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Published: October 5th 2011
News from South America 1 - Peru 1
Places to visit before I die.
As the shadows of life lengthen and the years pass by somewhat imperceptibly, thoughts of things still to do and places to visit drive the seasoned traveller into action; that irresistible urge to turn a lifetime of dreams into reality. Our list of places to visit has finally been prioritised whilst the mind remains alert and inquisitive - and the legs are still working and in good order. An irresistable fascination with wildlife and ancient civilisations puts Latin America at the top of this list right now, Peru and Ecuador to be precise, from the arid Pacific shores to the Andes and beyond to the Amazon basin; desert, mountains, cloud-forest, and the humid jungle of the rainforest. But all of this comes with a warning from a special friend in Australia.
"I must warn you about Peru and the spell it might cast upon you," Jan told me. "A local Australian woman in her late 50's went there with a trekking group 2 years ago, then went back last year on her own. She and her husband are both well-respected psychologists (perhaps this is
the problem) but when she returned from her trip she announced she'd been so spiritually moved she was leaving her old life (including him) behind and moving to Peru. They sold their home, she gave away all their personal effects, he lives in a unit in Melbourne, and she's now in Peru. So watch out for a tall blonde, probably meditating on top of a mountain". I guess I'll have to keep a close eye on Janice.
Peru is perched on the Pacific edge of South America and our first excursion will be into The Amazon Basin to the east of the Andes. The Amazon Basin stretches into Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil and Bolivia, providing the source of the Amazon, which fiinally disgorges into the Atlantic more than 6,000 miles to the east. It is said to cover an area around the size of Australia. This is our first visit to South America. We're not likely to be here long enough to see it all!
It's an exhaustive journey from London Heathrow to Peru, flying via Madrid into Lima for a bief overnight stop and a few hours sleep before heading off for the airport once more for
a short flight east, over the lofty roof of the Andes, leathery brown in the early light, to the cloud shrouded town of Puerto Maldonado where the metalled road ends. Our totally inapropriate two-wheel drive minibus slewed its way across ancient wooden bridges on the rain-soaked road for nearly an hour, slipping in all directions down steep drops and failing a number of times to negotiate even steeper inclines, axle deep in ousing red mud, to where all traces of road end and our journey into the rainforest begins by river. Locals, often three-up on ancient motorbikes, usually helmetless and in shorts and flip-flops, slithered towards us in fear of their lives! It was dark when we finally arrived upriver, by fast, narrow out-baord propelled craft, at Refugio Amazonas, a rainforest conservation lodge on the edge of the Tambopata National Reserve. Our accommodation for the night was clean and friendly, kerosene lamps, candles, cold showers, mosquito netted twin beds and en suite, open on one side to the elements - the mosquitos, the anacondas, jaguars, monkeys and poison frogs. The night was black as pitch, eerily silent awaiting the music of dawn, the cicadas, the echoing waterdrop-call of the oropendolas
and the haunting grumbling of howler monkeys.
Many organised tours stop here in Refugio Amazonas to sample the 'jungle experience', for guided walks, views from the canopy tower, a visit to a local farm and ox-bow lake. Yuri, the guide allotted to our 'gang of six', took us out to the tower for an brief introduction to some of the stunning tropical birds before our boat left the dock mid-morning, heading upriver once again. We'll be returning to Refugio Amazonas for an overnight stop on our way back to Perto Maldonado in a few days.
A further four and a half hours up the Rio Tambopata we finally reached our targeted destination with the help of a pilot to guide us through the rapid shallow waters, littered with fallen trees. The Tambopata Research Centre is a lodge set up in the designated National Reserve to study the behavior of macaws. Another tiring day and, by general concensus, we postponed the planned post-dinner night-walk for another day!
It's pitch dark. It is 4am. Who is that ugly fella in the mirror trying to shave by candlelight? Just time to cold-shower in the flicker of the kerosene lamp before
grabbing a quick coffee to shake the brain into action.Yuri, our guide, is waiting on the verandah to walk with us back along the footpath to the river. It's still dark but there's a welcome gentle breeze at the river's edge and we can hear the rumble of an outboard motor a short way upstream. The cicadas are awake and whistling and howler monkeys are growling like gorillas, a flicker of daylight sparkles across the river, a dusky blue line on the horizon, quickly turning the whole sky to shades of lavender and pink. Within minutes we are transported to the river bank further upstream, to sit and wait in silence, to watch for movement on the skyline across a narrow tributary as the copper banks a hundred metres across the water slowly turn to gold in the first rays of a Sunday sun. Across the sky, macaws and parrots cast dark silhouettes in small groups of three to five, gathering in the tall trees. Gradually the air warms to a comfortable level and the birds begin to call excitedly, a raucus squawking, louder and louder, like a WI tea-party, as they all take flight, filling the air with an
exotic rainbow of gold and turquoise, blue and red, green and yellow; hundreds upon hundreds of magnificent birds sweeping across in front of us to land on the mineral-rich banks along the river. This amazing scene has been on our wish-list for many a year. That's one hell of a 'Wow!' And not to be disappointed there's a chance to do it again tomorrow!
Despite Yuri's forecast of rain for the duration of our stay, the sun worked its way through the deep tree-cover in bright shafts every day. He also told me, in response to my question, that we would not see the resplendent Hoatzin, a somewhat ungainly bird I had hoped to see. 'They're not in these parts', he told me. Oh, well, you can't win 'em all. There's a chance we could find them elsewhere.
By the time we left Tambopata, we had seen all seven of the primates in the region; the delightful squirrel monkeys, red howler monkeys, a night monkey, saddle-back tamarins, spider monkeys, capucines and a dusky titi monkey, plus capybaras, peccaries, tree frogs, exotic butterflies, and tarantulas - and a satisfying list of exciting colourful birds - fantastic! The mosquitos left
us alone; they are doubtless a pest in the rainy season. We did sweat buckets on our walks in the rainforest!
Back at Refugio Amazonas a couple of days later, we took a brief boat ride, paddling across a placid, mirrored, oxbow lake to look for piranhas and caimen just before sundown. We were not fussed about the caimen as we had seen them on our way upriver, but the piranhas performed well for us, chasing bits of bread thrown overboard. To a man, we all held tight to our seats! Amidst all this excitement Janice was keeping her eye out for more new birds. She spotted them first - as she often does. 'Look!' she said excitedly. 'Hoatzin!' And, sure enough, there they were, five or six of them in a family group. One up to Yuri, but we loved him for his humour - and his brilliant birding and wildlife skills.
Our next destination was Cusco, an hours flight from Puerto Maldonado and our base for the next few days. At 3,350m breathing was tough for a while. Tight chested, we had the feeling of laying on our backs in a rowing boat looking up to
the sky. With luck we would become accustomed to the altitude before heading higher into the mountains. This is Inca country and Cusco is the Inca capital of Peru. Our arrival in Cusco was celebrated with the roar of cars at the finishing line of the Lima to Cusco rally in the Plaza Armas to rowdy cheers from the enormous crowd around the square! A small parade of dancers followed the tail-enders, celebrating some religious event clearly associated with booze and fat stomachs. They do like to celebrate in Cusco.
The Incas were incredibly busy during their brief rule, as evidenced by the enormous scale of each of the tasks they set themselves in the name of their Gods, the sheer power of their devotion to Earth, Sun and Water, over their three hundred year rule before the arrival of the Spanish. Inca ruins now surround the town of Cusco and follow the trail through The Sacred Valley of the Incas beside the tumbling Urubamba River to Machu Picchu and beyond.
There were a few ruins on our hefty schedule, but of particular interest to us were the sites of Sascayhuaman, (known locally as 'sexy-woman'😉 a significant ceremonial ruin
of considerablle proportions with finely crafted granite blocks in zig-zag formation - and Ollantayambo, a huge fortress on an incredibly steep terraced incline, where the Incas did battle with the Conquistadors back in 1536. There can be no comparison with Stonehenge here. Granite blocks, some weighing more than 130 tons, were manually handled over 4km from the quarry across the valley at Sascayhuaman where they were hand hewn to finite limitations, fitting precisely, jig-saw like, with intricate interlocking edges to form the high ramparts.
A four-hour journey by Vistadrome train took us the 57 miles from Cusco, rattling beside the Urubamba River through the Valley of the Incas once more, past fields of maize, bullock-ploughed meadows and small farming communities, threading between vertical canyon walls, down and down, descending more than one thousand metres, surrounded by snowy peaks of the Andes high above, down to the semi-tropical cloud-forest surrounding Machu Picchu - an amazing journey in true Pullman style. The train came to a halt by the river in the town of Aguas Calientes mid-morning and it took a further 25 minutes by bus for us to reach the magical site of Machu Picchu .
... or 'sexy woman' as it is locally known.
has to be the highlight of any visit to Peru. There is so much mystery surrounding the Incas and the picture in everyone's mind is the ruins set amongst the cloud shrouded mountain peaks. We must all have it embedded in our minds, like the Taj Mahal.
We stood in silence as Machu Picchu came into view from the track, over-awed by its magnificence and the clear knowledge that we had finally arrived.
To understand the power of the Machu Picchu experience one surely has to be there. For there is only one word that can truly describe it. That word is, Wow! (Or is it Amazing! or Awesome? or Unbelievable? ......)
Much of the aura surrounding Machu Piccu is indeed the consequence of location, location location. The setting is as one might imagine the Lost World of Jules Verne; surrounded on all sides by the high rugged peaks of the tree-clad Andean rainforest, brushed with cloud and razor shafts of sun bleaching the sky.
The aura of Machu Piccu is further enhanced by the knowledge that such a great civilisation was lost, to the last man, at the mighty hand of the Conquistadors in the
16th Century in the name of Colonialisation.
Igneous rock was quarried here, used for building vast terraces from the valley below to support this city of around 1000 people it's believed. The site is on the scale of Pompei, a complex architectural feat beyond belief. Inca ruins exist along the length of the Inca Trail, stretching all the way from Colombia in the north to Chile, and we shall see more evidence of this as we travel.
Every town has its market. Every street corner, every doorway, everywhere a bus stops there's a market stall. Every street has its hawkers; middle-aged ladies sitting all day on stone cold steps, young ladies with colourful dolls, young men with books of paintings, restaurant touts, massage parlours - you name it, somebody is selling it on the street. They all sell the same attractive, brightly coloured products in a keliedascope of vivid colour: hats and scarves, carved gourdes, cuddly toy llamas, silver jewelry, blankets, jumpers, ponchos, chess sets, table mats, pan pipes........
Children, just out of school change their smart uniforms for traditional dress, grab the family lamb and head for the square to harry the tourist. Ladies with llamas and
baby lambs sit around at tourist spots - "Take my picture?, one Sol!" Tourism is big and everywhere, there's a bob to be earned.
Beyond the palm-print of tourism, the Peru so far witnessed remains a building site, untidy and rubble strewn as the adobe brick buildings crumble to be replaced with concrete blocks, a sure sign of economic progress. Nothing appears finished however, piles of rubble litter the streets everywhere, roads are generally unsurfaced and rutted, steel rods emerge from every roof-top and abandoned adobe houses remain derelict. It's probably a tax dodge, but its certainly not helping the Peruvian economy or its pride. Peru is far from third world but there is doubtless considerable poverty in western terms. It is a country of incredibly diverse beauty divided by the mighty Andes, struggling to maintain its crumbling infrastructure with inadequate machinery and capital. Unemployment is high but the signs for the future are good. Mining is high on their list of export opportunity, with copper at the forefront in great demand, and despite low earnings there are smiling faces everywhere. Tourism is obviously extremely important for both income and employment. To make the point, there was more celebrating
back at Cusco the following day, with a carnival style parade celebrating - tourism. A military band and salutes to local dignitaries preceeded the parade of dozens of floats lasting most of the morning! Colourful costumes and lively music provided by tour companies, hotels, information offices and all things touristy helped to make our stay in delightful Cusco more memorable.
Tomorrow we're off to Puno and Lake Titicaca by bus. It's an eight hour journey and we'll need to be up early - yet again! There's a four-poster in our room so we'll say good-night for now, perchance to dream of further Peruvian adventures still to come.
We are indeed living life's dreams; yet one more dream fulfilled with the colour and charm of Peru's magnificent past.
David and Janice
The grey haired nomads
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