Thursday, 24 October 2013

Cuzco and The Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu

(We keep swapping writing so apologies if this is confusing!)

We arrived in Cuzco in the early morning on Thursday 10th after a very windy and sleep deprived bus journey. Cuzco sits at 3300m. It is a stunning city built on massive Inca foundations.

Like in Arequipa, we went on the Free Walking Tour of the city. Once again, we were taken to various bars and restaurants for tasters including more alpaca meat. We walked through lovely squares, steep pathways and tight cobbled streets, passing all sorts of tempting looking shops that I assured Kyle we would be returning to.

We went up to a high viewing point to see the city from above; quite a challenge we found at altitude!

Whilst standing in the sun and listening to the guides talk about the impressive Inca walls in front of us, one of the group members fainted and smacked her head pretty hard on the concrete. An ambulance had to be called. It was quite a shock to see how vulnerable one is at altitude.

It was in this city that we made firm friends with a couple, Alex and Bea; who amazingly came all the way from Peckham, South East London.

When you are this far from home this made us basically neighbours; they know Charlie and Lyle from Flock and Herd butchers and Anderson and Co Café run by Hereward and Lisa. We had met each other in Arequipa when staying at the Flying Dog and got the same bus to Cuzco, sharing the taxi to the depot.

Over the following days we spent our time exploring the city.

We went out to some great restaurants together that Hannah keeps finding (she is becoming our private gastronomical GPS).

The four of us also spent a great deal of time in the Choco Museo, sampling the delicious chocolates, liquors and tea. Hannah bought some Coca husk, which makes a  delicious and healthy brew.

We went on little shopping sprees buying alpaca goods to natural energy granola bars for our treks. Hannah bought a beautiful bag from this very kind, gentle woman who is also a Shaman. It is around 50yrs old and made from an original ceremonial blanket with lots of good energy and vibes. The lady sang to us in Quechan, it was special. She then asked us to return the offer with a song. Luckily none of us obliged for fear of ruining the beautiful moment that just occurred.  

We revisited ‘Luther’ an old man who makes various traditional instruments in the arty bohemian district of San Blas. We all had a little jam and played together making some only just bearable music.

A guitar made from Armadillo shell!

By the time we were finished the sun was setting and we headed down the hill to our favourite Japanese restaurant for grub and a couple for Pisco Sours

...before our next appointment at a local bar for a Pisco Sour cocktail making workshop.

This in turn kicked off a BIG NIGHT OUT! At the bar we were shown the measurements, ingredients and technique on how to make our own Piscos.

What followed was pure comical mayhem at the bar, some very drunken pool playing back at our hostel and barely comprehensible or memorable conversations about how close we all lived.

Hannah and Alex discovered they were even closer to home with each other; having lived in West Horsley and Ripley, going to neighbouring schools, members of the same swimming club and having the same dentist!  
The next day Kyle claimed to be suffering from the worst hangover he has EVER had!! Not fun in the altitude!

One Sunday morning we stumbled on a military/community service and procession in the Plaza De Armas which we watched for a good hour.

What was most bizarre about this procession was the inclusion of many different aged school kids. Behind the real soldiers with machine guns at the ready marching through the main square were lines of children between 4 & 6 years old dressed as field nurses and mini officers griping their mini guns. All trying to march in time whilst desperately looking for glimpses of their proud parents spattered amongst the crowd. Very bizarre indeed but pretty cute to watch. Not sure the UK parents or MOD for that matter would agree with the inclusion but there we go.

Afterward we strolled around a little longer and visited the San Pedro market. 

Fascinating to observe the rows and rows of stall holders all selling what looks like the same product and a great spot for some local people watching. Everyone and everything is so different! The colours, foods, smells and dogs looking for scraps on the floor.

What struck us most was the amount of elderly women working everywhere. From restocking the fruit and veg, chopping up meat, carrying HUGE bundles of produce on their backs and generally looking very tired! Life's pretty tough.

One afternoon we visited the San Blas plaza. 

We are fond of the laid back atmosphere of the area and had a small siesta on the sunny benches in the square before being gently awoken by a young woman trying to sell some belts. After politely saying ‘no gracias, no nessicito’ a few times with sleepy eyes, suddenly out pops this very cute little girl’s face from over her mothers shoulder, being carried in a traditional Peruvian blanket. The Peruvians use these stunningly bright blankets to carry EVERYTHING in. I wish it were like this in the UK instead of those overpriced boring baby back/front packs or prams that everyone just has to own with the latest alloy wheels, 3 point harness and suspension! ...  After we saw this cute little 1 year old and having a sort of ‘Spanglish’ conversation with the sweet lady we found a nice belt and was happy to pay the S/20 (£4.45) she was asking, all to provide for herself and her ‘bonita niña’. Each belt takes roughly three days to make and is made with all natural colours. She learnt the skill from her mother when she was 15 and showed us one belt that she was half way though making. 

We spent 6 nights in total here before deciding to embark on yet another trek. The last day or two was taken up by exploring the various treks on offer from the plethora of tour ops and street vendors that dominate the city centre and purchasing some last minute trekking supplies. We opted for the ‘Jungle Trek’ which consists of 3 nights and 4 days (although we added an extra night for just $7) trekking and high adrenaline activities. All this including transport, food and our tickets to Machu Picchu for $231 each (for some reason treks are priced and paid for in dollars - cash… random).

So here begins our next phase…!

We set off on Wednesday morning after having woken at 3am to call our travel insurance company (office opening 9am UK time) to check we were in fact covered for all the activities and trekking we were about to be doing – last minute panicking – but all was well. Phew. 
Our guide, Jimmy J picked us up from our hostel. Jimmy was a nice guy but his English was limited and at the start of every ‘spiel’  of his he would begin; ‘Er…guys…please…chicos…please…er…guys…ok…’ which after the first few times of being funny, soon became extremely irritating!
It was quite a walk to the bus and a bit of a delayed start but when we were on the road, it was about a 3 hour trip with a short stop in the middle. 

In our group this time we had 2 Canadian guys, 2 Aussie guys, 3 German guys, 1 guy from Hong Kong called Frank who was quite the character, a Chilean girl called Camilla and a nice Dutch girl called Anneke. We were all in our 20’s.

Our adventure began at the top of a mountain – it was a bit rainy and cold up there in the cloud. We were layered up and set off on our bikes with our helmets, elbow and knee pads down down down! It was brilliant and such a great way to see the spectacular scenery. As soon as we started our descent the weather cleared and it was a lovely day. We spent 3 hours cycling down some 2000 metres. I stayed near the back, happy to sail and coast a lot of the time. During the last section, Kyle sped up to the front of the group speeding down in each others’ slip stream whilst I remained well and truly in the back going as fast as I could but staying far behind – my fanatical cylist brother
and Dad wouldn’t be impressed! During the way down we went through streams flowing off the mountain covering the road, some mini and others fairly deep. Especially when on a bike. These gave us very wet legs and feet, not to mention our bums! The lower we got, the hotter we got; the temperature slowly increasing until we were at the bottom – where it was very humid with lots of mozzies.

We all piled back in the bus to Santa Maria for a very late lunch. All our food we had on this trek was local (similar to Colca), some nice, some a bit suspect.

The day wasn’t over for adventure…in the late afternoon we went white water rafting again – this time on the Urubamba river. We were hoping it might be a little less tame than the Rio Chilli in Arequipa..we were not disappointed! We had been informed that it was a ‘constant grade 3’, so when Anneke started to wobble and become quite afraid while we waited by the side of the rough river, being eaten alive by sand flies, we confidently reassured her ‘not to worry, it won’t be that rough, you’ll love it…’ The first 20 seconds of setting out were the most exciting, exhilarating, frightening (and rather dangerous) experiences we have ever had rafting…no scrap that…we have ever had full stop. As a team of mostly rookies we were utterly battered and thrown around, ending up with the front of the raft on a huge rock! Kyle, who was at the front was close enough to touch it, turned behind him to look down at the rest of us getting drenched! In a split second he honestly thought 'this is it we are all going in'. Luckily the guy opposite to Kyle jumped up on his side which stopped us from actually capsizing. At this point I had to apologise to Anneke that I was horribly mistaken and believed in fact we were in grave danger – she was in floods. Kyle politely called to our guide from the front – ‘er perhaps we might need to go ashore and have a bit more practice?!’ We didn't we just buckeled up and all realised that to get through this we needed to work together as a team, and fast! The hour passed very quickly! We absolutely loved it! We had the opportunity to float down in the river in the calmer spots before panicking when we saw rocks and the beginnings of white water, frantically asking the nearest person to pull us in by our life jackets. On one occasion when Frank from Hong Kong was asked by the guide to pull Clayton from Oz in he simply turned to him and said "err no" looking back and forth between them as if he had just been asked to pull him in as joke. Foruntely Kyle was standing up as he had just pulled Claytons friend in opposite and noticed Frank had frozen at the idea, after a bit of a hero moment we were all back on board and ready for the next rapids. You couldn’t wipe the smiles of our faces! It’s a peculiar thing; genuinely fearing for your life, yet enjoying yourself immensely. Anneke called it ‘an experience never to be forgotten’ – agreed!

That night we stayed in a very basic hostel with no electricity, cold showers, toilets that you don’t want to know about; one bathroom was literally raining water everywhere, paper thin walls…I saw my first cockroach of Peru..enough said really.

The next day we set off on an 8 hour walk through the jungle. The most walking we have probably ever done in one day. It was different to Colca – much more humid, which made it tough, particularly on the up hill climbs. It was a stunning walk that followed the Urubamba river the whole way. We did part of the Inca trail which was awesome.

We made some stops on the way – one where we met a monkey (a pet). We were told to hide our sunglasses because he would steal them otherwise. All sunglasses safe, however, he managed to snatch a guy’s fresh bag of coca leaves and scatter them all over the ground and also some insect repellent which we were all worried he might drink! This monkey was a little crazy.

We also stopped at another place where we learnt about and tasted cacao in its pure form and with honey – chocolate mmm… We sampled the national fruit drinks; Chichimorado (black corn and water boiled) and Maracuña (passion fruit). Jimmy then showed us a plant that the local people use as a natural orange paint. He then proceeded to paint all our faces with the stuff – true Inca warriors!
We met another interesting animal here (also a family pet). It was like a huge mole crossed with a badger.

There was a very cute little girl there too, making us all melt! The Peruvian kids are all so beautiful. They have such striking features; red chubby cheeks, big brown eyes, always looking a bit grubby.

Whilst on the Inca trail at the highest point we all gave an offering to the Gods and Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) with 3 coca leaves – symbolising the Condor, Snake and Puma.

We had a nice lunch that day  - Spag bog – ok not very Peruvian.. and a good hour of snoozing in the hammocks! It was hard to get going again!

Nearing the end of the day we had to cross the river by ‘cable car’ – a rickety chair lift being pulled by one guy with rope from the other side of the river. 2 soles each donation!

We finished our day in the hot springs, having a very gentle time in the deliciously warm water. The water was crystal blue with small pebbles and stones underfoot. Alongside the hot springs was a waterfal straight from the mountain that was divided up into five smaller but still hefty waterfal showers. It was super COLD! I decided to stand underneath for as long as I could letting the water batter my tight shoulders, down my spine and knackered thighs. After probably just 5 mins (what felt like an hour) I jumped back into the hot water spring with Hannah. Who was sat perched on the mountain side that acted as one of the 4 spring walls. Bliss. Hannah supported my body while I floated, I seriously zoned out (barely conscious) while my head was coming into regular gentle contact with the rock. I felt so relaxed yet energised, bizzare sensations tingling through my skin. Slept well that night, apart from the drunk Germans lads.

Day 3 began with zip lining in the morning to really kick off with some adrenaline! Five long zip wires across the river and between canyons. You were harnessed in and hold on to the metal runner above. We wore thick protective gloves and when we are nearing the end of the line you must put on the ‘brakes’ by using a hand to press down on the wire for friction! Again, another absolutely brilliant experience in stunning surroundings. Towards the end we got more adventurous and went backwards and upside down! Proper Spiderman style.

We finished with canopy walking – I didn’t enjoy this one so much, in fact, not at all. You are at a height walking over the tree tops – no problem as you are attached to the wires. However, at various points you must unclip yourself to pass to the next section. This means there are moments where you aren’t safely in – you are free walking! Horrid, although Kyle disagrees and typically enjoyed that level of danger so instead of walking decided to see if he could run or skip steps.  

From Santa Teresa we drove to Hydroelectrica; where they generate electricity for surrounding towns and cities. We saw an amazing waterfall where huge volumes of water was exiting a cave, unfortunately is was definitely man made!

After lunch we got the train to Aguas Calinetes (Machu Picchu Town). It was the first train of our trip and we travelled in style. It was super luxurious and the view out the windows, including the sky light windows on roof so we could see the mountains above us, was pretty special.

That evening it was one of our nicer meals and after being briefed about tomorrow it was early to bed.

We were up at 4am and gone by 4.30. Our early start paid off and we were up at Machu Picchu gate at 5.50 and probably 2 of the first 20 people out of the 5000 that visit each day.
It was pretty foggy and cloudy but once we had climbed up the steps and walked out of the trees and entered the area, the clouds rolled over the hill, slowly dispersing revealing small sections of the ruins below. It was so quiet – there was no-one walking around; it was a moment to savour.

We spotted our group being led around by a tour guide so we joined. At that point it started raining and unfortunately got heavier.

We ended up in a hut (which you can see in the background of the photo above) where the tour finished, huddling to each other for warmth. Cold and wet. It was 8am and we had planned to be there until dusk… We played eye spy and word association games in a hut on mount Machu Picchu for a good hour! Thankfully the rain stopped so we ventured out to explore.

What a special place…the day just flew bye after this!

We snoozed for a few hours on a quiet patch by a big Inca rock, waking up feeling refreshed and cleansed. It is an Andean practice to head up a mountain, fall asleep and clear oneself of negative energy.

Once awake we peered through sleep eyes, looking out to see stunning mountain's and blue skies ahead with Llamas casually grazing close by us.

The weather got better and better and by the end of the day we were basking in glorious sunshine. I decided to get my camera and tripod together and start filming some favourite spots around Machu Picchu, I hope to cut something together soon. It was just getting more and more photographic the later it got and the lower the sun. Stunning warm glows bouncing off the Inca rock formations.

 We were the last 2 tourists to leave the site! A once in a lifetime experience.

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