Eating for two...
10.02.2013 - 24.02.2013
Peru, the third largest country in South America, from a geographic perspective, is as diverse as they come. From huge Andean glaciers, to endless coastal deserts, to the tropical rainforest of the Amazon basin, you can find it all in Peru. It is without a doubt, right at the very top of the agenda for all travellers to this vast continent, if only for the main attraction - self discovery of the forgotten Inca citadel, Machu Picchu.
The popularity of Peru, a country that has only been frequented by tourists for the past 20 years or so, has to primarily thank the Inca's for its booming tourism. In their heyday of the 15th century, the Inca's had expanded to the present day border of Ecuador & Colombia and the deserts of Chile. It was during this period they built some of the amazing mountaintop bases, such as MP, that people now flock to in their masses. This just makes it even more inconceivable that a conquering Spanish army of a mere 200 or so, heavily armed soldiers on horseback, could capture the Inca leader, Atahualpa. In reality, it was made a whole lot easier by the introduction of European diseases to the continent and the seriously damaging civil war that had broken out, just before the Spanish embarked on their conquest. In a matter of years, the whole Inca empire had collapsed, never to return to its former glory.
For Sarah and me, our conquest of Peru was to start off slow. We had looked into flights from Quito to Lima, but we were looking at £300 each - far too much for travellers on a budget. Therefore our only option was the bus. A 40 hour bus to be precise, but hey, who said travelling was easy? The first bus was a typical Ecuadorian bus.. cramped and hot, but at least it was at night, so we just slept as much as possible. The next morning we had to swap buses at Guayaquil station for a 27 hour non-stop bus to Lima. It was actually quite similar to being on a plane, with set meals and badly dubbed Spanish movies, but as with many South American buses, they had no concept of volume control on the movies and air con was whacked up full. Our bus also got searched at about three different custom checkpoints, which was pretty annoying. However, a mere 40 hours after our initial departure we rocked into Lima.
Lima, home to one-third of the countries population, springs up in the middle of miles and miles of empty desert coastline. It also happens to be a culinary delight. We had eaten pretty well in South America up till now, but in Peru it notched up a gear. From seriously tasty, fresh seafood, to incredible Italian inspired pasta and desserts, it was all pretty awesome. I even managed to discover the best beer in my travels so far - Cusquena. It was smooth, tasty and could give Kroney and San Miguel a run for their money.
Most people only tend to stay in Lima for two or three days, as to be honest, there isnt really much to see apart from the old town. As lonely planet seems to get off on recommending as many museums as possible, in every single place possible, we decided to actually take they them up on the offer for a change and a couple were pretty cool. We took a lot of pleasure out of a free tour where the guide constantly described each new room we entered as a 'boootiful other place from da sixteeeenth century', in a weird accent. We also stumbled across across some underground catacombs, holding the remains of over 70,000 people. The bone field crypts and torture chambers were definitely the highlight.
We also spent one evening visiting the 'Agua Magico', i think it was primarily aimed at kids, but it was still an awesome place. Its basically a water and light show, with loads of different water fountains, lit up with different colours. Some of them you could run through, or under and to be honest it was more like a night-time water park in places. The best bit was when they started projecting a huge image onto a massive fountain and you could actually watch the film they were playing just by looking at the fountain. I had never seen anything quite like that before and it was seriously impressive. I still couldnt help but wonder what projector they were using to get that sort of image on water, but having worked at Steljes for five years, there is no getting away from that.
Huacachina is an amazing little oasis in the desert. Surrounded by mountainous sand dunes in every direction. The tiny town, centres around a small lake, sheltered by palm trees, its a pretty cool place, if not a tad on the hot side. Aside from visiting the town for the picturesque setting, there is only one reason to come here - Sandboarding!
There was a group of six of us that jumped inside a sand buggy to head to the top of the sand dunes...and it was crazy, or more to the point, the driver was crazy. He put his foot to the floor and flew up some of the tallest sand dunes around. Just when you thought he was going to slow down and stop, he slams the pedal down again and we fly straight over the top of one of these things - everybody screams. Well apart from me, cause im a bloke of course :-) It wasnt over yet though, the driver took great pleasure out of taking really high speed turns and dangerous manoeuvres on the dunes. How we didnt roll i have no idea, but it became very apparent, very quickly, why the roll cage was necessary.
I had to admit, after the journey to the top of these sand dunes, the actual sandboarding was a bit of an anti climax. It was still fun and it was pretty damn steep on some big sand dunes - one guy face planted the ground so hard, you couldnt see his face for sand. We all started to laugh until it looked like he was gonna cry, so i just silently chuckled instead.
After a couple of goes stood up on the board, everybody found it a lot more fun to lie down on the board instead. They waxed the bottom of them before each run and then basically pushed you over the end of the biggest sand mountain you can imagine. It was seriously fun...and fast. Sarah had the best one of the day where she hit some seriously high speed before flying past the group of us at the bottom and disappearing off into the distance, like a don of the dunes.
After a quick sunset picture, it was back into town for a healthy portion of the best BBQ chicken wings ive ever had in my life. As with the rest of the food in Peru, they were so unbelievably good, i had to order two portions.
The stunning, high flying city of Cusco sits at 3300m and is the starting point for all trips to the 'lost' city of Machu Picchu. Furthermore, its the continents oldest, continuously inhabited city. Its the undisputed archaeological capital of South America and was once the Inca's foremost stronghold. Although Cusco attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, it still retains its historical charm - A perfect blend of Inca tradition and international influence.
As Cusco was going to be our base for a while, we were lucky enough to find a cool hostel with a lookout, good breakfast, pool table and most importantly, hot showers! Now hot showers may not seem that big a deal, but its one of those things when travelling, that is right up there at the top of the list when picking places to stay. We have had our fair share of cold showers out here...and it sucks, big time!
We had booked the jungle trek to MP, which would have meant trekking, rafting, zip lining and cycling all the way to the base of MP. Its pretty popular out here, but it is the rainy season and after some major downpours and rivers bursting their banks, our trip got cancelled, which gave us a couple of days to kill instead. Top of the agenda for me, was a hair cut and this i was worried about. Im bad enough getting my hair cut in the UK, with people that speak the same language as me, let alone trying to get my point across in Spanish. I decided to plump for a trim and wet shave, total cost £5. For those of you that know me well, you would know that i barely need to shave as it is, let alone a full on professional wet shave, but to hell with it, when it costs just £2, why bother shaving myself when i can get some poor old wench to do it for me!
As it happens, she did a mighty fine job. I had my concerns at first, bearing in mind that even when the chair was positioned at the lowest possible point, she could still barely reach the top of my head, we got round this by me just leaning my head down towards her.. not very conventional, but a solution nonetheless. She then got to work on the shave, stopping only for a brief few minutes inbetween to answer the phone, of course. Now in England thats not something i would stand for, but out here, its just life, and this woman was coming at me with a cut throat razor so who am i to complain! After the shave she sprays a shit load of alcohol all over my face, in my eyes and mouth, nowhere was safe. It stung like a bitch of course, but i pretended like i enjoyed it. Then as if by magic, she pulls a massive chunk of ice straight out of a draw and starts rubbing it all over my face. It felt amazing. I was wondering how many other people she had previously iced up with the same bit, but it felt too good for me to worry for long. I was sort of hoping for a free head massage like the one i had in Nepal too, but no such joy this time. All in all, i considered my first Peruvian hair cut a success.
Now i wont bang on about the food again too much, but damn, Cusco was something else and one of us was practically eating for two. No, Sarah is NOT pregnant, but with her particularly fussy eating habits, i was left eating half (or sometimes all) of her meals, in addition to my own. The plus side is, we check out the top rated restaurants on tripadvisor as soon as we arrive in a new city, which basically means we are eating in the best restaurants, all over South America. It didnt quite fit in with our travelling on a budget, but in the cheaper countries, it has to be done. We had incredible steak, duck and curry in a delightful little restaurant called the Korma Sutra. I also wanted to continue my travelling habit of eating all sorts of weird shit. So Alpaca, llama and guinea pig were also on the menu. The guinea pig was the strangest, i spent five minutes trying to eat it with a knife and fork before giving up and knawing away at this thing with my teeth. I sort of felt like i was eating a rat, but it tasted more like chicken (of course) and pheasant. A bit more gamey i suppose. Nice, but the pet shops at home dont need to worry, it wasnt that good.
We also happened to be in Cusco during Carnival. There seems to be a carnival going on everywhere we go, every week, but this one was big. The reason we knew it was big is that on Sunday, everybody had spray cans of foam and i mean everybody, from children to little old ladies, everyone was getting involved. Now to date, my only experience of foam on this scale, was going to a foam party when i was 13 and remember it being a lot of fun, but i thought i had left my foaming days behind me! Anyway, i was sure we wouldnt need to worry, they wont attack the tourists, would they? Well, i got that one wrong...
The first 'incident' was when we walked passed a family. I looked down at the kids, no older than 8 or 9, ready to block their cans and politely ask their parents to make sure they didnt spray us, when just at that moment, the mum unloaded a can of foam all over us. Face, clothes, the lot....and she thought it was hilarious! I felt the rage building inside me, i looked at Sarah who was equally coated in foam and then calmly took off my foam covered rayban sunglasses and gathered my thoughts - Aint nobody got time for this shit! So i turned around and sneaked up behind this family before attempting to snatch a spray can out of the dads hand. Now i wasnt sure what Peru protocol was, in terms of having your own spray can, but i didnt care, i went for it, with all my force. The man, recovering from his initial shock, decided to put up a fight and a struggle ensued, right there on a busy street. I realised he wasnt gonna relinquish full control of the can, so i resorted to aiming the can right at his wife's face before taking my sweet, sweet revenge. They all took a piece, the mum, dad and the kids, i sprayed them all, with their own spray gun. I let off a childish little 'woop woop' before fleeing, just as quickly as i had arrived. Mission successful.
The problem was however, that these people were everywhere. I may have won the battle, but i had not yet won the war...and when the war came, it was not quite how i expected. The enemy came, in the shape of two 14 or 15yr old girls. Now normally i wouldnt think this was a fair battle, but hey, if they're big enough to pull the trigger, then they are big enough to face the consequences. No sooner had this young girl lightly foamed us both, when we were quietly going about our business, than i had turned and snatched that can straight out of her hand. This, my friends, she was not expecting...and she was of course, weak. Well i mean c'mon, what use was her weak little grip gonna be against a 26yr old man, not very strong i can tell thee. I took that foam can and started spraying... and spraying...and spraying. Needless to say this went on for a very, very long time. This girl was covered from head to toe, in her own foam. Just as i was about to stop, her little friend decided to come to her aide and to my left i heard the hiss of a spray can being fired into action. So i left girl no. 1, blinded and dazed crouching on the floor, and diverted my attention to girl no. 2. Five to six seconds into her punishment she screamed, turned and fled, abandoning her partner in crime. It was at this point, feeling very pleased with myself that i had gotten the better of two girls barely half my age, i passed the (now practically empty) can, back to girl no. 1. She gratefully took the can back, visibly relieved that her punishment was now over and i strode off into the distance, victorious.
That evening after celebrating my work with a few bottles of Cusquena, we packed up our things and got ready for a 6am start to the Sacred Valley the next day, by retiring to bed early. We were however rudely awoken at 11.30pm by a new person in the dorm, that had turned the light on and was making some serious racket. For the second time that day, i was finding myself repeating those same words - 'Aint nobody got time for this shit!'. Now for anyone that has travelled and stayed in dorms, you will know that there is an unwritten dorm policy. If somebody is in bed, after about 10pm in the evening, you keep the lights off and the noise levels down, because they could have a really early start the next day. Well this bitch, clearly hadnt got the memo and with me being a little psyched from my days antics, i decided to make my feelings clear - "OIII" i shouted, (moody bitch turns around startled by my direct introduction), "do you mind turning the lights back off?". No please or thank you's, she wasnt worthy... and this may have come out in a slightly confrontational manner, because she did not look happy, not at all, but i couldnt give a tiny rats ass. She was in the wrong and she knew it - Without saying a word, she went and turned the light off and left the room immediately and with that, i drifted silently off to sleep, victorious yet again!
The Sacred Valley:
The Sacred Valley tour was awesome. Its basically a series of small Inca citadels dotted in the valley leading up to Aguas Calientes - the gateway town for MP. We decided to take a tourist bus for this, with a tour guide called Adriel, who when we introduced ourselves as English, took great pleasure in booming out "cracking, good job, cracking good job" over the bus microphone. As this is what everybody in England says, of course. We visited Pisac and Ollantaytambo and learnt how the Inca's created some pretty amazing bases and building work, way ahead of their time. We also climbed to the top of one of these bases and the guide demonstrated how big and strong the Inca's were back then by getting Sarah (the smallest member of the group) to attempt to climb up some of their steps leading to a watch tower. It was fun.
For lunch, we mysteriously dropped one member of our group off at a small shack in the middle of nowhere, with Adriel commenting to this one poor guy 'this is where you have lunch, by yourself'. The guy, looking a bit bemused and sheepish, stepped off the bus, into this shack, and turned to look back round as the rest of us trundled off down the road for another 10mins. Just another example of the strange going's on in South America sometimes. Unluckily for the one abandoned member of the group, we ate at the best buffet restaurant, ever! Even Sarah liked the food...and she is seriously picky sometimes. There was curry, alpaca & beef steak, chicken stew, roast potatoes, sushi, salad, pudding. Literally everything. I even ate some carpaccio (raw beef), not something i would usually go for, but when its free i'll eat practically anything.
In Aguas Calientes, we got upgraded to the marital suite. Now, this may sound great, but every time we have been 'upgraded' to the marital suite, the room has turned out to be shit. The sort of room where you are lucky to have a window. I don't know if they work on the basis, that its one bed, joined together, which means you can put it in a smaller room, in comparison to two beds, apart where you need more space. Anyway, if you ever come to SA, watch out for that little trick.
The next morning we were up at 5am, not usually a time of day i appreciate being awake for, especially after only about 4 hours sleep, but this was Machu Picchu day and i was excited. This was without doubt, going to be one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of the whole trip. We hiked to the bus station and by 5.45am were on the 8th bus to leave that morning, to start the 30mins drive to the entrance of MP.
The actual purpose of Machu Picchu is still a hotly debated topic out here, as the truth is nobody knows for definite. The most logical suggestions are that it was a royal retreat, or small city for the most highly educated, abandoned upon the Spanish invasion. Or others suggest it was simply one last attempt to preserve the Inca culture from this period. Regardless of the exact function, what is clear is that it was a hugely important ceremonial centre and even though it is perched right at the top of a hill, miles and miles away from the rest of civilization, the stonework and layout was built with exceptional quality. It is a truly remarkable place and we were lucky enough to see it at dawn, when there were just a few souls dotted about at the entrance, before the rest of the hoards come later in the day.
Part of the reason we wanted to arrive so early, beside the fact i wanted to see this place with nobody else around, was because we were climbing Huayna Picchu - The neighbouring mountain to MP. It was a very steep and tricky climb one that only 400 people can climb per day. 200 at 7am and 200 at 10am. The reason for the limitation is primarily congestion. A couple of weeks before we arrived here, we had heard how one girl slipped, fell, hit her head and died attempting this climb because in the rain it can be treacherous. Luckily for us, we chose a perfect day and arrived at the summit just in time for the clouds to break and unveil this perfect view of MP. It was awesome and so worth the effort in climbing.
Even at the summit it was pretty hectic with the 40 or so of us that had made it by that point. One Japanese guy dropped his camera over the edge and pretty calmly said 'whoopsy'. Personally i wouldnt be saying whoopsy if i lost my camera with all my MP pictures up there, but he was Japanese so to be fair probably had another couple of back up cameras. Without a doubt the Japanese are the most prepared, they even had oxi-shots to give themselves a shot of oxygen whenever they were feeling short of breath. It wasnt exactly Everest we were climbing here but you could have been forgiven for thinking that with some of the equipment people had.
After a long trek back down the mountain and around MP, along with a decent chat with a fellow Saints supporter we bumped into at the top, we headed back down, jumped on the Perurail train back to Cusco and headed home. Or so we thought. Half way through the journey we were informed that there had been a landslide, so everybody was hauled off the train and onto a coach for a two hour trip the rest of the way. Normally two hours would be nothing for us, but after a lack of sleep and a long day it wasnt ideal. Our fault for travelling in the rainy season, i suppose.
Back in Cusco we had no time to rest as the next morning it was another 6am start to get the bus to Puno - the setting for Lake Titicaca. We may have stayed in Cusco for another day or so if it wasnt for the fact we had arranged to travel onward with a couple of Aussie's, Jonno and Kate, that we had met on the Sacred Valley tour a couple of days before.
There isnt much to say about Puno, except for it being the location of Foam Carnival, part dos. If we had thought the foam was bad in Cusco, Puno took it to a whole new level. The streets were crowded with hundreds of foam baring locals just waiting to pounce. It was carnage, you could have been mistaken for thinking it was snowing. Foam was flying all over the place. Shops and cars were being covered, it was like being in the middle of a riot. One second you were stood by the side of the road, thinking you were half safe and the next you could hear a stampede of screaming Peruvians running towards another group, it was chaos for a moment or two, before they ran off to the next street, leaving a few people, crumpled on the floor, completely covered in foam. It was surreal and absolutely mental.
Believe it or not, we were trying to find a restaurant to have dinner in, during all this chaos. Before we knew it, Jonno had been hit with foam and then Kate. I was keeping my hood up, my head down and had somehow managed to stay out of it up until this point, but as i turned around i saw Sarah with foam all over her face. She had been hit pretty bad. I suppose having white skin and wearing a bright green jacket is not the best way to remain inconspicuous . Well, i wasnt having any of this, i was after all fresh off my recent triumph with the foam, undefeated in my battle against the locals and i wasnt about to lose now. I waded into the battle and asked Sarah who the main culprit was. Apparently one of the guys in this group had repeatedly foamed her, so i jumped into action and immediately tried to steal the can out of this guys hand, in an attempt to turn it on himself. Big mistake Cooper, big mistake! Upon seeing my struggle with the local, i got taken from all angles. I was outnumbered by at least six to one and in one final attempt at revenge, i went for another guys can. The last thing i remember seeing is a flash of white coming towards me and before i knew it, my head was covered. I was in a bubble bath, on the street. We somehow managed to dodge into a pharmacy that hadnt been targeted by the rebels to dust ourselves down, but needless to say, i wasnt about to go back into battle, we got the hell out of there, pronto.
Lake Titicaca, at 3800m is the worlds largest high-altitude lake. I suppose the best way to describe this place is: Big lake, lots of water, done!
In all seriousness though, it was well worth the visit. It was one of those places where the lake merges with the sky and its difficult to tell where one stops and the other starts. We had arranged a boat trip (another early morning) and the first stop was one of the floating islands. Believe it or not people actually live on these islands that are no more than 30m squared. Their houses are built on river reeds and they have to replenish the reeds every three weeks to stop them from sinking. So they basically move their house from one side of the tiny island, lay down a load of fresh reeds and then move the house back, to do the other side. To be honest, doesnt sound like a lot of fun. Considering they also use the same reeds as food and a tool to brush their teeth. Seems a little crazy if you ask me, but they seem happy enough.
Moving on, we visited a 'proper' island, where we had some lunch and a walk around, it was really tranquil on this island. In contrast to the first, it seemed a really chilled place to live, with beautiful views in every direction and some pretty decent weather too. I could easily have stayed there for a few days doing nothing, but it was back on the boat for us and back to Puno as we had to get ready to hit Bolivia...
The two weeks we have spent in Peru have been pretty incredible. We could have spent longer here, but it was definitely enough time to get to grips with their history, culture and food. The highlight was obviously Machu Picchu, but we also has some great tour guides along the way and learnt a lot. We travelled from the baking heat of the desert to the top of chilly mountains and everything in between. The people, as like most South Americans we have met so far, were friendly and always happy to help. Yet another country that we would both visit again and can definitely recommend to anyone contemplating a trip.