We came for the Inca Trail, a four day ascent through epic mountain scenery culminating in the hidden ancient ruins of Machu Picchu, but there was so much more to discover in this vast South American country. From endless miles of barren desert on the western coast to the dense, humid jungle of the Amazon; high altitude towns that appear in the middle of imposing mountain ranges to high octane desert oasis’s brimming with opportunities for sand based adventure. Through it all it’s the people and culture of Peru that stick in my mind. Here are some of my highlights from the month I spent in deepest Peru.
Sand boarding in Huacachina.
The dry desert air filled with the sound of revving engines and the smell of two-stroke. The tranquillity of the idyllic desert oasis on the western coast of Peru had been shattered by our afternoon ride. We climbed aboard the monster sand buggy and roared off in to the unknown; a vast desert of rolling sand dunes as far as the eye could see. The gradient sharpened and we were thrown back in our seats, approaching the summit of a dune I grasped at the roll cage and slammed on my imaginary brake pedal. The driver however had other ideas. Pushing the throttle harder we flew over the horizon and plummeted down the other side, drifting a little at the bottom as we lined up for the next dune. He was used to this transient racecourse later telling us no two days were the same; the wind constantly changing the landscape. We screamed like school girls at the theme park as we were hurled around in our seats, finally coming to a stop on top of a very large slope. This is what we came for. Like snowboarding but warmer sandboarding is taking off in Peru, all you need is good balance and a bit of skill, neither of which we had so it was hands and knees for us! With little to no safety briefing I hurtled off headfirst down the dunes with all the grace of a flamingo on ice (see planet earth 2) arriving at the bottom with sand papered arms and the tell tale grin on my face that only comes out when I’m doing something stupid or, more often then not, dangerous!
Quechua, weaving and the floating islands.
The most widely spoken language of the Andes Quechua is said to have derived from a common ancestral language of the Inca empire. Historically weaving has played an important part in the culture, telling stories through the generations as the craft has been handed down from one woman to another. We were lucky enough to visit a traditional village just outside of Cusco where tourism was being used to support the communities of local women through their weaving (Planeterra Womens weaving workshop). Everything from how the dye was made, spun and woven to the finished product was proudly shown to us by the local people with every penny we spent going directly to them. We even witnessed a baby llama being born!
The hospitality continued as we sailed over Lake Titicaca landing on the floating islands of Uros. Everything there was made of reeds from the floor we stood on to the simple single room houses that family life here revolved around. A traditional reed boat took us on a tour around the village while a young girl proudly sang her cultures songs. Cut off from modern technology and convenience these islands seemed to thrive on culture and traditional ways. Back on stable ground we found our beds for the night on the neighbouring island of Taquile in the form of a homestay with a local family. Another example of sustainable tourism the families on these islands had been encouraged to build extra rooms to give visitors a glimpse of their unique way of life. Here we joined a game of high altitude football and learnt to dance in full traditional dress before tucking in to a hearty home cooked meal.
The highest loo I’ve ever been to, and the sacred valley.
Yes we’re talking toilets. Winding through the high Andes reaching heights of over four thousand meters above sea level altitude sickness is a real threat. Lucky for us the Peruvians have several solutions to this; chocolate (always a favourite), coffee and something a little stronger. Known as Inca tea locals use a mix of herbs including the coca leaf with hot water to create a potent remedy to the thin air. Unfortunately with all this liquid intake there comes a point where one needs to visit the facilities. Now I’ve travelled far and wide; I’ve answered natures call in the Amazon, spent a penny up the shard and seen a man about a horse in monument valley but this one tops the list. The ultimate “loo with a view” with not even a door to distract you from the beautiful mountain top scenery, just the odd alpaca!
The Sacred Valley is steeped in Incan history from the still vibrant market town of Ollantaytambo to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. Lush green steppes marked by thousands of years of agriculture dominate the valleys while towering mountains obscure every horizon. Condors soar through the valleys riding the thermal air while llamas, alpacas and flamingos roam around in the highlands. It’s a good place to go for a walk.
Flying over vast swathes of uninhabited dense jungle our plane finally started it’s descent, we had taken a flight from the high altitude and thin air of Cusco to Puerto Maldonado in the lowlands of the Peruvian Amazon, the runway only appearing minutes before touching down. We toss our bags first on to a truck then a motorised canoe, making our way deep in to the jungle and to our final destination; a small eco lodge surrounded by the bio-diverse Tambopata reserve. From our humble base we go all Attenborough spotting pocket monkeys, hummingbirds, capybara (the worlds largest rodent), caiman and all sorts of bird life. At one point our guide tells us to throw the remains of our fruity snacks off the side of the canoe, in a rush of bubbles and teeth we realise we are surrounded by wildlife even when it’s not immediately visible. The muddy waters are teaming with piranhas, not the place then for a quick dip to escape the heat. Back at the lodge we tuck in to possibly the best chicken I’ve ever eaten, wrapped in a banana leaf and slowly simmered the tenderness is unparalleled, even if the locals did joke with us that we were unwittingly eating monkey!