Cusco and the Sacred Valley

The beautiful, buzzing city of Cusco greeted us as we woke from a ten-hour overnight bus journey crossing the altiplano from Arequipa. Steep colourful streets, pretty plazas, and huge Inca stonework forming the foundation of most of the buildings make Cusco a really fun place to wander around. We spent a couple of days exploring the city, visiting historical sites, indulging in delicious food, having Pisco sours on a roof terrace, getting train tickets to Machu Picchu, and poring over our newly exchanged guidebook to Brazil to try and work out what on earth we might be doing in a few weeks time.

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To get to Machu Picchu we headed first to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. We took a shared taxi minibus up and out of Cusco, over lush green hills – Andean peaks on the horizon – down a steep valley to Urubamba, and onwards to Ollantaytambo. As we arrived a huge procession of women, marking International Women’s Day, was making its way through the streets. Ollantaytambo is a small town with a grid of narrow cobbled pedestrian streets as they were in Incan times. Water gushes along channels built into the street design, part of an irrigation system that extends to include the ruins that stretch up one hillside to the edge of the town.

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After scrambling around the ruin terraces, and lunching in the main plaza, we made our way down to the station and boarded the posh touristy Machu Picchu ‘vistadome’ train to Aguas Calientes, the village in the valley beneath Machu Picchu. This is the only train route open to tourists, and for your money you get tea and snacks and windows in the train roof, the better to gawk at the steepening valley and snow-capped mountain peaks. The train follows the chocolate-brown rapids of the river along the valley.

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We arrived in Aguas Calientes in the pouring rain and darkening dusk, fought our way through a maze of a tourist souvenir market, and then up one of the main streets, to a hostel at the top.

We slept fitfully, anxious not to oversleep the 4.45am alarm, but excitement spurred us out of bed in record time to be at the bus station in time for the first bus up to the site. The bus zig-zagged up the hairpins to the main entrance as the day brightened, and wisps of cloud hung in the valley beneath us. We joined an excited throng of people waiting for the gates to open. I arrived at Machu Picchu at the end of the Inca Trail hike ten years ago, and was keen to recreate the first big view of the site from up above, so we hurried up to where the hikers come down, tearing ourselves away from the tantalising viewpoints that we passed on the way. But it was worth it, as we had the classic view of a virtually deserted Machu Picchu to ourselves. It was spectacular, even a second time, and we drank in the view, watching the light change and the sun finally reach us.

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We spent hours exploring, before heading to the station for the train back to Ollantaytambo. We spent one last day enjoying the Cusco life, before setting off on our last Peruvian journey, back over the altiplano, through the desert to the coast, and south to Chile…


Condors, canyons, and a hot spring in a thunderstorm

From Arequipa we set off on a mini-tour to the Colca Canyon. We drove out of the city with views of the volcano El Misti, through the dry and dusty landscape, higher and higher. We passed lakes and altiplano plains dotted with vicuñas, the dainty wild ancestor of the domesticated alpaca.

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We stopped to admire the view at the highest pass at 4900m, with far-reaching views towards snowy mountain peaks, somewhere hiding the source of the Amazon river. Then we zigzagged down towards a lush valley and the small town of Chivay, where we were to spend the night.

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Thunder clouds were building as we explored the town, and rumbles of thunder began to echo around the valley throughout the afternoon. We headed to the hot springs just outside the town as planned as the storm grew closer, and soaked ourselves in the blissfully warm waters in an outdoor pool, above the river, and surrounded on almost all sides by vast, steep rocky mountainsides. High above us a condor circled on a thundery thermal.

As flashes of lightning began to streak the sky, we debated the wisdom of lounging in an outside pool during a thunderstorm. As we stepped out of the pool to shelter in the open air changing rooms, the most incredible streak of pink lightning blazed across the sky, seemingly hanging there as it slowly fragmented into a dotted line and faded away. A couple of steps later and the sky had emptied itself of hail, quickly covering the ground in an inch of ice, with clouds of steam hiding the pool from view as the temperature plummeted. We hopped about shivering until the hail had lessened a little, and made a dash for the muggy and now crowded indoor pool.

The next morning we were up early for our journey to the Cruz del Condor, a lookout point above the Colca Canyon, and one of the best places to see the majestic Andean condors as they soar on thermals rising up from the depths of the canyon. The Colca Canyon is over 4100m deep, more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. The region has been cultivated for hundreds of years, with pre-Incan terracing still visible throughout the valley. I visited Cruz del Condor 10 years ago, when freak cold weather meant no condors were visible. Hoping for better luck this time, we were sad to learn that the stormy weather had resulted in landslides, likely making the road impassable. We set out to try our luck.

We very quickly hit a landslide, so took an alternative route, bouncing along a small road that took us along the other side of the valley, through lush fields and small villages, until finally we climbed back up to re-join our original route.

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Excited to be back on track, we could see small puffs of cloud, indicating the top of a thermal, and perfect condor conditions. We could just make out condors soaring in the distance, and thought that that might be as lucky as we were going to be. Once at the lookout we scanned with our binoculars, and finally saw a condor sitting on a rocky outcrop in the distance. As we watched, it began to soar, and come closer, and closer, along the canyon edge towards us. It soared in broad effortless spirals, and then it soared right over our heads. It was no more than a couple of metres away.

Peru (141)Peru (142)Peru (144) To see this enormous wild bird so close was thrilling. The white marking on its neck identified it as an adult male, and we continued to watch as he did an almost repeat performance. Three juveniles then did a more distant fly past. We were dragged back to the minibus reluctant to leave such a fantastic spectacle.

We paused a short way down the road for another lookout, this time to see the terracing rather than the birds. But the condors had other ideas, rising up from beneath us, and then four or five circling and soaring around us, it was impossible to keep track of them all. We couldn’t have hoped for a better condor encounter.

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1700km of Peru’s Pacific coast by bus, Arequipa, and a detour to the Cordillera Blanca

A desert runs along virtually the whole length of Peru’s 3000km Pacific coastline, the western limit of the country. The Andes run down the centre, and to the east the terrain drops away into the Amazon basin. Although we wished to travel from the northern highlands to the central mountains of the Cordillera Blanca, it was easier to return to the coast and to travel along the Pan-American highway, than to navigate remote roads and steep mountain passes in the rainy season. So, we retraced our steps from Jaen to Chiclayo, where after a short stopover we boarded our first 12 hour night bus south to Lima.

We chose Oltursa out of the myriad bus companies plying the major routes. At the top end of the scale, this is one of the most comfortable, and most safe and secure, of all the companies. The seats are large and recline a long way and there is plenty of legroom. A hot meal is served before you retire for the night, with your blanket and pillow provided. You can choose your seats when you buy tickets, and we unashamedly picked the front seats on the top deck whenever we could, to get amazing panoramic views.

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We woke about 6am as we trundled through the northern suburbs of Lima, the Peruvian capital. We had a few hours to kill before our next 8 hour bus to Huaraz, and took the opportunity to revisit some of my favourite Miraflores haunts where I had spent time before and after PhD field seasons. It was a luxury to wander the streets without thoughts of data collection, fieldwork, and permits for research and for exporting samples. We took advantage of the capital city’s abundant and varied food options (visiting the closest equivalent of an M&S food court south of the equator) and then we were back on the bus to climb away from the desert coast, inland and uphill to Huaraz at 3000m.

We arrived after dark and found a bright orange hostel. In the morning we were greeted by incredible views from the roof terrace, of glistening snow-covered peaks.

Huaraz breakfast terraceHuaraz view Cordillera Blanca

We set about exploring the town, and planning our excursions, but unfortunately they were not to be. Illness struck, and by the time I was well enough to explore a week later all we wanted to do was leave. So, the mountains we came to see were only ever enjoyed from our hostel, along with sunsets and thunderstorms, and we will have to return to explore some more.Huaraz sunset

After a few days recuperating in Lima, we continued south, with another long overnight journey along the coast. Travelling hour after hour and still having similar landscapes all around gives a real sense of scale. Peru is big. At last we turned inland again, this time towards Arequipa, a colonial city with a grand central plaza, a colourful convent, and a view of the volcano El Misti.

El Misti view from hostel in ArequipaArequipa is a beautiful city. We wandered the pretty streets, and spent hours in the peace and tranquility of the Santa Catalina convent, a self contained city painted vivid blues and oranges, where you can explore the rather fancy living quarters of the nuns who used to live there.

Arequipa’s main plaza is one of the grandest in Peru, with the cathedral making up the whole of one side, and the centre filled with palms and fountains. Santa Catalina ArequipaSanta Catalina ArequipaSanta Catalina ArequipaSanta Catalina ArequipaArequipaArequipa cathedral

Marvellous spatuletails and Gocta waterfall

Hummingbird diversity is highest in the Andean foothills. Species ranges are limited by elevation, or by the complex topography of the region, and many species are endemic to a small area. Hummingbirds had captivated us since our journey began in Ecuador, and we had been lucky to see many dazzling species by the time we reached Peru, but there was one species, found only in the Northern highlands near Chachapoyas and one of the rarest in the world, that we were especially keen to see. The marvellous spatuletail has the most extravagant plumage of all hummingbirds, with males having long curved tail feathers, each with a disc on the end. These are extremely cumbersome for such a small bird, and make performing an acrobatic courtship display exhausting. The display therefore serves to demonstrate male quality.

Our hostel (the excellent Chachapoyas Backpackers) put us in touch with a man named Santos Montenegro, who has been instrumental in establishing the Huembo reserve and interpretation centre near Pomacochas where a number of hummingbird species can be seen. We gave him a call, and arranged to visit. Not knowing quite what to expect, and crossing our fingers that we would be lucky enough to see this beautiful bird, we were astounded when within two minutes of sitting down near his homemade feeders a male appeared. We were the only visitors, and we spent the next few hours quietly watching the comings and goings of not only both male and female spatuletails but many other species too, including the little woodstar, and the chestnut-breasted coronet. We were thrilled with our encounter with this amazing species. Peru (36)

The female spatuletail has discs too, but on shorter tail feathers. These female discs are a bit of an evolutionary mystery, because if their evolution in males is solely a result of female mate choice (females preferring males that are of a higher quality, as demonstrated by more elaborate and cumbersome plumage, with these males having a higher number of offspring, which inherit the same elaborate plumage, and so on) then they would not be expected in females too… a conundrum waiting to be solved.

Unfortunately we were too late in the day to have a chance of seeing the display itself, but keen birders can arrange to visit Santos’ private reserve on the land behind his home in Pomacochas, just up the road from Huembo, where he has found a lek (display) site. It was here that the BBC filmed the courtship display in slow-motion and high definition for the Life series, which revealed exactly what is happening during the display for the first time. The video can be seen here (unfortunately I can’t embed it, but I urge you to click the link and take a look!).

From this biological wonder, we then headed for a geological one: Gocta waterfall, one of the highest in the world at 771m (3rd, 5th or 16th highest depending on who you ask; who knew that waterfall measuring was such a controversial field). Regardless of ranking, the waterfall is spectacular, and incredibly it was largely unknown to the outside world until 2006 when it was measured for the first time. The falls have two drops, the top often disappearing amongst the clouds, and at the bottom the water disappears into tropical forest that is home to toucans, monkeys and cock of the rock birds.

We splurged with a stay at Gocta Lodge, a small hotel that was by far the most luxurious place on the trip, and an amazing treat, especially after some of the (bud beg ridden) mattresses we had slept on in the previous few weeks. The hotel is in the tiny village of Cocachimba, at the end of a long twisting unpaved road. Driving round each bend took us deeper and deeper into the stunning valley. Peru (42)Peru (39)

Each room at the hotel has a stonking view of the falls, and from the hotel it was a hot, sweaty, but beautiful 6km walk to the base of waterfall. We skirted the hillside, passing from agricultural land into the tropical forest, hearing the strange grating growling noise made by the elusive cock of the rock, and seeing the falls appear and disappear between the trees. Peru (49)Peru (53)Peru (60)

Finally we reached the bottom, the top section no longer in view. Rather than the roar of crashing water on rocks that we were expecting, it was quiet, as the water turned to vapour long before it reached the ground, and a fine mist drenched the rocks, cliffs, and us, as we gazed up in awe. Peru (65)Peru (58)

The pool made our bare feet ache with cold within seconds, so a swim was out, but we sat eating our picnic of enormous avocado, hyponotised by the spray, until all other visitors had left and we had the falls to ourselves. At last we headed back, finding the rough path tiring, the heat oppressive, and spurred on by the thought of jumping in the pool at the hotel as soon as we got back. Peru (63)Peru (71)Peru (85)

Into the northern highlands of Peru

We entered Peru as the light faded completely, so our first impressions were vignettes illuminated by pools of light from bare bulbs, of late evening scenes, families, groups and individuals, sitting outside small single storey homes and shops, in hammocks, doing chores, children playing. Crossing the border from Ecuador brought us our first encounters with mototaxis too, the typical transport of small-town Peru, motorbikes with bench seats at the back under an awning. We passed through a fruit growing region with piles of fruits, and boxes stacked high, for sale or for transport to larger markets. At last we pulled into Piura, and toasted our arrival in Peru with the bubblegum flavoured, flourescent yellow coloured Inca Kola, before collapsing into the worst hostel of the trip. We woke covered with a constellation of bedbug bites in their telltale clusters, and set off for the mountains once again.

Our next destination was Chachapoyas in the northern highlands, but all direct buses ran at night, something we had decided not to do on mountain roads in the rainy season. Instead, we bussed first to Chiclayo, paused for lunch in the sweltering main plaza, and then continued to Jaen where we spent the night. Chachapoyas was now in our sights, and the next morning we took a mototaxi and then two combis (shared taxis or minibuses) to hop between Jaen, Bagua Grande, Pedro Ruiz and finally Chachapoyas. It was a fun journey, first crossing the Maranon river, the young Amazon, high up in the mountains but wide even here. Then along a palm tree-lined road in a lush broad valley of vivid green rice fields, with scrubby red-earth hillsides rising up, and hazy blue mountains beyond. We turned south, away from the Maranon which was continuing towards Iquitos, and now the road followed a raging chocolate brown river, at the bottom of a steep ravine, with the road virtually carved out of the rock. Eventually we hairpinned our way up and out of the valley and arrived in the peaceful colonial town of Chachapoyas. The buildings were painted white, and the large plaza was lined with dark wooden balconies. Peru

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From Chachapoyas we headed to Huancas canyon close by, and then ventured to Kuelap, an archeological site to rival Machu Picchu in importance and setting. We descended to cross the river and then climbed up the other side, with staggering views of vast green mountains and valleys in all directions, the unpaved track clinging to the side of the mountain. At last we arrived at Kuelap, on the highest peak around. Peru (9b)

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A vast wall concealed the ruins inside, but instead of there being buildings on ground level on the other side, the wall was actually the edge of solid platform of stone. We enjoyed exploring the overgrown site as it felt like it had only recently been discovered. There were three levels built on top of each other, the most recent bearing the rectangular buildings of the Inca in contrast to the Chachapoyan circular buildings that were built first. The function of the site is still not fully understood – not quite a fortress or a city, but with homes still complete with pestle and mortar rocks, and guinea pig tunnels in the kitchen. The steep paths leading up into the compex have grooves worn into them from llama hooves, there were sacred carvings on the walls, and a temple was aligned with the sun at the solstice. A very mysterious place.   Peru (17)Peru (27)Peru (25)Peru (23)

Felt hats, food galore and Andean pop: by bus to Ecuador’s far south

Each bus journey in Ecuador was a unique adventure, but common themes soon became familiar. Soon after leaving the chaos of the bus station, the bus would pull over by the side of the road and people would pour on board to sell their wares. Pots of chicken stew, meat kebabs, fruit salads, fruits on sticks, homemade ice-creams retrieved from polystyrene coolboxes, little bags of popcorn, bread, cakes, pastries, crisps, cold drinks dripping with condensation. Then once all transactions were complete, food sellers would be replaced by an evangelical preacher, or someone promoting a cure-all in a little pill bottle, or someone selling miniature leather jackets to hang from a rear-view mirror, or the latest chocolate bar. At last, instead of peace from being sold something, Andean pop would be played at an unavoidable volume for the rest of the journey.

This song, in particular, followed us everywhere we went in the Andes in Ecuador and Peru; there were endless variations but it was always the same tune. Apparently this is the original, from a Bolivian band in 1982, although its roots may lie further back in folk music. This video is also a good example of the Andean pop music videos that would often accompany long bus journeys in both countries. Play this loudly for about 8 hours and you will get the idea. (The refrain may be familiar from a recent Jennifer Lopez song. When we were looking at the flat we now live in in Montreal, three girls playing in the schoolyard opposite were singing this, and we took that as an auspicious sign, as we were instantly transported back to South America).

In the mountains, the bus would pick up anyone flagging it down, and Kichwa families would climb up the bus steps, small children and elderly women using our knees as support for the final step. They wore colourful clothes, with bright woven shawls, and felt fedora-esque hats, often adorned with feathers. They must have found us as fascinating to look at as we them, because we were often the subject of long, intense stares from people sitting a couple of feet away, who would still be watching us intently ten or twenty minutes later.

Our next journey took us from Cuenca, via Loja, to sleepy hippy dippy Vilcabamba in Ecuador’s far south. At one point we travelled through the town of Saraguro, the centre of one of the most distinctive ethnic groups in Ecuador. The Saraguro community was transported to this region, from Bolivia, by the Inca about 500 years ago. They dress largely in black, men wearing knee length trousers, and both men and women wearing their hair in a single plait. Vilcabamba was a pleasant but strange place, the centre of an alternative community that seemed to have displaced the original Ecuadorian one. It was its location at the edge of Podocarpus National Park that had drawn us there. We explored the countryside around the town, surprised to find huge crabs scuttling about high up the hillside. vilcabambacrab

Then we headed to the National Park, which spans an elevational range of over 2000m, and is home to spectacled bears, mountain tapirs, jaguars and an abundance of bird and plant species, many of them endemic. We just scratched the surface, scrambling up a steep trail dripping with bromeliads and orchids, before a climb along the jagged spine of a ridge with far-reaching views down steep forested slopes. Podocarpusorchid

After much deliberation, our journey onward to Peru was to be a long one, as the rainy season meant that the more direct route through a remote border crossing would be treacherous with landslides. Instead, it was to be the bus to Piura, in the Peruvian desert, and then back up into the mountains once in Peru. The journey took all day, and we wound our way along twisting mountain roads. The bus had a display which helpfully showed the speed, confirming that we were crawling along at about 20km/hour as we went uphill. After endless lush hillsides, we dropped down to the small humid border town of Macara, where we stopped for a short while. We got out to stretch our legs and took in the scene opposite, of smoke billowing from an outside grill at a neighbourhood cafe, and people heading home in the evening twilight. Then, as the light was fading, we stopped on one side of a bridge a little further along the road. A small booth on one side gave us our exit stamps, while the bus waited for us to continue our journey, and we walked across the bridge and into Peru.

Colonial Cuenca and Cajas National Park

After a few weeks exploring northern Ecuador, it was time to head south. First stop, for just one night, was the small town of Riobamba. We explored the pretty main square, complete with plastic illuminated trees, and visited a small natural history museum, which was a lesson in terrible taxidermy. Then it was onwards to the colonial city of Cuenca, one of Ecuador’s gems. The journey took us high over the sierra, through dry and dusty terrain, and remote indigenous villages, where scraping a living from the land looked like a punishing way of life. Sheer valleys dropped away beneath us, and at times we were above the clouds. An election campaign was in full swing, and even here rock faces, derelict buildings, and road edges were used as canvases for political slogans, advertising candidates, a surprising number of whom had names such as Stalin, Mao, and Lenin. The people we passed, and shared the bus with, wore colourful traditional clothes, in vivid contrast with the grey landscape. But to assume they lived in the past would be an injustice, and they retrieved their mobile phones from folds of clothing. We broke our journey with a visit to Ingapirca, one of the northernmost Inca ruins, a remnant of the great empire that extended across parts of what is now Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

Cuenca is a perfect city for aimless wandering along pretty streets, and as we explored we soon found ourselves in the lush, plant-filled main plaza, in front of the cathedral. A military brass band played in front of a government building, and an elderly man gave speeches in between the musical numbers, and danced along while they played. Another square close by, in front of a beautiful church, was filled with flower stalls. We indulged in perfectly ripe avocadoes, delicious tropical fruit ice-creams, and little bread roll doughnuts filled with amazing blackberry jam.

cuenca building jumble

cuenca street

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cuenca flower market day

The next day we headed to Cajas National Park, with the landscape shifting from tropical to Scottish highland over the course of an hour or two. We arrived at the main entry point, just below 4000m, to find what looked like Skye but on a much larger scale. Rugged mountains and craggy peaks, with lakes studding the high-altitude paramo vegetation in all directions. We followed a trail which took us through a Polylepis forest, a fairy tale wood of Queñua trees (no, not that kind) with gnarled trunks and peeling red bark, then past spiky plants and grass, bogs and lakes.


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cajas spiky plant

Back in Cuenca, the afternoon sun combined with the music on the taxi radio made it feel like we were in a film, an Ecuadorian soundtrack accompanying our drive through the narrow streets. The churches were illuminated as night fell, and the flower market was packing up for the day.

Cuenca flowermarket at night

cuenca rose church