A Diary of Peru
A personal account of a Peruvian Secret’s tour to Peru by Ian and Val Stait
After the usual M25 jams and much driving up and down the Uxbridge Road, arrive relieved at the hotel in Hayes (Heathrow). Driver sets off to get back in time for the match and we try to check in.
No one booked under our name. We have a booking reference, but this is in the car somewhere on the North circular by now. Brief discussion with receptionist reveals the perils of using a 2 year old brochure – the hotel chain has, in fact, three hotels in the area (two of which were not in our booklet). As we were obviously not booked into Hayes (Heathrow), did we want to go to Heathrow (Heathrow) or Bath Road (Heathrow)?
Decided to start the holiday as we meant to go on and waited for the taxi in the pub next door. On Arrival at Bath Road (Heathrow) we enquired about a bus to Terminal 4 for our very early flight. Yes there was a bus. It would get us to check-in just as it was closing. Booked another taxi.
Hotel food doesn’t do much for us, but the receptionist assured us that the local pub was ok. Which it was if you were male, drove trucks, watched football and lived on ham, egg and chips. We bravely ordered anyway and perused a copy of ‘The Sun’ to try and fit in. Imagine the soles of the chef’s trainers deep-fried, you get an idea of the steak. And don’t ask for a jacket potato with cheese because it only comes with cheese and beans. Interesting cuisine and we haven’t even left England yet!
Standing in rain at 4:45…. 4:55…. 5:00. Hotel rings taxi firm who deny all knowledge. 5:05 find taxi on opposite side of hotel that he said he would be. Joined long check-in queue at Terminal 4. Terminal bore is more apt. Found the only shop open (a coffee bar) where an American lady was arguing with the cashier in a way that only Americans can. Her side of it was that she had been short-changed from a $50 bill. “But madam, this is England, we don’t use dollars here”. Not one to be put off by the facts the American insisted again that she had handed over a $50 bill. If you thought a search of the till would settle the argument once and for all, you’d be wrong.
Transfer in Amsterdam terminal to the MD11 that would take us to Bonaire was all of 50 yards! Plenty of time to find that all-important Spanish phrase book that we had intended to buy at Heathrow. The catch was, we needed to buy a Dutch phrasebook too, as the only ones available were Spanish/Dutch.
Despite being stuck right in the middle of the aeroplane, we enjoyed our flight. Seats as comfortable and food as edible as you’re going to get in economy, cabin crew bright and more importantly not stingy with the drinks. Arrived in Bonaire in the 33-degree afternoon heat. Now this was more like it! Self-catering room simple but spacious. Pretty beach bar area, made all the better by good food and cocktail of the day. Walked to shop for supplies. Found it next to ‘the only barefoot Internet café on Bonaire’. There is only one set of traffic lights here. It’s a small outpost, you understand.
Planned an omlette for breakfast. This was difficult, as there were no eggs on the island. “The chickens are on strike!” explained the shopkeeper. Bed at 7.30. Supplies seemed either very cheap or very expensive, depending on whether the price was in Dutch Guildas or USD. Both are used widely and we weren’t there long enough/too jetlagged to work out the difference between the two anyway.
Woke at 7.30 and decided that a walk into Kralendijk town was great idea. It was right up until 10.30 when the island heat turned into a furnace. Apparently October is hot season in these parts as the trade winds migrate north with the hurricane belt. A few bars, restaurants and a small promenade later we headed back, using the air-conditioned shops en-route as often as we could get away with.
Afternoon hired a mask and spent a fabulous couple of hours snorkeling. The reef a few yards offshore teems with all sorts of things that Ian would like for dinner. Fish and urchins of every colour, barracuda, sea slugs. There’s none of this getting in a boat malarkey, divers just strap a tank to their backs and wade in.
Walked to the ‘Lions Den’ for a sundowner- brilliant panoramic view over bay and Klein Bonaire. Run by a geezer from Southampton. My starter contained prawns, so I found solace in another margarita while Ian tackled my starter. How am I going to survive in Peru as a vegetarian?
Bit of sun, bit of swim, experimented with underwater camera (a challenge without a mask). Delivered way too early to airport. Only ones to check in. Won’t hurry back as there’s not much to do unless you’re into diving, but as a pleasant way to wind down before South America, Bonaire was ideal. Got emergency exit-row seats. Hurrah! Unfortunately stuck in middle of cabin again and Ian didn’t get to see his first view of the Andes. Still, felt almost smug feeling fresh and bright among a plane-full of short-tempered smelly passengers who had been travelling for 10-15 hours.
Waited 45 mins in immigration. ‘Still,’ I pointed out ‘at least our bags will be waiting for us’. And one of them was. Pity the other one was still in Bonaire. The only two passengers to check in and they couldn’t get the bags sorted!
Met by Alvaro who gave us our vouchers and internal flight tickets. Lima very misty, but quieter and cleaner than I expected, despite its 8 million inhabitants. Fabulous 5* hotel. Luckily the stray bag had colder weather clothes in (toiletries bag in hand-luggage definitely good idea) so we weren’t missing much. Took advantage of our welcome drink, a Pisco Sour. It’s similar to margarita and quite pleasant, if a bit girly. Walk through Miraflores night market. Light supper with the ubiquitous Peruvian street band.
Body clock still clinging to Europe time. Woke up at 6.30. After a fine breakfast we went shopping. Shops shut. Went back later and bought some shoes and makeup to replace what KLM were holding hostage (no flight from Bonaire today).
Flew afternoon to Trujillo. Also very hazy, which was a shame as it is not far from the Andes. Met Senior Herbert, a German who came to Peru 20 years ago to help the locals build adobe houses and wells. After a welcome Pisco sour, we tried for a massage and sauna. My Spanish only managed to get us the sauna. Evening went into a lively Trujillo centre for a fine meal in a colonial restaurant. Some amazing covered balconies in the buildings. Herbert explained that they allowed the concubines in the colonial houses to look out, but people on the street couldn’t see in. We asked if we could go for a wander, but Herbert preferred to stay with us. He also asked that we lock the car doors and wind up the windows in the town. Right.
After meagre breakfast (Peruvians don’t seem to be big breakfast people) we visited Chan Chan. From the Moche era, it’s one of the biggest settlements of its time. Despite being in the desert which stretches the whole of East Coast of Peru it thrived due to an intricate irrigation system channeling water from the mountains. Unfortunately, the later Inca civilisation cottoned on to this, re-directed the local river and successfully conquered the Moche. A smart move as they would have had little chance of breaking through the thick 30′ high adobe walls that surround Chan Chan.
Stepping inside the one small entrance we entered a maze of pathways connecting many ceremonial areas and a reservoir. Apparently the Moche had a very controlled religion-based society and looking at the ruins this came across very strongly. All you can see inside are walls and sky, so tall are they. If you were claustrophobic, this was not the place to live.
The scale of the site is vast- over 14 square km. We saw one palace, there were eight others still being excavated. Trip to the Chan Chan museum followed, then headed into desert to the sun and moon pyramids. Only the moon pyramid has been excavated so far, though you can see what’s left of the sun pyramid (the Spaniards diverted a river past it and washed on side away). The pyramids are in layers. When one king died, they built another one on top. Lunch at a seaside restaurant that introduced us to the cheap and excellent local seafood, then onto the Pan-American highway which runs the length of the Americas. Turn right for Patagonia, left for Alaska. We turned left, but luckily only as far as Hubert’s ranch some bottom-numbing four hours away. Nice to stop for a bit as I had come down with Peru flu. When we arrived it was dark. Very dark. I hadn’t listened that closely when Herbert mentioned generators earlier. Now he handed me a candle and torch to light our simple but comfortable room in the grounds. There is no electricity to the ranch. The fridge is gas, lighting from oil lamps and a real fire scented with a special wood. The generator is used only now and again. Shower by candlelight [luckily gas heated] followed by fabulous meal with Hubert and housemate / chef extrodinaire Manuel. Lasagne, courgette and unusual fruits, local wines. Then introduced to the rest of the family – 6 dogs [3 ancient local breed without hair] and 1 cat. Followed the torch beam to bed.
Up early greeted by a fine and lengthy breakfast where we discussed the issues of Peru. The east coast can be dry for 7 years at a time. It had not rained for 2 years here. Hubert had cut down on the number of sheep he keeps as there wouldn’t be enough food for them next year. People can’t farm jobs are getting scarcer and the government is only interested in Lima, which has problems enough of its own.
Drove to museum of the Lord of Sipan, which we nominated one of the best museums we’d ever visited. The contents of the Sipan tombs were happily being sold by the local grave robbers [a common pastime in Peru – what the Spanish didn’t get in the 1500s, unscrupulous locals have been stealing ever since]. One day, however, they had a dispute over who owned what. The police were called and that was the end of a lucrative if destructive little sideline.
Inside the tombs they discovered $134m worth of artifacts – Lavish gold crowns, necklaces, earrings with posts the size of a little finger [ouch] make an awesome collection. The tombs themselves are re-created in detail, including family, concubines and guards. Unfortunate enough to be indispensable to the Lord in death as well as life they were buried alongside the main man.
One particularly enlightening display showed how the museum had recovered artifacts from the black market and private collections, including raids on an American politician and a Spanish ambassador. “the Spanish”, joked the guide, “they never stop!”
Last night’s lasagne provided a filling lunch before we left for the witchcraft market. If you are ill you come here to consult the witch-doctor. This maze of stalls and shacks provides the superstitious locals with a vast array of alternative cures, some of them still moving. Took the safe option and bought some scented wood.
Afternoon at the Tucume pyramids. Good site for those with a vivid imagination. I’m sure they were impressive at the time, but from the ground they now look more like large sand dunes. In fact, if you didn’t know, you would walk straight past them. Trekked up to the viewpoint anyway, returned hot and dusty.
Back at the ranch, we saw the sheep [hairless again] and walked through some of Hubert’s 32 hectares while he showed us the many types of trees and cacti. The evening’s entertainment was provided by weather- it rained for the first time in a long time. Must have brought a bit of England with us!
Up early to Chiclayo for flight to Lima. A large group of schoolchildren were on the apron applauding the planes as they landed, waving them off. Realised we had not seen one other European since leaving Lima. This area was very much the local Peru.Met by Alvaro and hired taxi to take us round Lima. Lunch at amazing restaurant on a pier, accompanied by the odd surfer and paraglider. Ian the seafood connoisseur said he had his best octopus ever. Late flight to Arequipa where we met English missionaries who used to live there. Went out to explore the colonial square and pisco sours.
Woke to bright clear morning, typical of the weather in Arequipa and very welcome after the thick grey haze of the coast. Ate breakfast in the sunny gardens then met our guides who would take us on the amazing route to Colca Canyon. Stopped halfway for coca tea, which is supposed to help with altitude sickness. As we were spending the next few days between 11,000 and 16,000 feet, we accepted the bitter drinks.
Despite looking like the van from Scooby-doo, our tour bus was large and comfortable with big picture windows. We viewed the others with pity. Most packed in eight or more tourists with little provision for comfort on the rough tracks over the altiplano. Bought alpaca scarf for $3.50 enroute to the highest point at 16,200 feet. Very cold, bright and difficult to breathe but was worth it for the panoramic views of volcanoes. Stopped at Chivay for a three course meal with wine. $12 for the two of us – they must have seen us coming. Incredible views from hotel room over canyon. Visited local hotsprings water
38 degrees and passed an ancient runway before returning to an evening by the fireside swapping tales with other travellers. Early to bed as still not well.
Up very early headed through the canyon for the condor lookout point- cruz el condor. This is the best time to spot them on their way to the hunting grounds. Saw three condors and lots of tourists over the course of an hour and a half. Tried to spot difference between Inca and pre-Inca terraces, which are abundant and very impressive. The earliest are right at the top of the mountains, where the good volcanic soil is. Lunch at Chivay in a very local and agreeable restaurant then long drive back to Arequipa. Doing alright as a veggie as many Incas are vegetarian.
Struck by how remote and wild this area is. Humans have very little impact here and you can drive for miles without seeing anyone. Every minute the scenery becomes more breathtaking. Suddenly my reverie was broken. In the middle of nowhere a bus pulled alongside and threw across a t-shirt we had left at the hotel!
Back in Arequipa we ate alongside a Peruvian band and a moody French woman. Ian tried the local delicacy- guinea pig, which has delighted diners since Inca times. I know morally there’s no difference between eating one meat and another but I draw the line at household pets.
Walking back we came across a crowd watching fireworks outside a church. The display was mostly Catherine wheels tied to a wobbly bamboo scaffold in the middle of the crowd (and the traffic, which had also stopped to watch, ignoring the impatient horns from further up the street). A firework shot across the top of the crowd towards us and we thought that was the end. Just then a display started right over our heads and we ran for cover from the hot sparks. No such thing as health and safety here!
Morning chilling sunbathing round pool. Met two girls from London. Beautiful flight over mountains to Cusco, though the approach through the mountains looked quite dodgy. After much walking and being suckered by beggars we found a great lounge bar selling cocktails, jacket potatoes, baked beans and veggie roasts. Sipped a ‘sol-y-luna’ to the sounds of Bob Dylan from the live entertainment.
Dinner with the tourists and another Peruvian band playing ‘El Condor Pasa’. Maybe better to find our own food of an evening rather than use recommendation from guide…Between the plumbing and the Japanese, hotel very noisy.
Had massage from a German lady we’d met in a jewellery shop the day before. Knew we’d got into full holiday mode now as we talked about the feasibility of opening an alternative health centre in Cusco. Walked round town, visited contemporary art museum, lunch at the lounge bar.
PM ate at restaurant overlooking the central plaza which gave us food poisoning. Maybe should listen to guide after all.
Ian had visit from an osteopath to sort out his neck so I went back to the lounge bar to write postcards over a large B52. Yes they did arrive, albeit two months later!
Visited many ruins and ancient sites on our way to the sacred valley and past the original start of the Inca trail. The stonework is quite incredible – walls made of 200 ton blocks that you can’t get a knife in between. You couldn’t do that today.
Stopped at Pisac market for souvenirs and a very touristy place for lunch. Arrived Ollantaytambo late afternoon and watched sunset from the incredible ruins. This was an Inca house of rest en-route to Macchu Picchu. The Peruvians had quite a talent for building in the most difficult and inaccessible mountain-tops. Ate very expensively in hotel, though the room was very pleasant with views of mountains and two dusty llamas outside. If I hear El Condor Pasa once more I’m going to find that condor and strangle it.
Time to El Condor Pasa 2h 45min
Another very early start to catch the vistadome train to Aguas Calientes accompanied as always by that song. The large windows on the train afforded panoramic views and we even got served a second breakfast! Decided to visit Macchu Picchu both today and tomorrow as we were told you have a 1 in 3 chance of the weather being good. Sitting in Aguas Calientes waiting for our guide it started chucking down rain. The cloud lowered, the mountains disappeared and we retreated to the bar opposite hotel. Stared at some Americans until they left their fireside seats and settled in for the afternoon with beer and pizzas. Rain eventually stopped late afternoon. Too late to go up to ruins so went to hot spring baths instead. Ate lovely soup at veggie restaurant, though not eating much at moment as altitude suppressing appetite. First holiday I’ve lost weight on! Ian gave up being veggie fairly quickly and returned to Inca Wasi for another pizza. Fingers crossed for fine weather tomorrow.
Time to hearing El Condor Pasa 40 mins
Woke at 5.30 to a clear sunny warm day. Got first bus up to Macchu Picchu, before most of the tourists arrive from Cuzco and the Inca trail. Guided tour round the ruins for 3 hours. Incredible place, just like the photos and more than lived up to expectations. Retired for a half-time sandwich.
Climbing Hyuna Picchu seemed a really good idea so left guide at entrance and set off. Have to sign in and out in case they lose you over the side. Ian still not over food poisoning so I left him half way and continued alone up the seemingly vertical climb. Worth it at the top. Just managed the walk down, which wasn’t much easier but did
have buns of steel afterwards.
Late lunch in Aguas Calientes then nearly missed train back to Cusco. Leaves from different place through a street market, only nobody told us. Followed the river bed to the sound of E.C.P. but intended to sleep anyway on the 3 ¾ hour journey. Unusual method of propulsion-a long loud horn. When the driver wants to speed up, he blows the horn. Brakes work in the same way. 3 plus hours of a horn every few minutes could get quite trying were it not for the fact that it drowned out El Condor Pasa. On-board entertainment included a fashion show and traditional dance. The finale was a very clever method for descending the steep hill into Cusco. It has a switchback system. The train drives down a mile or so of track, pulls into a siding and the driver’s mate runs out and switches to the lower track and so on. Big food binge in the lounge bar in town.
Up early again for flight to Lima. Check-in girl announced “I have earlier flight, you want to go?” of course we agreed. “what time does it leave?” “now” .right. Walked straight through security to plane and took off! Never been through an airport so quickly. Met by Jorge, a big sociable amiable man. Drove through some dodgy parts of Lima then through the desert along the Pan-American highway again.
Saw hundreds of wicker boxes in the middle of nowhere, the sort of thing you would keep animals or store crops in. Jorge explained that the government had plans to develop the area and every box was a family staking their claim to that parcel of land. Many had flags or family names on the side. A shop and garage had already sprung up. The most sought after apparently are those closest to the noisy busy highway, though no one seemed to know why, or why you would want to box a few square feet of bare desert when there were hundreds of miles of land in every direction.
Stopped short of Patagonia for lunch in a little oasis then drove to hotel in Occucaje. Hmm, prison was an early impression. Shown to very small basic room with a fetching view over the car park. Pool was littered with leaves and unusable, the lounge/billiard room was straight out of the seventies. Jorge was very supportive and got us a bottle of wine, a bigger room overlooking the gardens and a different hotel for our last night .
After the set menu we stole the seats by the fire in the bar and found a couple of rather nice bottles of port. A jenga set completed the evening. Even better, the manager waived the bar bill as a gesture of goodwill!
Woken up at 8.40 by Jorge saying we needed to be at the airport by 9.30. Ran out of hotel and drove to Ica as our flight took off over us. Next one in an hour. Gave us time for very pleasant breakfast and a film about the Nazca line theories- ancient runway, UFO landing strip, star chart? Their secrets are forgotten. Flew in 12 seat plane over the vast desert to the lines and pictures in the sand, preserved by the dryness and only visible from the air.
Drove to hotel Paracas then walked to the little seaside promenade for a wonderful meal watching pelicans and cormorants diving for fish. A very old and wrinkled busker accompanied lunch with his guitar and his poetry. Tried and failed to reconfirm flights [KLM have internet check-in – worth learning how before you leave the UK). Watched film in room, drank port, settled for overpriced restaurant fare as Jorge cautioned it was not good idea to walk into town after eight.
Woke up far too early again for complimentary boat trip to Ballestas islands. The cold Humbolt current which causes the haze over the coast for much of the year also attracts the largest number of migratory seabirds in the world. We weren’t that fussed, to be honest. Seen one booby, seen them all, right?
What we saw knocked us sideways, an awesome spectacle of nature. Hundreds of flocks flying in formation. So many birds on a rock it changed colour, sealions basking like dogs in front of a fire, penguins, pelicans, you name it. As you can imagine and indeed smell, guano is a big export here.
A great highlight to end our tour. Took Jorge to lunch by the promenade again entertained by our busker. Long drive back to Lima. Considered going into town, but had enough by then. Joined check-in queue for 2 hour wait, though the staff did make an effort dressed in Halloween costumes. Took off early, fed and drunk well again and settled down for the night.