The next day on my itinerary there was a trip scheduled to Peru’s own home-grown contender for “8th Wonder of the World”, Machu Picchu. The trip started badly (again), the driver arrived 10 minutes late. Then after getting away, we had got as far as the outskirts of the Municipalidad when as a matter of course I queried the driver to make sure he was in possession of my tickets for the rail journey and entrance to the Inca site. Incredibly he didn’t have them! He thought I had them! He quickly phoned the tour organiser who indicated that the hotel receptionist was holding the tickets and had been supposed to have given them to me when we left. The driver sped back to Utaytambo nearly cleaning up half a dozen semi-comatose early morning strollers ambling insouciantly across the road on the way. Fortunately the errant but smiling receptionist was waiting outside in the road with the tickets, so the driver was able to curtly grab them and hare off once again without getting out of the vehicle.
My driver proceeded to drive like a maniac (or if you prefer – like your average Peruvian motorist!) to get me to the Ullantaytambo railway station where I was to pick up the PeruRail train to Machu Picchu. Passing through the ingreso I was on time for my scheduled train but unfortunately the PeruRail organisation setup at the station was a shambles. There were delays, trains were waiting on the track for a long time but we weren’t allowed to board them. The train that I was told was my one came an hour later and duly went. To my surprise, although the station was packed with would-be boarders for Machu Picchu, each arriving train only contained two or three carriages! It was reassuring to reflect on the fact that PeruRail was functioning at the lofty standard of railways worldwide! I did have to admit however that the railway staff at PeruRail were extremely polite – if not particularly useful. In frustration I forced my way onto the platform and into the queue for the next train. Although the journey number on my bolero de acceso (ticket) didn’t correspond, I was allowed on to the train much to my relief.
The train went to Aguas Calientes which is the rail terminus for MP. On the way, the scenery was really picturesque, a full, flowing river with the stunning postcard backdrop of the Andes mountains, which was just as well because the trip was a very long haul. At Aguas Calientes the local Chimu reps with their yellow T-shirts were fortunately easy to spot in the tangled mass of humanity at the station gate. From there we were rushed off to the coaches which delivered thousands of visitors nonstop to the Machu Picchu site. The ride up the mountain was an adventurous one owing to the narrow, rough zig-zagging road and the propensity of the drivers to hurl their coaches blindly around curves in the road! At 2,430 metres above sea level Machu Picchu is very high but still considerably lower than Cusco and other locations in the Urubamba Valley.
Machu Picchu was an interesting experience, certainly unique and monumentally laid out, but somehow I felt underwhelmed by its ‘grandeur’. I don’t know why, possibly I was feeling blasé about the Inca monuments as a result of all of the native sites I had seen since arriving in Cusco. I didn’t find it breathtakingly magnificent in an aesthetic sense when set against Abu Simbel in Egypt. Machu Picchu’s incomplete state seemed to me a bit of a mishmash of broken architecture. I think that when viewed from a distance, Machu Picchu is infinitely more impressive. The sum of the whole, with its pattern of terraced fields and the ruins sitting on a ridge beneath the two peaks (Machu and Huanya) is a more spectacular sight compared to it’s scattered individual parts up close. One thing there is no doubt about is that it does have atmosphere – in abundance. The clouds resting serenely on the twin peaks of a once impregnable fortress city, give it a tranquil and unearthly appearance from afar. Peaceful yes, but depopulated, never! Vast crowds throng all over Machu Picchu all year, climbing its inestimable number of steps and exploring every nook and crevice of it! MP’s enormous pulling power brings tourism, but with it the threat of degradation to the precise and fragile site!
Our guide showed us some of the more notable features, such as the Sun Temple and the sculpture known as the “Eyes of Pachamama” (two carved circles in the ground) and the Inyiwatana, a rock pillar with profound astronomical significance for the Incas. He also pointed out the line formed in the mountains that represents the hiking trail that leads to Machu Picchu. I observed countless modern-day Hiram Binghams embarking on two or four day hikes in the footsteps of that famous first trek to this archaeological magnet.
The great mystery of Machu Picchu is that its purpose for being remains uncertain. Archaeologists have not yet resolved whether it was built as a royal retreat or palace for the Emperor Pachacuti, or for religious purposes to honour its sacred landscape (the river that encircles most of it, Rio Urubamba, was thought by the Incas to be sacred) or for some other reason, such as defence.
The massive crush of tourists, roaming all over the site was a bit off-putting, and when the guide suggested an early departure to avoid the horrendous lines of visitors queuing up for the buses later in the afternoon, I was highly amenable to the idea. I walked back down to the entrance with the guide who alerted me to the gimmicky custom of visitors having their passports stamped with the Machu Picchu stamp (“passport control”, like it was a pretend visit to another country). Despite my scepticism about such things I went along with the charade and allowed the guide to stamp the book.
The queue was already lengthy but with a host of coaches backed up in the parking area there wasn’t a long wait to get back to Aguas Calientes. Coming down from the mountain allowed passengers to appreciate how much of a ‘hairy’ ride it really was! Buses were whizzing past each other along a narrow ledge of a road, at times coming within a metre or so of the edge and the prospect of a disastrous drop to the bottom of the valley. Getting back to the base camp of Aguas Calientes early I had a lot of time to waste before the departure time for my return train to Poroy. After a pizza lunch (quite cod-ordinary) and a much needed cerveza, I wandered through the many tourist shops and the main mercado and accidentally struck a better bargain than I had intended to with a native vendor on bulk place mats (verifying as if I needed to be reminded that I am much more successful when I don’t try!).
Whilst in the markets I experienced that nil degree of separation sensation, running into a friend from Sydney, the organiser of a meetup group I am a member of. I did have advanced knowledge that she was travelling to Peru at the same time as me, but I hadn’t expected to run in to her at the most congested spot in Peru. Maddy, when I tapped her on the arm and she recognised me, became instantly quasi-hysterically excited in that slightly over-the-top way of hers. This seemed to spook her companion, her sister, who appeared momentarily taken aback by Maddy’s uncharacteristically Icelandic lack of composure.
I spent the rest of the afternoon pottering around in the township of Aguas Calientes, a settlement that seems to exist solely to exploit the fame of Machu Picchu, its restaurants and goods shops there exclusively for the tourist trade.The inward trip on PeruRail to Poroy was even longer drawn out than the outward one had been in the morning (perhaps I was just tired but it seemed that way to me). Either way, it was a good three-and-a-half hours till the PeruRail ‘Express’ finally dawdled into the station. After my recent, unhappy experience of connections in Cusco I was relieved to see the Chimu driver there waiting for me at the exit. After spending half the day either in the train or waiting for it, I just wanted to get back to the Cusco hotel for a good night’s rest before the prospect of even more travelling in the morning.
This morning I was scheduled to go on the first part of the Sacred Inca Trail tour. I was collected early at my hostela by someone I would come to call Braces Guide # 1, she took me to my coach for the Inca Trail trip. We stopped on the way out of Cusco and took on more passengers. I had been noticing that all of the passengers on the coach seemed to be Spanish or Spanish speakers, but without actually realising that something was awry.
Braces Guide # 1 then told me that I had to get off the coach because it was only for Spanish language tourists! (I had kind of already got that impression myself before her intervention). Another guide (sans braces) crammed me into a second coach. I was only settled in my seat for a moment when Braces Guide # 1 led me back to the original coach (which was still exclusively Spanish-speaking) where Braces Guide # 2 took charge and tried (unsuccessfully) to explain to me why I had ended up back in the first coach that a moment before I had been removed from! Not a great start to the SIT tour. I was the only Anglophone in a bus full of Español speakers, but at least the trip was underway.
The first stop on the Trail after we enter Urubamba Valley is the archaelogical site of Pisac, 3400 metres above sea level. Lots of old Incan ruins scattered among agricultural fields on the hillsides where corn and potato is farmed in layered rows. We hear from our guide that Peru has 100s of varieties of potatoes and 1000s of varieties of corn (that’s a lot of corn!). The architecture in Pisac is pretty much decimated thanks to Pizarro and his 16th century Conquistadors, although the Inca Citadel, perched high up on a hillside is still an impressive sight and offered good views of the valley. We noticed the Incan burial tombs built into a mountain adjacent to the Citadel (the rapacious Conquistadors had ransacked these in search of gold and other valuable metals). Going back down to our parked coach we had to pass through a full-on, hectic market selling the usual tourist merchandise and paraphernalia.
The road along the Inca Trail was shockingly bad considering that this was a primary tourist route, and there was an amazing amount of rubbish strewn all over it. There were reminders of Australia in the countryside as early 20th century Peruvians had planted countless eucalyptus trees, known for their fast growing quality, on the sides of the Trail. So far my stay in the Cusco area I hadn’t experienced any side effects of the altitude but on the Sacred Trail journey I started to get a touch of the dreaded Cusco belly. I wasn’t dizzy or light-hearted or suffering from a headache but I was feeling drained and weak from a bout of diarrhoea. The Spanish on the tour kept to themselves and didn’t seem to have any English to speak off, fortunately the guide was quite competent in the language.
We stopped in the town of Urumbamba for lunch, after lunch and some rest I started to feel better. The lunch arrangements were really dumb. Although the tour group wasn’t particular large (maybe 15 people tops), sections of the group decided to have lunch in different locations in the town, three different places. So, after we were collected in one restaurant, the bus drove across town to two separate places to pick up the others. What with delays in some of the Spaniards finishing their lunches and other hold-ups the time lunch took was stretched out for over half-an-hour compared to how long this would have taken if we were all in the same location. This didn’t make any logical sense to me – particularly as ultimately we had to skip seeing one of the scheduled features later in the day! I queried this with Braces Guide #2 but he said that the others’ lunch venue had been pre-arranged as requested by the Spanish travellers or some such bull-shit excuse. This just seemed ridiculous to me, that to save time and fit in more sights, the one group travelling in the same bus on the same day couldn’t all have lunch in the one spot!
After finally getting away from Urumbamba it was a long haul to get to Ollantaytambo. On the way we passed numerous monotaxis, the tiny three-wheel contraptions (my favourite mono was the blue Batman vehicles) which are the standard form of public transport in many parts of Southern Peru.
Ollantaytambo, although totally overshadowed in advanced publicity by the more famous Machu Picchu, is very impressive in its own right. As well as being a vast Inca temple overlooking the three important Incan valleys, Ollantaytambo was used to house enormous quantities of stores in the sides of its mountains. We climbed to the top of the Terraces of Pumatallis which was the Incans’ route to their storehouses and granaries. Standing at the top of the Terraces afforded a panoramic view of the pueblo below and the surrounding valleys. Ascending Pumatallis, surrounded by hundreds of Spanish tourists admiring the Inca structure, I was very conscious of the irony of the moment – these modern Spaniards were in awe of a monumental structure which their Spanish conquistador ancestors had contemptuously vandalised and destroyed five centuries before. In an odd sense these tourists, rambling all over Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu and other ruins, are following their Iberian ancestors as modern raiders of a lost Inca world.
On the return route to Cusco the tour stopped at the Indian markets at Chinchero which is high up on the cold, windswept plains (3760m ASL). The local community women, decked out in traditional native attire, gave a demonstration of wool dyeing. The process was quite labour-intensive but interesting nonetheless. And their outfits were very colourful. The severity of the cold prompted me to buy a beanie from the Indian markets.
By this time, about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, we were due to head back to the city hotels. I realised on checking my day itinerary that the site we had missed out on (because of the dragged out lunch fiasco) was called Boleto Turistico Del Cusco Parcial Valle Sagrado Para Turista Extranjero at Moray. I don’t know what exactly it was (no one talked about it) but the picture on the ticket suggested a kind of amphitheatre resembling terraced crop circles. I wasn’t impressed that we missed it but on alighting I still gave Braces Guide # 2 a small tip for his efforts (unlike virtually all of the Spanish tourists who were distinctly stingy!).
Finding myself in Plaza Del Armas once again, I look round for dinner options. I had tried the llama, Peruvian-style pescado (in Lima and in Cusco), the bife de lomo, empanadas in each city of the tour, but I was yet to sample the cuy (roasted guinea pig). I checked it out in one or restaurants but I must admit that it didn’t look all that inviting to me, so I decided to pass on the pig and wait until I get to Lima and try it there. One of the problems with guinea pig that puts some people off eating it is when it is presented on the dining table as the full animal, teeth and all parts, not so enticing for extranjeros like me. In the end I opt for something pretty safe and conservative, a beans and mince dish at a downmarket Cuzco diner.
A third night spent listening to the nocturnal sounds of the local fauna in lieu of sleeping, swatting away the extremely-irritating and ubiquitous culicidae and counting the multiples of each five minutes which were ticking over ever s-o-o s-l-o-w-l-y. Although my clothes were wet through from the previous afternoon I was not as cold on the sand as the preceding nights. Dare I suggest that I was becoming accustomed to the deprivations of sleeping rough al fresco…if so, it was not a contemplation that I was getting any comfort or reassurance from.
The cold and discomfort of the night and the fear of dehydration were the two motivators that spurred me on to keep striving to find a way out of this bush nightmare. With all that time to kill my thoughts returned again and again to the gaseous elixir that I was craving, that ultimate beacon of hope, the icy bottle of Coca Cola. The enduring solitude of my predicament certainly gave me the space for mind-wandering and my brain was certainly meandering in spectacularly tangential fashion! I speculated on the respective merits of Coke versus Pepsi. At one point, I decided that I would prefer Pepsi to Coke, not sure why really. Possibly it is due to Pepsi being seemingly less of a universal icon than Coke, making it somehow more appealing and desirable than its better known rival. After further musing, I recalled who the celebrities associated with Pepsi were – Michael Jackson and Elvis. My startling conclusion: Pepsi was the preferred drink of dead people, so it couldn’t be good for you! I quickly distanced myself from the notion of ‘Pepsi-hegemony’ and defaulted once again to Coca Cola. Such was the state of my tired and wildly imaginative mind by now, I was wondering if my ordeal had put me on the verge of becoming borderline delirious? (did I say ‘becoming’?)
I made my (now) usual start at 6am (first light), determined to make this my last day in this off-track hinterland, do or die sort of resolve – although resolve clearly hadn’t worked so far! The brutal fact was that resolve hadn’t been enough, apparently. Each of the previous two mornings I had expressed equal, optimistic determination on starting out – and the results in terms of getting somewhere (ie, ‘out’) were “sweet FA”!
Hampered by the twin burdens of self-doubt and the accumulative effects of exhaustion from lack of sleep, I moved at a laborious pace…initially across the sloping terrain, and then when that got too arduous I reverted to my previous alternating strategy of swapping over to the creek and wading through the water. Travelling through the creek seemed even more hazardous than it had been on the three preceding days. I stepped through the water with great caution, aware that my fatigue level made me more prone to lose my footing. In deeper water I crawled at snail’s pace along the creek floor, my eyes constantly searching through the murky water in front of me for the presence of submerged logs and rocks. Despite my diligence, every few minutes or so I would inevitably crash painfully into one of these hidden obstacles and add to my already impressive tally of minor scratches and cuts (scars of battle with nature? If so, I definitely seemed to be losing the war!)
On narrow rock platforms I would edge my way along them, but again because I could see not far beneath the surface, I regularly came a-cropper when the platform suddenly ended, resulting in my plunging into 10 foot deep water. My non-waterproof backpack was inundated with creek water every time this happened, it’s contents, primarily my mobile phone and bushwalking guidebook (which got me into this fix in the first place! Duh!) had long since been rendered inoperative. The quality of the water in Glenbrook Creek was of a very uneven nature, in the free-flowing parts it looked quite OK. However not pristine like the springs down the road in the Magdala Creek Falls near Springwood (where, somewhere, I barely knew what was where by this point!). Much of Glenbrook Creek exhibited a reddish or rust-coloured tinge. At the parts of the creek where the current was slowed by clumps of large rocks, the water had a whitish sludge which coalesced into patches on the surface.
There was no sign of the rescue copter until late in the morning, and even then, it was in a quite distant part of the national park from where I was. I was even more convinced now that I was “Robinson Crusoe,” in all senses of the term – stranded and utterly alone, and more gravely, solely responsible for my own survival. The intense heat of the day was having its effect on me faster than on earlier mornings. Treading my way carefully up the creek, I could feel the back of my neck reddening after only an hour or so. Because of the intense heat I had to stop more than on the other days and take the occasional dip in the creek to refresh myself before struggling on. It was now well over three days since I last heard a human voice. Occasionally, I would mistake the gurgling sound of the tumbling waters for incoherent voices. This momentarily would pep my spirits up, only to register immediate disappointment when I realised my error. Aside from the falls and the incessant cicadas, I was consigned to endure yet further silence. Even the whirring noise of the copter circling the sky had deserted me, it appeared. I probably didn’t feel more alone during my ordeal than at this point.
One o’clock passed, the journey back to the old (mythical perhaps?) ladder was taking me a lot longer than I had anticipated. Everything had been going in slow motion since I first stumbled into this overgrown underworld. What concerned me most was that I had not yet sighted any of the landmarks that would indicate that I was approaching my objective. I suppose at this point I had reached my lowest ebb, I had not found the promised exit route at the swimming holes, I had not rediscovered the old ladder…the doubts in my mind about surviving were growing stronger as I was growing weaker.
Someone, one of the many interested interrogators who found my tale incredulous, later on asked me if at any time during the ordeal I had thoughts that this was it, that maybe I was going to die here. Of course I did! I could picture myself in a sort of “deadman walking” scenario. More so as each day passed, but I would always dismiss the thought each time just as quickly because I had to keep as positive a frame of mind as I could to find that one, hidden way out. I just knew I wasn’t going to give up, I’d rather die trying!
Later on, after I had rejoined the man-made world, a doctor (my GP actually) bizarrely asked, whilst he poked and prodded me, if my desperation ever got to the point where I contemplated lighting a bush fire to attract the attention of the State Rescue Service! I had spoken before of an element of delirium invading my senses, but mercifully my desperate thoughts never went to this ‘solution'(sic). Even if I had arrived at such a loopy notion, I could never bring myself to do something so extreme and irresponsible, no matter how desperate I was! For one thing a raging bush fire could just as easy engulf me in the out-of-control inferno I had created! So, no fires or similar “hare-brained doctor” notions, but I did many times curse the fact that I had not put something useful in my empty backpack – like say signal flares.
The very real and growing concerns I had about becoming dehydrated forced me to debate with myself the pros and cons of drinking from the creek. No, it wouldn’t taste great, more seriously it would probably make me sick if I swallowed any sizeable amount of the highly questionable water. Conversely, I couldn’t survive indefinitely without water. Dilemma! I resolved to collect some water in my remaining empty plastic bottle, not to drink any time soon, but to store as an emergency last resort measure. To counteract the immediate parched feeling of my mouth, I allowed myself the luxury of applying the water to my dry mouth, giving me some modicum of temporary comfort whilst avoiding swallowing any measurable quantity.
I thought I heard a noise, but this time it wasn’t the noise of the cicadas, nor the sound of the rushing water running away from the falls. I heard it again, it was a human voice – at quite some distance, but discernible none the less. I stopped dead in the creek waters so as to listen more intently. Over the preceding three days of my entrapment I had been fooled several times by the babbling sound of the falling waters bisecting a mass of rocks, mistaking this for the sound of incoherent voices. The voice I heard now though was more audibly human, with a linguistic structure to it. I could almost make out distinct words being uttered, the timbre of a strong male voice talking to someone else (I assumed), a monologue of sorts. I gathered myself together and with great effort hurried my progress as best as I could. The voice, a miracle sound to my ears now, was on my left but a fair way ahead of where I was. I needed to catch up, shorten the distance between myself and the trailing sound which represented rekindled hope. Suddenly, there was silence, and then I heard the same voice again, it sounded like someone enunciating authoritatively on a subject – how strange!
I composed myself, mustering up what energy I could, and shouted in the direction of the voice. My attempts at shouting were a bit muted owing to my state of dehydration. I wet my lips from the turgid water I was standing in, and tried again. Louder, but still far from authoritative or even emphatic. No response from the bushes. Then, I stopped hearing the voice. The voice had disappeared, and with it, my momentary and tenuous reconnection with the human world. A false hope? My hopes had been momentarily raised and then instantly thwarted, crushed, eviscerated. Nonetheless I felt buoyed by the revelation that there were people in the vicinity of the creek…somewhere, I just needed to find them.
I pushed on imbued with the sense that, maybe, there was light at the end of the tunnel. If there was a group of people out there, tangibly close, then perhaps, there were others as well, and my chances of coming upon someone during the day had received a boost. Was there someone out there with a metaphorical life-jacket with my name on it, hovering frustratingly just out of my reach? Everything was weighing on my finding the answer to that question.
My newfound optimism would have been even greater had I had the presence of mind to think through the implications of it now being Saturday, ie, that more people would be likely to be wandering around different parts of the national park. I trudged on for over half-an-hour, probably for another good forty-five minutes at least, no more voices or even the fragments of human sound. Quite suddenly (I sensed), the silence was telling me that once again I was all alone. The roller-coaster that was my emotions was about to swing round again.
Some time close to 3:00pm I guess, with the heat of the day at its most potent, I was feeling more thirsty than I had been up to that point all day. I allowed myself a few, very tiny, micro-minuscule sips from the bottle of unsavoury creek water. I rationalised that the minute quantity I had consumed so far amounted to a low risk of suffering any ill effects. To go on I knew I needed some kind of liquid in me. I kept going, down the creek, but as each quarter-hour passed, in the back of my mind were the doubts, the nagging thought gnawing away at my confidence…had I had missed my one solitary chance at rescue? There was no guarantee in this deadly dice with nature that there would be a second one.
Despite the baggage stuff-up I still got to Puerto Maldonado Airport way early (why do tour operators always have to get you there Über-early?). The good news was that I didn’t have to hang around the minimally-equipped outpost of an airport for long. At the check-in I found out there was a seat available on an earlier Cusco flight. It was a one hour flight to Cusco, time enough for LAN to outdo all their previous stellar catering efforts by generously providing passengers with a lolly (a single lolly) by way of a flight snack! Chimu were unaware of my flight switch and as I didn’t have a phone number for the Cusco office, the reality of getting to Cusco Airport an hour and twenty minutes early was that I would have to wait round for the transfer driver who would front up only at the scheduled time of my original flight. Waiting around all that time was an uncomfortable experience because I arrived at the airport inadequately dressed (t-shirt and shorts). It had been very hot in the Amazonia airport but the elevated Cusco was a good 15 degrees cooler than Pt Maldonado and very chilly indeed.
I hovered round the airport entrance, poking my head outside periodically to see if I could spot the Chimu sign. Every time I did I would be pestered by a small battalion of persistent taxi drivers touting for a fare. The hotel transfer drivers were lined up 20 metres away from the entrada behind a partition. It was hard to read some of the signs, many of the drivers were too distracted or bored to hold up their signs properly. One of the driver’s name signs I noticed did no favours for an arriving passenger trying to spot him, he had scrawled the name in yellow highlighter against the white background of the sheet of paper! I passed the time chatting with a fellow Australian tourist, a young blond girl who was also waiting for her delayed pick-up, but somewhat more good-natured and patiently than I was. As it transpired my driver turned up 15 minutes after my scheduled flight.
My Cusco hotel, the Unaytambo, a building in the classic Americas colonial mould, was set splendidly on the site of an ancient Inca palace. The first thing I noticed was the footpath in the lane outside my lodge. It was made of very
ancient-looking, large, flat stones in the centre, with a parallel strip on the outside comprising small round stones cemented together. This type of uneven walking surface, which I found replicated all over the Cusco town centre, was very easy to trip over. If that didn’t get you, you had to also watch out for the very large unsymmetrical steps on the steeper streets.
Just across the road from the Unaytambo is the Incan Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun) which the Spanish ‘respected’ during La Conquista by building the Santo Domingo Cathedral over the top of it! After getting my vouchers and itinerary from my local Chimu contact, I went downtown to Historico Centro, explored the main drag, Avenida El Sol, and had a typical Peruvian meal in a drab and threadbare shack of a shop. Nothing aesthetic about the joint but you could have dos cursos (two courses) for eight sols. For the primero I chose a tortilla of sorts and pescado frito (heavily-salted fish) for the segunda, which was more quantity than quality. The unglamorous side of Cusco dining for sure, but it was a good, authentic experience.
Given that Cusco is 3,300 metres above sea level I had been forewarned about the risk of soroche (altitude sickness) and was advised to take the coca plant as an antidote, either by chewing the leaves or in tea. At the hotel I decided on the coca de mate (the coca tea method) and started drinking it night and morning. It was not immensely palatable but tolerable none the less because it had a fairly neutral taste. Once you got used to it, it tasted a bit like very weak green tea.
The next day I went on an organised Cusco city walking tour. My guide was a very personable mestizo local named Walter who took me first to Qorikancha, or what is left of the temple. Walter pointed out examples of Inca stonework, the outstanding feature of which is the perfect trapezoid form used by Incan architects on doorways and windows. The walking tour next took in the central Plaza Del Armas, El Catedral and Chapel. El Catedral’s main interest to me was that the building took nearly 100 years to finish. Having seen numerous houses of religion in these very Catholic countries my interest in visiting them was starting to wane, the more I saw of them the more I was reminded of a tour guide in Spain’s description of old city tours as being an exercise in looking at ABC’s (ie, Another Bloody Church!). I found out later that an operator conducts free walking tours of Cusco daily from Plaza Regocijo. The same group, FWTPeru, also do pub crawls of the ciudad. This very English trait doesn’t surprise given the large number of pubs and bar in the city (including as everywhere in the world an Irish pub or two).
Out on the street there is a real buzz, it’s a constantly happening sort of city, tourists roving from shop to shop (many, many shops!), checking out the bars and cafés and museums. From Plaza Del Armas we headed down Tupac Amaru to San Pedro Mercado, the biggest markets in Cusco. At this market locals and visitors can purchase a vast array of produce, including dried potato, grains and spices, seaweed, flowers, quail eggs, and even more exotic items such as pickled snakes, live frog soup, horrendous-looking donkey snouts and Amazonian tree sap remedies. The high visibility of slaughtered animal carcasses in the market is not for the faint-hearted!
On the way back to Unaytambo, I spotted my first llama and got Walter to pose with it and its native camelid-herder. Before we parted Walter suggested a few museums that I could follow up by foot, viz the Museo Inka, the Pisco Museum and the Chocomuseum.
The Incan Museum, contained in a grand colonial mansion, once you got past the Museo Inka door men in traditional Inca attire, had lots of interesting features including wooden drinking vessels, colonial paintings and murals, goldwork items, native artefacts and weapons, elongated skulls and mummies (unfortunately no photos were allowed with staff strictly enforcing this rule). In the museum courtyard there were demonstrations of textile weaving. Despite the museum’s
name there were also non-Incan exhibits on display, mainly relating to the Spanish Conquista era. The other two suggestions of Walter turned out to be faux museums! Both were museums in name only, in reality inside they were shops not even trying to effect the appearance of a museum! I did buy some Peruvian dark chocolate from the so-called Chocomuseum which did taste differently good.
That evening I returned to Plaza Del Armas to eat and decided on a restaurant opposite the Plaza that looked OK called Paititi. Decided to be a bit gastronomically adventurous and try the llama which was tender and tasted a little like lamb. As I purchased a mains dish the restaurant threw in a complimentary drink. What else? The perennial regional favourite aperitif, the Pisco Sour. When leaving, I was amused by the restaurant symbol sign on the entrance, maybe the place should be renamed El Tenedor Dos, “The Two Forks”! How could they get something so blatantly obvious completely wrong!?!
Lima: La Parte Uno The following day I had another early morning flight to the third country on my itinerary, Peru. Having prepared my bags, etc, the previous night, I set the wakeup time for 4:30 which would allow me enough time to shower and such and meet the 5am pickup time (once again having to forfeit breakfast). As soon I roused myself and start to get ready, the phone rang, it was reception, the transfer driver was already here, 30 minutes early! I told reception he had to wait. Either he or the local Chimu reps had got it wrong again! When I came down, just after 5, I could see that the Argentinian taxi driver was fuming, you could cut his seething anger with a gaucho knife. I reiterated what I had told reception, he was at fault coming half-an-hour early. This seem to propel him into an even bigger rage, responding with belligerence and rudeness. Once we were in the taxi, the intemperate oaf proceeded to drive like a coke-fuelled maniac at breakneck speed to the airport (fortunately there was very few cars of the freeway at that time). It was a very frosty trip with both of us seriously pissed off at that stage. I was glad to get to the airport in one piece. At least I didn’t have to deliberate over whether to give the turkey a monetary gratificación for his service(?).
The Flight to Lima was largely uneventful. Coming out of the Arrivals, I checked the cambio rates as I had no Peruvian sols but was still holding a surplus of Australian dollars. They were offering around 2.70 to the US dollar, which was not bad, but only 1.50 to the Aussie dollar. Considering that Australia was 1.05 or 1.06 to the US$ at the time, this was a rip-off of a deal. I put my Australian dollars away & withdrew sols from the Airport ATM instead. As I was leaving for Amazonia the next morning, The tour agent had booked me in to the nearest hotel 50 metres from the Arrivals gate, Costa Del Sol. This was the first modern hotel I had encountered on the tour! I had a complementary pisco sour at the bar. Notwithstanding my initial reservations I was starting to warm to this quintessentially South American drink. As it was still only mid-afternoon I decided to head into the city. Tossing up whether to go back to Jorge Chávez to get a Green Taxi or the convenience of booking one there at the hotel reception, I went for the convenience (and an extra 15 sols). Despite the reception guy saying it would there in a moment, 15 minutes of moments passed & still no sign of the cab! I walked out into the airport street and hailed one straight away. The drowsy old codger with a rundown taxi charged me 45 sols and then proceeded to drive like someone possessed, zigzagging between cars all the way into the centro. I hadn’t been prepared for such an unnervingly hairy ride from such a senior driver. But, based on my later cab experiences in the Peruvian capital, such dangerously wayward motoring is the norm for everyone. Lima, at least the part I saw on my first day, was very grimy, dirty and faded. There were some grand colonial buildings in the city, but all of them aside from those in Plaza San Martin, were in dire need of a clean and a fresh paint job. There appeared to be hardly any gardens or green areas to speak of in the central region. Of course there was the obligatory protest against the authorities going on in the Plaza, it was typically noisy, very musical with everyone apparently enjoying themselves! In the limited amount of exploring I did, the one street that raised a little bit of interest on my part was Jr Pierola in the downtown area. This curious street was composed largely of small ‘backyard’ printing presses, stretching one after another for blocks. I had thought it strange at the time that there could be a need for this many printing shops in Lima. I didn’t find out until much later that Lima was the counterfeit banknote capital of the world! it now made more sense. Unaware of the back story, I had been thinking only in terms of legitimate, domestic demand!
I walked down to the end of the street full of old technology printing businesses onto the main link road where I saw, not for the last time in Peru, an odd kind of religious ceremony. Outside of this big church, there was this line of about 20 priests standing outside the church entrance. They were all wearing a distinctive rope knot around their necks (I later dubbed them “the Order of the White Knotted Rope”). Watching the spectacle for several minutes I got the impression that I was observing some kind of phenomenon of celebrity priests. Clusters of people were standing in the street outside the cathedral (all with the devotional Catholic parishioner look about them) craning their necks and earnestly trying to get a glimpse of the “sacerdotal heavyweights”. And the priests themselves seemed to relish being the centre of attention, lapping up all the unconditional adoration like the strutting peacocks they seemed to be. Central to this spectacle was the priest in purple (rather than the standard black) who arrived late, making a rather grand entrance with quite a theatrical flourish (I didn’t actually notice if his white knotted rope was larger than the others). So, picture the scene, a cabal of monk celebrities being lavishly feted by the pious crowd, to a noisy backdrop of roving street vendors, women and girls, shrilly trying to peddle a range of religious icons, relics & souvenirs to the faithful. I felt the need to move on quickly. I tried to hail a taxi to take me back to the airport hotel but every single driver I stopped on the main avenue, shook their heads vigorously and sped off when I disclosed my intended destination. This left me perplexed, I couldn’t work out
why were they disinterested in my fare, passing up a chance to rip off another gullible tourist. I walked back in the direction of the church to try a different street for cabs. I passed a very brightly-lit up shop selling something called ‘San Jose turrones’. These were rectangular slabs of biscuit topped with multi-coloured lollies in a gooey base, which despite being very unappetising-looking were very popular with the local customers. Curious about these delicacies I googled them later, the manufacturers themselves don’t describe these turrones as food or biscuits, but as “edible products of Peruvian traditional custom!” Back home, I consulted a work colleague who comes from Peru on the turrones, his opinion was that the most distinctive aspect of these delicacies was their rock-like hardness. Looks like I saved my teeth some wear and tear there. I asked a young Peruvian couple also trying to hail a cab why the taxis wouldn’t take me. The guy informed me that many of the city taxi drivers did not have a permit to enter the airport. He managed to engage a taxi whose driver had the permit and was prepared to take me. This was very considerate of him, but then, when I was getting into the cab, the young fellow, astoundingly, paid the fare for me (which he had negotiated at 40 sols). My protests at such generosity were deflected by the Good Samaritan. It was all I could do to slip a 20 sol note, I had in my pocket, into his reluctant hands. I must say that I was quite blown away by the kindness of this stranger! Twenty minutes later, I was having serious misgivings about having got in this particular taxi. We’d gone about 3-4km when suddenly a traffic policewoman pulls our taxi over. She speaks curtly to the driver (who is already looking quite contrite and sorry for himself) and then she starts writing a ticket. I hadn’t been paying much attention so I was not certain of his misdemeanour, but I suspect he had run a red light. After the policewoman had issued the ticket and moved away to catch some other unalert transgressors, the driver remained sitting there in the cab, crestfallen, motionless for several minutes, reading the infringement notice, then placing it on the dashboard, picking it up again, re-reading it, reading it in minute detail as if not believing the words contained on it. Seemingly stunned by his misfortune, he appeared to have completely forgotten about me in the back, the passenger! Finally, he snaps out of his torpor and slowly put the notice in the glove box, and having regained some composure, restarted the engine and drove on. Our route to the airport, circuitously down various dark backstreets, was very different to the one taken by the ageing speedhog who had brought me into town, and it took a tortuously long time to return to the airport. Finally, outside of what looked like the entrance to the airport, he came to a halt, pointed vaguely in the direction of some amorphous building in the mid distance. I was a bit dubious at about exactly where I was. The driver’s motives for abandoning me outside the airport were not hard to fathom. I figured that he was trying to recoup some of his losses (the ticket still dominating his thinking), by not entering the aeropuerto precinct he was saving money on the permit usage. Whatever! I was still a good seven to eight minutes walking from the hotel but I didn’t care. After the ordeal of the long, long journey I was glad just to get out of the taxi. The next morning I was woken up at 6am by what sounded like a Tijuana brass band playing in an unrestrained fashion. Forty metres from my hotel window a collection of musicians were loudly welcoming a returning local Lima football team. When I got to the airport to catch my flight to the next destination, Puerto Maldonado, I found there were huge queues at the domestic airline check-in, and LAN had one line only open. After 15 minutes in the queue, the line had hardly moved, so I switched to the next line (also LAN) which had only a handful of passengers in it. After some time in this line, a LAN staff person came up and ejected me from the line, because apparently this was for ‘special’ check-ins. I remonstrated loudly with the staff, saying that LAN should have more than one lane open to cope with the overflow of passengers, but they would not budge, so I found myself relegated to the end of a now much longer queue. After three-quarters of an hour and little progress, it was pretty apparent that I would miss my flight. And I would have done so, had not a savvy American traveller I was talking with alerted LAN to my plight. The LAN staff person OK’d me to go straight to the departures gate carting my luggage with me. The sudden spike in passenger numbers at the airport was down to the school holidayers starting their trips, which underlined just how inept LAN was in planning for this annual occurrence. The plane flew first to Cusco for a stopover before going on to the Amazonia region. The Cusco trip turned into a wild salsa party, courtesy of the Latinos on board raucously singing, bumping and grinding their hips to the cabin music most of the way. Even some of the LAN cabin staff were getting into the action, turning up the volume on the music and dancing enthusiastically to the rhythm. I for one was relieved when most of these out-of-control Peruvian 20-somethings danced their way off the plane when it landed at Cusco! On the onward trip to Maldonado, the normal and more subdued in-flight entertainment replaced the passenger-generated entertainment. We were collected by a bus at the less than impressive Puerto Maldonaldo Aeropuerto. The posada lodgers gathering together in the bus were a very mixed group, nationality-wise. I had a nice conversation with two friendly American guys on the bus (not the typical loud, boastful type). On the advice of Lizbeth (our guide) to travel light, we unloaded all of the baggage not needed for the three-day trip to Amazonia in a secure storage holding (at least I was hoping it would be secure). At the river (Rio Tambopata), we took the long boat trip to the resorts (the bus group were going to three different lodges), fortunately ours’ was the closest.
As we chugged down the Tambopata, I enquired “Are we in Amazonia yet?” Lizbeth replied in the affirmative, so, suppressing my instinctive reflex to say “If that’s so, where is the Amazon River then?”, I instead asked “Is this a tributary of the Amazon?” Lizbeth ‘s halting response was that it was a tributary of another river which was a tributary of the Amazon. A tributary of a tributary? Someone else asked the obvious question, “How far are we from the Amazon River itself?” The guide hesitatingly replied that it was 4,000 kilometres away! The other questioner was incredulous and thought she meant 400 kilometres, and corrected her, which under pressure she eventually agreed to in an appeasing gesture. I checked later, it was 4,000km away! Not to mention several tributaries of tributaries away … through eastern Peru, across Bolivia and of course deep into Brazil. All of my tour group were caught off-guard by this revelation! Before coming to Peru we had thought along these lines: the itinerary says we were going to the Amazonas region of Peru, given we know that the Amazon River itself flows through part of Peru, ergo we will actually be on the Amazon River! Not so apparently! (I discovered later that the Peruvian part of Rio Amazon flows much farther north in the area around Iquitos).
We pulled over to the mooring for the Posada Amazonas and walked up the track a short distance to the rainforest lodge. After a welcome session in the restaurant/bar, my group settled into our rooms which were hobbled together with wood, bamboo, palm fronds, adobe mud and clay, nonetheless the rooms appeared solid enough. They were not however soundproof as all rooms were open at the top, nor were they secure as the verandahs were windowless, opening out to a view of the close-by jungle. Needless to say guests at the lodge would have been foolhardy not to use the room safety deposit boxes.
My room had a grand, four-poster bed with a (essential) mosquito net, reminding me of the room I had once stayed in at Livingstone in Zambia alongside the Zambesi River. The hammock in the corner seemed an over the top “Jungle Jim” cliche (and it didn’t come with a mosquito net!). In the afternoon we did an exploratory walk thorough the Amazonas jungle, climbing a 37 metre-high scaffolding canopy tower to get a view of the native bird life. Unfortunately, we didn’t see much of anything of the avian family. Lizbeth, our guide, claimed she got a glimpse of a toucan in the canopy from about 500 metres away but I couldn’t see for sure that it was a toucan! The meal in the Posada that night comprised a set menu and was excellent. Variety was provided with a good rotation of dishes each night, and breakfast and lunch were of a similar quality. Not so ideal was the electricity supply, a couple of times each day the lodge turned on the generator for an hour to allow guests to recharge their batteries, phones and cameras. The problem with this was that the generator’s availability tended to coincide with our boat excursions, so this made it difficult to keep our devices charged up. The electricity also was cut off each night at 9pm, usually ensuring an early night for most. Still, we were deep in the jungle and should have expected to forego the usual urban conveniences and rough it to some extent to give the experience more of an authentic flavour. The next day we pulled on the black wellies supplied by the lodge (most of the trails were permanently muddy in the tropical wild) and crossed the Rio Tambopata by boat to an oxbow lake called Tres Chimbadas, where we circled round the lake in a catamaran. We were on the lookout for caiman and hoatzin (could find any) and giant river otters, which we did see. I asked why we didn’t see any pirañas in the lake. Lizbeth reckoned it was because the otters love to hunt them. We moved to a different part of the river where Lizbeth supplied us with wooden branches fashioned into primitive fishing rods. This time pirañas were plentiful and quite a number were caught by the group, mainly by a Gippsland farmer’s wife (none by me!). The pirañas were surprisingly small (given their fearsome reputation), but any feelings of complacency we might have had were dismissed when Lizbeth demonstrated the razor-sharpness of their teeth in effortlessly cutting through a leaf! I was reminded of this several weeks after the trip when I heard a report of how a host of pirañas had attacked swimmers at a beach in Argentina.
After lunch we went to a nearby Collpa (salted soils) on the river bank. Here at the Clay Licks, neotropic birds ingest the clay from the side of the river bank. Lizbeth had forewarned us that macaws might not be present at the parrot clay licks and we may only see parrots and parakeets, but we were in luck as scarlet macaws were there on mass. From a elevated screen cover constructed next to the clay lick we were able to observe the normally shy macaws feeding on the clay. Without the cover we wouldn’t have been to get that close to the timid but spectacular red, yellow and blue macaws.
Later we did a short boat ride downriver to the Infierno native community’s ethnobotanical centre (Centro Ñape). We were escorted around the ‘medicinal’ garden by an Indian medicine-man who showed us the plants that were used by the community for treating different ailments and conditions. At the end of the tour the shaman invited us to sample some of the concoctions which he claimed could treat everything from cancer to diabetics to arthritis to impotence! No one else was game but I tried a couple of the fawn to darkish brownish-coloured drinks which had a taste somewhere between sour whiskey and cough medicine. I didn’t notice any benefits but fortunately I didn’t experience any adverse after-effects either.
At night after dinner we did a hike in the dark and the rain looking for jungle organisms which are more nocturnal in their activity. The night patrol turned out to be a bit of a meaningless wander as we only managed to glimpse the occasional frog, a few unexciting insects and one well-camouflaged monkey in the trees. In the morning the Amazonia adventure at an end, I said goodbye to Lizbeth who implored me to give a very good report on the tour evaluation sheet. Her earnest entreaties were of such a magnitude, as if a life or death outcome rested on my favourable response, so I was only too happy to oblige her request. In my jungle room each night when retiring, I had gone to obsessively lengths to ensure that the moissie net covered my body 100 per cent, so intent was I to try to escape the dreaded bite of the Amazonian mosquito. But just as I was leaving, they had finally got a piece of me, causing my skin to become increasingly sensitive and itchy as the day wore on.
After a 45 minute boat ride and a final photo or two of the Tambopata, we returned to the port and the Maldonado storage depot. After the bus was unloaded, I discovered that my baggage from the lodge had not been brought back. I had been a bit apprehensive that they might have missed my bag because my room was at the far end of the lodge. Indeed I had actually gone back just prior to departure time to make sure that it was still not outside the room. It had been taken so I was (deceptively) reassured. The depot staff were all relaxed about it when I reported it missing (typical Latino insouciance) and the supervisor told me not to be concerned, “no te preocupes señor“, on the next bus no problem. Frustrated, I was left to cool my heels, thinking that I should not have trusted the inept fuckers and instead carried the bag myself. I was less than amused to find out that the porters had placed my bag with another group of bags in error. Fortunately I was running early for the flight back to Cusco, so the lodge’s cockup wasn’t costly. Puerto Maldonado Aeropuerto was about as threadbare and lacking infrastructure as any airport I could imagine in South America, befitting I guess a remote jungle outpost! There was no air con and not much in the way of snacks or refreshments in the cafe. There was very few seats in the terminal and woefully few in the Departures area. This was not a place you want to get stuck in for a long time, the boredom factor would probably kick in pretty swiftly. Interestingly, the electronic detector at the baggage point seemed to be activated only by footwear! Waiting in the Departures lounge I looked round for something to distract me and find it in the shape of an odd sign on the wall. The notice lists a number of points, including a warning to passengers of their potential criminal liability in the event of flights being delayed by wild birds coming in contact with the aircraft (not sure how this could be attributed to a passenger?!?), something about passengers ingesting drugs and then being apprehended, and then later it turns out that they didn’t actually ingest any drugs and so are allowed to stay on the flight after all (I’ve no idea what this means!!!), and a statement indicating the possibility of a bomb being discovered at the airport or on board (no mention of what procedure would follow the discovery – just that there could be a bomb and folks you should know this!). El bizarro! I sighed heavily and was just happy to see the LAN jet appear on the tarmac soon afterwards.