really looking forward to coming back after Chile to complete my circuit along the south coast.


Languages can be funny things
So in the time I have been travelling I have found a few things that have made me laugh and smile, some coming from my own mouth and some coming from others. Here are some examples:

Try getting a French person to say "beach" or "sheet".

I travelled from Huancavelica to Huancayo with Ticllas, a bus company. Now while this looks rather innocent, when you pronounce it, it comes out as "Tickly Ass"!!

There's an archaeology site near Cusco called Sacsayhuaman, yet again, pronounce it and it comes out something similar to "Sexy Woman".

While talking to someone (a non-Spanish speaking person) about the most embarrassing things they have done, they came out with "estoy embarasada" which sounds right, no? But nope, embarasada translated to English comes out as "pregnant"!

And one from me...while talking to two Spanish guys about the quality of food on a trip I commented on the number of "preservativos" in the jam, only to be gently reminded that preservativos are actually condoms!!!! Oops!

So what did I think of Peru then overall? What an absolutely fantastic place to visit! The people are just amazing. Just when you think it's all over and all is lost on finding your way somewhere, someone comes up and saves you at the last minute. Admittedly it does take a bit of patience and information the locals give is something that should be taken lightly. If you ask them a question to which they don't know the answer as they seem to prefer giving you an answer, even if it is the wrong one, which can send you round in circles! But let's look on the bright side, of the occasions when bus companies actually told the truth, Peru is the first country where I have found heating on the buses!!!

The Peruvians must be used to bus company tactics as they are certainly not afraid to voice their opinion. If the driver stops for too long or doesn't leave when the bus is full soon you will hear a chorus of voices shouting "vamos vamos". Not only though do they voice their opinion on the bus, but even before traffic lights have turned green, drivers at least 15 back are honking the horn to get those in front moving. It doesn't usually make any difference other than lots of noise pollution.

And of course, who can forget the multitude of archaeology sites to visit. I was in heaven and in total I think I visited at least fourteen sites on my route. This probably isn't even half of the well known sites. Out of all of them I think I would vote for those of Chiclayo and Trujillo being the most interesting. Rather surprising, but since I already knew so much about Machu Picchu, it wasn't as surprising as those of the north. If truth must be told though, my favourite of all time still remains Pompeii, if only because things were preserved exactly as they were happening at the time of the eruption which is a little gruesome when you think of the casts made of the bodies of people in the throes of asphyxiation!

Unfortunately not everything was rosy and shiny as I found bus companies and especially agencies to be really bad when it came to telling the truth about what they had to offer. Bus companies would show you a new bus with air-conditioning / heating and two levels and instead you would find yourself in one of the oldest which would be held together by chewing gum and even may require a stop along the road to weld the axle together again!

But by far, the worst offenders were agencies when asking about what tours they had on offer, especially in Huaraz and Cuzco. In I would go asking if they had a trek to Cordillera Huayhuash and they would say, "yes, we have two people wanting to go, come back later at five to see if they have confirmed", so I would head back at five and would hear "oh sorry, they haven't confirmed, but we have two more for tomorrow, come back tomorrow morning at nine and we'll let you know if they have confirmed", so being gullible I would head back next day only to find their answer the same. And so they would try to continue. If they told the truth then maybe I would choose another tour rather than wasting my time waiting for one that never would happen. Rather than telling you the truth where you could make an informed decision on whether to go on the tour they would tell you what you want to hear and so set your expectations higher than what would actually happen and so all that could happen would result in major disappointment. They may be able to extract money from your pocket in the short term, but in the long term they wouldn't gain any recommendations and lose from the complaints their mistruths would cause.

Overall, I would say I had a most sublime time in Peru and would have no problems recommending it, especially if you can do things independently without the need of an agency.
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