Wednesday, 3 April 2013

A trip to darkest Peru - Part 3

Still with me? Good for you! Not long to go now.

So, from Puerto Maldonado we flew back to Lima for our final day and a half. For our first night we had planned to go out and see something of the town, then eat out at some nice restaurant - possibly overlooking the sea, or something exciting like that. Instead, we stayed in, had lovely hot showers, spread out all our clothes, still damp and dirty from our jungle adventures, in the vain hope they might actually be dry before we had to pack up to come home, then decided to stay and eat at the hotel as we realised we really couldn't be bothered to do anything else. And then a nice early night and a wonderfully long lie-in...

James woke me up at 3:30 to tell me he had a "crushing feeling" in his chest and it hurt when he tried to take a full breath. The only time it didn't hurt was when he was drinking, but by this point he'd already finished all our water. So I clambered out of bed, asked him as many relevant questions as I could think of and after deciding there was not a lot we could do about it and the best thing to do was just to go back to bad, I went back to bed.

David woke me at 6:30 to tell me he had diarrhoea. Again, there was not a lot I could do about it except flush the toilet for him (not really his fault, the button was hard to push and was hidden away around the side of the bowl for some reason), and then send him back to bed without a drink because James had drunk all the water.

At 7:30 I gave up and got up. David happily informed me he'd been to the toilet five times during the night. He then threw up twice during breakfast (fortunately not in the breakfast room itself, unfortunately not in the bathroom either, but let's not go into details).

So our one full day in Lima had not got off to a great start, but we persevered. After breakfast we took a cab to the old town, to admire some of the old buildings like the cathedral, and the Church of San Francisco. But wait, now would be a good time to remember that it was Good Friday and Peru is a very religious country. The place was heaving. The taxi couldn't get any closer than four blocks away from the cathedral because the roads had been closed to allow the hordes of palm-bearing pedestrians unrestricted access to their churches.

It was baking hot. It was busy. It was noisy (thanks to the loudspeakers which were blaring out something in Spanish - presumably a sermon). David was ill, James needed the toilet and we were starting to get hungry, so we decided to grab a taxi back to Miraflores (the posh part of town) and find somewhere to sit and eat lunch.

At this point let me tell you a bit about taxi drivers in Lima. They have a reputation for being a complete bunch of crooks. And on the evidence of our one day in Lima, I see no reason to contradict this opinion. The taxis don't have metres in them, so either you negotiate a price beforehand, or else you pay whatever exorbitant fee you're charged at the end of your journey. Here's what happened to us...

We asked the driver how much to Miraflores. He said 30 Soles. This was already a lot - it should have been no more than 20 really, but we reluctantly agreed. On the way he chatted to us, heard that we were looking for somewhere to have lunch and suggested a nice place down on the coast. We agreed and so he took us there instead, then charged us another 10 Soles once we arrived, claiming it was a lot further, which it really wasn't. Then, when I paid with a 100 Soles note, he gave me 10 Soles change and was all set to head off and only reluctantly gave me the other 50 Soles when I pointed out his mathematical miscalculation.

The restaurant then turned out to be too expensive, the bar next door wouldn't allow children in, there was nowhere else to go along the seafront, the walk back up to cliffs to Miraflores was long and hot and along the side of a busy road. The decision to abandon the day and just walk back to the hotel was unanimous.

Fortunately there was a very nice supermarket just down the road from the hotel so I went out and bought us a perfectly nice dinner of cheese and buns and apples and juice and chocolate, all at a fraction of the price of the nice restaurant down by the sea.

And that was the end of our disappointing day in Lima - except for when the hotel tried to charge us a ludicrous amount for a taxi to the airport. But by this time Helen had had enough and she simply refused to accept it until they dropped the price by almost half. Which they did.

Both boys fell fast asleep in the taxi. And in the airport. And on the plane. James at least woke up once we were back in Brazil, but David continued his marathon snooze, right through arrivals and immigration, right through the taxi ride and then finally woke up just as we arrived at our front door, remembering nothing whatsoever from the entire nine hour journey. I, on the other hand, remembered every single sleepless and uncomfortable minute of it.

So the last day was a bit of a disappointment, but it hasn't spoiled the holiday one little bit. We had a fabulous time and did some truly wonderful and memorable things. The kids were brilliant, and David is already saying he'll be going back to Machu Picchu in twenty years time!

And because there weren't many photos from Lima, here are a few that didn't make it into the rest of the blog...
Here I am with my head in the clouds as usual.
James savouring yet another delicacy. His diet on this trip included alpaca burgers and roast guinea pig.
"Pretty please, with a cherry on top!"
Nearly there...
"Take that, jungle!"
"That is so interesting!"

And the final verdict on the holiday...

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A trip to darkest Peru - Part 2

So, where was I?

Oh yes, I remember. fast asleep in bed after a shattering but fabulous day at Machu Picchu. Well, after a leisurely breakfast and another round of trying to fit all our belongings into the right rucksacks, we headed off to the airport for the flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. It was such a short flight it seemed like no sooner had the fasten seatbelt sign gone off than it was back on again as we started our descent. Not that we actually undid our seatbelts you understand, but the gap between the sign going off and then coming back on is the only time the kids are allowed to play on the iPads during a flight, so it has become a very carefully monitored period of time.

Short or not, the flight was certainly long enough to leave the nice weather behind and we arrived during a downpour so extreme they wouldn't even let us off the aircraft for twenty minutes as it was considered too dangerous to disembark until it had eased somewhat. I should point out that this was the first rain we'd had all week - not bad considering it's still technically the rainy season. In fact, up till this point, we'd had nothing but beautiful clear skies and enough sun for me to get a sunburnt nose.

We stopped in Puerto Maldonado only long enough to collect the rest of our party, pile into a minibus and head out of town along something which only qualifies as a road because vehicles were driving along it. Once upon a time it had been a dirt track, but the constant rains had left it so potholed there really wasn't much of a surface at all and we spent a considerable amount of the journey being hurled around inside the van as the driver blithely ignored all but the most catastrophic craters. Also, much of the track was completely under water and so we slooshed our way along not even knowing what we were driving on.

About an hour later we made it to the "dock" where we were to pick up the boat for the next part of the journey. This was actually nothing more than a gap in the foliage at the side of the road with a muddy track which led down to the side of the river. Apparently the proper dock was inaccessible because the river was so swollen with rainwater that it had risen several metres and this was now the only place we could get to the boat.

We were two hours on the boat, heading upriver into the jungle. The rain stopped, the sun came out, we were fed a nice meal of rice and egg and chicken, all wrapped up in a palm leaf, and suddenly things started to look much more fun.

We were staying in the Tambopata National Reserve, at the Explorers Inn Lodge and we had been warned in advance that the accommodation and facilities were going to be fairly basic. But actually it wasn't at all. Okay, so there was no electricity in our room and everything had to be done by candle, or torchlight, but for a lodge in the middle of the jungle it was actually pretty swish. There was a proper toilet, a shower (cold water only) and a very nice central building which served as a dining room, bar and general meeting place. There was always coffee and tea available, the bar was well stocked and the meals were all excellent.

The first thing we did, after making a complete mess of our room by emptying everything out of our rucksacks and then realising that it was too dark to bother tidying most of it away, was for each of us to go and get kitted out with a pair of wellies. So now we could happily plodge around without worrying about our trainers getting any more covered in mud than they already were.

So that's exactly what we did. Wasting no time at all, we decided to go out on the 'Night Walk' which had been scheduled for our first evening. This was a one-hour wander through the forest around the lodge looking for anything nocturnal that might be around. Of course, by this time the rain had started up again - quite heavily - and for some reason everyone else in our party decided they would much rather stay in and sample the delights of the bar. So it was just Paul, our wonderful and long-suffering guide, and the four of us who ventured out into the darkness.

Oh what fun it was! And thank goodness for the wellies. Most of the path was under water to some extent, and in places it was so far under water I had to carry David so the water didn't flood his wellies. And because most of the wildlife was more sensible than we were, there wasn't that much to see either. We did spot a spiny rat, a mouse, a tree frog and an owl-like bird who was fast asleep and none too pleased about having a powerful flashlight pointed directly into its face for several minutes.

At one point we stopped, turned off our flashlights and just stood silently listening to the forest for a minute or so in the pitch dark. I promise you it was a lot more interesting than it sounds. The place was so noisy, with rain dripping through the canopy of leaves, insects and birds chattering away and the occasional rustle or crack as some animal or other wandered around looking for something to eat. Not us, I should point out. There are pumas and jaguars in the area, but they're quite rare and tend to keep well away from the humans and their lodges.

Back at the lodge we were introduced to a couple of extra guests - two tarantulas - which were happily crawling around on a tree just outside the main building. They were quite common, apparently, and did sometimes come into the rooms, but they weren't dangerous to anything larger than a mouse. Even small children were safe, we were reliably informed.

Our first full day at the lodge was full indeed. Up at four thirty, a quick breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs and coffee and then it was off on a hike down to the oxbow lake 6km away. Although 'hike' is perhaps not the right word for what we were doing. Yet again, the path was water-logged and mostly we were wading, feeling carefully for the roots and vines that were just waiting to trip us up and send us sprawling face-first into the muddy water.

It was slow going. But fascinating at the same time. We drank fresh water from the inside of bamboo shoots, learnt which tree barks could be used as medicines and which leaves could be crushed to make different coloured dyes. We found a tree, known as the walking palm, whose roots grow into a pyramid above ground. It doesn't actually walk, but the area inside the roots is an excellent place to sleep if you're ever stuck out in the jungle overnight as predators can't get in to eat you.

We also painted our faces with purple dye to protect us from the evil spirits of the forest, or something like that.

Eventually we made it to the lake, and after a short break we took to the water in a double canoe for a little explore of the shore - which sadly we couldn't actually see because the river was still so high. We did see some otters though, and an hour in a boat under the baking hot sun was a good opportunity to dry out David's socks - which were clearly a source of some interest to the butterflies.

We took a shorter route back - only 5km this time - but the track was still as muddy and water-logged as the previous one, if not more so. Again it was slow going, and despite our best efforts, we arrived back at the lodge an hour late for lunch. Which was actually pretty impressive, seeing as how the track was so difficult and we were doing it with two children, one of whom had to be carried several times along the way.

Actually, both children were absolute stars. It was a hard enough walk even for adults and they both did the entire thing without a single complaint. They never needed to stop for rests, they never pestered their parents for food or drink, and they didn't even get that dirty along the way and they genuinely found the whole experience interesting and worthwhile. I promise not to forget that for a long, long time.

That afternoon was free time (i.e. sleep and recovery time) and then it was out again in the evening. This time though it was just down to the boat for an hour-long trip up and down the river looking for caimans. The weather was perfect, with a completely clear sky and a full moon to light the way, but sadly the river was still too high and as we couldn't see the river bank, we didn't see any caimans either. Still, the trip was pleasant enough, especially when the pilot cut the engine and just let us drift in silence for a few minutes.

The following morning was our last and we had nothing planned except a bit of packing and a lazy breakfast. However, at the last minute we decided to make the most of our last few hours in the jungle and we again got up at half past four in order to go and sit in a hide along the river to watch the birds come down to a clay lick for breakfast. For those who don't know what a clay lick is, it's exactly what it appears to be. The birds come down to an exposed section of muddy wall and lick the surface. There are a few theories as to why they do it, but the most accepted is that they're doing it to get the sodium out of the dirt. To be honest it was a little bit on the dull side, or at least I thought so. There were plenty of birds (at least by the end), but my camera just isn't up to any serious wildlife photography at anything further than point-blank range and the clay lick was just too far away. The rest of the family seemed to be having a nice time though, so I just sat there quietly and let them get on with it.

After our own clay lick (breakfast back at the lodge) it really was time to leave. The boat ride was only an hour long this time as we were going with the current and the bus ride back into town was slightly less bumpy and soggy. However, we did get stuck in the mud at one point and after several minutes of slipping around without getting anywhere, we all piled out and joined in tugging on the handy rope which had appeared, and which is presumably required equipment for that particular route.

We had five hours to kill before our flight, and Puerto Maldonado is not famed for its plethora of fascinating diversions. However, a lovely German couple who had been travelling with us told us to go and see if we could get lunch at the lodge they had stayed at, and with few other options, we decided to give it a try.

Anaconda Lodge, literally just around the corner from the airport, was absolutely perfect. All we had to do was say that someone had recommended we come and ask for lunch and we were invited in, made comfortable and offered an amazing selection of Thai dishes from the menu. The food was great, and while we were waiting for it, we got the chance to spend time with the owners' collection of pet monkeys, so we did get to experience some of the jungle wildlife after all!

A trip to darkest Peru - Part 1

You can always tell when you've had a successful holiday by the fact that you feel like you need another one to recover from it once you're back home. This is how I've felt this weekend after spending the whole of last week in Peru, visiting as many Inca sites as possible and then spending two days in the rainforest. It's hardly surprising I've spent most of the past two days fast asleep.

We flew out first thing on the Friday morning, having stolen the boys away from their last day of school before their half-term break - they only do two terms a year here so Easter break is only a single week long. Anyway, for some strange reason, we ended up being put in Business Class for the flight, which was a rather nice surprise and a wonderful way to start the holiday. Maybe some of you are used to flying Business and don't see what the big deal is, but personally, I've never done it before and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, even if I did feel like a complete fraud and was waiting for the cabin staff to come and explain that there had been a terrible mistake and could we all please move back into Cattle Class where we were supposed to be.

No one did, however, so for once I got to eat with a metal knife and fork and then watch a film horizontally. Not quite sure I'd waste several hundred pounds for the privilege in future, but getting to do it free of charge was pretty good fun. Anyway, after a quick stop-off in Lima, we flew to Cusco where I got to experience something else for the first time - having a taxi driver waiting for me, holding up a board with my name on it. Why this should have been so exciting I can't really say, but it certainly beat having to lug all of our luggage into the queue for the bus.

At this point can I just say that over the course of the holiday, we spent a fair amount of time in taxis, coaches and minivans of various descriptions, and every single one of our Peruvian drivers was excellent, sensible and drove sufficiently carefully to make driving around hairpin bends a kilometre above the valley floor and three feet away from a sheer drop all the way down almost bearable - even when we did it in the middle of the night!

Our first port of call was the lovely little town of Ollantaytambo, about an hour-and-a-half's nervous drive from Cusco, where we were settled into El Albergue, possibly the cutest little hotel ever built. It's actually the old railway station, with the waiting room now serving as a small restaurant, but with a large area out back which is a cross between an old Spanish mission and a lush tropical garden. We spent two nights here and wished we'd stayed an extra two, rather than relocate to Cusco later on.

We also met our personal guide, Natividad, who was going to be with us for most of the first four days and who would show us around all the Incan ruins of Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu itself, only leaving us for our afternoon tour of Cusco on the third day.

So, off we went...

Our first stop was Pisac, in Sacred Valley, and after a quick look around the tourist magnet of the main square we made our way up to the ruins on the mountains above. It was a great place to start, with a good (but not too long) walk up to the old settlement itself. At this point we were still suffering the effects of the altitude (nearly 3,000m) and I was finding climbing up the endless flights of stairs somewhat tiring - though possibly it was just my general lack of fitness rather than the thin air which was making me pant so much.

 A well-deserved lunch followed at the beautiful Tunupa restaurant, just outside Urubamba, where we got to wander down by the river, see some alpacas and eat a lot more than we really needed.

Then it was back to Ollantaytambo for an afternoon of more stair climbing and careful walking along precariously positioned paths while trying to keep hold of eager children trying to impersonate mountain goats, their fearlessness matched only by their desire to use the toilet as soon as we were several hundred vertical feet away from the nearest one. After all this, dinner and bed never seemed so wonderful.

Day three involved leaving our wonderful hotel and heading back to Cusco. We stopped off briefly at Chinchero to see some more ruins and, just by chance, to get caught up in a Palm Sunday procession at the local church during which I was inadvertently sprinkled with holy water by an over-zealous priest.

Sadly, I have to say that Cusco was something of a disappointment. It wasn't exactly the city's fault, it's just that several different things conspired to make our stay less than ideal. Firstly, our hotel was nowhere near as nice as the previous one in Ollantaytambo. Secondly, our one meal out there was an over-priced and under-heated disappointment. And thirdly, our guided tour of the sights and sites was nowhere near as good as the ones with Natividad. For a start, we were put in with a larger group, which meant a lot more in the way of waiting around for other people and having to walk at their pace, not our own. Also, David fell fast asleep as soon as he sat down on the coach so Helen had to miss the first two stops of the whirlwind tour (six different places in four hours) while she sat with him on the otherwise empty bus.

 Actually, she didn't miss much. Our first stop was Cusco cathedral, and while I can appreciate that the building was old and grand, I hadn't gone all the way to Peru just to look inside a big church. Our tour guide was - to be quite honest - a bit on the dull side, and I still can't work out how she managed to seem so rushed and stressed while still making the tour way longer than it needed to be. James and I skulked at the back for most of it and when we weren't complaining about being bored, we spent our time discussing various ways in which the rules for Dungeons & Dragons could be improved.

Things picked up a bit after that, however, and we spent the rest of the afternoon back with the Incas. Qorikancha, a temple right in the centre of town, was first on the list, followed by the citadel of Saqsaywaman which overlooks the city from a lofty 3,701m and which is humorously referred to as Sexy Woman by most of the tourists visiting it. It's not a particularly funny joke, and believe me, it becomes even less funny after half an hour of endless repetition. After that it was on and off the bus a couple of times to visit a couple of smaller sites before we finished up at the fort of Pukapukara.

By now the sun was beginning to set, most of the other tourists had disappeared off into their own coaches and headed back to Cusco and we were pretty much left with the place to ourselves. It's not a particularly big site, but it's nicely preserved and standing out on the edge of the brickwork and staring out at the distant mountains as the shadows crawled their way up their sides was a truly wonderful experience.

Shame it was so bitterly cold though, with a biting wind and not nearly enough warm clothes.

Day four, and the main event; Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, due to a touch of bad planning on our part, we had to begin the day at 4:30am with a hurried breakfast, followed by a taxi ride to the coach station and then an hour and forty minutes on the coach just to get us back as far as Ollantaytambo railway station - which had been right outside our hotel front door two days previously! Ah well. The train ride afterwards was fun anyway, and the views were amazing, and after another hour and a half we arrived in Machu Picchu town (also known as Aguas Calientes) and it was time for another nail-biting drive up the side of a mountain, round hairpin bend after hairpin bend with no ground to see out of the window.

Once we arrived there was more climbing to do, this time on foot, up a steep and winding path which offered only tantalizing glimpses of the ruins ahead and by this time I was getting pretty desperate for something to point my camera at. And then, suddenly, there it was. Machu Picchu, in all its glory.

It was so definitely worth the journey. It's an amazing place and would still be amazing even if it was at sea level. The fact that it was built nearly two and a half thousand metres up in the middle of a bunch of practically inaccessible mountains just makes it totally awesome. I took a lot of photos, and some of them even look quite impressive, but photos just can't capture the scope of the place and don't really give a true impression of what it's like to glance over a low wall and see nothing but mountains and a tiny valley floor way, way down below.

A lot of people say you should try to get to Machu Picchu first thing in the morning and watch the sunrise, either from the city itself or, for the more adventurous, from the top of Huayna Picchu (which is the pointy mountain at the top of the city which you can see in all the photos. Machu Picchu itself is a much less imposing mountain around the other side). Well, we didn't do either of these things so I can't say whether it's worth the effort, but what we did do was spend the whole of a long and warm afternoon wandering round the place, and as the afternoon wore on, so the crowds began to disappear until about four-thirty when it was almost deserted, and when the photo opportunities were so much better.

The site closes at five o'clock and we were some of the last people to leave. Then it was back down the hill (only 20 minutes to get down compared with the 30 it took to get up!) and a somewhat dull three hours to kill in Aguas Calientes before our train. We wandered around a bit, ate, and James tried one of the local delicacies.

By the time we got back to our hotel in Cusco it was approaching one o'clock in the morning. So the day was nearly twenty-one hours from start to finish and it was well worth every minute!

And that, dear reader, brings the first half of our holiday to a close. Part two will follow shortly, and may even be out before the end of the week if you're lucky. It doesn't involve any more Incan ruins, but it does contain an awful lot of trees and mud.

See you soon.