Lima, Cusco, Sacred Valley and Lake Titicaca
08.07.2015 - 30.07.2015 15 °C
Hi everyone. Sorry that this is my first blog post. It has all been a bit of a whirlwind so far and it´s not the easiest thing to find a computer or internet or both here ... A few friends and family seemed keen on finding out what I was getting up to out here so I thought it would be good to put it all in a blog. At the moment I´m travelling on my own but from mid-September Sophie will be travelling with me and we´ll (hopefully) be writing together.
I arrived very tired in Lima in the evening of 8th July. I had met two French girls on the plane from New York to Lima and they said they were staying with a local family there. When we arrived the family were incredibly kind and offered to give me a lift to my hostel too. They were very interested in who I was, were I came from and what I was doing in Peru. It also gave me a chance to practise my (very basic) Spanish for the first time. I assumed they had some kind of people carrier, given the number of people that were supposed to be getting in this car, but no. I learned very quickly that driving is done differently in Peru. We all squeezed in to the car and sped off. We stopped at the beach on the way and spent a few minutes enjoying the fresh air and the night-time view. Though it´s the middle of winter in Peru, in Lima the temperature stays a comfortable15-25 celsius, though the family thought it was freezing. Eventually we made it to my hostel and I settled down for a long and much-needed sleep.
The next day I woke up late and was entertained for an hour by one of the guys working in the hostel who wanted to play me every British song he knew. After that I headed out to check out the area. I was staying in Miraflores, the affluent area of Lima. On the one hand, I had heard terrible things about crime in Lima so it was a relief when I felt completely safe there. There are security guards at supermarkets, banks ... well everywhere. On the other, Miraflores could be a district in any city in the world. There are office workers, tall concrete buildings and shops. After a day or so it was a little dull. Walking round, it took me a while to get used to being stared at. Peru´s population seems to have very little ethnic diversity, which makes me stand out like a sore thumb - white and tall (I know, I love being tall for the first time in my life). The cars beep constantly, partly for fun, partly to let me know I can jump in a taxi, and partly because I´m a woman. Things are not so different on the other side of the world... I headed down to the famous Parque Kennedy, which was full of stray cats soaking up the sun, and then to the coast. After that I headed to a pre-Inca temple in the area, Huaca Pucllana. The tour was very interesting, particularly the fact that this site was built to survive earthquakes, though most modern buildings collapse. That evening I had my first Peruvian meal. It wasn´t particularly inspiring so I resolved to be more adventurous after that. I did, however, learn that the Peruvians like double carbs with every meal, if not triple. They never fail to disappoint, whether it´s a potato and pasta soup or some meat with chips and rice.
On my second day in Lima I decided to head to the old town. This was more complicated than it should have been. Lima is absolutely enormous. You can walk for hours and hours and still be within the central districts. There also seems to be very little organised public transport. There is a ´metro´ which actually consists of buses in segregated lanes, but this is limited. I decided to walk the 8 kilometres and use the chance to see more of the city. I arrived and found a place to eat (again, meat with chips and rice). I was also given chicha morada, a cold drink made with corn and spices which supposedly pre-dates the Incas. The old town is beautiful and consists mostly of colonial architecture. I met a local on the main square who was keen to show me around and then I joined a walking tour. Alongside the history of the colonial town, we saw the shanty towns over the other side of the river but warned not to go in. This seems typical of Lima - next to cars that are falling apart, you see huge BMWs. I also learnt about Peru´s unusual adaptation of Catholicism to the local cultures and traditions. It´s not uncommon to see paintings of Jesus with coca leaves and the local saints are the most esteemed. At the end of the tour I tried Pisco for the first time. This is a spirit made from grapes. Whether it comes from Peru or Chile is highly disputed (along with everything else these two countries have to do with each other). The Spanish made it in places they found unsuitable for wine. The best way to drink it is as a Pisco Sour cocktail, with ice and lime.
First two weeks in Cusco
I got up very early to catch my flight to Cusco and took a taxi, with some more `unorthodox´driving. The flight was probably one of the most beautiful I have taken. The whole hour I was treated to an incredible view of Peru´s mountains. That is also why I flew - the flight takes an hour, but on the mountain roads the bus takes 22. My hostel is very pretty - it´s a colonial style building not far from the centre of town, with a little garden and hammocks. I noticed the altitude (3400m) almost straight away, having come directly from sea level. Luckily I only had a headache and some shortness of breath, but the hostel has oxygen tanks because people frequently have much worse sypmtoms. Now I drink coca tea every day and chew coca gum if I´m feeling particularly bad - the local remedy seems to work best. I fell in love with Cusco almost straight away. It´s a beautiful colonial town (at least in the centre - the outskirts are very run-down) with narrow winding streets that lead all the way up the hills that surround it. It will be hard not to be able to wake up to the backdrop of the mountains when I leave. The town feels like a Peruvian Lake District. It´s full of outdoor shops and tour companies and all the tourists head here before setting off on various treks, in particular to Machu Picchu. It´s sad to see that McDonald´s, KFC and Starbucks have found their way onto the main square. Apparently there has been a huge tourist boom in recent years and even twenty years ago, there were very few visitors. For the most part though, the shops and restaurants are small and independently run. One of my favourite places is San Pedro market where you can get fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and cheese and hot food too. I´ve tried to eat as a local would as much as possible. So far I´ve been lucky and haven´t been ill, and can get a huge meal for a pound. You can also buy souvenirs at the market. Souvenirs are Cusco´s thing - I find it hard to believe that so many sellers can stay in business, but they seem to manage. They sell colourful Peruvian textiles that the local women use to carry food or their babies. You can also buy a huge range of alpaca wool jumpers, alpaca models, jewellery, bags ... They know how to sell the Peruvian brand!
Most of my first week I spent exploring the Inca ruins in and around Cusco. Some, such as Sacsayhuaman, are within walking distance of Cusco if you can cope with the hills. They are all fascinating places. It´s such a shame that the Spanish set about destroying them all so thoroughly, but there´s still a lot to see, including fortresses, old sports arenas, a sacrificial cave and baths. I also spent a day in a town nearby, Pisac, at the market and the ruins there. It was worth going up to the ruins (over 4000m) just for the views of the surrounding mountains. On the second weekend, I decided to travel further into the Sacred Valley of the Incas. I took a collectivo to Urubamba. As there is little public transport, collectivos or private minibuses are the best way to get around. You just jump in and pay a small fare. I am always the only gringo (white European) there so I always make friends. People are just curious to find out where I come from and what I´m doing in Peru. It´s also great to get tips about what to see and how to get there from locals. When I arrived I couldn´t find my hostel. I made the mistake of just writing down the address, thinking I could ask when I got there. Unfortunately, they don´t have addresses outside of the town so I just knew the vague area. I walked round for two hours in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Few people spoke Spanish because it was so rural (only Quechua) and no one seemed to know the hostel. Eventually I made it and it was actually an incredible place. I was one of 5 guests for the night and the family treated us as their own, cooking for us, keeping the fire going and making us tea. At night I walked a short way down the path from the hostel and saw stars like I had never seen them before. You can actually see the haze of the galaxies in rural places here. I´m looking forward to seeing even more from Tierra del Fuego later in my trip.
The next day I set out for Moray, one of the most spectacular sites in the Sacred Valley. I took a bus then a taxi all the way to the top. Moray is a set of Inca fields in concentric circles going down into the mountain. They are ingenious - each level has its own microclimate, which allowed the Incas to grow a wide variety of crops and keep the empire fed. From there I walked an hour and a half to Maras village on vague directions from the man at Moray. I passed two tourists and two locals in that whole time and the landscape was incredible. The mountains in the area are well over 6000m and the colours are vibrant. Though the nights are cold, the sun is baking hot all day every day and sun cream only helps so much. I then headed further down to Las Salinas, only bumping into one local in the next two hours. Las Salinas are salt fields stretching several hundred metres, perched on the side of the mountain. It´s difficult to describe how striking they are. Getting across them involved balancing on narrow paths of salt but I made it to the other side. I then walked for another hour or so into a tiny hamlet where I was directed to the main road from where I headed to Ollantaytambo. This is another tiny town in the Sacred Valley, famous for its ruins, though a little overcrowded with tourists heading to Machu Picchu.
While not exploring, I´ve been in Spanish classes 5 days a week in Cusco. I really love the language school. At first I was put in a very basic group, but as I´d already learnt some Spanish with my book at home, it was a bit too easy. I still learnt a lot of vocabulary and made some really good friends. Since then I´ve been in private classes (which the school has given me for the same price - win!) and I´ve been learning so much. It helps that I´m constantly practising with locals in the hostel and in town. I have started reading the newspapers and Harry Potter in Spanish so hopefully I´ll be pretty good by the time I come home! I´m also now working in the hostel for a few hours a day. I help to prepare breakfast and clean up and in return I can stay for free. It´s a great way to save money while travelling and I´m hoping to do this in a couple of other places in Peru.
I have become addicted to salsa since arriving in Cusco. Various places offer free short classes every night so I´ve been going a few times a week. I will definitely carry on in London. Yesterday was Independence Day (from the conquistadors) in Peru and celebrations started kicking off last week. I was invited to go and watch bullfighting. I was a little wary but didn´t want to turn down the opportunity to see something that is very popular here. Fortunately, it was fairly tame. There were a few tense moments with one matador who had had a few beers before going in but otherwise nothing horrific. The American I went with and I were the only gringos so often got stared at more than the bulls...
Last weekend I went to Puno and Lake Titicaca on an organised tour with my language school. We were in a group of 7 girls which was really nice. We all got to know a lot about each other and hopefully we´ll stay in touch when we all leave Cusco. We left on Friday at 10pm on a night bus. The bus wasn´t bad but I somehow barely got any sleep. I was glad to not be able to see the roads - from what I could feel they were rocky and winding. We arrived in Puno, a town on the edge of the lake, at 5.30am and were taken to a hostel for a nap and some breakfast. We then headed to the port and got straight on a boat. We first headed to Uros, one of the floating islands. These are made from reeds tied together. When you are standing on the island, you can feel the waves under your feet. There are around 100 islands including 5 school islands and each is home to a few families. They survive on fishing and the rest comes from tourism. They travel to Puno to buy the basics they need. We then got back onto the boat and travelled for several hours before reaching Amantani. The sun is even stronger there than in Cusco, as it´s 500m or so higher. It is very difficult to conceive how large the lake is. We travelled for hours and still stayed on the Peruvian side (the lake is divided into Peruvian and Bolivian territories). We reached Amantani in the early afternoon. This island is home to around 1000 people and they maintain a very traditional way of life. They all wear the same traditional clothing and carry on local trades, such as agriculture and crafts. We were divided up to stay the night with local families. We then had a tough walk uphill to our home for the night. The family was very friendly, though communication was difficult as their Spanish was basic. They cooked for us and gave us fresh coca tea. Later that day we climbed the hill called Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) to watch the sunset. Then in the evening we were invited to a local fiesta, where we learned a local dance. The experience was amazing, but I was left feeling a little uncomfortable about the whole thing. I get the impression that the locals receive visitors every day, so are not as isolated as it may seem. I wonder how much choice they have in us invading their quiet island. I also wonder how much of the money we paid goes to the locals. Whilst our room was lovely, the rest of the house was extremely basic. The bathroom was a tap in the garden and the kitchen was bare and open. Either way, I am glad to have been able to see what I saw that weekend.
This has been a very long post. I will try to write more often in the next few weeks to keep you updated. I will also try to post more photos on Facebook (I know a few people have been asking)! Thanks for reading and stay in touch