Most people, when you mention Peru, say “Ah, yes, Machu Picchu”. If Machu Picchu was all there was to see in Peru, it would still be worth going all that way. But it isn’t; not by a long shot.
Peru is the third largest country in South America, five times the size of Great Britain stretching from just on the equator in the north to 18 degrees south with the Pacific Ocean to the east and over the Andean Range to the borders of Brazil and Bolivia to the west. To the north, Peru has borders with Ecuador and Colombia and to the south, Chile. The population is around 25 million.
About 60% of Peru lies in its Amazon basin. This area is the most sparsely populated and the most inaccessible. It is also quite marvellous to visit so let’s start there. A one and a half hour flight from the capital, Lima, lies the jungle town of Iquitos founded in the 1750s as a Jesuit mission. The problem was that the local Indian tribes didn’t take kindly to the missioners and their lives were sometimes shortened and frequently uncomfortable so progress was slow. This was to change, however, when a rubber boom hit the area and by the 1880s the rubber moguls became immensely rich but failed to share their spoils with the rubber tappers who remained in near slavery and disease ridden conditions. The boom collapsed as quickly as it started when rubber tree seeds from the Iquitos area were introduced to Malaysia where plantations could be grown in a more orderly fashion and on an accessible trading route. The economy of the area disintegrated and only logging and some agriculture kept it ticking over. In the 1960s, though, Iquitos was again put on the map with the discovery of oil and is now a prosperous town with a population of over 300,000. Nevertheless the only good road in the Peruvian Amazon basin runs from Iquitos to Nauta, a distance of about 50 miles. Nauta is on the confluence of the two main tributaries of the Amazon, the rivers Maranon and Yucayali. From Nauta the Amazon flows for 2,300 miles until it empties into the Atlantic Ocean near the town of Belem in Brazil.
Centred round Nauta are a few really good and comfortable river boats which explore the tributaries and main rivers.
River Boat Delfin
They have between four and ten cabins with a high ratio of crew to passenger, typically ten crew for six to eight passengers. These boats can be chartered privately or individual bookings are made on scheduled arrival/departure dates. The accommodation is excellent as is the food, the crew members are efficient and most helpful and friendly; good guides accompany each journey which can last from, say three to five or seven days.
The Very Stylish and Comfortable Accommodation on one of the river boats
One of the fears of spending time on a small boat is what the ‘Other People’ are going to be like. On one occasion our hearts, as a couple, sank when faced with the other four out of a total of six passengers on arrival in Nauta; one couple were dead ringers of Mr & Mrs Meldrew of the television sitcom One Foot in the Grave and they were Canadian. The other couple were large lesbians from Chile. Mr & Mrs Meldrew turned out to be extremely good company, well travelled with acute, witty senses of humour and fun to be with. We soon teamed up with them and together were amused by the harmless behaviour of the lesbians.
Each river boat has one or two light skiff like small boats attached to the ‘mother ‘ boat. Typically during the day excursions are made deep into the jungle proper in these small craft powered by outboard engines, up tiny tributaries the openings of which are often difficult to spot. Frequently they are covered with thick water lettuce and floating vegetation as smooth as a grass lawn but which parts like a knife slicing through butter.
Blue and Yellow Macaws; Great Egret; White Caiman Crocodylis; Howler Monkey and White Uakari Monkey
Everywhere is teeming with a fantastic array of bird and animal wildlife; macaws, both blue and yellow, in abundance screeching as they flit from vantage point to vantage point, also parrots and parakeets, many species of egrets, herons, ducks, kingfishes and the raptors, Greater, Black and Yellow Headed Vultures, many different hawks plus the lovely call of the Laughing Falcon. So many others too numerous to mention. Of the animals, the Squirrel and Howler Monkeys are the most numerous but the long winded but accurately named Brown Throated Three Toed Sloth were probably the most unusual; quite difficult to spot with an inexperienced eye, they look like large dark growths on the trunk of a tree but when observed close up their very slow movements can be detected. In the water, dolphins, both grey and pink are everywhere probably more pink than grey ones. They will find their way up the little tributaries some of which open up into vast lagoons where, on the advice of the guide, it is possible to swim. When doing so don’t be surprised to see ten or twelve pink dolphin swimming inquisitively near – no more than five or ten feet away. However listen to the guide: moored to a tree less than half a mile from a lagoon where we had been swimming, we caught six piranhas in a few minutes by dangling a baited line over the side of the skiff. On the reptile front different species of iguanas are seen, some up to about three feet long but the most sinister are the caimans which are normally only seen at night; they can grow to as long as twenty feet and have huge heads in comparison to the rest of their body. Their bright shining eyes can be seen in the shallows of the river bank against a searchlight pointing in their direction. Probably the most dramatic of the water flowers is the giant Amazon Water Lily. Circular in shape, they are varying shades of green in colour and can measure over two feet in diameter with a curious tray like effect on the circumference, a haven for sunbathing frogs with cool water to splash into immediately at hand. Above ground there are the beautiful Bird of Paradise and Amazon Cecropia and then rising higher to the magnificent kapok trees which can grow up to two hundred feet tall and have lovely white and pink flowers but a dreadful smell. As dusk approaches many eerie jungle sounds start up like howler monkeys and many different frog calls plus the sight of the aforementioned caiman eyes. And no people apart from ones own companions. In, say, a week on a boat you are unlikely to see any other form of human habitation except the occasional native village hacked out of the jungle where the only occupations are fishing and growing crops to feed the residents. It is a voyage to savour and remember.
Now for something completely different, starting again in Lima. Lima is not the most attractive city in South America; it does not have the raw beauty of Rio de Janeiro or the delightful charm of Buenos Aires. Situated on the relatively narrow coastal plain of central Peru between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountain range, it does suffer sometimes from poor visibility and rather smoggy atmosphere. Nevertheless there are good places to stay at the end of a long flight. Our journey takes us south, out of Lima and along the coast to Paracas. Twelve miles off the coast are the Ballestas Islands easily reached by a fast and regular speedboat service. Uninhabited, this small group of islands is a miniature Galapagos and home to thousands of sea birds including Humboldt Penguins, seals and sea lions. They have another commercial attraction: every four years a gigantic guana harvest takes place. Probably best avoided at this time! Turning inland soon after Paracas and entering the desert, along the Pan American Highway the oasis town of Ica is a good stopping place either for the night or just for lunch. The next main destination, however, is Nasca, famous for the Nasca Lines.
Paracos and Nasca
There are many theories about how, when or indeed why these huge depictions of animals, fish, reptiles and birds are carved into the shale like surface of the desert. Estimated dates vary from 900BC to 700AD but they are certainly a magnificent sight to be seen. The best way of doing so is by taking one of the many daily thirty to forty-five minute flights in small aircraft operated by local companies in situ. Forward reservations or arrangements can be made but it is usually no problem as long as weather conditions allow. It is best to allow a day in Nasca and to stay overnight. Once I stayed at an hacienda converted into a small hotel and fell in with the owner, a delightful Peruvian Fat Cat who turned out to be a member of Annabel’s; after a great deal of hospitality, fun and games I was very late leaving for the next destination and, speeding along the Pan American Highway in the dark, I failed to notice the well concealed notice advising of road works and a diversion and hit the low but strong brick barricade head on which effectively removed the wheels from beneath the car. The owner of the small car rental company was not amused.
The lovely old town of Arequipa is the next port of call. 7,500 feet above sea level in the mountainous western end of the desert, Arequipa was founded long before the Spanish conquest in the 1530s. There are, however, some fine examples of Spanish Colonial buildings but the town has suffered over the centuries from earthquakes. There is a small but delightful hotel in which to stay and two main places which must be visited. The convent of Santa Catalina is one; more of a village than a convent it is surrounded by a high wall within which are narrow streets leading to the various sections and departments of the convent according to seniority and importance.
Convento Santa Catalina
It was founded in 1580 but was a totally secret order for nearly four hundred years before being opened for public inspection in 1970. The other is the monastery of La Recoleta, built by the Franciscans in 1648. Not only is it an architectural gem but it holds another secret which, for some unexplained reason is not publicised. Tell the custodian that you want to see the library. Somewhat reluctantly he will produce a large key and lead you to an enormous carved wooden door. On the inside of the door is a huge library of twenty thousand plus books most of them very old and valuable, in many languages including a lot in English. I believe the earliest book is dated 1494. There is also a museum containing artefacts collected by the Franciscan missionaries. Arequipa is good for shopping for Peruvian style goods – alpaca etc particularly in Alpaca Shop 111 which seems better value than the alpaca factory shop.
Next, a bit of adventure but also a word of warning. The Colca Canyon is about a four hour drive up from Arequipa.
Canyon del Colca Arequipa
It is a moot point as to whether it is the deepest canyon in the world but it is certainly well up there. As a comparison the Grand Canyon has a vertical drop of one mile. Although it is perfectly safe, the road is rough in places but that is not the problem; it’s the altitude. This section of the journey should not be undertaken by anyone who suffers from altitude sickness or has a heart problem. In order to arrive at the canyon the road passes over 16,000 feet; it is spectacular and quite enthralling with snow packed peaks of the higher Andes Mountains such as Mount Ampato at 24,500 feet clearly visible. The quite rare vicuna will be seen from the roadside; these animals, the smallest of the llama family, are wild and do not normally descend below 12,000 feet! A word of advice: the night before going up to the Colca, go very easy on the alcohol and do not drink any alcohol while staying in the Colca area. I always emphasise this to my companions: the ones who listen are usually OK, the ones who don’t can have headaches and become as sick as dogs. Staying the night close to the canyon rim is a recommended experience; there are comfortable, warm but quite basic guesthouses/hotels in nearby villages. The canyon itself is quite mind-blowing; it is fairly narrow which adds to the impression of depth and it is best to walk a little way along the rim and away from the few buildings. If you are lucky you should see condors coming up from way below the canyon rim rising on the thermals. The Andean Condor is a magnificent, huge bird having a wingspan of up to ten and a half feet and has a ruff of white feathers on the base of its neck. It normally makes its nest in inaccessible caves in cliff faces and lays one to two eggs. In flight it seems to glide majestically making the minimum of effort except when it spies its prey. Condors are scavengers but are known to take small vicuna or guanaco. They also have a long lifespan which can be up to one hundred years.
Leaving the Colca Canyon area the road goes downhill westwards on the other side of the altiplano from where there is a good view of Mount Mismi below which starts a stream which becomes a river which in turn finds its way into the River Yucayali and thence into the Amazon. Thus it could be said that maybe this stream is the source of the Amazon.
Today’s destination is Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the highest commercially navigable lake in the world at around 12,000 feet. The lake is over one hundred miles long and is two thirds in Peru and one third in Bolivia.
Not far from the shore at Puno are the famous floating islands; made of reeds, they house complete communities, some entirely one family, others more mixed. Each island has a life span of about ten years; when an island starts sinking they make another one.
The Floating Islands of the Uros Tribe at Puna
The story goes that the original inhabitants, the Uros tribe, came to avoid persecution elsewhere but were not welcomed and so resorted to building their own floating homes. Boat trips to the islands and beyond can be arranged. There are two real islands well out into the lake; probably the best known and one to go to is Tequille which is about four and a half miles long by half a mile wide.
The Island of Tequille
To go first to the floating islands and then on to Tequille is an ideal day trip on a privately chartered boat. The islanders are very proud of their own land and culture and love dressing up in most colourful clothes; frequently there are festivals with brass bands and troupes of dancers in elaborate carnival type costumes in the attractive village square surrounded by cafes and restaurants. It is a great spectacle. Weatherwise, if it is a sunny day or even with light cloud cover take strong sun block. Even though it may not feel very hot, the sun is extremely strong and burning in the relatively thin atmosphere. It is here, on Lake Titicaca, that Thor Heyerdahl, of Kon Tiki fame, built his raft end experimented before making his epic journey.
The next stage of this journey is again, different. Take a train: not an ordinary train but something very special from Puno up over the altiplano by a completely different route, to Cuzco.
Andean Explorer Train
It is a day’s journey on a single track line through and across starkly beautiful country with scintillating views. The train is very comfortable with good dining arrangements, a bar and excellent observation car at the back where you can move about with comfort and ease. They even have a band which wanders around periodically playing music. A far cry from the same train a few years ago on which one shared the rather limited and sparse facilities with those wishing to transport with them various species of livestock – mainly poultry and goats. Cuzco, at a mere 10,000 feet, is arguably the oldest continuously inhabited city in the continent of South America.
Cuzco Main Square; Cuzco Cathedral; Huyan Picchu; Machu Picchu Temple of the Sun
It is a lovely old city with many traditional architectural gems dating to pre-Inca days. There are a number of legends as to when it was founded but probably in the 12th century and certainly it was the centre of the Inca civilisation. There are some really good hotels in Cuzco, the Monasterio, operated by Orient Express being the best – and most expensive. Also good restaurants of pretty well every category. Definitely a ‘must’ place to spend a bit of time. Within easy day’s reach are a number of Inca sites and villages – among them and definitely one to go to, being what sounds like Sexy Woman (actual spelling Sacsayhuaman).
Cuzco is the gateway to Machu Picchu and the Urubamba valley. Actually one goes down to Machu Picchu at just under 8,000 feet and the only convenient way of getting there is by train from Cuzco.
Nowadays the site is closely controlled from a numbers point of view which is good because it was running the risk of being too overcrowded. Reservations have to be made in advance both for the train and entrance to the site. It is no good just turning up at the station without a ticket. The train journey takes about two and a half hours. On arrival at Agua Calientes (the station for Machu Picchu) a bus transports all visitors up a series of hairpin bends to the site itself, about a twenty minute journey. The best plan is to book a one or two night stay at the Pueblo Hotel at Aguas Calientes. There is a smart hotel up at the site but it is somewhat lacking in charm and somehow rather incongruous. The hotel at the bottom is more fun and in keeping with the surroundings. So much has been written and described on film and television about Machu Picchu that I am not going into further detail here. Suffice it to say that seeing it surpasses all preconceived ideas. I recommend that two visits to the site is the best plan: on the first visit your guide will take you round the main site so that you can soak up the scene and atmosphere letting your imagination run riot. On the second visit, preferably on the next day when you have had a chance to think about it all, take a walk for an hour or so up from Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail as far as the Sun Gate probably passing a few llamas on the way. At the Sun Gate turn round and see the whole Machu Picchu site and valley spread out below you. “Awesome” as they say across the pond.
The Inca civilisation is not an old dynasty and was at its zenith for only about one hundred years from the mid 13th to mid 14th centuries. It is extraordinary that they had no knowledge of the wheel when you think of some of the far older civilisations; all the huge blocks of stone used in the building of Machu Picchu and indeed all Inca buildings were hauled manually. On the other hand arithmetically and geometrically they were brilliant. They worked out that a major stress point in buildings is the corners and so, as far as possible, they carved the stonework with rounded corners so that there were no joins. Most Inca buildings are no more than two stories high. When the Spaniards invaded they frequently used the Inca buildings as a base and constructed their own on top. Along came the first earthquake and what happened? Down came the Spanish superstructure leaving the Inca section intact.
On the return journey from Aguas Calientes back to Cuzco and depending on the time available, a good plan is to leave the train at Ollyantaytambo and spend a couple of days there and exploring some of the villages in the Urubamba valley.
The scenery is spectacular, there are some lovely country style inns including Hacienda Huayoccari near Urubamba itself and pretty villages, some of them quite remote and unspoilt such as Chinchero,and a bustling street market in Pisac.
Chinchero (above) and the Market at Pisac
Eventually, however, it is back to Cuzco and the end of a fabulous journey in a most beautiful and exciting country. Apart, of course, from taking the quite short flight back to Lima and onwards ……… …… home.
The second journey described above is all overland except for the flight from Cuzco to Lima but it doesn’t have to be. It’s just that you see more of a country from ground level, time permitting. There are regular scheduled flights to and from Arequipa and Juliaca – about 50 kms from Puno as well as Cuzco. All three places can be used as centres from which trips can be made to all destinations described above but a return trip from, say, Arequipa to Nasca in a day would be quite a hike. In any case all plans and journeys are individually discussed and agreed beforehand.
Antony Johnson is a well seasoned traveller who runs ‘From Here to There‘.. a company which specialises in accompanying parties up to a maximum of ten people all over the world.
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