Southern Peru

November 12th, 2000

We were trying to work out if he’d been bullied at school and was now trying to get his own back on the world? Maybe his wife wasn’t satisfying his carnal needs ? Or maybe it was just because he had to work on a Sunday ? Whatever the reason, the immigration official on the Peruvian border seemed determined to give me a hard time !!

We must have been there the best part of an hour trying to persuade the official to give me a stamp. It was touch and go for quite a time, as he told me that my passport was illegal and quite probably a fake, but eventually he relented and we were allowed to enter the land of the Incas.

The first thing that you notice about Peru is that the roads have asphalt. The second is that it’s double the price of Bolivia. The third is that it’s tourist country, not that Bolivia is without tourists but they tend to be of the Backpacker variety. Here we were into tourism on a large scale and it was a bit of a shock. Finally, the fourth is that, unlike Bolivia, the showers are less likely to give you electric shocks ! (If you’ve been to Bolivia then you’ll know what I mean).
Our first stop in Peru was the town of Puno that lies on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

We decided to get straight into Peruvian cuisine and that night it was roasted Cuy, better known to English speakers as Guinea Pig ! It’s probably not particularly surprising to discover that there isn’t actually much meat on a Guinea Pig, but not to worry, it was worth it for the presentation. The Guinea Pig looked like it had been rolled over by a steamroller, with legs splayed out and its little teeth showing.

The following day we were in the local market trying out the Peruvian “liquardos” and told the woman serving us that we’d tried Cuy. We told her that in our countries we keep them as pets, “So do we” she replied, “until we eat them !” A slightly different definition of the word “pet”.

The Floating Islands of Uros
Close to Puno is a rather strange community of the Uros people. It is strange because it is located on several floating islands out on the lake. The islands are made completely of totora reeds, which grow abundantly there, and which are bound together, layer after layer, until they can support the necessary weight. The Uros people started this existence to isolate themselves from the Olas and Incas on the mainland. Everything here is made of totora, from the islands themselves to the houses the people live in and the famous reed boats that they use for transport. Life here is well adapted to the conditions and as in most other schools the kids here still play football…They just have to be a bit more resourceful when someone kicks the ball out of play.

Next stop was one of the highlights of any visit to South America, the ancient capital of the mighty Inca Empire – Cusco.
At 3326m Cusco is a beautiful place and is the longest inhabited city in the Americas. It has many steep winding streets many of which still show the traditional Inca stonework.

Inca Stonework

Inca stonework is truly amazing. There seem to be three main types of stonework attributed to the Incas:

  • The first type uses different sized, different shaped rocks (some weighing 300 tons) and fits them together so perfectly that you can’t even fit a piece of paper in the join. An example of this is in the picture of
  • The second type is similar to the first except that the stones are more regular in size and shape and are built in rows. They still maintain the unbelievable accuracy in the placement of the stones though. An example of this is in the picture of Pisac.
  • The third type is far more conventional stonework where relatively small rocks have been built together in a rather haphazard way. An example of this can be seenhere.

The Inca’s were master builders and even understood the problems caused by earthquakes. Many of their walls and doorways incorporate the magic 13° angle which has been proven to give buildings the best protection against earthquakes.

The Inca Trail
The Inca trail is a 3 day hike along and old Inca pathway which starts at Kilometre 88 and ends at the famous ruins of Machu Picchu. It’s only 33km (201/2 miles) in length but in that distance there are 3 mountain passes that exceed 3,700m (12,100ft) with the highest at 4,200m (13,780ft). Along the trail, as well as the stunning scenery and vegetation there are several Inca ruins to explore.

There is a certain amount of snobbery in some parts about doing the trail ‘independently’ and not going with an organised group. Shame really. Alex and I contemplated this dilemma for a good 2 minutes before deciding to go with an organised group. Why ? Many reasons: You get to meet other people; You normally get a local guide who can explain what you’re seeing and can give you lots of background information and stories; We’ve both done heaps of trekking in the past and didn’t feel that we needed to ‘prove’ ourselves.

The main reason, though, was that our particular group woke you up in the morning with a cup of coca tea. We figured that if we had to be woken up at 4 or 5 in the morning then it was probably best with a cup of coca tea ! Let’s face it, we fancied being spoilt for once.

There ended up being 18 of us and a better group you couldn’t have hoped for. Everyone had fun and it really added to the experience.

The trail itself is quite spectacular as it winds through the mountains and over some 4,000m passes. Having been “at altitude” for almost a month and quite used to hiking I didn’t find the trail too bad but I could quite understand the problems that people could have coming straight from the airport to this. As we learnt on Huanya Potosí, altitude sickness can be a real problem.

Apart from the final night, there are no permanent camps on the trail and everything has to be carried on the trail. For those on organised tours the local porters perform this task and they really have to be seen to be believed. They are piled high with tents, bags, food etc to the point where all you see is a mound of equipment with 2 little legs sticking out the bottom. It’s a hard life for a porter as they have to set-up and dismantle campsites. This means leaving the camp last and arriving at the next site first so that it is ready for when you arrive. They are truly amazing and even with so much gear and wearing nothing more than flip-flops on their feet they race past you on the trail as if it were a jog in the park. We’d made a point of picking a tour group that we’d heard took care of their porters and also made sure that they received good “propinas” (tips) at the end. They deserved every Sol.

Machu Picchu
On our final morning we got up early, had breakfast and headed off towards our final destination, Machu Picchu. After around 2 hours we reached the Sun Gate which is situated at the final pass before descending in MP. From here you get a beautiful view of Machu Picchu and, as the sun rises, the shadows thrown on MP accurately trace the line of it’s terraces. Well, that’s the theory anyway. Our view of MP from the Sun Gate reached a good 20m into the early morning mist. We waited as long as we could for the mists to clear but eventually had to accept our fate and keep moving.

As we descending we got tantalizing glimpses of Machu Picchu as bits of cloud cleared for a moment but then descended again upon the site. Finally we entered one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. Our guide gave us a really informative tour for a couple of hours and then we explored on our own. We ended up staying for over 7 hours i which time the clouds cleared to reveal the site and it’s surroundings in all their glory.
Machu Picchu was discovered by the American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911. It seems to have been abandoned since before the Spanish conquest, as they report nothing of the site, and no “treasure” was ever found there. So what was it’s purpose, what went on there and why was it abandoned ? The simple answer is that nobody really knows. Like the Egyptian Pyramids, maybe that is what gives the site its mystic quality.

It’s hard to describe why but it is an amazing place. It’s location and surrounding hills are stunningly beautiful but it’s more than that. There really does seem to be an energy there, something special. In one of the temples, where the walls were made of large granite blocks that fitted together perfectly, it was interesting to watch people. Everyone, without exception, was touching the stones and running their fingers along their edges. It was totally compulsive, you just had to do it, and it was as if they were making contact with something.

Back in Cusco
We got the train back and spent another week in Cusco and it’s environs, visiting lots of interesting and beautiful places such as Pisac, Moray, Chinchero and Sacsayhuamán (known to backpackers as Sexy Woman – think about it) which is lit at night and looks great.

Within Cusco itself there is lots to keep you occupied from the Cathedral, which has a picture of the ‘Last Supper’ clearing showing Jesus and his disciples having Guinea Pig as the main course, to Coricancha (Quechua for ‘Golden Courtyard’) an old Inca temple. Apparently the walls used to be lined with 700 solid gold sheets weighing 2Kg each, until the Spanish arrived.

The Spanish ransacked and destroyed most of the Inca building and in their place constructed bad quality churches, decorated them with ‘over the top’ interiors more reminiscent of a boudoir than a place of God. Architecturally, the Spanish arriving in Peru was definitely a step backwards.

It’s very easy to spend a long time in Cusco but unfortunately time wasn’t something that we had an abundance of.

Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city but has managed to retain a small town feel. I found it very relaxed and a lot less tourist orientated than Cusco. This is a Peruvian town for Peruvians.

There aren’t a lot of things to do in town but two things stood out. One is the Monasterio de Santa Catalina (Convent of Santa Catalina) and the other, the Museo Santuarias de Altura (Museum of the High Sanctuaries). The Convent has been there since 1580 and parts of it are still in operation today. It is a cloistered convent which means that once a nun enters the convent she is never allowed to leave and was fascinating to see how the nuns used to live.

The ‘Museum of the High Sanctuaries’ is focused on the Inca ceremony of appeasing the mountain gods with human sacrifice. Back in 1995 the perfectly preserved body of a young girl was discovered on Mount Amputu, a victim of this form of sacrifice. They named her Juanita, and you can see her along with many burial artifacts in the museum.

Colca Canyon
To the northwest of Arequipe is Colca Canyon which is apparently the second deepest canyon in the world. One point, the Cruz del Cóndor, is famous for seeing Andean Condors rising and falling with the thermals just a few metres from the edge. The day that we got there, however, was a national holiday for condors and, unfortunately, only one of these awesome birds decided to stay home and not to go away for the weekend. Alex and I were joined on our trip to Colca by two English lasses, Sarah and Caroline, who we travelled the next 2 weeks with.

Back to Arequipa and the last (relatively) long bus ride of my trip – 10hrs to Nasca. Apart from almost missing the bus and a rather good magician it was quite uneventful and we arrived in Nasca early in the morning to face a barrage of touts all trying to sell us tours or accommodation – not good first thing in the morning !
Nasca, as a town, has to be one of the most uninspiring places that I’ve been to. It was hot, dusty and…..that’s about it ! We were here for one thing though – to see the famous lines.

There are many theories concerning the Nasca Lines – huge shapes and pictographs, some over 180m (590ft) across – that have been created on the desert floor by removing the darker, sun-baked, stones to reveal the lighter stones underneath. Some say that they were made by ancient peoples called the Paracas, others that they are proof that we have been visited by Aliens. What is strange about them is not only their size (the wingspan of the Condor is over 130m (425ft)) or the choice of animals (some are not known in that area) but that, intriguingly, they can only be seen properly from the air. The jury is still out as to who, why, how etc (although I like the idea of tribal Shaman having out of body experiences whilst taking some mind-expanding drug) but we thought that we would go and have a look for ourselves.

We got a tour that included the plane ride and a visit to the Cementario de Chauchilla and a few other things for a bargain US$35 and headed off.

Our plane was a small 6 seater affair and we got in expecting a nice scenic flight over the lines. Beforehand Caroline insisted that we all take travel sickness tablets which we did, mainly to keep her happy but thank god that we did ! Our scenic flight was more like a stunt ride, fortunately without the ‘loop-the-loop’ and ‘barrel-roll’ but with more or less everything else ! It wasn’t helped by the fact that we left late morning which apparently has more turbulence. Our pilot would lean the plane on one side and shout something like: “Monkey, 80m, Left hand side under the wing-tip, right here, right now !”. Like one of those ‘Magic-Eye’ pictures we would be staring at the ground, wondering what on earth he was talking about, and then suddenly the shape would just seem to emerge from the desert floor. He would then put the plane into a ridiculously tight turn and then lean it the other way so that the people on the other side of the plane could see. Thanks to Caroline’s forward-thinking the sick-bags managed to remain unused. The Lines awesome and everything that I’d hoped for and more.

We were then taken to the Cementario de Chauchilla which I’d seen photos of before. The photos show the surface of the desert covered with bones and corpses that have been dug up by grave robbers and just left lying around. Maybe I’m a bit sick but I was quite looking forward to seeing that. Unfortunately, it was a huge disappointment. Since the photos were taken the powers that be have decided that it wasn’t ‘right’ and so have re-buried most of them and dug several open pits under wooden shelters where you can see some of the nicer corpses on display. Apparently they even change their clothing sometimes to keep them looking nice. I was gutted – the reason that the cemetery was previously so appealing was because it was a bit macabre, different. Now it was sterile, controlled and touristy. As a disappointed Alex said “It looks more like a Nativity Scene”.

Nasca didn’t warrant a stay overnight and so we got a local bus to our next destination, Ica.

Ica & Huacachina
We actually stayed just outside Ica at the oasis of Huacachina. Although the oasis itself is a bit dubious looking its setting is stunning, being surrounded by huge sand dunes, some well over 150m high, that went on for as far as the eye could see. As well as being a good place to chill it was also good for sand-boarding, the only downside of which was the exhausting climb to the top of the dunes.

We were lucky enough to make friends with a local called Roberto who took us on different trips in his open 4WD truck. For one we went miles out into the desert to see a calcite mine and on another we saw the fossilised remains of whales – 600m above sea-level and 56km from the sea ! It was great but I spent the next week discovering dust in the weirdest places. Probably the most poignant trip was to a family Pisco distillery. Since the 15th century Roberto’s family had owned a large estate in the area but with the coming of a military government in the late 1960’s the land was forcibly taken and given “back to the people”. They received no compensation and saw their beautiful home used as a storehouse. The new land allocations were too small to be effective and many were consequently left untended. He took us to what was once the family Hacienda and described how it had been a magnificent house when he was a child – now it was all but a ruin. It must have been heartbreaking.

Members of his family still live in the region and produce their own Pisco so he took us to see how it was made and to taste the results.


The main ingredient of the ‘Pisco Sour’ cocktail, Pisco, is made from 4 parts grape juice and 1 part Pisco. It is left for 15-20 days to ferment before being distilled and mixed to produce a liquor of around 48% proof.
There is disagreement concerning which Pisco is the real Pisco. As well as being made here, there is another Pisco in central Chile that claims to be home to the original. The Peruvians say that there’s is obviously the real one, claiming that the grapes used for Pisco don’t readily grow in Chile and that the Chileans have to use a hybrid variety and extra sugar to achieve the same results.
Which is true ? I don’t know but I definitely wasn’t going to disagree with someone that was giving me free drinks!

Pisco & Paracus
We were following the coast northward and next stop was the town of Pisco. As well as being famous for its namesake drink, it is also a good place from which to see the most important Peruvian bird and marine sanctuary. The Reserva Nacional de Paracas and Islas Ballestas have many animals including the Guanay Cormorant, Peruvian Booby, Peruvian Pelican, Humboldt Penguins, Chilean Flamingos and thousands of sea lions.

Too soon, though, we boarded what was to be the final bus of my trip and headed for my final destination, Lima.

Whilst travelling around South America, I’d heard lot’s of stories about Lima and very few of them were positive. So it was with a certain amount of interest that we entered the capital of Peru.

Coincidentally, Alex and I were flying from Lima on the same day. He to the USA and myself to the UK. That gave us a few days in Lima to soak up the atmosphere, to do some last minute shopping and to say farewell to Sarah and Caroline. To be honest I actually quite liked Lima, you had to be a bit careful but no more than in other places I’ve been to. We met some lovely local people there and enjoyed Ceviche (raw marinated seafood) in the local market, bought dodgy CDs to remind us of the music which we heard continuously and generally chilled.

It was sad to say goodbye to the girls and also to Alex with whom I had travelled for almost 3 months ! It was a little strange being n my own again but it wasn’t for long.

Homeward Bound
At 8pm on Friday 15th December 2000, I was in the departure lounge of Lima airport getting ready to leave a continent that had been home for the last 8 months and which I absolutely adored.

It very hard to say which country or place that I enjoyed the most but South America is beyond doubt my favourite continent. Its size and diversity are astounding and it’s peoples amazing. It will always be a special place to me. I hope that I will have the opportunity to return one day.

There is one more update to go…

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