Southern Peru and a dash through the Amazon!

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October 19th 2007
Published: October 24th 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

We are now back pedalling in Peru after two weeks with our good friends Elie and Mathieu and a long side trip back to France. I´ve got a lot of catching up with the blog to do so here is my first effort describing our time with Elie and Mathieu and our journey to Cayenne.

Last time I wrote the blog (quite a long time ago!) we were awaiting the imminent arrival of our friends. Well, they met us as planned in Arequipa and we had a fantastic two weeks together in Southern Peru.

Our first trip after a day in Arequipa was to the Canon del Colca which is the second deepest canon in the world. It’s a very picturesque area with small typical villages with stone houses and dusty streets in the cultivated but rather dry land at the top of the canon and tiny hamlets alongside the river in the canon itself. The people here live a very traditional way of life, only disturbed by the numerous tourist buses.

The four of us set off on a two day trek from Cabanaconde, a village at the top of the canon, down into the canon itself with Basil our guide, a local stray dog! (the famous five ?!) The first day we descended down to the bottom of the canon and walked along the river to a small refuge with couple of hot springs. Arriving mid afternoon we spent the rest of the daylight soaking out aching muscles in the hot water and enjoying a box of wine which we had carried down as part of our essential equipment. The following day we turned back in the other direction along the river to reach a very verdant area called El Oasis where natural cold water springs appear out of the sides of the canon. Here someone had had the great idea of building a couple of swimming pools so we were able to cool off after walking in the hot sun all morning. The afternoon was a long slow slog back up the side of the canon to arrive back at Cabanaconde. Basil gave up and took a siesta halfway up the climb but we continued and were rewarded by the sight of several huge Condors flying past just over our heads.

Back in Arequipa it was the city festival so we headed out to the parades to watch all the colourfully dressed dancers passing in groups through the streets. The groups were quite similar to those that we had seen in Bolivia with a few differences including the presence of one Brazilian influenced group of young dancers with a costume that consisted only of a few feathers to hide their private parts. As the s were in the middle and the guys on the outsides, Elie and I got a very good view, only a shame we hadn’t bought our cameras out! As the night went on we were dragged up to dance from our pavement seats various time which was a lot of fun. Mathieu’s moment of the evening came when he got to dance with one of the very short skirted, pretty, young caporal dancers!

We’d shared a few beers whilst sat on the pavement in traditional festival style and so we began to wonder about the strength of the beer when we felt the pavement rock from side to side as we were sat on it. After a couple of more rocking incidents we realised something unusual was going on and after asking a few locals, we found out it was actually an earthquake. At the time no one seemed particularly surprised by incident as Arequipa is surrounded by three volcanoes and there has always been a lot of earthquakes in the area. Apparently there are around 15 tremors on a normal day, most of which are so minor they cannot be felt. It was only the next day when we saw the news that we realised that this one had been no normal tremor but a huge earthquake of over 7 on the Richter scale that had had such tragic results around Lima, Ica and Pisco with hundreds of people killed and thousands left homeless.

After a day more in Arequipa and a visit of the superb colonial monastery Santa Catalina we took the bus to Puno. Puno is a rustic Peruvian port at around 3800m altitude on the western shores of the mythical Lake Titicaca, birthplace of the Incas. From the town we joined a tourist boat to go to the island of Taquile on the lake stopping on the way to see how the Uros people lived on their floating islands.

The Uros are a group of 70 man-made islands floating on Lake Titicaca on which 2000 or so Uros people live. The extraordinary sight that greeted us when approaching by boat was of huge straw nest like islands complete with straw huts floating on the water's surface. In fact, the islands are made by joining clods of earth-like floating roots of the Totora reed that grows in the western part of the lake and overlaying them with a large quantity of cut reeds, creating a base that is firm enough to support huts made of totora and people. Walking on the islands feels a bit like walking on a spongy water bed. It’s not clear how the Uros people got there but it seems they were there before the arrival of the Incas and outlasted them after the Spanish conquest. Nowadays it’s questionable whether there really is still a community living on the islands or if only the women stay there with their children and a few token men to act out their parts and to sell handicrafts to the many tourist boats that arrive everyday. Either way it was interesting to see how these people have lived in the past.

Taquile, about 45 km offshore from the city of Puno is a much bigger, ´real not floating´ island where about 1,700 Taquileños live. The highest point of the island is 4050 m and the main village is at 3950 m. The island has preserved a very traditional way of life and everyone wears traditional colourful dress, the men each with hats with colours representing their social status. It is a very calm and quiet place (when the midday tourists had left) and we enjoyed just wandering round the island and watching the goings on of daily life. The economy on the island is based on fishing and terraced farming but now the locals also sell a lot of hand-woven textiles to passing tourists. What was especially interesting and unusual was that the men on the island knit and are rarely seen without their knitting needles in their hands. We passed by many men walking along whilst knitting away. After a beautiful sunset in the evening we stayed the night in very basic accommodation. There was no running water in our accommodation and no electricity on the island except a small dim light in the rooms provided by solar panels, so as we had left our torches in Puno we were obliged to have a very early night!

The following day we went on a walk around the paths of the island, past terraced fields with a few cows and some Inca ruins. Everything was very peaceful, there were not even many animals on the island to disturb the peace and unique to the island there were no dogs! Later, in the afternoon we took the boat back to the hustle and bustle of Puno.

After Puno our next stop was Cusco, archaeological capital of America and Unesco World Heritage centre. Probably the most beautiful city we have seen so far in South America, according to legend Cusco was the place where the first Inca sister and brother settled after leaving their birthplace in Lake Titicaca.

Certainly when the Spanish arrived and occupied the city in 1533 the beauty of the city surprised the Spanish as being more incredible than any of the existing European cities with its stone architecture, big temples, palaces and wide plazas decorated with abundant gold. Unfortunately only some ruins of what the city must have been like remain today. However the centre of the town is now a really well preserved colonial town with narrow cobbled streets, intricately carved wooden balconies, large arched doorways, beautiful churches and several large plazas including the huge central Plaza de Armas.

On arrival in town we bumped into an Aussie family we’d met before in Bolivia who directed us to a friendly, simple guest house in an old colonial style building with rooms around a central cour. One of the rooms had a little balcony with a fantastic view over the city which was particularly nice and made up for the steep uphill climb and numerous steps that we’d just dragged the bikes up! Cusco is very hilly and at over 3000 metres everything is harder work (although not as bad as La Paz!). After a day in Cusco enjoying the sights and dinner in the evening with more friends from France (Ariane with her friend Perine) we set off the following day into the Sacred Valley.

The Sacred Valley of the Incas was an important area of settlement for the Incas. Its agreeable climate and fertile plains make it a very good area to live in the high Andes. It was also the Inca route to the jungle and the fruits and plants of the tropical lowlands. In addition the Sacred Valley served as a buffer zone, protecting Cusco from other lowland tribes such as the Antis, the fierce jungle tribes who from time to time raided the highlands.

As there was so much Inca settlement in the valley there are now a lot of ruins to be seen and probably more to be discovered. We took a bus into the valley to the small, quiet village of Maras from where we hiked to a site at a place called Moray which the Incas had supposedly used as a kind of experimentation area for crop growing. There were three amphitheatre type stone formations dug into the ground to make a series of overlapping terraces where the Incas could plant different crops in different conditions and at different altitudes to find the most productive conditions. It was quite intriguing to imagine what these outdoor laboratories must have been like at the time.

From Maray we hiked back through the fields, past locals herding animals and labouring on the crops and then picnicked admiring the view of the snow-capped mountains in the distance. In the afternoon we walked on to a site called Salinas, an extremely picturesque salt mine that the Incas had built and that is still used today. In fact a salty spring coming out of the mountainside is channelled into roughly 3000 salt pans, terraced pool-like constructions in the mountain side. After about one month the water evaporates and salt remains. It was an incredible place to see: the mountainside turned into a field of shining white pools of slightly varying colours depending on the evaporation. The locals working there gather the salt layer when it reaches the thickness of 10 cm, with their feet covered in salt as they balanced on the ridges between the salt pools. It must be an uncomfortable job with the salt sticking everywhere and the sun reflected in the shinning pools burning their skin in addition to the hard physical labour involved.

Moving onwards from Salinas we continued our walk back to get to one of the main roads in the valley, from where we caught a very crowded mini bus to the beautiful village of Urubamba. Urubamba is where the train leaves for Agua Calientes, the tourist village built for access to the famous Machu Pichu. We had reserved the train in advance as is necessary in high tourist season, so we arrived well before the departure time waited for the train sat in the sunny Plaza with a drink admiring the ruins of an Inca fortress perched on the steep hills around the village. Some brave people were scaling the hillside to get a better look at the ruins but we had done enough walking for one day.

The ridiculously overpriced tourist train took us the 35kms to Agua Calientes where we quickly found a hostel and got an early night. The next morning we were up at 4.30am equipped with torches ready to join the other 50 or so eager tourists walking up the mountain path to Machu Pichu to get there for daybreak. Needless to say this incredible Inca citadel perched on top of a mountain, discovered only in 1911 was well worth every effort. When we arrived the site was covered with a heavy mist so from our high vantage point overlooking the site we were treated to a slow unveiling of the citadel which only added to our anticipation. Later sitting admiring this strange and mysterious place of which we still know so little, it was quite difficult to believe we were actually there as it was somewhere we’d seen pictures of and thought about for ages. As I commented to the others Machu Pichu doesn’t get as much press and general attention in England as it does in France. I would think most people in England have heard of Machu Pichu but it wouldn’t be the first thing that springs to mind when they think of South America. However, for the French Machu Pichu really is one of the most famous sites in the world and I know it was one of the places that Edouard had always dreamed of visiting.

We spent the day visiting the site and also climbed Wainapichu the huge mountain that you normally see behind the citadel in the photos of Machu Pichu. It was quite a hard climb and when we were at the top we were surrounded by steep drop offs all around of more than 1000 metres. It was very impressive and the 180 panoramic views were great. What was most crazy though was that there were more ruins at the top of this steep narrow mountain. What was going on up here is anyone’s guess!

At the end of the day at Machu Pichu we sat and watched the sun going down over the site before heading back down the mountainside to Agua Calientes our heads full of images from the day.

The next day we took the train back to Urubamba and then the bus back through the valley to Cusco on a different route to the way we came. In the afternoon we stopped in Pisac, site of another Inca fortress high in the hills, where the boys sat drinking beers while Elie and I got caught up in the huge handicrafts market!

Back in Cusco we had one last night with our friends as the next day we were catching the bus into the Amazon and they were heading back to France. We’d had such a great time together that we were quite sad to say goodbye, however we had the consolation of knowing that if all went to plan we’d see them in the completely different world of Paris soon.

So, on Saturday afternoon we left our bikes and most of our gear with Luis, the guesthouse owner and boarded the bus for Puerto Maldonaldo: the first leg of our journey to Cayenne in French Guyana, from where we’d take a plane back to France. The overnight bus journey was quite taxing as the road was one of the worst in Peru and the bus very old. As we climbed to 4000m we got colder and colder and tried to sleep, huddling under blankets, while bouncing around in the bus as we wound around the steep mountain roads. Then after a huge descent, as morning came, we were peeling off layers and sweating in the tropical heat of the Amazon.

Arriving exhausted, in the dusty, busy town of Puerto Maldonaldo around 11am, we jumped in a moto taxi (like a tuk tuk) which took us to where the shared taxis were waiting to take people to the Brazilian border four hours drive north. Fortunately for us, as we turned up there was a taxi waiting for two more people to fill it, so we jumped in and set off immediately. For a change the driver was a woman and I’d say she was amongst the craziest drivers we’ve had so far and had clearly missed her profession as a rally driver. After some nifty moves to get the car on a small motorised raft to cross the river to get out of town we zoomed along the dusty road, though the Amazon, sending everything in our way flying.

Arriving in good time at the border we got our exit stamp from immigration then crossed over into Brazil where the last bus of the day was just leaving the border town in the direction we were going (the only direction in fact!). So, with just the time for a quick loo stop but nothing more, we boarded the bus for another two hours to get to Brasilia the town where we needed to get our Brazilian entry stamp. We found out that the bus we were on was only stopping for 10 minutes in the town before travelling on to Rio Branco, our next objective and again it was the last bus of the day! This meant that if we didn’t want to sleep in Brasilia we had to rush out the bus, jump in a taxi to get to the immigration office, get our stamp from the police and then rush back to the bus station to get the same bus before it left. We made it with just enough time to pick up a couple of Brazilian fried snacks on the way. Four hours more and around 10pm night we arrived at Rio Branco bus terminal where, after a couple of hours wait, another bus took us through the rest of the night to Porto Velho the end of our land route for the moment.

So, despite being pretty tired from the crazy journey we had just made we were happy to have arrived in such good time in Porto Velho from where we planned to take a boat up the Rio Madeira to Manaus city in the middle of the Amazon. Next question was when would the boat leave ?

At the bus station we managed to find out that our luck was in, apparently there was a boat leaving today, Sunday, in addition to the normal Tuesday and Friday departures. We caught a bus directly to the port to find out if this info was correct and true enough there was the boat with some passengers already lying in there hammocks strung up on the deck. After a little negotiation we bought our tickets and found a place to hang our light-weight hammocks that we had carried for a while and awaited the midday departure.

Midday turned into afternoon and the boat was still being filled up with more passengers and boxes of fruit, drinks, food stuffs of all kinds and various other cargo on the deck below. It looked like we might leave around 4pm when a lorry of tomatoes arrived to be added to our cargo which took another 2 hours. Eventually as the sun went down we set off from the port and up the river. The first evening we were served soup and then everyone snuggled into their hammocks to sleep. With the light breeze, the slight swaying of the hammock and the humming of the motor I slept really well and only awoke when everyone was already up and about getting breakfast (coffee and cream ers). The first day was quite nice as it was good to relax after the road journey and we spent a lazy day reading, chatting with our hammock neighbours in bad Portuguese, admiring the scenery and spotting river dolphins. The food at lunch time and in the evening was quite alright: rice, beans, spaghetti and either chicken or beef and we were soon getting into the swing of things.

However things soon started going wrong. August is near the end of the dry season and so the river was very low and as we had that extra load of dastardly tomatoes we were quite heavy so a few times the boat grounded and we had to stop for an hour or so to extract the boat from the bottom of the river. Then on the second night we woke up as our hammocks lurched violently from side to side. Realising quickly that we must have hit the bottom again we watched in sleepy surprise as the Brazilians jumped screaming out their hammocks and scrambled into the life jackets hung over our heads. I found myself in a strangely calm state contemplating if this was because Brazilians like over-reacting or if it was because they knew better than us that it was not uncommon for boats to sink on the river. Fortunately it soon became clear that we were not going to sink, unfortunately we also found out that the incident had done the boat some serious damage, breaking the propeller for one thing. Some poor crew member had to get his kit off and descend into the dark waters of the river with an oxygen pipeline to do his best to repair the damage. In about an hour we were off again but at only about a third of the speed as before. In the daylight the damaged propeller could not be fixed and there was no help to be had at the small villages that we stopped at on the way so a boat was sent out from Manaus to bring us the spare part and until we met it we puttered along slowly with our Wednesday arrival date being put back more and more.

The rest of the journey passed with no other major incidents except for a storm we passed through with strong winds and rain which sent clothes flying and hammocks flapping and Edouard´s light weight hammock that couldn't cope with his heavier weight causing some of the strings to snap in the night leaving him sleeping on the floor, much to the amusement of the Brazilians. Every morning I repaired it with my needle and thread and every night a different string snapped!

On the Thursday, whilst sat up on the top deck, we watched enviously as the Tuesday boat that left Porto Velho two days after us sped past. We were getting a bit fed up of the trip at this point! Finally on Friday we arrived in Manaus a good two days later than scheduled. Luckily for us the plane we’d booked to fly out of Manaus was for the Saturday as we had left a lot of time in case of such delays.

Manaus is a city of about 1.7 million people in the centre of the Amazon. In the early years of the twentieth century Manaus became very wealthy and the most important cultural centre in the northern region of Brazil because of the rubber industry. The rubber barons dreamed of transforming it into a European style city and called it "the Paris of the Tropics". One of the most famous symbols of this era is the European style Opera House in the centre of the city that still exists today. It has traditional Brazilian colours of green and yellow for the tile roof, wooden floors made up of hundreds of different types of native woods and European marble walls and classical sculptures. However, when the rubber tree seeds were taken by the British from Manaus to plant in Asia that city lost its wealth and is now a poor port town with little of its former opulence.

However, being Brazil, there is still a lot of life in Manaus from the bustling port with its lively market to the bars and food stalls around the main square where people gather at night to drink beer and caiperinhas. Wandering around this city it was hard to believe we were in the middle of the Amazon, it seemed like any normal city. In the evening, people watching, we marvelled at the contrast between traditional Bolivia and Peru and here in Brazil, where the streets were full of smiling people, women of ALL shapes and sizes in the tiniest mini skirts and clingy tops and men in muscle showing tops and sunglasses drinking and dancing together. It has to be Brazil!

The following day we went for a wander around town, then, before returning to our hotel to check out to go to the airport we had a quick look on Internet. In my Inbox I found a mail from a woman I didn’t know entitled Cancellado. I was just going to delete it as Spam before deciding to check it, just in case. And yes, reading the mail in Portuguese, we managed to work out that our flight for the same afternoon had been cancelled for no particular reason. Probably just because the plane wasn't full enough. This was not good news as we to catch this flight to get the following ones. We called the number given and with help from and English speaking Brazilian managed to get ourselves booked on a flight for the next morning. Phew!

So on Sunday we headed early to the airport and caught a plane from Manaus to Belem, a city situated at the mouth of the Amazon. During all the 90 minute flight we flew over the huge Amazon forest with the river winding through it just below us. The size of the forest was quite amazing; it just went on and on and on.

Belem was a big, busy, hot city which didn’t hold much attraction after the beautiful cities of Peru and Bolivia. However we had a look around and found the huge market by the port especially interesting. The poverty in Belem was very evident, around the port especially. The fishermen clearly work and live in terrible conditions. I had a peak in some of the boats and was quite shocked by the state of them. You wouldn’t get me out on the sea in one of those boats.

After a couple of days in Belem we caught another flight to Cayenne in French Guyana. We were quite happy to have a day to look around the town before getting our plane back to France, but in the end we were quite disappointed. The country looked beautiful as we flew over with lush forests zigzagged by many rivers and a long coast line. Apparently some of the other towns are nice but Cayenne itself, from a visitor’s limited perspective, was relatively boring and expensive. We had a look around the market, which was OK but nothing compared to other South American markets, and a wander to the sea which was full of weeds but other than that there wasn’t a lot to do. It was like being in a quiet French town with all the same big shops just outside of town and a few little shops and one lively cafe in town but generally nothing much going on. Also it was really hot, the kind of heat that zapped all your energy so that didn’t help.

Finally after a one long uneventful day in Cayenne we made our way back to the airport and caught our flight back to France. At which point I think I will finish this long blog because I’m not going to tell you everything we did in France as that isn’t really part of the trip and I´m sure you have had enough already!

Second installment about our trip back and recent pedalling coming soon!


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