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Manu: into the Jungle

On 18 November 2010 from Lima, Peru | comments closed

There are many places from where to explore the jungle in South America, but most require an expensive flight to get there and away. Manu National Park is one of the exceptions, as it can be reached by car from Cusco. I booked a 5-day/4-night trip with Atalaya Peru, leaving Friday 12 November. Until Paucartambo it was normal sealed road, but quickly thereafter it turned into a one-lane gravel road that was winding its way through the mountains. We made stops along the way to see waterfalls, cock-of-the-rock birds and monkeys. Arriving at the Atalaya Lodge I noticed the lodge was on the other side of the river, and no bridge was present. A simple zip-line trolley was used to get people and cargo to the lodge, where resident red howler monkeys and macaws were awaiting. In the evening the guide Alici took us on a nocturnal tour of the rainforest.

Saturday started with a bath underneath a small waterfall, followed by a visit to a small farm with Scarlet and Bolivian Macaws. In the afternoon we took a longboat to the Amaru Mayu Lodge, located on a cliff next to the Upper Mother of God river. From there we made a jungle walk, spotting dusky titi monkeys and eating pineapple fresh from the tree.

On Sunday we got up early to spot parrot claylicks from a longboat. During the following jungle tour we saw heliconia, cotton trees, the tree of life, cecropia tree, walking palm tree, ceiba pentandra and erotic palm tree. I also got the chance to play Tarzan swinging through the jungle on strangler fig vines. On the fauna side there were army ants, centipedes, hoatzins, blue-grey tanager, social flycatcher, horned screamers, black-capped donacobius, capybaras and red-capped cardinal.

On Monday we made a visit to the village of Pilcopata, before returning back to the Atalaya Lodge with its resident red howler monkeys. In the afternoon Maria, Alici and I went for a jungle walk to the big waterfall, and in the evening we spotted a large toad nearby the lodge. Tuesday was already time for the long drive back to Cusco.

I Survived the Inca Trail

On 11 November 2010 from Cusco, Peru | comments closed

That is what the t-shirt and 2 certificates say, so it must be true. Not that there was any doubt about this, although I have to admit that the days when I was the first one to reach the top of the pass are over.

The Inca Trail is the one activity in Peru that needs to be pre-booked well in advance, as the government (rightly so) only allows 500 people a day. I booked my trek with Peru Treks for their excellent price/quality ratio. They are able to offer good rates because the group size is relatively large with 16 people in a group. For me that was not an issue, and it actually made it more social, especially during dinner where everyone was sitting together in a large tent. It was all very well organised. I was woken up with tea/coffee/hot chocolate at my tent in the morning, there were 3-course lunch and dinners, a large cake at the last dinner, and the tent was already built up when we arrived at the campsite. My sort of camping. I also had a private tent, since there were only 2 people in each tent for 4 people, but there were 3 Swedish guys that wanted to stay together. Aside from the Swedish and 2 Irish guys, the rest were all couples though.

Although it is not the toughest trek in the area, the Inca Trail is not a walk in the park. The second day has a 1100m increase in altitude to 4200m, called Dead Woman’s Pass. On the last steep uphill bits I had to stop every 50m or so to have my heart beat normally again. I really noticed that I got 5 years older since my last real high-altitude hiking trip to Nepal in 2005. Need to do more exercise when back in Europe. I do feel it is getting better though, but I guess that I am also getting used to the altitude. The one thing that makes the Inca Trail stand out from the other treks in the area are the remains of the Inca Empire, like the Llactapata, Runkurakay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca and Wiñay Wayna Ruins.

The last day of the Inca Trail starts early in the morning, with all the groups leaving at the same time to Intipunku, the Sun Gate. Unfortunately, when we arrived to Intipunku all there was to see were white clouds, no view at all of Machu Picchu. So we continued down to Machu Picchu for our guided tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Before the tour started, I was able to get a space to climb Huayna Picchu (spaces to climb sell out quickly in the morning), making it possible to see everything in one (long) day. During the morning tour we learned a lot about the site and its amazing stonework. By 11:00 the clouds had dissipated, so there was a clear view of the site when I climbed Huayna Picchu. After 4 days of trekking and the additional climb I was quite exhausted, so the hot springs in Aguas Calientes were very welcome at the end of the day. The next morning I took the train back to Cusco.

Cusco

On 6 November 2010 from Cusco, Peru | comments closed

Cusco is one of the rare cities that can keep a serious traveller busy for a week, especially when considering the surrounding countryside. As I had 4 full days before the start of the Inca Trail, I had an easy start on Tuesday by checking in at Peru Treks and paying the remainder of my Inca Trail fee. In the afternoon I visited Qorikancha, Monasterio de Santa Catalina and checked out trips to Manu (Amazon rainforest).

Wednesday it was time to do some sightseeing of the Inca ruins around Cusco. I took the bus to Tambomachay and walked from there to Puka Pukara, Q’enqo and finally Saqsaywamán (pronounce as “Sexy Woman”). From this last Inca ruins the Christo Blanco (large white Christ statue) was visible and I visited this before walking down into the city of Cusco.

For Thursday I booked an all-day tour of the Sacred Valley. It was quite good value, and I soon discovered why. The first stop consisted of a great deal of stalls selling handicrafts and other touristy items. Luckily we didn’t stay for too long and went to the Inca citadel of Pisac. It was easy to see why the Incas had become so powerful: their fortresses were near-imprenetrable because of the location. If attackers did manage they would have to expose themselves getting to the top, as the fortress was designed to force attackers in a single line. After a touristy buffet lunch, we continued to the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo, another site with a great view. This one had great stonework too. The final stop of the day was in Chinchero, where a demonstration of the colouring and weaving of wool was given. Obviously with the intent to sell, but I quickly sneaked out and went to explore the small town.

Friday was the last day before the start of the Inca Trail, and I decided to take it easy, and explore a few more sites in Cusco: the Waterfall Monument and the Pachakuteq Monument, which turned out to be quite a walk from the city centre; taking it easy turned into a warming up for the next day.

The Wednesday after the Inca Trail I would watch traditional dances in the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo, and Thursday I would visit the Catedral and Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús.

Arequipa & Lake Titicaca

On 2 November 2010 from Cuzco, Peru | comments closed

Thursday was a good day to check out the sights in Arequipa. Literally everybody told me to visit the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, so I strolled some hours through the passageways, checking out the nun’s cells and making lots of photos. Very much recommended indeed. Afterwards I had some French crepes at another recommended place. They provided the energy to visit de Museo de Arte Virreinal de Santa Teresa, where I got a nice private tour. Then it was back to Cayma by combi, a very cramped minibus. After a brief visit to the church, I decided to walk back to the hostel, a good chance to practice my Spanish, as I had no map of the area and therefore no clue how to get there. I managed.

Friday was spent in the bus to Puno (6 hours) and booking a 2-day tour of the islands in Lake Titicaca. Located at an altitude of 3800m high, it was better not to do too much the first day.

Saturday morning our boat left to the Uros Islands, manmade floating islands made of reed. A boat made of the same reed brought us from one island to the next. Even though the islands itself are a spectacular feat, they were way too touristy for my taste, and it was simply cringing to hear islanders sing songs in English and other European languages. So off to Isla Amantani it was. After docking, we (4 French and myself) were picked up by our host family were we had lunch. Late afternoon we climbed the highest hill of the island (4150m) to watch the sunset and after dinner with our host family, we got dressed in traditional outfits and joined the traditional dancing in the local discotheque (stretching the word here).

Sunday morning we had a nice pancake breakfast at the host family and then set of to Isla Taquile were we walked around the island and had lunch. In the afternoon we went back to Puno, where halloween celebrations were still in full order. In the restaurant I got served by a monster, and I have never seen so many Grim Reapers (“Magere Hein”) wandering the streets.

Monday I took an overpriced Turismo Mer bus from Puno to Cusco. The advantage compared to the normal busses is that it stops at some (pre-)Inca sites along the way: Pucará, Abra la Raya (all busses stop here), Raqchi and Andahuaylillas. This did break up the journey quite nicely, and Raqchi really was an amazing site, with a huge temple and some 156 circular storage silos. In the evening I arrived to Cusco, 4 days early for the booked Inca Trail, but with plenty to do in the meantime. I am staying at Pariwana Hostel, which is quite central and a good place to meet people.