I know Peru’s not in or even near New York, but it’s nearer to NYC than it is to London and I’d always wanted to visit, so living in the Big Apple is the perfect excuse to get on down to Llama Land.
It is possible to get direct flights from New York to Lima, but we saved a bit of money by booking with Copa Airlines, flag carrier for Panama, which required a brief stop at their regional hub in Panama City. So by adding a couple of hours to the experience, we saved a few hundred dollars and also got to add another country to the ‘visited’ list – everyone knows airport stops really do count. Sadly it wasn’t possible to catch a glimpse of the canal from the air. I know it sounds a bit odd, but the husband and I were very keen to see it.
Lima is large. I’m sure most people already know that, but I think I’ve been living in naive denial about how large many South American countries and cities are. Lima is 21st largest city in the world, measured by population within the administrative area (above London and New York), and third largest in the Americas, below only Sao Paulo and Mexico City. In the pollution stakes, it punches above its weight: according to a 2014 WHO report, Lima has the worst air pollution in Latin America (http://www.peruviantimes.com/08/world-health-organization-says-lima-has-worst-air-pollution-in-latam/22119/). I can believe it. The low cloud, combined with high mountains to the east and breezes blowing in from the Pacific, serve to capture the smog from millions of ancient cars and buses. By the end of a day, the air is thick and a coating of oily soot covers the sidewalks.
The historic center of Lima is beautiful to look at, famous for the wooden balconies on many of the colonial buildings. The Plaza Mayor is stunning at night, well lit and very grand. Our hotel was in Miraflores, considered the swanky playground of Lima, on top of the cliffs that overlook the sea. It is a good area for shopping and enjoying a walk through the pleasant parks, one of which, Parque Kennedy, is infamous as a place where people abandon their pet cats. As a result, the gardens are dotted with sleeping balls of fluff. I’m sure it’s a shame for animal rights reasons, but as a spectacle it’s very sweet.
Of course, like most privileged visitors, I wasn’t in Peru to see Lima. I had Inca treasures in my sights and wanted to experience Lake Titicaca, the ruins at Raqchi, and Machu Picchu, the famous citadel once lost but now, judging by the numbers of photos of it all over Peru advertising, most definitely found.
The most common base for sightseeing in Peru is Cusco, a largish city that was once capital of the whole Inca empire, and sits in the mountains at 3,400m above sea level. This is a stunningly beautiful city. The city’s altitude makes the air clear and crisp and, from the Plaza de Armas, the glowing colonial buildings, on top of Inca foundations, are framed by the dusty hills that surround the city. The streets are teeming with tourists, mostly middle class would-be adventurers like me, and there are dozens of tour companies and traders catering to their needs, offering trips to the Inca Trail, dazzling glaciers, and so on. We had booked all our travel before arriving, so it should have been straightforward to get to Machu Picchu, but in the end it was a little more challenging.
Most visitors to Machu Picchu arrive by train. The train runs from just outside Cusco and takes four hours to get to Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), the tourist town at the base of the mountain on which the Inca ruins sit. Some come only for the day; others stay one or two nights in one of the many hotels and hostels, but it should not be a taxing trip, in fact the trains are rather luxurious, offering views of the Urubamba River and table-served snacks and drinks.
It is not well known outside Peru, but teachers in the Cusco region have been on an indefinite strike over pay for a few months now. I am sympathetic to their aims but when I found out they had chosen to escalate their protests while we were on our travels, I wished they could have found better methods. The striking teachers made Machu Picchu travelers their prime targets, blocking roads to the train station, and even ripping up rails on the line. They see this as an excellent way to get the government to listen as so much of the country’s revenue comes from tourism. But to me it seems short sighted. Many small businesses depend heavily on visitors, and Machu Picchu is part of the country’s cultural heritage that teachers should be keen for others to see. Also, if you want more government money, it’s probably best not to harm one of its major sources: visits to Machu Picchu dropped by up to 50% during the strike, according to one estimate I heard.
We were lucky; we had the resources to rearrange our visit, essentially throwing money and flexibility at the problem. Many others are likely to have saved for years to visit this site, the culmination of happy hours of dreaming and research, and will now have lost their chance.
We found out about the problems the day before we arrived in the country. We were told by rail representatives that trains from Cusco were cancelled so we would need to get on the train in Ollantaytambo. This was arranged reasonably quickly: we had to abandon a hotel we paid for but didn’t stay in, and got a taxi to Ollantaytambo late in the evening, to avoid the next day’s roadblocks. The taxi ride was actually lovely as it was after sunset and the lack of light pollution meant we had gorgeous views of the Milky Way. When we arrived in Ollantaytambo there was more bad news – all trains for the next two days were completely cancelled. There are no roads to Machu Picchu from the Cusco region, only trains and walking trails. Ollantaytambo is 45km from Machu Picchu by rail and it is possible to walk along the tracks, although not advisable when you have ten days’ worth of belongings with you and you’ve only spent one night acclimatising to the altitude.
After drowning our sorrows in beer and cake, we faced the prospect of not getting to Machu Picchu at all, or seriously altering our plans. Luckily a woman running a small tourist shop had a solution: she could get a taxi to take us to a hydroelectric plant the other side of Machu Picchu; from there it’s only a 15km walk along the railway. The downside was it was quite an expensive taxi (she knew our options were limited), it took five hours, and we had to leave at 3am. We did it anyway, getting up at three, pocketing some breakfast, sitting through a journey that should be fascinating, winding through mountain roads and passes, but given the hour and the mood was actually overwhelming. Then we shouldered all our bags and set off to hike the tracks. It took us less than three hours, and was an amazing walk – the route that Hiram Bingham took when he first came to ‘discover’ Machu Picchu in 1911. It follows the Urubamba River through lush green forest and helps to put Machu Picchu in perspective. From a certain point on the walk, one can just see a few stone terraces jutting out of the rocks that tower above.
We stayed a few days in Aguas Calientes and actually enjoyed what many lament as a far too comfortable tourist town. Our morning at Machu Picchu itself, though, was amazing. A bus goes from Aguas Calientes to the site’s main entrance. You need to book tickets for everything in advance, and it’s not cheap, but the views alone are awe-inspiring. It’s fascinating to think that while the Tudors were building Hampton Court Palace, Inca kings were enjoying this complex in the clouds, built without steel tools, wheels or writing. We opted to climb Mount Machu Picchu next to the site (there’s an extra charge for this). It was a hard slog, but worth it for the incredible views of Machu Picchu, the river, the terraces, and the more distant snowy peaks.
The rest of our time in Peru was devoted to some less well-known attractions. We took a bus from Cusco to Puno on the banks of Lake Titicaca, stopping along the way at Raqchi, a well-preserved Inca town, notable for the immense temple of Wiracocha and for the many surviving storehouses, apparently a trademark of the Incas as their lack of wheeled vehicles and the absence of a well-developed monetary system meant that there was little trade between regions. Instead, local governments would force farmers to store preserved produce in brick storehouses and rations would be handed out by officials to the local people.
Another stop on the route was La Raya, a high mountain pass that divides the Cusco and Puno regions. From here one can see the Chimboya glacier, and also the northern end of the Altiplano, the largest high plateau outside the Himalayas.
Puno is one of Peru’s most significant cities on the Altiplano. It sits on the banks of Lake Titicaca, the “world’s highest navigable lake” (as everyone will tell you). It’s not a very pleasant city – many of the buildings look unfinished, which is apparently down to a loophole in local taxes; you don’t pay building tax until it’s complete. I’m not sure a tax break would justify an unoccupied, unglazed top story with rebar sticking out, for me anyway.
We spent a day on Lake Titicaca visiting two places. First, the Uros Islanders. This group of people traditionally speak Aymara, unlike most of the local indigenous groups, who speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. Legend has it that the Uros islanders hid in the reed beds of the lake when the Incas were taking over the area. The Incas saw that the people were not a threat (in fact, ‘Uros’ means ‘shy people’ in one version of Quechua) and allowed them to live in the reeds. The Uros people developed an intricate system for building floating islands out of reeds, and they have lived on these, which are covered with reed houses, for over five hundred years. Traditionally the inhabitants lived on fish from the lake, reed roots, and some locally traded vegetables, but they now get a lot of money from tourism. The family that welcomed us were very kind, showing us their houses and crafts and also giving us a ride in a traditional reed boat.
Our second Titicaca stop was Taquile Island, home to a self-governing collective group that is descended from the Incas and has resisted modern life to a certain extent. The island was farmed for the benefit of Spanish colonists until independence was won in the 1820s and each resident family was given ownership of a portion of the island. The islanders now have a strict system of democracy, electing local leaders by show of hands in the town’s main square. Leaders hold the job for a year and are not paid. All people on the island are expected to work for the good of the island, keeping it clean and working together on community building projects. On the day we visited, in the crisp sunshine of the dry season, the island was close to paradise, dotted with deep green trees, no rubbish, and the clear blue waters of the lake visible all around. I’m not sure I’d want to live there though as, to join the community, a man has to show himself able to knit. All men are expected to knit their own hats, about which there is a detailed system of codes by which one signifies one’s marital status, authority, etc., using different patterns and colours of wool. A family treated us to a display of their handicrafts, as well as a delicious meal and a demonstration of dancing. I’m not sure the whole family was invested, though. The teenage son, as soon as his part of the show was over, rapidly removed his vital traditional cap and settled to playing with his smartphone.
Peru has an astounding diversity of habitats, from high plains to deserts to mountains to jungles, and our ten day trip really only scratched the surface. We had a fantastic time and found great food, many adventures, and a surprising amount of 90s music. It is a beautiful and fascinating country so ‘thank you, Peru’, or as they say in Quechua, ‘Solpayki!’