South America – Peru 21.08 – 22.09 (ish)
Our trip to South America didn’t get off to the most auspicious start as Nancy’s ankle was still playing up and she had to stay at home (Monica and Dave’s) to let it recover. I chose to go ahead with the plan of heading up to the Cordillera Blanca and doing some trekking.
After a grotty night in Lima, I caught a bus from Plaza Norte to Huaraz where I intended to acclimatise and sort out a trek. Not as easy as I expected! There are nearly daily departures on the most popular treks such as Santa Cruz, but my chosen destination of the Cordillera Huayhuash just didn’t feature.
I did some acclimatisation treks around Huaraz: up to Wilkacocha lake which was a simple hike up to 3700m; a tour to Laguna 69 which is a beautiful walk up from 3800 m to 4700m, but suffers from a 3 hour round trip each way; and Pastoruri glacier which is a short walk of an hour or so up to a glacier at 5100m.
Unfortunately, the weather turned from pure blue skies to overcast and occasionally raining during my acclimatisation days (of which I think four, including a rest day, worked well), so I scaled back my plans. There was an offer of an eight day Huayhuash trek, but I decided this was too rushed and that I should save it for better weather and doing it with Nancy.
In the end, I chose to do the 3N/4D Santa Cruz trek with Quechuandes. They weren’t the cheapest but it was still only $180 so I thought it would be good to compare with the cheaper operators. I ended up in a group with five French people, so it was good practice for our upcoming season in the Alps!
After a five hour drive to the start of the trek, it was a fairly gentle walk up to the first campsite through farmland and pasture. The only downside were the biting flies which drew blood each time they attacked. Strong DEET is required for all treks at this time of year.
One of the French trekkers got sick overnight and couldn’t walk well so she and her husband turned back, which left only four of us. The second day heads over a 4700m pass so we all took it gently on the ascent. It was overcast for the morning, but when we reached the col it did clear slightly. Some of the surrounding glaciers were visible, and I’m sure that in good weather it would be stunning.
The next day we took a side trip to a glacial lake under Alpamayo. Unfortunately we only got occasional glimpses of the summit of this perfectly symmetrical mountain, but it was still a lovely day. Saw my first viscacha and enjoyed some good bird watching as we descended further towards the main valley.
On the final day, there is a beautiful descent into the increasingly hot lowlands (2500m!). Saw a few condors on the way down which was a bonus – as was the ice cream stopover in Yungay. No complaints about the trip: we had good three course meals; the guide was helpful and informative; and the equipment was good. Certainly a better experience than my next two treks.
I had decided to split my trekking between the Huaraz area and around Cusco, so on my return from the trek took an overnight bus to Lima followed by a flight to Cusco. Never before have I arrived at an airport, bought a ticket, checked my luggage in, and taken off, all in a 45 minute period.
Cusco remains an enchanting city, though it has expanded massively since my period visit 30 years ago. I was glad to be acclimatised as it’s not easy flying into 3400m. My booking.com choice was not what it looked like, so I moved after the first night.
Nancy was due in nine days, so I tried to work out my best trekking option. Again, my first choice of Ausangate was out as there were no fixed departures, so I went for a 3N/4D trip to Choquequirao (larger than Machu Picchu, but less excavated), and a trek round Salkantay (6271m) to Machu Picchu. At the same time, I sorted out our departure for Manu reserved zone which is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet.
I was all set for my Choquequirao trek when it was cancelled at 7pm the night before as the other participants were sick, so I headed off to Salkantay instead. Fortunately, there are daily departures on this trek so it was not difficult. I ended up in a group of fifteen people of mixed nationalities and fitness.
The hike itself involves a steady uphill hike for the first three hours followed by a traverse, mostly on road to a barren campsite at 3800m. Tough for those who hadn’t acclimatised much. There were probably around 60 people doing the trek on that particular day, but it didn’t seem too busy.
The second day involves crossing the pass at 4600m. Through increasingly attractive scenery as you approach the face of Salkantay, the path has one steep section of zigzags but is otherwise at a comfortable angle. Again, some people struggled so it was quite a wait at the pass. The weather began to deteriorate as we headed off the main path to a glacial lake , and it was snowing as the guide performed a (way too long) ceremony to the gods.
The hardest bit of the trek is the 2000m descent to the next campsite. Through increasingly warm and humid conditions, we slogged down a long path to the junction of two rivers, Chaullay, where we were joined by all the groups.
We left early the next morning on what was supposed to be my last day as I was due to take a bus back to Cusco from Santa Teresa to start my Choquequirao trip. Unfortunately, there was social unrest due to gas prices, and no transport was running so I was in for a difficult day. (The reason I wasn’t going to Machu Picchu is that I was fortunate enough to be there in 1984 with only ten other people, and was the only one on Huayna Picchu, so I didn’t want to spoil my memories)
The first part of the hike is 16km along the road to Playa. You descend steadily through farmland and plantations of passion fruit and avocados. A few birds and butterflies to be seen as well. We arrived just before a large storm and were glad to be in the shelter of a cafe. Most of the group were due in Aguas Calientes for MP that night, but for some reason the guide chose to follow the road rather than taking the mountain route.
This involved another 12km on the dirt road but was again through interesting crops and farms. The guide insisted we had no problem with time, but I disagreed and set off on the 11 km to the last train at Hydroelectrica, without which I would have another 10km walk to Aguas Calientes. I was given a lift for the last few km on a motorbike – just as well as I only made the train by two minutes. No one else from the group made it so they lost their morning slot at MP. I would have been very annoyed.
As it was, I took the 50 minute journey on the train through beautiful scenery with occasional views of Incan ruins. Aguas Calientes seems like a real party town, so I was glad to have arrived at a reasonable time to take train and minibus back to Cusco.
All in time for a 4.30 start to Choquequirao. This time I was only with two young lads, a Canadian and a Chilean, and we set off at a cracking pace through the rain to our first camp. The trek involves crossing two ridges there and back through steep terrain. In retrospect, I’m glad it was overcast for our first two days, as the groups we saw on our way back in sunshine were having a torrid time in the heat.
The biting flies were really bad all through the trek, so you had to either slather yourself with insect repellent (the stuff from Cusco isn’t strong enough), or cover up. It isn’t as bad as it sounds as you don’t have to stop that often, and the scenery is magnificent.
The first camp was 200m above the river, so we had a quick descent the next day and then a climb of 1300m. It was a good angle with only a few steep sections, so we rose steadily and were at our second campsite by 9.30 – the guide said we were the quickest group he had ever had (some people turn back after the first day!). We rested until after lunch and then started what looked like an easy traverse to Choquequirao.
It is actually a lot of up and down, so we were all a bit slower by the time we made it to the main site on the col. What is astounding about Choquequirao is the geography. I had expected a ‘normal’ descent on the far side to the famous llama terraces, but instead there is a relatively precipitous path towards the river which takes over an hour there and back.
We were the only people at the site, so had plenty of time to appreciate the setting. There’s a viewpoint from where you can get a better view of the terraces, as actually standing on them you get a really foreshortened view.
There are plenty of other areas to discover in the main area, and we looked around pretty much all the buildings within reasonable distance. You can see a couple of other large terraces further down the mountain, but that would take hours more to discover and we didn’t have the energy. It is certainly not as photogenic as Machu Picchu, but what it lacks in specifics is made up for by the grandeur of the whole place. If the whole site is some day excavated it will be magnificent.
It’s a little bit frustrating to have to repeat the journey on the return, but we were lucky in that the weather improved and we had magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. I was keen to avoid the biting flies at our intended campsite, so we pushed on to the final col where we spent a refreshingly cool night. The fourth day was a simple descent to Cachora, from where we took taxi and bus back to Cusco. Slightly delayed because our first driver was arrested for a previous accident as he popped in to check on his wife in hospital! Nancy was due in the next day, so I had (yet another) early night.
John and I spent three days in Cusco allowing me time to catch my breath after the long flight. Cusco is a great town and we really enjoyed touring around and ‘hanging’ out. We didn’t feel threatened by anyone. There are a lot of tourist police about the place. Every day there was a peaceful protest in the square, protesting against the cost of gas. Lots of shops offering souvenirs etc but nothing that I really wanted. I tried to buy a bag from The Centre for Tradional Textiles of Cuzco but they really didn’t have anything suitable for me.
We enjoyed the Inca Museum and the various cafés although getting a good coffee was surprisingly difficult (we avoided Starbucks). In the centre of Cusco the gov’t are doing some repair work and they found some Incan ruins under the pavement. Lots of digging and research is going on.
Nancy here. I booked a trip to Machu Picchu with ManuVilca, the tour operator we are using to go to Manu Biosphere Reserve. We were collected in the morning, driven to Ollantaytambo (where John and I had lunch and stayed the night), I then boarded the train to Aguas Calientes. Aguas Calientes is a busy, busy tourist town. Not my thing really. Thankfully I didn’t go into the Hot Springs, I saw a big queue and thought “no”. In the morning I heard that the water was black and oily! Major YUCK!
I caught the bus early in the morning (0530). The queue was long to get the bus so if you want to be one of the first ones up there start queuing at 5. I was lucky as I was invited to join the people I met on the train the day before.
I really had very low expectations about Machu Picchu. I thought it was going to be “a bunch of Incan ruins overrun with tourists”. However, with the first view … “WOW” all my preconceptions were blown away! Oh my goodness it is an incredible, magical, mystical place (all this was helped by the overcast, cloudy weather). I loved it and would really like to go back and walk The Inca Trail (Nicky A are you game?). Hard to put the experience into words. Just thinking about building the town so high up is incredible. Amazing. Do go, do book in advance if you want to walk the Inca trail, if not the train journey, plus overnight in Aguas Calientes followed by an early bus ride in the morning is a great option.
MANU BIOSPHERE RESERVE adventure begins 14.09-22.09
First day on our way to Manu we drove from Cusco up into the escarpment that leads into The Amazon Basin. On our way we stopped for breakfast in a market town, then at place that has pre-Incan Chullca (1300’s) which are above ground, stone, circular tombs that hold mummies. The local people lived amongst the tombs and would take the mummies out for festivals and ceremonies.
One of the most interesting places we visited was the museum at Paucartambo. It is at this village they hold an 18 day ceremony celebrating all aspects of life. And they dress up in the most extraordinary costumes. The right to dance in the ceremony is handed down from generation to generation.
We stopped to look for various different birds including Andean Potoo, the Cock of the Rock (we saw two beautiful females (harder to see) and then two stunning males, various Tanagers and the Highland Motmot.
We made our way through the cloud forest to the Ticari Lodge. On our way to get to the lodge you need to cross the river in a basket which reminds us of a river crossing in Eritrea (albeit a more secure basket). The Lodge is a wonderful, basic lodge located in the forest. No electricity but good mosquito nets and a comfortable bed. J and I woke early to listen to the jungle noises. We eventually rose and enjoyed an hour just watching birds in the jungle before breakfast.
After breakfast we drove towards Atalaya where we left the minibus and boarded our boat. I have forgotten to mention that John and I are the only people on the 7 day tour into the jungle. Our guide Miguel is excellent and very knowledgeable.
Highlights for Jungle Day 2
- River journey
- Wildlife sanctuary- where we saw scarlet macaws, blue and yellow macaws, peccary, Capybara, Squirrel Monkey (small and feisty like a puppy), once the animals have been healed they are released back into the wild.
- Wild white-lipped Peccary
- Vermillion fly catcher
- Watching Miguel play football in his bare feet!
Jungle Day 3
We are staying in the Camp Paujil for the next three nights. Getting to the lodge was interesting as we had to cross some very sticky, deep mud and water.
Our accommodation is fine and the food is good. We will go on boat rides and jungle walks to see what we can see. It is very difficult to spot anything in the jungle without an experienced guide.
- Gently removing the butterflies from the Wellington boots before we put them on
- Fantastic fragrant air
- Gentle boat ride searching for wild giant river otters
- Birds incl: Black Skimmers, skimming and caring for their young, Capped Heron, Osprey flying grasping a BIG fish, vermillion flycatcher, Toucans raiding a nest
- Pink blossoms on trees
- Wild Capybara
- Termite nest up a tree (they build it there to avoid the rain!)
- Masses of butterflies incl Swallow tails and different Morphos
- Walking the plank! The mud was thick and soft crossing from the boat to land. Our captain brought out a plank which ‘sunk’ so you couldn’t see it. But I was the princess so he gently helped me across.
- Night walk was “interesting” but we didn’t see much other than katydids and a very wide-mouthed frog (no jokes please)
Highlights for Jungle Day 4
- Breakfast! Fresh fruit salad with Peruvian granola (rice puffs with a few nuts and seeds) and yoghurt. YUM, not what we were expecting to eat in the jungle.
- Atmospheric start to the day, very misty on the water
- Jungle walks searching for birds and animals using ‘playback’. Miguel played the calls of specific birds and mammals hoping they would come into view.
- First mammal we saw using playback was the incredibly shy Pygmy Marmoset. Very difficult to see as it moves very quickly.
- Good view of a Red Howler Monkey
- Birds: many including Fantailed Manakin, Trogons and Nightjar on a nest
- Stopped at the Matsiguenga “Gift Shop” where I bought a handmade bag. The Matsiguenga people were ‘uncontacted’ people of the jungle. But one person speaks a bit of Spanish and they have formed a collaboration with the rangers. They sell handmade products like bags and necklaces made out of seeds (am a bit wary of buying seeds after Trisha’s ‘bugs hatching from a seed’ experience)
- Butterflies galore including the Owl Butterfly
- Getting a glimpse of a John Terborgh who is one of the world’s most famous ecologists.
- Watching scarlet macaws snuggling in the sunshine
- Candle lit shower
Highlights for Jungle Day 5
- Awoke to hearing the Howler monkeys calling. Such a haunting sound.
- Catamaran trip on Salvador Cocha Lake- an incredibly peaceful, magical journey where we had the bonus of watching 9 Giant River Otters swim, chat and fish. Two researchers from San Diego California were in kayaks and they got fantastic views. The otters weren’t quite sure about the kayaks and kept checking them out. We were glad when the otters seemed to accept the kayaks and they started to fish again. Amazing animals. What a privilege to see them.
- Up early to pack and head out
- Went fishing on a lake to try and catch (and release) a piranha. We could see them jumping but they just nibbled the bait off the hook and swam away. It was peaceful but unsuccessful
- Slow, sleepy ride back to Boca Manu
- Stopped at Rangers station and watched birds from a raised platform. Very peaceful watching the Swallow tailed Kites glide in the sky.
- Beautiful, fragrant air.
John here – our trip to Manu was amazing. Not so much for the animal life (though the birds were incredible) as for where we actually were. We discovered that we were not allowed to walk from our campsite at Otorongo as planned because the the rangers had recently filmed some ‘uncontacted’ people on the TrailCam near the camp. These are the tribes who still follow a completely traditional life and shun contact with the outside world.
The group were apparently carrying spears and arrows, so while there was no expectation that they would be aggressive, it was felt prudent to avoid the area. There really aren’t too many areas in the world where you can find yourself in that kind of situation. The tribes occasionally leave markers on trails to indicate their boundaries, so it was thought that they viewed the TrailCam as a boundary marker and wouldn’t pass it. Amazing!
The other surprising fact that I discovered only on the way out is that Boca Manu, the entrance to the reserved zone, used to be called Fitzcarrald. The Klaus Kinski film is about searching for rubber on the Manu river, and apparently you can still see the iron boat that the explorers used on one of the tributaries. There are still descendants of the original family living in Boca Manu.
From a wildlife perspective, I had originally had low expectations about the animal life but in the build up to the tour there was lots of talk about jaguars and tapirs so I ended up being a little disappointed in what we actually saw. The Giant Otters were magnificent, and I really enjoyed the birdlife (though I’ve seen enough woodcreepers and antbirds to last me a lifetime) but it will be interesting to compare Manu with the Pantanal, which is where we are heading next – albeit the (very) slow way which is the only choice!
Overnight at Puerto Maldonado. We were going to stay for two nights here but the accommodation choice was really not great. The plan had been to go through Rio Branco in Brazil, but the flights from there to Cuiaba were getting stupidly expensive (£250 one way) so we popped into Brazil for about two hours from the Peruvian border at Inapari (still enough time for me to get mild food poisoning), and then crossed into Bolivia at Cobija from where there are flights to Santa Cruz. Not the most interesting or pleasant town, but there are worse places to spend a couple of days and recover from a night of throwing up.