Steak, wine, and waterfalls: Salta to Iguazu

Salta, a colonial city in Argentina’s northwest, was home for the next few days. San Pedro had been a tiring experience, with a noisy dorm, and excursions starting hours before dawn and going on into the night. Trying to keep some control over our budget, empanadas had been our primary source of (delicious) food. In Salta we crashed,  lazed, indulged in the biggest, most delicious steak of our lives in a buzzing neighbourhood restaurant, enjoyed cheap good wine and freshly cooked meals in the hostel kitchen and leafy patio garden, and plotted our logistics for the upcoming Brazilian leg of our trip which coincided with the high season over Easter. We failed to see or do a single touristy thing in the city, beyond the steak, but soaked up the bustling evening atmosphere when half the city seemed to be enjoying their daily promenade on our walks to and from the supermarket.

Suitably rejuvenated after a few days, it was time to move on. Another night bus awaited us, this time for a 16 hour journey to Posadas, which we boarded in the early afternoon. We settled in to our seats at the front of the top deck, and watched the suburbs give way to lush tropical farms and countryside. In the glow of the late evening sun parrots flashed green and red in front of us. As night fell, dinner was served, with cold meats, cheeses, and bread making a change from the Peruvian chicken and rice bus staple. But then….we were served a second course! It might even have been chicken and rice. Then we were offered some wine. As if on a night-time safari we sipped our Argentinian white, and watched as nightjars rose up from the road in front of us, a snake slithered across our path, and a furry bottom disappeared into the undergrowth. Once in Posadas the next morning we switched onto another bus for a further 5 hours to Iguazu. We were pretty tired on arrival in the heat and humidity at our Iguazu hostel, but went for a wander to the tri-border viewpoint over the Iguazu river, looking across to Brazil and Paraguay.

The next morning we were up early, to be at the Iguazu park entrance when it opened at 8am. It was a beautiful day, and in the cool and quiet of the morning we virtually had the lower circuit of walkways among tropical trees to ourselves. Argentina (9)

We saw toucans and vultures, rainbows, got our first soaking from the spray of the falls, and had a late breakfast picnic of bread, honey and kiwi fruit sitting here:

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Then to the upper circuit, taking in more waterfall rainbows, before joining the throngs that had caught us up for the train to the Devil’s throat walkway.

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Another picnic pit-stop for lunch, and then we headed out along the 1km trail over the river, spying turtles and catfish, and the rising plume of spray from the falls at the end. Standing above the immense cauldron of water falling beneath you was spectacular, and we got soaked to the skin time and again.

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The next day we made a day trip to the Brazilian side, this time under a cooler, moodier, cloudy sky. We looked back at where we’d been the previous day, and got up close to the Devil’s throat falls from beneath them this time, with another drenching. We spotted flocks of swifts swirling in the rain and spray, before flying straight through the walls of water to their nests behind them. Then it was back to the hostel, to get ready to head to Brazil, for real this time, the next day. Argentina (22)Argentina (26)Argentina (27)

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San Pedro de Atacama to Salta

Despite being in the middle of the driest region on earth, we set off to explore some lakes before bidding San Pedro de Atacama farewell and heading onwards to Argentina. First, we explored the salt lakes that are vital habitat for flamingos. The lake was slowly evaporating, leaving behind encrusted salt, in the midst of a vast salt plain. Chile (69)

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Then it was onwards to the Altiplanic lakes at 4500m, vivid blue water reflecting the fiercely clear sky, ringed with tough green grass and small herds of vicunas.

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The next day we packed up and set our sights on Argentina, boarding a bus to take us up and out of the desert, over the Andes, and down the other side to Salta, a colonial city in the northwest of the country. We drove up high enough to pop our bags of crisps, past volcanic peaks, including one marking the border with Bolivia, a tantalising glimpse of a destination for next time. We passed lakes ringed with bright white salt, strange rock forms emerging from the desert, spotted vicunas, and somewhere up in the mountains we crossed the border into Argentina.

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Then the descent, by which time we were on the verge of dozing off, but our eyes pinged open when we realised we were in the middle of a brilliant white salt plain stretching into the distance.

Chile (93)Sometime later we entered a dense bank of cloud, and then started making our way down a series of hairpins. As we emerged from beneath the cloud giant cactuses dotted the canyon-like hillside, which gave way to a valley of pink, red, and purple striped hillsides. We had entered the UNESCO World Heritage valley of Quebrada de Humahuaca. As night fell rain started pouring, a welcome relief from the dryness of the desert. We drove onwards for a couple more hours, this time through urban and agricultural lowlands, streetlights and car lights illuminating the raindrops on the windows, and making the earlier succession of natural wonders seem impossible.

High, dry, with our eyes on the sky in Chile

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, our next destination, was 1000 miles away. We set off from Cusco to Arequipa, once again on a night bus. We arrived at 6.30 am, and went from groggy and half asleep to jogging with rucksacks on front and back to catch our newly discovered next bus in the space of fifteen minutes. Safely ensconced on our way to Tacna in Peru’s far south, we once again gawked at incredible desert scenery – red sand stretching to the horizon, followed by mountains and canyons making it look like we were on the moon – while trying to ignore the Bollywood and tsunami disaster films that were being played at top volume throughout the six hour journey. Once in Tacna, roasting at midday, we found a shared taxi making trips across the border into Chile, going as far as Arica. This crossing, in view of the Pacific, in a baking hot desert under a high sun, felt very different from our humid, dusky, subtropical crossing into Peru a few weeks earlier.

Arica felt modern and almost European in contrast to the Peruvian cities of the past few weeks. As all buses to San Pedro were at night, and there was not much keeping us in town, we booked for our second night bus in a row… and then enjoyed a few hours simply walking and not sitting on a bus. And eating pizza, and ice cream. And being in the vicinity of a normal, flushing toilet.

Back on the road again, we contorted ourselves into small seats, and then shivered in the dark at 5 am at a check point that wanted to see all our bags. The sun came up over the Atacama, and we saw yet more desert. At last, with mountains on the horizon, and trucks kicking up a plume of dust as they drove ahead of us, we arrived in San Pedro, a tourist mecca in Chile’s north east. We found it very strange. A pleasant little place, in the middle of nowhere, whitewashed and mud brick buildings lining the small grid of streets, a pretty plaza and church. But inside these buildings were posh tourist restaurants and bars that would not look out of place in a big city. Chile (1)Chile (2)

We traipsed the streets, as the sun got hotter and we felt more and more in need of a good big sleep, finding even grotty hostels out of our budget. Eventually, swayed by a smattering of resident backpackers making the place look normal, we ended up in a small hostel, with a couple of dorms and rooms around a dusty courtyard. We soon discovered that everything in San Pedro was crazy expensive. But they did have the first good wine of the trip.

We had come here to explore the incredible landscapes in the region, from salt and flamingo filled lakes, and the highest geyser field in the world, to desert valleys, and volcanic peaks. We had also come to see the stars. Being the driest place on earth, the Atacama desert is the place with the clearest view of space it is possible to have.

We started with a trip to Death Valley, scrambling up to a viewpoint above one of the driest places in the whole Atacama. Then we visited the white landscape of the Valley of the Moon, where we climbed a huge dune in time to watch the setting sun turn the valley golden, and then distant peaks pink and purple, as a sliver of a new moon brightened in the darkening sky. Chile (9)Chile (12)Chile (25)Chile (33)Chile (30)

Back in our dorm, ahead of a 4 am start for the tour the next morning, we were dismayed to discover all the beds were now full. When the time came it was a relief to stagger out into the cool, fresh, quiet darkness to escape a deathbed gurgling snorer. We drove for two hours, first dazzled by the brilliance of the Milky Way, then fighting to stay awake, and arrived with just enough time to pounce on the buffet breakfast of cake and tea before quickly freezing in subzero temperatures. We were now at about 4000m, 2000m higher than San Pedro, and arriving this early, while it was still cold, was necessary in order to see the geysers in their full glory.

We were led around the bizarre valley floor, from fumarole to hot spring to geyser, watching water splutter and steam from the ground, as the rising sun illuminated the rising steam. It was so cold (we were wearing more or less all the clothes that we had brought on the trip) that the thought of undressing to get into a thermal pool was too much, and instead we watched a shallow river quietly steaming as flowed past us, and an enormous geyser burst into life. Chile (46)Chile (45)Chile (57)

As we drove back, we saw the scenery that we had missed in the dark, vivid green giving way to bare ground on its way up to volcanic peaks, blue pools ringed with green, vicunas dotting the landscape.

That night we headed out of San Pedro once more, this time to explore the sky. Away from the lights of the town we were met by a Canadian astronomer who proceeded to tell us about the stars, and our long history of noticing, studying and understanding them. We stood in a circle as he spoke, faces to the sky, seeing more stars and shooting stars than we had ever seen before. As he spoke, our guide used a laser pointer that would be illegal in many countries and that seemed to reach to the stars themselves to point out particular stars, constellations, and signs of the zodiac. He told us the difference between stars and planets, why stars twinkle and planets don’t, how Orion’s belt and sword together make an arrow that points north, that warm-coloured stars are cold, and cold-coloured stars are warm (I could barely see colour differences but most people could), that the patches of the Milky Way that looked like they could be clouds were in fact two galaxies that were orbiting ours (huh?), that a distant splodge was a galaxy whose light had started travelling towards us halfway back to the dinosaurs… there was a lot more, but it was too much to remember.

Then we were let loose on an array of huge telescopes, each pointing at something special. We saw Saturn, complete with rings, which was jaw-dropping, a star that looked like one but was actually two orbiting each other, the ‘jewel box’, a star cluster containing different coloured stars, a tarantula nebula, and many more. Then we retreated to the cosiest little building, with a large hole in the roof, where we drank delicious hot chocolate and the astronomer answered questions while I kept an eye on the Southern Cross through the skylight. There we learnt that a shooting star is no bigger than a grain of salt.

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.

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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)