The Peruvian Highlands
Leaving Peru’s deserts and beautiful beaches we began our ascent to Arequipa, a beautiful colonial city where we could start to acclimatise before getting to Cusco.
From Arequipa Luke and I did a day trip out to Colca Canyon. It was a very early start, getting picked up at 3am, but this was to get us to the canyon early enough to see the condors. These gigantic birds fly up out of the canyon on the warm air currents as the sun rises. We were lucky and spotted 2 near the road eating the remains of a cow, and also saw a few soaring high from the edge of the canyon.
We learned a lot about the history of the Inca and pre-Inca peoples who lived here as well as stopped in some nice little towns. It was a long day, but worth it for the beautiful views and to see the condors.
After leaving Arequipa we climbed up to about 4000m and camped at a natural hot springs that were very popular with the local people. We were feeling the effects of the elevation here, but after chewing coca leaves and drinking sweet coca tea we did feel a lot better. Coca leaves are the natural ingredient in cocaine, however there is a significant chemical process that occurs before the leaves resemble anything narcotic, and they do help with altitude sickness!
Our next stop was Cusco, where we dropped down to 3500m (still significantly high). We had an evening here to get ready for the Inca Trail, a 4 day hike finishing at Machu Picchu. Cusco was the centre of the Inca empire in the 1400’s, literally meaning the “navel of the world”. The Inca Trail was part of a system of paths that joined the empire together.
We set out early with a group of 18 to start the trek. The company we went with was called Pachamama (mother earth) who were absolutely amazing. On our first day we had a few hours of easy hiking to our lunch stop. The porters and our cook had beat us there and we had a great lunch before heading off again for another couple hours before getting to our campsite.
Day 2 was much harder. We had an early start, woken up with a cup of coca tea. The majority of this day was a steady uphill, made more difficult as we climbed higher and higher. The top of the pass, at 4200m (4km above sea level) is known as Dead Woman’s Pass, very aptly named. Luke stuck with me and we got up to the top in about 5 hours. It was a pretty great feeling to know that we had conquered the hardest part of the trail.
The third day of trekking was the longest day, but more ups and downs and lots of stops at old Inca ruins. Once we reached our campsite for the evening we went into see the ruins of Winay Wayna (forever young), and impressive ruin where travellers heading to Machu Picchu would have cleansed themselves before arriving the next day. I opted out of the cold shower and resigned myself to arriving grubby and worn out.
That night after another fabulous dinner we thanked our porters and cooks with a hug and kiss on the cheek, there were about 20 of them. The porters are no longer allowed to walk to Machu Picchu on the Inca Tail after an accident on this narrow section of trail. An alternate route was made for them, but now means that most of the porters never even see the famed ruin.
We all woke early at 3am to have a quick cup of coca tea and grab our packed breakfasts before heading down to wait by a gate for 2 hours. Our guide has suggested we get there early to try and get to the sun gate before the crowds. It was worth it. After 45 minutes of hiking at a very quick pace we arrived at the sun gate and looked down at Machu Picchu. It was a magnificent sight, made better by the road we had travelled to get there.
The Inca’s worshiped nature and built everything in places of significance, using natural products and never disturbing the face of the landscape. Machu Picchu is located in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. As the Inca empire spread they absorbed the best from all the tribes they conquered. This made them experts in astronomy, agriculture, construction without iron tools, as well as warriors.
Our guides showed us around and then we had a few hours to chill out before heading down to catch our train back. As the day progressed it became so busy, bus after bus dropped people off, and we were very glad to have arrived early. It was an amazing experience that we will never forget.
Back in Cusco Luke and I had a few days to recover from the trek and check out the city. When the Spanish conquered the Inca’s they tore down all their temples and replaces them with cathedrals. The central area of the city is now a UNESCO world heritage site so the narrow cobble streets and red tile roofs are protected.
Our last stop in Peru was Lake Titicaca, the world’s largest high altitude lake. We had the opportunity to stay with a family on one of the small islands in the lake. We were told to take a sense of humour, so not really knowing what to expect we set out with a guide onto the lake.
Our first stop was on a floating reed island. While very set up for tourists, people are still living on these tiny man made islands.
We got to the island of Amantani and met our host mama who took us to her home for lunch. Peru has about 4000 varieties of potato, many of which come from this area, so we had a lot of potatoes during our stay here. It really was a privilege to be able to stay with a local family, despite not really being able to communicate.
That afternoon we hiked up to a pre-Inca ruin to watch the sun set. Even though we are both feeling acclimatised to the altitude at this point any climbing leaves us short of breath. However we were rewarded for our efforts with beautiful views over the island and lake.
After dinner our host mama asked us if we wanted to get dressed up and go to the fiesta. This meant getting into their traditional dress and dancing around in a big circle to pan pipes. It was good fun, something that Luke and I would have never done had we been on our own.
Our next stop is La Paz in Bolivia, stay tuned for more adventures!