Well it’s taken a while but, we are finally back on the road. Now to finish the worldwide odyssey we started in January 2017. Having hit the pause button in California in July 2017 we are now heading to South America to complete our original itinerary.
Travelling by train from Liverpool Lime Street station we opt for first class seats. Finally arrived at Heathrow, K springs her first surprise: Business Class flights on the Avianca Dreamliner (Boeing 787) to Lima, Peru. None too shabby it was too. Bubbles and beds made for a very easy 11-hour flight to Bogata then 3 more hours to Lima.
Staying in the Miraflores district we are minutes from the famed seafront walkway known as the Malecon and the bohemian quarter Barranco.
After a stroll around the nearby John F Kennedy park – flanked by the lovely Virgen Milagrosa church – we settle in for a cold cerveza at the well established Haiti bar. The local brew is Cusquena and we opted for the rubio variety (a red rye beer). The ceviche is a must in Peru and opted for the renowned local foodie hangout Punto Azul for ours. This stylish mid-priced eatery was encouragingly full of locals. The ceviche was excellent but less impressive were the scallops as they were covered in heavy cheese.
About five miles north of our hotel is Plaza de Armes the historic centre of Lima – founded in 1535 by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro. It comprises the Presidential Palace, the Cathedral, The Archbishop’s Palace and the Municipal Hall the square testifies to the former riches of the Spanish empire.
We’d noticed the heavy presence of various layers of security personnel since we arrived. This came into startling visibility when they took issue with a teenage umbrella seller approaching tourists outside the Presidential Palace. At least a dozen variously armed officers appeared to manhandle the boy away as locals shouted at them to stop.
One of our favorite things is to just wander the backstreets of city’s away from the obvious tourist route. Apart from providing opportunities for more natural photographs, it also throws up the chance to discover little local hide-aways for lunch.
In Lima this meant the super little Bar Cordano opposite the library dedicated to the work of Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (he won the Nobel Prize in 2010). Cold beer and perfect Pais de Norte, i.e. hand-cut ham sandwiches with onions.
Off the plaza we took the tour of the St Francis monastery. A stunningly decorated church which used to be the favoured burial place of Lima’s monied class. An estimated 25,000 are buried in the catacombs below the church. The tour of the catacombs revealed piles of human bones, especially skulls and femur’s (less prone to decaying apparently).
Lima’s hip Bohemian district is known as Barranco. Just twenty minutes walk from our hotel along the Pacific coast it’s a relaxed mix of plazas, bars and mid-priced restaurants. We dropped in at the overpriced Barranco Brewing Company before we opted for a pizza at a local ‘Italian’. Despite three requests for some fresh chillies on her ‘picante’ pizza Karon was met with a decisive No!
Our next stop was the town of Puno beside Lake Titicaca. Arriving in the evening we were greeted by heavy rain for the hour long drive from Juliaca airport to Puno. This is a high altidue location (3800m above sea level) so rather than a greeting of the usual pisco sour cocktail at the hotel, we were offered a 10 minute blast of oxygen. We’d been told we should take it so we lay in bed like a pair of invalids and sucked it up.
Misleadingly promoted as the highest navigable lake in South America it is nevertheless impressive at 5200 sq km (i.e. about three times the size of greater London or 350 times that of Lake Winderemere). Our visit involved a day tour on the southern portion of the lake stopping off at the small floating Uros islands inhabited by family groups of indigenous Uros Indians. Each island is no more than 50 metres across and made of one metre thick reed mats harvested from around the lake. They’re a contrived tourist trap we were eager to leave.
Two hours further out on the lake is the beautiful island of Taquile. Populated by 2000 people still living a very traditional agricultural existence. The island is largely self sufficient in meat, fish and vegetables as we found having a great lunch of quinoa soup and grilled spiced trout.
After a further two hour boat ride back to Puno we were ready to get some refreshments on dry land. Unfortunately, the boat broke down a quarter mile from shore. We were stranded in the bay for an hour while the two old boys coaxed the motor back to life. Meanwhile our fellow passengers, a group of elderly Mexicans, were panicking because they were missing the 5-7 happy hour at their hotel. Eventually, the motor sputtered into life and we made it to the edge of the lake – not the port – from where the mini bus came to rescue us. Too add insult to injury, we’d landed on private land whose security guard wouldn’t open the gate to let the bus out – like he didn’t just let the bus in? Hmmm.
One full day at Lake Titicaca was enough and we had a 5.15am transfer to our 10hr bus journey from Puno to Cusco over the Andes. Unfortunately, Puno is right on the border with Bolivia which is an hour ahead of Peru. Having set our phone alarms how were we to know they’d picked up a network across the border. So yes, we rocked up for breakfast at 4am!
As you might expect, we weren’t looking forward to 10hrs on a bus. We needn’t have worried, our £11.50 ticket included guided tours of two historic sites by our multilingual guide Eric and a decent buffet lunch. Along the way we saw stunning views of the Andes and a lake full of wild flamingos. Blimey, we’re in Cusco already?
En-route we’d been befriended by an elderley golf mad French couple from Andorra. They were on a two week tour of Peru and were fascinated about our two month trip across the continent. As we waited for our own luggage to be unloaded at the Cusco bus station we looked on in amazement as this elderley pair collected two huge cases, two small ones, two back packs and a clutch bag for madame. Imagine the incredulity on their faces when they saw us walk past with just two small carry on cases and our hand luggage.
Arriving late in Cusco after a long day we hit the sack in our third Jose Antonio hotel before another early start to get a taxi up to Ollyantambo to catch the Expedition train to Machu Picchu.
Cusco city itself was the capital of the Inca Empire between the 13th and 16th century (well until the Spanish invasion in the 1530s) it was originally founded in 1100.
The ancient hilltop retreat of Machu Picchu is generally thought to have been a country estate of the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438-72), It was built in 1450 but abandoned a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest. It was unknown to the West until American archaeologist Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911 (apparently it was always known to locals, though invading 16th century Spaniards never knew it existed).
After a two hour journey (5-7am) we arrive at a buzzing station for the 90 minute train ride along the often torrential Urubamba river with stunning views of the Andes mountains.
After a further 20 minute bus ride from Aguas Calientes – nerve wracking for those who hate heights and twisting roads – we finally arrive at the bucket list destination of Machu Picchu.
When you’ve anticipated a visit for so long and seen so many pictures and videos there is always the fear it will disappoint. Not so with Machu Picchu. The scale of the place, the audacity of building a city on a mountain top, the sheer technical skill of the precisely cut stone blocks, and the clever irrigation system cut into the stonework all impress. The fact that the weather forecast – sustained rain – turned out to be totally wrong meant we were enjoyed glorious sunshine from start to finish making our visit perfect. At this time of year visitors aren’t so numerous either.
After the excitement of Machu Picchu we spent a night in Aguas Calientes at the very good El Mapi hotel. A lovely meal in the evening followed by Everton beating Chelsea 2-0 the following morning. What more could you ask for?
You remember the boat breaking down at Lake Titicaca right? Likewise the train taking us back to Ollyantambo. The engine packed in and we were stranded for an hour until engineers were dispatched to fix it. Finally we arrived to start the two hour taxi ride back to Cusco.
We now had a few relaxing days in Cusco to catch our breath. Only Cusco is 3400 metres above sea level so catching your breath is a challenge in itself. This didn’t stop us walking over every inch of Cusco to visit the lovely Plaza de Armas, the lively San Pedro market and, further out, the Inca ruins at Saqsaywaman (pronounced ‘sexy woman’). It’s a really lovely city with beautiful architecture and a real buzz about it (very much geared to the tourist trade).
At this point we were meant to visit Puerto Maldonado to spend some time in the Amazon jungle. However, the area was abruptly closed by the authorities following a spate of robberies of tourists.
As an alternative, we were off much further north (two flights via Lima) to Iquitos. From here we had a two hour boat ride – when it eventually started (not again please) – up the Amazon to the Heliconia Amazon Lodge for some guided treks and boat trips to explore the local environment.
While we were unimpressed by the very basic accommodation, this turned out to be a lot of fun as we fished for piranha, visited a monkey conservation centre, tasted the local moonshine made from sugar cane (lethal), went bird watching, encountered a giant jungle rat, huge black bullet ants – five bites can induce a heart attack apparently – and far too many large hairy tarantula spiders. Thankfully, our expert guide Manuel kept us informed and warned about the dangers.
Food at the lodge was a set buffet. Simple but tasty food, unexpectedly supplemented by the meagre haul of piranha and catfish we had caught earlier (more bones than meat in reality).
The highlight of this trip was a night time excursion on the river. With the engine switched off on our open flat boat we lay on our backs marvelling at the stars as we drifted back to the lodge with the current. A perfect ending to our brief visit to the mythical Amazon jungle.
This is the end of our guided tour in Peru and we now have eight days on our own. We have to get to Santiago in Chile for the start of our next tour, but we can’t resist another day in Lima hanging out at the beach watching the surf schools putting the new recruits through their basics and sipping on fresh squeezed juice overlooking the Pacific ocean. It’s good to be back on the road.