Articles tagged with "peru"



Just a few miles north of Arica was the border with Peru. Colectivos plied the route, leaving from near where I was staying. I’d planned to spend three days in Parque Nacional Lauca, but was thwarted by arriving on a weekend and could only spend one day there, so I had time to spare and decided to spend an afternoon in Peru.

I got to Tacna in the early afternoon. I passed through the long distance bus station, saw buses going to Cuzco, Arequipa, Lima and other places, and felt outrageously tempted to abandon my flight home and disappear into Peru for a while instead. Touts shouted destinations at me, assuming I was on my way to somewhere. But I decided to be sensible, and carried on into town.

Tacna was astonishingly different from Arica. The difference of 20 miles made an appalling difference to the lives and chances of people on one side of the border compared to the other. Arica was a bit grubby and noticeably poorer than places further south, but Tacna was far, far worse off. Every time I sat down I was surrounded by shoe-shine children, desperately trying to make a little bit of money. If they’d only been born a little bit further south they might have had a childhood. It seemed horrifically arbitrary and depressing.

It was grey and overcast when I arrived, but later the sun came out, and Tacna’s cathedral looked quite nice in the evening light. As it got dark I thought I’d better head back to Chile. I walked back to the bus station and got in a taxi. The border crossing was most of the journey, and I didn’t make things easy for myself by misplacing my entry card, which I’d only got few hours earlier. I rummaged in every corner of my backpack, embarrassed to be causing delays. The border guard muttered something about me being a stoner, which I thought was a little bit harsh. He said I could pay 9 soles if I couldn’t find it, but luckily I did, and got out of Peru without further incident. We passed through customs, and a Peruvian girl pointed out that one of the pockets of my backpack was open. We started chatting and she was a bit put out that I’d spent only one day in Peru. I told her about my previous trip where I’d travelled the whole length of the country, and that placated her. She was from Tacna but had lived in Cuzco and we chatted about places there.

And then my taxi was ready to head off. I got back in and crossed finally into Chile. As we approached Arica I saw a sign that said “Santiago 2085”. I was quite glad I’d booked a flight and would not have to cover that in a 36 hour bus journey.

Journey to Ecuador

Journey to Ecuador

Having seen Kuelap, we decided it was time to head for Ecuador. To do this we could either retrace our steps back to Chiclayo and then get a bus along the coast road, or take an extremely off-the-beaten-track route through the mountains. We decided we were in the mood for beating new tracks, and so the next day we set off on a multi-stage odyssey. The day saw us getting collectivos from Chachapoyas to the villages of Pedro Ruiz and Bagua Grande, and then from Bagua Grande we got a lift in a combi van heading for Jaén. Jaén was quite a large place but it clearly doesn’t see many foreigners. We were besieged at the bus station by moto-taxi drivers and felt a certain unfriendly vibe about the place. It was late when we arrived, so we stayed the night.

In the morning we got a collectivo to San Ignacio, close to the Ecuadorian border. We had planned a brief stop, but we proved to be a huge attraction for the kids here, and we ended up spending a couple of hours being the centre of attention, a situation which Dave exacerbated hugely by letting the children use his digital camera. I thought I might as well hand mine out as well, and the kids raced off around the village taking random pictures. Eventually we decided it was time to go, and we got our cameras back. In this muddy village in the middle of nowhere in rural Peru, it came as quite a surprise when the kids gave us their e-mail addresses, and asked us to send them the photos.

We got another collectivo to La Balsa, the border post. Our driver on this leg was a bit over-enthusiastic on the rough roads and picked up a puncture, which delayed us for a while. His spare tyre was also punctured, so in the end we walked to the next village while he gently free-wheeled, and by the time we got there after half an hour or so, he’d found another tyre and was ready to go again. We got to the border shortly before it closed for the day, and crossed a bridge over the river to Ecuador. On the other side we got a fantastic open-sided wooden bus to Zumba, which took us through some incredible scenery and bounced around so much I had to hold on tightly to avoid being thrown out the side. From Zumba we got on the final stage of the journey with an overnight bus to Loja.

Ruins of the north

Ruins of the north

We were heading for Chachapoyas, in the mountains of the north, but we stopped at Chiclayo because there were some pre-Inca ruins at Túcume nearby that we thought we might as well have a look at. We got a colectivo to the ruins. It was about a half hour drive and I slept much of the way, wedged comfortably in amongst a lot of locals carrying a lot of produce. We walked the mile or so from where we got dropped off to the ruins, but once we arrived we weren’t too impressed. It took us a while to work out what were ruins and what were just hills. The guide book claimed that there were 28 pyramids, but only with a lot of imagination could we even see two. But a hill in the middle of the site gave some good views over the plains, and it was a nice hot day. After doing as much looking around as we could, we got a moto-taxi back to the main road and then a colectivo back into the centre of town. A huge meal at a restaurant by the Plaza de Armas prepared us for a second consecutive night on a bus, and as night fell we were on our way inland and upwards into the mountains.

We got to Chachapoyas at 4.30am, and slept on the bus until 7am. When buses arrived ridiculously early in Peru, people often stayed on board until sensible times, and it was always fantastic to be able to get a couple of hours more sleep, without the engine noise and bumpy roads to contend with. After a night of clubbing in Lima followed by two nights on buses, we were pretty wrecked and spent the day ambling around town and drinking coffees. We were about 2500m above sea level, and my previous month of acclimatisation had all but disappeared in three days at sea level.

The next morning we were up at 6.45am, and went for breakfast at the hotel from which a trip to the ruins of Kuelap was leaving. When we booked this, the manager had specifically promised us good coffee for the morning, so we were more disappointed than usual to find that as so often in Peru, the coffee was disgusting. In most places, ‘coffee’ came as some kind of cold concentrate which you add hot water to, and it was vile. But we were still looking forward to seeing the ruins, and although we set off a bit late (“Sorry about this”, said the hotel manager; “There’s a few Peruvians going with you today, so we won’t be leaving on time”), the journey there was spectacular, along a winding track through the mountains. It was a cool and cloudy day, and it began to rain as we arrived at the site.

Straight away I was impressed by Kuelap. The ruins seemed much more impressive to me than Machu Picchu had, the setting in the mountains was almost as amazing, and there were only eight of us here. A huge defensive wall around the site looked incredible in the mist and rain. A pack of llamas was wandering around the ruins, occasionally blocking paths and looking surly, but fortunately they didn’t spit at us. Briefly the rain became torrential, and we took shelter with some archaeologists who were working on restoring a building and had a tarpaulin shelter. Once it eased off again, we explored a bit more. The site covered a huge area, and we probably didn’t even see half of it before it was time to go. On our way back to Chachapoyas, we stopped at a restaurant for a late lunch. I ordered guinea pig, an essential Andean cultural experience even for an aspiring vegetarian. I was glad I had tried it, but once is really enough. There wasn’t much meat on my guinea pig, and what there was was a bit rubbery.

Back down to sea level

Back down to sea level

After another day of recovery in Arequipa, sleeping and eating and doing nothing else at all, I got an overnight bus to Lima. In the capital I was going to meet my friend Dave, who had decided that being an artist in northern Spain was lucrative enough for him to afford a holiday. He was going to be travelling in Peru and Ecuador for six weeks, and we planned to travel north from Lima to Quito, from where I’d fly home and Dave would head off into the jungle.

During the night ride to Lima, I saw some spectacular coastal scenery. It was the first time I’d been at sea level for 35 days, and the air seemed thick and soupy. There is twice as much oxygen at sea level as there is at 5800m, and I could really feel it. In the morning we were near Ica, in the desert, and it was hotter than anywhere I’d been since San Pedro in the Atacama. We got to Lima just after midday, and although I’d heard many horror stories about fake taxis robbing tired travellers on arrival, I found a legit taxi and managed to get to a hostel in Barranco, which proved to be a very wealthy suburb. In the evening I walked down to the beach. I was warned by a friendly local to take care of my belongings and watch out for groups of young people, but I had no problems. I watched a beautiful sunset over the Pacific Ocean, and thought that Lima looked like a pretty impressive city, perched on the edge of the cliffs overlooking the sea.

The following night we went out clubbing. Barranco has a legendary street in which every building is a club, and we worked our way along it. Some were good, some were poor, but it was all great fun. When we left the final club, it was getting light, and we decided not to bother sleeping but stayed up until breakfast was served at 8.45am. It was a blazing hot sunny day, and it had been a good night out in Lima.

During the day we went into the centre of Lima, which was palpably dodgier than Barranco. Soon after we arrived some old man tried to give me an old Sol coin, in what I was sure must be some kind of scam although I couldn’t see how. He pressed the coin into the palm of my hand and then walked off. A few seconds later a passing child asked what it was, and I gave it to him rather than hold on to it. We were right outside a cafe, and as we went in, the owner told us to watch out for scammers on this particular street. But other than that we had no problems and we spent a couple of hours looking around.

Having skipped a night’s sleep, it would have been good to be staying one more night in Lima, but foolishly we’d booked an overnight bus to Chiclayo in the north. We got a ride to the bus terminal with a very friendly taxi driver, who told us to watch out for women spiking our drinks in bars, and described lots of traditional Peruvian food that we had to try while we were here. The bus terminal was more like an airport, with check-in desks and waiting lounges, and in our sleep-deprived states it took us a while to work everything out. We boarded the bus just in time, and shortly after it left at 9pm, I fell deeply asleep.

Such great heights

Such great heights

I didn’t sleep that much, and lay awake for much of the evening, dreading the midnight call. Luckily it wasn’t too cold, and when the call came I managed to rouse some enthusiasm. I checked my pack and my headlamp, and put on my warm clothes. We had some jam sandwiches for breakfast, and Roy cooked up some mate de coca. I’d had this traditional Andean drink lots of times already, but despite its supposed stimulant qualities it hadn’t really done much for me. But this time it did. I don’t know what Roy did differently with this brew, but before long I was feeling absolutely fantastic. The pace seemed easy and my pack seemed light. The skies were incredibly clear, and we saw a couple of bright meteors. The climb was going very well. Johan was climbing strongly as well, but the Peruvians seemed to be struggling. The German was also not looking at all happy, and they all decided to keep on going at a slower pace. Johan, Roy and I headed on up, keeping up a good rate.

Climbing at night was a strange experience. It was quite easy to follow the trail, but the darkness made it impossible to tell how far we’d come or how far we had to go. The summit loomed above us, its silhouette against the stars unchanging. Far below, the lights of Arequipa twinkled. By 3am, the zodiacal light was very bright, and it didn’t seem long at all from then until the first hint of dawn appeared. We could see the Peruvians still climbing, a few hundred metres below us, but before it got properly light we saw that they’d given up and were heading back to the campsite. At 5.30am, the sun rose stunningly over the nearby peaks of Chachani.

By now I was feeling less fantastic than I had done, but still pretty good. Johan was beginning to feel the altitude, though. I began to lose track of time, and concentrated only on keeping on plodding up the mountainside. At 7am we realised we were very close to the top, but by then I was seriously feeling the altitude, and we spent 45 minutes covering the last hundred metres to the top. And there we were, just over 5800m above sea level, in the middle of the Andes, standing by the gently steaming crater of El Misti. The countryside was wreathed in mist, which was lit up spectacularly by the morning sun.

Johan was feeling very unwell with the altitude, so he and Roy soon set off down the mountain. I stayed at the top to explore for a bit, and it was an incredible feeling to be alone on top of a huge mountain, so tired from the climb but feeling energised by the daylight. The crater was quite active, with extensive yellow sulphur deposits and lots of volcanic gases gently rising.

At about 9am I decided to head back down the mountain. This involved ploughing down a scree-filled gully, which was so steep that I felt in constant danger of triggering enormous landslides. I had to constantly lean back to keep my balance, and after an hour or so this started altering my perception so that whenever I stood up straight, the horizon seemed to curve upwards. I carried on down in silence, becoming slightly paranoid that I might have got the wrong route, but eventually I saw Roy in the distance. By 11am I was back at the camp, where I found that everyone but Johan and Roy had long gone. We wearily packed up, and then trudged back down the trail. This seemed to take forever, and by the time we reached the road we were exhausted. There we met a group of hikers on their way up, and it turned out Roy was guiding them, so he set off back up the mountain. I hoped he was earning good money, because he had been an excellent guide.

I was possibly more tired by now than I’d ever been before, but also ravenously hungry. Appetites tend to disappear at high altitude, and so all I’d eaten since my jam sandwiches at midnight had been two bananas. By the time I got back to my hostel I was in terrible straits because I couldn’t decide whether I was too tired to eat or too hungry to sleep. In the end I fell fast asleep for an hour, then woke up with such a raging hunger that I literally ran out to find food, and ate two full meals.

That evening I looked up at the mountain and could hardly believe I’d been standing on its summit just hours before. I felt like I owned it.

El Misti

El Misti

I arrived in Arequipa just after dawn on a beautiful day. Confronting me as I arrived, soaring into the deep blue sky with a dusting of snow on top, was what I had come here to climb – El Misti. My South America plans had always involved climbing at least one big mountain, and El Misti is one of the easiest ways to do that – it’s a popular climb from Arequipa, and it doesn’t get at all technical. The main thing that stops people getting to the top is the fact that it’s 5822 metres tall – just over 19,000 feet. But I’d been acclimatising to altitude for more than a month, and it was time to put that to good use. I got down to business quickly, booking a guided trip to climb the mountain the next day, and then shopping for energy food. The extremely friendly owner of the Sillar Negro hostel where I was staying was a keen climber himself, and when I told him I was doing the climb, he came out with me to recommend good food to buy.

At 8am the following morning I was at the offices of the climbing company, getting kitted out. There were nine of us climbing that day – me, a Swede, a German and seven Peruvians. We sorted out who was going to carry what, met our guides Roy and Angél, and then drove up to the start of our climb, a few kilometres outside Arequipa and a few hundred metres higher. The climb was to take two days, the first taking us to a campsite 4400m above sea level. I took it quite easy to get there, but found the last hundred metres or so very tiring. This was the highest I’d ever brought myself on foot, and we were still 1400m below the summit. We cooked up some dinner, and then received the shocking news that we were going to set off for the summit at midnight. Apparently, the crater was emitting a lot of volcanic gas later in the day, and it was safest to get there as soon as possible after sunrise. We set up our camp, mostly in cloud but with occasional breaks revealing the summit high above. At 6pm Johan the Swede and I tried to get some sleep, but the Peruvians had a more cavalier attitude to proceedings, drinking pisco and talking loudly until late.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

The journey to Peru was easy, with the border being just a few miles from Copacabana. I got another stamp in my passport, filled my wallet with more new currency, and got a bus to Puno. I killed a few hours there sheltering from heavy rain in cafes and restaurants, and then got an overnight bus to Cuzco, for just 25 soles. And it was an extremely comfortable bus, with the fantastic Cruz del Sur company. The strangest part of the journey was the game of bingo which happened just after dinner. Everyone on the bus was given a card, and the stewardess started reading out numbers. The prize, apparently, was two free return tickets on any Cruz del Sur route, which sounded very useful to me. Not entirely understanding whether I needed just a row, a column or everything to win, I came dangerously close to making a fool of myself, but luckily managed to avoid it. But I didn’t win.

We arrived at Cuzco at 3am, and I slept on the bus until 6am. The city has a reputation for sometimes violent robbery so on the whole I was a bit nervous when I got a taxi into the centre. But the taxi driver didn’t rob me, and I made it unscathed to the hostel I wanted to stay at. My whole Cuzco experience was pretty much trouble free, except for the extraordinary difficulty I had trying to get to Machu Picchu without going on a tour. After a day and a half of trying to buy just a train ticket and nothing else, I finally discovered the train ticket office opening times – 5am to 9am. Exasperated and pressured for time, I was forced to buy a train/hostel/entry ticket combination from a tour operator.

The train journey to Aguas Calientes was very impressive, along the valley of the raging Urubamba river and surrounded by towering mountains. Aguas Calientes is a pure tourist town, but not as much of a rip-off as I’d expected, and quite relaxed. After a couple of hours, though, it gets boring, and I killed an afternoon by walking down the river valley for a while.

The following morning I caught the first bus to the ruins, at 5.30am. It was still dark, and I was pleased to see that the bus was not full. It’s only a short drive to Machu Picchu, up a dramatic switchback road, and so before 6am we were at the site. I hurried up to the Caretaker’s Hut, which gives the classic view of the ruins with Huayna Picchu rising behind, and watched as mist drifted over the ruins while the sun rose. It was a beautiful sunrise, and there were only a couple of other people around.

I wandered down to the main ruins. They are spectacularly well preserved, and it’s incredible to think that they were completely unknown less than a hundred years before I was there. But I thought that actually, they were nothing like as spectacular as the temples at Tikal, which I’d visited five years previously. One of Tikal’s pyramids was the tallest building in the Americas when Columbus landed; Machu Picchu’s buildings are far more modest, albeit much more spectacularly situated. Tikal is in the jungle, while Machu Picchu is sat on a narrow ridge, surrounded by a bend in the Urubamba river, and with beautiful Andean peaks stretching away into the distance.

I walked through the main square, and then to the base of Huayna Picchu, the dramatic hill which towers over the site. It’s a tough and very steep climb, especially if you got up at 5am, but I made it to the top without too many rest breaks, only to find myself deep in cloud. I waited around for a long while, and eventually the clouds started to break up and move away, and I was rewarded with breathtaking views of the ruins and the mountains. To top it all off, a single condor flew by, just inches above my head, showing off his huge wingspan before flying around over the ruins for a while.

At midday, I came back down, and found the ruins far busier than they had been. I decided I’d seen enough here and it was time to move on again. I was thirsty enough to pay an outrageous price for a drink at the entrance to the ruins, but still tight enough to deeply resent the commercialism of it all. Back at Aguas Calientes I got on the train again, had another magnificent journey up the river valley in blazing evening sunshine, and then after another night in Cuzco I got a bus to Arequipa.