Peru: From serene rainforest to the Inca trail and Machu Picchu
Peru is perhaps the favourite South American country among most travellers I speak to. When I consider all the destinations within it and reflect, I can see wholeheartedly see just why. Aside from the fact it possesses Machu Picchu and a whole host of Inca sites, there are dozens of other wondrous locations to sample that will blow your mind away. Peru is so enthralling that I have been there three times, sometimes to revisit the same places, as well as sample new ones. On two of my visits I entered Peru from neighbouring Bolivia along the shores of the vast Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world at over 12,000ft. This lake has the incredible floating islands of Uros. These indigenous people have built their own floating islands out of grass reeds, and existed here for many centuries.
Admittedly, these unusual islands have become a very popular tourist attraction but it does not detract from their uniqueness. In total there are some 120 islands which serve home to 4600 people, who somehow eek out a living here. As you can see from the photo, the houses are built from grass reeds and there is even a school on the islands for the local children. You will get hassled to buy handicrafts by the locals and I did buy a couple to support the people. The islands do feel very soft and spongy to walk upon, and you sink in a couple of inches with every foot step. As the grass reeds rot gradually from underneath, fresh grass reeds are layered on top to keep the islands from disappearing.
Back on the mainland of Peru I stayed the night in the busy town of Puno. It's a sprawling town with not a lot to see but on one of the nights I stayed there happened to be a bustling fiesta passing through which made for an entertaining evening, seeing locals dressed in bright costumes and playing traditional Peruvian pan pipe music.
Each local community have their own part in the parade which passes through the town of Puno. The noise was absolutely raucous with the beating of large bass drums alongside the hundreds of flute players. The costumes were so colourful and intricate, which is typical of many of the indigenous peoples clothing right the way down through Latin America from Mexico to Chile.
From Puno it is well worth heading due west to the city of Arequipa. The above photo is of El Miste which towers above the city at 18,000ft. This large city of 800,000 people sits at a more moderate altitude of 7000ft and has a dry desert climate as it's located on the western fringes of the Andes mountains. The city was hit by quite a large earthquake back in June 2001 and many historic buildings were severely damaged, including the old colonial cathedral. Over 100 people lost there lives, as the magnitude of the earthquake exceeded 8.4, making it one of the strongest earthquakes in South America for many decades.
This photo of me is beside the Colca Canyon. This is reached by minivan as a popular side trip from Arequipa to the town of Chivay. This small town is on the lower end of the world's second deepest ravine, the Colca Canyon, which has a depth of over 1km from the cliff edge to the river bottom. Another Peruvian canyon called the Cotahuasi claims to 185 metres deeper. The journey over to Chivay takes 4 or 5 hours along barren moonscape terrain, in which you see a couple of dormant volcanoes of Sabancaya and Ampata along the way. The big draw of this amazing canyon is that you get to see the almighty Andean condor fly close up to you.
The Andean condor is an iconic bird that I first came across as a youngster on a BBC TV series from the 1980s. This bird holds high status among Inca culture too, and with a massive wingspan of 10 feet (over 3 metres) and a body weight of 15kg, the condor is the largest flying bird in the world. It soars above the Andes from the south of Chile all the way up to Ecuador. I got to see one fly past me within just 20 feet or so, and could actually hear the wind rushing through its wings as it glided by me. It was perhaps my best experience of wildlife in my whole time in South America, though I still had a visit to the rainforest to come.
The above photo is of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, but I will explain more of this incredible city further on. On my final visit to Peru most recently in 2016, I opted to visit the Amazon Basin via Cusco. It takes 12 hours on a fairly comfortable bus with reclining seats to descend overnight from Cusco down to Puerto Maldonado. Several decades ago this journey would have been hellish as the road was not tarmacked and got washed away in the wet season. I remember reading this in the most enticing of travel books called Inca Kola, written by former UK politican, Matthew Parris. Thankfully now this journey is a lot easier than when Parris did the journey in the early 90s, at a time when Peru was highly dangerous with the Marxist group called Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) killing hundreds of people, some of whom were tourists. Thankfully they no longer exist.
The photo of me above is stood beside the Rio Madre de Dios (River Mother of God) in the bustling Amazonian town of Puerto Maldonado. As you can see they have their very own mini version of the Golden Gate bridge which spans a very wide section of river. I decided to hire a moped on my first day here and drive out east along the Trans Amazon highway towards the Bolivian and Brazilian borders which are not so far away.
As you can see in the photo, you can drive or ride the Trans Amazon highway from here in Peru all the way to Sao Paulo in the far southeast of Brazil, a journey of over 4000km. It is incredible that this Trans Amazonica has been built across one of the most inhospitable places on earth, the almighty Amazon Rainforest. However, whilst this links up trade between several South American countries with Brazil, the building of this road is not without controversy. As a new road is built through the rainforest, it results in deforestation not just along the main route but the thousands of side roads that span off the main highway. This actually has a most apt name known as the 'fish bone' effect. If you consider the spine of the fish is the main trunk road, with side roads spanning out from the spine.
Whilst in Puerto Maldonado I got to see a sloth climbing through the trees in a garden area of a hotel beside the main river. This beautiful sleepy creature is native to the area but incredibly rare and hard to see close up in the wild, so I was quite happy to see one in the sanctuary of a hotel grounds. On my second day in the area, I took a boat trip along the Rio Madre de Dios into a reserve called Tambopata. I took a two day guided tour which only cost around $70USD in which I stayed in a jungle hut beside Lake Sandoval. This incredible lake is actually an Ox bow lake which was a former part of the Rio Madre de Dios, and is now host to a massive variety of mammals and wildlife.
In this photo I am enjoying a relax beside Lake Sandoval before going out on a boat tour to see wildlife, which is best seen either early evening or morning. Our local guide called 'Jonny' was quite a character and spoke good English and was highly knowledgeable of the area and all its wildlife.
This howler monkey is one of the loudest creatures on the entire planet and its call reverberates and echoes loudly across the rainforest in the early morning and late at night. It sounds like something ghastly from a horror movie when you first hear them in a giant chorus. Even in the most dense rainforest where sounds are muffled by the trees, this primate's call can be heard from over 3 miles away. When I first heard it at 2am, it had me thinking the world might end!
This was probably my finest sunset photo in Peru here at Lake Sandoval. My group and I took a evening boat ride onto the lake and waited for darkness to fall in order to see the incredible sight of caiman gliding across the surface of the lake. These South American species which are related to alligators and crocodiles are an incredible sight when seen so close up!
This particular caiman in the photo came literally within 3 feet of my arm on the side of the boat, giving me a shiver down my spine! The black caiman can grow up to 15ft long and weigh a massive 1000 kilograms!
After a fairly restless nights sleep in the rainforest, we took a further boat ride at dawn in order to spot more birds and mammals. We came across the giant otter which is now quite rare, with only 6000 left in the entire world. They nearly became extinct due to the fur trade but thankfully their numbers have recovered in places like Lake Sandoval thanks to the setting up of reserves. The giant otter can grow to 5ft long and are quite ferocious when they hunt fish.
Lake Sandoval makes for an incredible rainforest experience and I highly recommend staying overnight too, because you get taken on a night walk into the jungle and get shown various breeds of spiders and snakes which are nocturnal. I caught the bus back up to the Andes, where I visited Lake Titicaca for a third time in my life before returning back to Cusco for the big finale of my trip to Peru, the Inca Trail and visiting Machu Picchu. Cusco is definitely one of my favourite cities on earth. I just love the history, architecture and whole vibe of the place. It befits it's historic status as the capital of the Inca Empire.
This is the superb view of the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. The city is located in a bowl like valley in the heart of Southern Peru, at 10,000ft above sea level. On my last visit in 2016, I flew in from sea level, so I spent the first 24 hours gasping for breath when walking up and down the steep alleyways. The historic Plaza de Armas is beautifully lined by courtyards and two stunning colonial cathedrals.
The main cathedral was particularly busy on my last visit as it was Easter time. The building dates was back to 1560, and built over the site of an Inca palace as was the very first Spanish church built in the city. I first visited Cusco back in 1996 and tourism was still a fledgling industry here, but when I last visited in 2016, some 20 years on Cusco really had embraced modern day tourism. In some ways, I miss the aspect of Cusco being a far away destination just reserved for the adventurous backpacking crowd, but times have moved on. Today, Cusco caters more than ever for the needs of all travellers, on many budgets and tastes. However, the alleyways still maintain a certain quaint character too.
In the run up to starting the Inca Trail, there is certainly plenty to see in an around Cusco itself. A good way to acclimatise to the increased altitude is to explore four sets of ruins near to Cusco. If you grab at taxi up the valley around 6 or 7km out towards the Sacred Valley, you have a pleasant walk back into the city of Cusco stopping at the ruins, and its down hill all the way! The first set of ruins are the relatively small ruins of Tambo Machay, but as you descend down the road you get to the biggest and massively impressive site of Sacsayhuman (in the above photo), dating back to 1440. This site is a huge fort above the city of Cusco and was the site of an incredible battle between the Spanish conquistadors and the Inca Empire in 1536. It was a turning point in the power struggle of the entire continent seeing the Spanish win over control, under the guidance of Juan Pizarro. The fortress has 4000 huge blocks of stone and reputedly took 20,000 men to construct the walls, at at a huge cost in lives. Each year there is huge festival here on the southern hemisphere winter solstice around the 21st June.
Now onto the grand finale, the Inca Trail! It's fair to say that this is the holy grail of many peoples' visit to South America. It's become increasingly difficult to even find a place on this spectacular ancient hiking trail, do a restriction of numbers and you also have to go as part of guided tour group, costing around $500USD. I first did this trail way back in 1996 when you were free to just get a permit and walk by yourself. This wasn't long after the disbandment of the Sendero Luminoso (shining path) Marxist group and there had been bandits on the trail holding tourists at gunpoint on occasions.
When I did the Inca Trail in 2016, I wondered how it would feel to go with a group of a dozen other tourists and a guide, but to be honest, it worked out very well indeed, as you could still walk at your own pace, and the guide we had called Jorge was incredibly knowledgeable of the whole Inca culture, as a proud descendant himself.
Here's my group and I at the very start of the trail, marked as Kilometer 82, on the rail road to Aguas Calientes. We were a mix of American, British, French and Argentinian of all ages. Despite the fact this was my second attempt at the Inca Trail I was just as excited at doing the Camino Inka again, as I knew just how damn good it was going to be, and 20 years is a heck of a long time in between doing the trail.
On the first day of the Inca Trail you are at a lowly elevation of just 8000ft which is a couple of thousand feet lower than Cusco, so you don't feel out of breath and the climate is quite a comfortable 20'c and sunny in the bottom of the Urubamba Valley. You walk just around 6 miles on the first day along the side of the valley to the first set of many Inca ruins, known as Llactapata. These impressive terraces provided farmland and a fortress to the Inca people just before the fork in the trail up the Rio Cusichaca valley. I spent the first night of camping on the Inca trail just beyond the only settlement on the Inca trail called Huayllabamba. I awoke to a chilly dawn but got an amazing view of a high Andean peak called Nevado Veronica (19,000ft) as shown in the photo below.
On day two, it's massive climb from 9000ft to the top of Warmiwanusca, a.k.a Dead Woman's pass which is at a staggering 14,000ft (see the photo below). This is the high point of the whole Inca Trail. Expect the weather to be highly changeable here, one minute you can be in high winds and rain and the next you can be back in bright sunshine.
As you start the third day of the Inca Trail you get to see more and more ruins, as you hike closer to Machu Picchu. You ascend the second pass called Runkurakay, which gives you this great view back to Dead Woman's pass. The second pass is easier to the third, and then you descend into beautiful cloud forest to the ruins of Sayacmarca. These ruins have a neat little irrigation system and it's estimated this fort had 200 people living in it, when the Inca trail was in it's heyday of the 15th century.
From Sayacmarca, it's a steady walk through the cloud forest and more gentle ascent to the final pass of Phuyupatamarca where I spent my final night on the Inca trail at 12,000ft. The ruins here give a decent view down into the valley if the weather is clear. I got a a mix of scurrying clouds and just caught sight of the Intipata terraces, within just 5 miles of Machu Picchu over the final ridge. The excitement builds as you are in touching distance of one of the world's seven modern wonders.
Then finally, you go to your tent on the final night ahead of what is a tricky descent at 3am the next morning from 12,000ft way down into the mists of the Urubamba valley below. I remember the chirping of the insects in the dark, as I struggled in a line of people down slippery steps down to the Winay Wayna, the last set of ruins before Machu Picchu itself. It's a further 3 miles along a ridge then before you reach the Sun Gate, Inti Punku which most people arrive for around 8am. I felt the humidity rise dramatically as we arrived back down at 9000ft.
I remember feeling exhausted in this photo at having walked 26 mountainous miles of the previous three and a half days, but elated that the prize of Machu Picchu had almost finally been reached. In 2016, I completed the Inca Trail for the second time in my life but the excitement and sense of achievement was just as high as my first visit. Our tour group got a good wander around the ruins and we had a good explanation of many of the ruins from our brilliant tour guide, Jorge.
This view of Machu Picchu is taken higher up the mountain than most, but gives you the sense of scale and beauty of this mysterious site. The position is so perfect for defence as the citadel would have been protected well on three sides by the snaking Urubamba Valley and the iconic peak of Huayna Picchu, which you can climb if you book ahead, but watch out as it's steep, and you need to haul yourself up a few roped sections to the summit. Machu Picchu attracts thousands of visitors each day, most of which are day trippers from Cusco. It's worth hanging around into the late afternoon if you want to avoid the bigger tour crowds.
What is incredible about Machu Picchu is that the Spanish Conquistadors never found it and it was only re-discovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. The site was massively overgrown by cloud forest but after extensive clearance, an incredible citadel was revealed. The site was an important agricultural centre serving the Inca in Cusco. You see evidence of the Inca expertise in astronomy with the sun stone, and also various windows facing out towards the rising and setting sun at the summer and winter solstices. Below is 'Temple of the three windows'.
What is most awe inspiring is the stone masonry throughout the site, which so well preserved over so many centuries. The stepped terraces provided ample food for the population which would have lived here and probably numbered around just around a thousand people. The biggest mystery of all though is why did the Inca give up living here and abandon it? Did they die from disease, or were they chased off elsewhere? And there I will leave the mystery with you!
I finished my last trip off by flying off from Cusco to the modern capital of Peru, Lima. This sprawling city by the Pacific coast is so very different from it's ancient counterpart of Cusco.
This photo is taken from the relatively wealthier part of Lima called Miraflores. It reminded me more of California than it did of Peru. It even had the 3 lane highway and beaches too, such a world away from my last few weeks spent in the wilds of the Andes mountains and Amazon rainforest. I sat and enjoyed the sun set over the Pacific Ocean and tried to make sense of what had been yet another extraordinary journey. Peru really takes some beating and has it all, so go and enjoy it! Thanks for reading, and if you wish to see more of my Peru photos please click here.