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16/05 – 22/05 2010 The Picchu

The road to Cusco is filled with cars and buses spewing out large black clouds of engine fumes and any efforts to save the planet are well and truly over in Peru. The bus that we are travelling on is ironically called ‘Inca Class’ and whilst it is relatively comfortable seat and leg room wise, the temperature in the bus reaches 30 degrees Celsius and there’s nothing we can do about it. The driver also seems to be competing in the Peruvian grand prix and I have the unenviable position of sitting directly behind him and having first hand sight of any looming mishaps (of which there are many)

Despite a few brown trouser moments, we arrive in Cusco after our 7 hour journey and head to the hotel, which is situated off the main square. The region’s flag is curiously exactly like the gay pride rainbow flag and this amuses me as it is flown right in front of the main Catholic Cathedral in the square. Inca’s revenge, perhaps.

Myself and the Kiwi lot have a sun dower overlooking the square where we see someone dressed as Paddington Bear, so he is in deepest, darkest Peru after all. The Kiwi boys attract a lone travelling Dutch girl, who joins us for dinner and some beers in restaurant that serves the biggest portions I have seen ( in fact, most of the meals in Peru have been more than generous in size)

We have a walking tour the next day and some of the Inca walls can still be seen but as you all know, the Spanish conquistadors pretty much destroyed all Inca temples and buildings and replaced them with Catholic churches. Cusco is a city in south-eastern Peru, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range and it is the capital of the Cusco Region as well as the Cusco Province and the city has a population of 358,935 which is triple the figure of 20 years ago. Located on the eastern end of the Knot of Cusco, its altitude is around 3,400 m (11,200 ft). Cusco is the historic capital of the Inca Empire and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1983 by UNESCO and it is a major tourist destination and receives almost a million visitors a year.

Our walking tour takes us through the local market, which is vibrant but I cannot bring myself to walk through the identifiable and unidentifiable meat section. We also visit The Coca Shop which was founded by an Italian doctor to promote the ‘legal’ health benefits of the coca leaf. It is now run by an Italian/Peruvian guy who is completely bonkers and has obviously been sampling too much of the coca leaf himself. We have some coca tea and listen to him rant and rave about the evils of capitalism and I couldn’t but help notice his nice trousers and shoes and I suspect that he comes from a wealthy family so it is very easy for him to denounce the trappings. The rest of the day is free time and I sit in the square, read and catch up on writing my journal after we go up the hill to see the view of the city and the statute of the Christo Blanco which was placed on the hill as it was the Inca’s scared site and the Spanish wanted to make another point.

We are edging closer and closer to MP and our drive to Ollantaytambo (or Oliver Tambo as I like to call it) takes us through the Scared Valley that was hit badly by the flash floods at the beginning of the year and many people are still living in temporary accommodation and roads and bridges are currently being rebuilt (a Swiss aid agency and Oxfam have a strong presence). We stop off at a community project to see how the locals make the colourful garments you can find everywhere and they show us the process from shearing the sheep (one of the Kiwi bros has a go and funnily enough, he’s a natural) to then trying to sell us the goods at exorbitant prices. Before arriving in Oliver Tambo, we visit a community watering hole and taste the local beer made from corn (chicha) and it’s not very pleasant (you can recognise places that sell it (to avoid it?!) by looking for a stick with a red plastic bag placed outside the building). Apparently the locals who work in the fields drink loads of the stuff but it is only 1% alcohol and the women’s version is sweetened with strawberries to make it even less palatable.

Oliver Tambo is a smallish place but is on the way to the Inca Trail so it massively caters for tourists and our guide gives us a tour of the Inca archaeological site the next day. The Incas liked to build things high up on mountains and this site is no exception (especially the Inca storage site on the opposite mountain, which I climb half way up and then am reminded of my fear of heights but the Kiwi boys conquer it). The town itself isn’t very pretty but the location is beautiful: surrounded by snow capped mountains and clouds peeping over the edges of them. After the boys have been tramps for the afternoon, we lounge about in the hotel grounds before catching the train to take us to Aguas Calientes town. We have to get a bus for part of the journey that would have ordinarily been taken by train but the tracks were washed away in the recent floods and they are in the process of rebuilding it. It is almost getting dark so we don’t see much on the journey but we do manage to see the remnants of the destruction that the floods have caused and it must have been terrifying to witness the torrents of water coming down the valley.

Finally, the day that we have all been waiting for has arrived and we get up at 5am to join the other 800 people on ‘The Picchu’ as it has become affectionately known as amongst the group. Since the floods, they have limited the amount of people from 2,000 per day to 800 and selfishly I think this is a much better idea. We have been forewarned by our guide that we may not see anything as ‘The Picchu’ is renowned for mist and cloud and apparently a group a couple of weeks ago didn’t see anything because it was shrouded in cloud. Still, I remain optimistic and thank god it pays off because we manage to witness the most amazing sunrise over the site and when the clouds have cleared, our guide takes us on a tour of the site. This is the only site that the Spanish didn’t find and destroy but they still don’t know why the Incas abandoned it: one theory is that it was struck by lightning and they saw this as an indication that the gods were angry and the site was doomed. The sun has come out and it’s nice to sit on the grass and take in the view and watch the world go by before we tackle the trek up to the Sun Temple which takes us an hour there and back. We make the most of being in the site and have a look at the Inca bridge but this isn’t very spectacular and I cannot make the last part of it because the path is situated too close to the edge and there is only a rope to help you along.

We were hoping to catch sunset but the clouds being to form and the early mornings have begun to catch up with everyone, so we get the bus back to the town and have some lunch and a few beers. It has also begun to rain and we decide against going to the hot springs and head for the hotel for a rest and then out for dinner.

The next day there is a sombre atmosphere amongst the group and this is because the highlight of the trip has come and gone and the thought of the holiday ending and reality kicking in becomes all too existent. We make our way back to Cusco by train part way, bus to Ollantaytambo and then private bus to Cusco. The rain clouds have started to form and it provides for some lovely scenery as the light is a mixture of dark greys and the bright yellowy light of the fields and we experience some heavy showers when we arrive in Cusco but it soon clears up. I wander back to the local market to buy a few things and then head sit in the hotel and catch up with my book and the all important blog.

We have our last supper and the starter comprises of the local delicacy which is cuy: guinea pig! I was expecting it to be served on a plate with its name collar and bell still attached but no, it was worse than that. It came with a little helmet fashioned from a tomato with a sprig of mint sticking out of the top like a Roman legionnaire. I couldn’t bring myself to eat a lot of it especially since its teeth and head was still attached but I did sample a tiny bit and to be honest, it tasted like chicken with a strong aftertaste. Poor little Fluffy.

After dinner we joined some other tour groups for a quiz night to help raise money for the victims of the floods and the rebuilding of the local school. We came a close second but the winners shared their bottle of rum with us and I later joined the tour guide, his wife and some others in a local club for a Peruvian boogie.

It’s Saturday and it must be Lima. Our flight is only takes an hour from Cusco to Lima and I am feeling a bit delicate this morning due to my late night gallivanting (at my age!) but it doesn’t help that the pollution in Lima is so bad that I can hardly breathe. I take it easy for the rest of the day and I can feel my sore throat getting worse.Everyone is feeling exhausted but we go to a local sports bar for some drinks and some dinner before saying goodbye as we all leave tomorrow at different times and I am leaving the earliest at 6am for my flight to Punta Carna, Dominican Republic, via Miami. It has been a great trip around Peru even though it felt a little rushed at times and there was a lack of free time for us to just sit and chill out but it has whetted my appetite for further travel in South America!

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