Colca Canyon, Peru

There is nothing like hopping on a bus at 3am to brighten your mood but it was for a good cause.  The Colca Canyons beckoned. Located in Southern Peru, near Arequipa, we embraced the 5.5 hour tourist bus trip which includes a few interesting stops along the way, such as breakfast.

From the Mirador de Achachihua, Cabanconde

The Colca Canyon has been inhabited since pre-Incan times. Much of the land has been terraced and used for farming, which continues into the present day. It is also a habitat for the endangered Andean Condor, a bird with a wingspan reaching over 3m (12ft).

We chose to head to Cabanaconde, the last town down the canyon. It's a charming place that is only beginning to see the effects of tourism. The road was being paved while we were there and there were many signs of growth. On the return walk to town around sunset we ran across a local farmer with some feed strapped to the back of a donkey, we managed to ask a few questions about the area in our appalling Spanish but we enjoyed the walk back to town. He darted off when a neighbours flock of sheep started stalking his donkey and eating the leaves dangling in front of them.

A walk down to Mirador de Achachihua ('mirador' is spanish for 'lookout point') was rewarded by a sighting of a passing Andean Condor. Exciting but it was far away and it's hard to get a sense of scale when the backdrop is a huge canyon that already defies the senses.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, has a surface level at 3,812m (12,500ft) above sea level. It is home of the floating islands of Uros and the traditional lifestyle of the inhabitants of Taquile Island. 

A storm on the horizon as our small ferry passes the Llachon peninsular.

For 25 soles per person we caught a ferry owned by the TaquileƱos community that visited both in a day. It is possible to homestay overnight on Taquile if you have more time. Our 'barebones' ferry turned out to have a spanish-speaking guide that helped us to understand what we were looking at and some of the history and traditions of the islands. Our spanish is still sadly lacking however he spoke clearly enough that we caught most of what was being explained. The name 'Titicaca' comes from traditional Quechua and Aymara meaning 'Rock Puma', our guide showed us satellite photos of the lake to demonstrate while sounding unconvinced himself.

The floating island of Uros are artificially constructed from reeds placed in layers on top of squares of marshy earth that have been dug up and pulled together with rope to serve as the base. New reeds can be grown on the island as well as harvested from the surrounding area to renew the reeds as they age. Everything is built of this material, island, houses, boats and lookout towers. One lady even broke one off the wall and used it to scratch the price of a pillow case onto the back of her hand.

On the island you can feel the gentle bob on the water and if you stand still for too long there is a sinking feeling as your feet push into the reed floor. It was good fun on flat water, I wonder how exciting things get in a proper storm.

Sporting my stylish new hat on Taquile Island

Sporting my stylish new hat on Taquile Island

The next island we visited, Taquile, is home to a thriving textile trade. I picked up a hat from the men's weaving club in the main square (35 soles) and we had a hearty lunch (20 soles) before exploring the rest of the island.

On the return to Puno angry clouds were rolling across the Lake. It took me a while to realise what was wrong with the scene. At this altitude the clouds are too low. At least from my sea level, Perth based perspective. The small rise of the islands and peninsulas are enough to force the clouds to be pushed higher. As the rain started falling heavier our tour guide came to the back of the ferry and rustled around for a squeegee then he's back up front being the windscreen wiper for the captain. We are pulled over by the coastguard just before re-entering the harbour at Puno where our boat was fined 160 soles for reasons we couldn't quite work out. Something to do with transporting people to the island he shouldn't have we were told by other travellers. Some of the travellers we'd picked up on Taquile were looking nervous before they decided the coastguard wasn't going to be inspecting our luggage.

Peruvian Altiplano

Our first brush with the Altiplano, the most extensive plateau outside of Tibet, was on our travels to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world and best known landmark of the Altiplano.

La Raya lookout. At 4335m (14,200ft) above sea level.

We travelled with InkaExpress from Cusco to Puno, the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca which is shared with Bolivia. The bus route takes you through the Peruvian side of the Altiplano with a couple tourist stops along the way for photos and to learn the history of the region. The La Raya lookout was the highest point of the journey at 4335m (14,200ft). 

Along the way we stopped at Pucara where a small museum had statues from pre-Inca civilisations and some Vicunas munching away on grass, for our benefit of course. Vicunas are roaming around the plateau in herds, unfortunately hard to photograph from a moving bus. Vicunas are part of the Camelid family that includes Llamas, Alpaca and Guanaco (hopefully much more on these later!). Their wool is highly prized, it can only be shawn every 2-3 years and the Vicuna must be caught from the wild as they do not domesticate well. The woven wool is finer than baby Alpaca and a scarf can fetch around $1500.

The cheery looking statue above, we were told, is from a pre-Inca civilisation that practised human sacrifice. The statue was known as what translates to 'the Decapitator' and he is holding a head in his hands. Cheeky smile indeed! I tried to verify these details on the interwebs while writing this post (I don't want to feed you lies) but was unable to find another photo of this guy even though we've seen him in a couple museums now. Definitely probably the Decapitator.

Inca Trail

Andy in the Andes

We chose to take a 5 day hike to get to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail (Camino Inca). This would allow us to explore a few of the sites which are passed over if you take the classic 4 day hike as well as being a bit less taxing on our legs and lungs.

Day Zero

We have an orientation meeting with our tour guide. Nothing is out of the ordinary except he suggests 3 rolls of toilet paper, per person, for the five day hike. A great way to lend a sense of ominous foreboding.

Day 1 - Start to Patallacta, Day 2 - Patallacta to Llulluchapampa, Day 3 - Llulluchapampa to Pacaymayu, Day 4 - Pacaymayu to Machu Picchu (arrive late), Day 5 - Machu Picchu

Day One

We are collected from our hotel in Cusco at 6am by our tour guide. It's a minibus and we take the three remaining seats. The three of us appear to command what feels like an Imperial British Expeditionary Force with seven porters, a chef and our guide, Javier. We drive out to Kilometer 82, the start point of our hike.

One of my last minute purchases comes in handy, a red poncho. It appears to have magical properties, when I wear it the rain stops, when I put it away the rain starts again. I am implored to withstand the discomfort and keep wearing it for the benefit of the others.

We stop for lunch, our expeditionary force has already set up a lunch tent and the smell of lovely food wafts towards us. 

We hike on (or roll on) after lunch. There is so much water up here. We pass a number of streams and rivers, all tributaries to the Urubamba River, the sacred river of the Incas. This water will eventually join the Amazon River bound for the Atlantic Ocean.

We arrive at the camp site (tents already constructed) and go to Andean Happy Hour, tea and nibbles before dinner. Amazingly we are hungry from the hike even after such a decadent lunch and enjoy the courses as they are delivered with a sense of anticipation.

Day Two

Vamos y vamos y vamos

Up before 6am with the glare of the sun through the tent. A porter offers a cup of hot coca tea before we are out of our tent. It is a mild stimulant and also helps to cope with the altitude. We will be reaching our highest point of the hike today, Dead Woman's Pass. We are still taking Diamox to prevent any symptoms of altitude sickness.

A communal fish farm providing subsistence living to the villagers along the Inca Trail.

A hearty breakfast later (including grapes the Peruano way, peeled) and we are ready to hit the road. We start up, passing villages along the way. Many of the inhabitants were displaced when Machu Picchu was made a National Park. They receive support from the government for this inconvenience, we pass a fish farm which was constructed from government funds. It is maintained communally by the villagers who grow mostly subsistence crops. The more entrepreneurial offering bottles of water and Gatorade to the weary hikers.

I pass a mule. It ignores me, standing stoically facing the path but I am left with a feeling they know more than they let on.

We are overtaken by our porters. They carry 20-25kg each (controlled, there are weigh stations to ensure there is no porter abuse). They power past us in a group hardly breaking a sweat. Other porters charge past us as well. With the rush over we feel alone on the trail.

As we walk through the Cloud Forest it feels like we walk above Eden. The trees are covered in moss and there is a river beneath us that occasionally breaks out into a waterfall.

Leaving the Cloud Forest we continue our upwards climb. The air is thin and we seem to have no endurance. It's a strange feeling, my legs are not tired (we are climbing quite slowly) however each step leaves me breathless. If I wait to catch my breath I feel fine, but the next step leaves me breathless again anyway. 

Another delicious lunch stop. It starts raining as we continue up the mountain. My Poncho is earning my admiration. I am able to prepare my camera under it and whip it out quickly for a couple photos before putting it back under protection from the rain.

We find our first Llamas on the hike. They are being farmed by the last family before Dead Woman's Pass. Beyond them no one is allowed to farm the land. The incline increases as approach Dead Woman's Pass, so named for the rock formations visible on the approach looking like a woman. If you use your imagination. About 15 minutes from the peak my left hand begins to tingle, a sign of oxygen depravation and altitude sickness. After resting it lessens and eventually goes away before reaching the pass. Uneventful but certainly attracting my attention at the time.

We reach Dead Woman's Pass, at an altitude of 4,200m (13,780ft). The clouds move quickly here, the scenery changes as the valley below becomes covered in cloud, then clears, then a cloud is pushed up the pass and we are surrounded in a white haze. Out of this haze a dog seems to materialise. It follows us down to our campsite, keeping it's distance. We camp near a waterfall and are treated to a spectacular sunset down the valley, clouds moving at such a speed that the view is changing constantly. I need to keep my eye out for an iPhone tripod so I can take timelapse videos. My attempts so far have not been very successful, somewhat limited by the need to find an appropriately shaped rock.

We begin the descent from Dead Woman's Pass. There is substantially less rainfall on this side of the mountain. Vegetation is mostly the highland grass visible here, food for deer and roofing material for Incas.

At the campsite I accidentally find myself in the right place at the right time to get some close photos of hummingbirds, elusive due to the speed they zip between different flowers.

Dinner finishes with stories from our guide of previous customers. We feel relieved that any amount of complaining on the way up the mountain today pales in comparison to what some people have put him through.

Day Three

We are woken at 6am by a hot cup of coca tea and warm water to wash our hands before breakfast. A quick photo at last nights sunset spot and we're off to explore the trail.

There are often good incentives to stay on the path. Occasionally, when straying onto some of the less official trails, I am warded off by toilet paper stuck to bushes. Best to leave the rest of the trail alone I think. We stumble across a pair of deer grazing amongst the highland grass, luckily I had the right lens on to get a quick shot off before they were over the hill.

The weather alternates between overcast and sunny, it works well as it allows for a variety of views without us overheating on uphill sections of the hike. Before lunch we find ourselves in a cloud, the view off the mountain is pure light. Sometimes the overhead cloud clears and the direct sunlight makes the cloud we walk in glow intensely. The sound of thunder hastens us to the lunch tent.

Javier tells us of the beep beep frogs which live under the bright orange moss along the the rock face. The 3cm long frogs can change colour to blend with their surroundings and have a 'beep beep beep beep' call they make. They are also poisonous and can jump about 4 metres. As the rain that held out since lunch resumes I find myself left alone hunting the beep beep frog to no avail. I can hear them but they are safe behind the moss.

Landscapes and buildings of the Inca Trail:

We reach the campsite, it is on a fantastic overlook with an Inca ruin below that will be explored the following day, the still functioning aqueduct is our water source for the night. Clouds lead cavalry charges down the mountain as we wait for sunset to approach. We walk out to the a view point beyond the campsite and see Machu Picchu mountain for the first time, the city is on the other side. We can also see Agua Caliente and a hydro power station which has a tunnel right through Machu Picchu mountain providing enough power for the whole region.

The porters have set up a portable toilet, carried all the way from Kilometer 82 just for tonight. Talk about a loo with a view!

Four llamas wander in around dusk including a 3 week old baby, incredibly cute. 

Even we didn't manage a cake while camping around the US. Very impressed with Balbino's cooking skills.

We are surprised yet again by the resourcefulness of our chef, there is a cake waiting for us for Andean Happy Hour. I secretly wonder if they have also carried an oven up just for tonight.

I am inspired by Shannan to try some night photos as the clouds have thinned.

Day Four

Up at 5am to catch some sunrise colours but it was too cloudy. I catch the porters, who last night seemed oblivious to the baby llama, posing for photos with it. I think they're not used to people being up earlier than they have to be. They have attracted the attention of the head llama, he is standing and starting to stomp his back foot a bit. He's also starting to chew nothing, we have been warned this is the llama preparing to spit. Apparently they can spit a greenish, glue like substance up to 4m.

The serenity of the last few days is shattered by the horn of the PeruRail trains as they ferry tourists to Machu Picchu. The air is humid and sunny. Everyone seems a bit lethargic today.

We lunch near some impressive Inca ruins, nicknamed the Little Machu Picchu before continuing on to the Sun Gate. We have our first view of Machu Picchu in the afternoon light, it lends a golden tint to the city. We continue down to the city and get to 'photo rock' 15 minutes before closing time. The rain is falling in the valley below and one of the strongest rainbows I've ever seen is off to the right of Machu Picchu. I feel we are very lucky to have seen the city under these conditions.

We are hustled out of the ruins by the rangers. A real toilet, with a seat, is available outside the gates for 1 soles. This is right up there with the $2 shower at Grand Canyon.

We walk to our campsite, a 400m descent to the Urubamba river. At the campsite we have our final meal and say goodbye to our Porters and Chef. It's an early start tomorrow where we will be exploring Machu Picchu in detail.

Animals and Plants of the Inca Trail: