...images from planet Earth
Friday 25 August – Arrival in Lima
Arrived in Lima in the evening and took a taxi to my hotel, which I’d pre-booked. For $25 I thought I’d get something more pleasant, but I was just glad to have hot water. The hotel was in Miraflores, which is reputedly one of the nicer parts of Lima. I’d imagined going for a walk and watching the sun set over the Pacific but from what I saw on the way to the hotel, venturing outside didn’t appeal to me and I stayed in to get some much needed sleep.
Saturday 26 August - Cuzco
Up early for my 6am flight to Cuzco. Within minutes the plane had risen through a thick blanket of clouds, which were abruptly pierced by inhospitable hilly mountain peaks. A short while later, at the same altitude, we reached Cuzco. I’d booked my accommodation in advance and I was met by a representative and a tour guide, with whom I later booked a day tour of the Sacred Valley for tomorrow. My hostal (as they’re called over there) was $16, and it was clean, pleasant and had a nice courtyard from which you could see the hills surrounding the town. Went for a walk through the always busy Plaza del Armes and up one of the steep and narrow cobbled streets to a small square outside a church overlooking the town. There was music playing and people were frying meat and selling fruit and drinks. I spent a couple of hours chatting with a local boy (called Lee Harvey, believe it or not), watching children and elder women with their llamas or alpacas, many offering a photo in return for some change, the women selling bracelets and spinning yarn.
Sunday 27 August - Cuzco
The Sacred Valley contains many important historical sites. The first of which is Pisac. We were fortunate in that Sunday is market day in Pisac so the main street in the town was lined with stalls selling handicrafts, textiles, jewellery and countless other items. It was all very colourful. Then a steep walk up past some terraced ruins on the wall of the valley and a wonder round the ruins at the top. Next was the town Ollaytantambo. Opposite the terraced fortress is an imposing mountain. About half way up on a steep rock face are the ruins of an old Inca construction that was mainly used for storage. There were also two carvings of huge faces on the mountain. The large trapezoidal blocks were the most notable feature that gave the walls of the complex a unique appearance. The final place was Chinchero to visit a church built with an intricate wooden and golden alter. Like many buildings in the region, the church was built foundations taken from Inca buildings.
Monday 28 August - Cuzco
I took a taxi up to Sascayhuaman, the large complex of Inca ruins in Cuzco. It was the sheer size of this site was most impressive, and the zig-zag shape of two of the walls were meant to represent the mouth of the puma, one of the sacred symbols ion Inca culture. Some of the blocks used are over 30 tonnes, and it was impossible to imagine how these were cut, polished and moved into place by hand all those years ago.
Tuesday 29 August – Inca Trail, Day 1
We met at the tour agency at 6am and a bus took us to km82, the start point of the Inca Trail. 16 of us, plus two guides and 21 porters set out on what was to be a 45km trek up and down through cloud forests, mountains and valleys along this ancient Inca path, peaking at an altitude of 4,200m. Today was relatively easy and we walked for about 6 hours, mainly along a river valley to our first campsite.
Wednesday 30 August – Inca Trail, Day 2
Notorious for being the most difficult day. Almost as soon as we left our campsite at 7am it was a continuous four hour hike up through cloud forest and then into the clouds themselves as we headed for the highest point on the trail, Dead Woman’s Pass. Then it was an equally steep descent to our campsite which we reached in the early afternoon. I’m not describing this part in detail because I didn’t find it that interesting. This particular trail is not known for great scenery, and you don’t really get to meet local people, although there are lots of ruins to see on route.
Thursday 31 August – Inca Trail, Day 3
The hardest day for me, most probably because I was suffering with some virus, a stomach bug and altitude sickness, which makes it very difficult to ascend for more than a few minutes at a time. First, a steep accent to the second pass followed by shallower slopes up and down to the last and smallest pass. Being weakened by sickness, the eight hours of trekking took its toll on me and I was the last to reach the campsite, greeted by cheers from the rest of the group. There were several ruins along the route but the nicest was one just a bit beyond our campsite. Again, large terraced steps amongst well preserved Inca ruins. The structures were almost always built high up on steep slopes providing the Incas with the best possible defence.
Friday 1 September – Inca Trail, Day 4
An early start this morning to reach the Sun Gate before sunrise. We set off at 5am and walked along the easiest and most pleasant trail of the whole trek. Unfortunately we were rushing to get there before hundreds of other people. When we got there it was a disappointment to find that Machu Picchu was shrouded in thick mist, although this is quite common. We walked on towards the ruins and by the time we were granted a view of the famous site it was after 10am and the hoards of day trippers from Cuzco had arrived, turning the site into a beehive of activity. In addition, the light was very harsh and as a result the photos are horribly washed out. Our guide gave us a tour and we had some free time to wonder round while some people climbed up the mountain, Wayna Pichhu, without which the picture perfect site of Machu Picchu would not be complete. One of the most fascinating things about Machu Picchu is the work that went into constructing the main walls. Each seemingly random shaped block was individually cut, shaped and polished to fit so that there were no gaps between the stones. And with no mortar used in the construction, it's amazing that it has withstood 700 years of nature's forces, including an overgrowth of thick jungle. Although the site is impressive, I would love to have had the place to myself for a couple of hours because a place like this is best appreciated in solitude. We took bus down the mountain to Aguas Calientes where we lunched and then the train to Ollaytantambo from where we took a bus. We reached Cuzco at 8pm.
Saturday & Sunday 2-3 September - Cuzco
Spent these two days wondering the town and generally taking it easy, trying to recover for the next stage of my trip and an overnight bus trip to Puno. I was disappointed by Cuzco. Not just because of the constant hassle you get from street vendors, but I think it lacked character and charm, for a city of such historical significance.
Monday 4 September – to Copacabana
Arrived before sunrise. It was freezing here. In normal circumstances I could have taken a bus straight to Copacabana from here but there was a blockade in the region and there was no road access in or out of Copacabana. I took the bus which dropped us off somewhere where a minibus took us to Yunguyo at the border. I thought I would have to walk two hours to Copacabana, but a boatman turned up and told us we could go by boat across lake Titicaca. I checked into the Cupula, which is a nice little hotel on the slopes of a hill overlooking the lake. The town itself was quiet and a welcome relief after Cuzco, though it wasn’t as pretty as I’d imagined. That evening I walked up the hill to Cerro Calvario for the sunset. I’d chosen the best night for it because I was treated to an amazing sunset as the sky turned various shades of brilliant fiery reds.
Tuesday 5 September – Copacabana, Isla del Sol
I’d planned to spend a day and night on Isla del Sol, the Island of the Sun, where the Incas believed the sun was born. I’d heard it was a great place to stay overnight and watch the sunset. But I’d felt I’d been lucky with last night’s sunset and I was enjoying staying in the Cupula so I decided to do a day trip instead. Took a boat there in the morning, walked around the villages and did a short hike half way along the island. I didn’t fancy doing too much walking after the Inca trail. The island is very different to what I’d imagined as it was very hilly. There are some great coastal views though. I was glad I didn’t decide to stay a night and I could go back to a comfy hotel.
Wednesday 6 September - Copacabana
It was market day today and it was interesting walking through and seeing this sleepy little town come to life. I then planned to do a walk to the headland on the other side of the town but decided to turn back before the end and walked back along the pebbly beach.
Thursday 7 September – Copacabana to La Paz
It was a mission to get out of Copacabana and to Bolivia, a journey that should take a couple of hours. But because of the blockade, which still hadn’t ended, we took the boat back to the border at Yunguyo, then by minibus to the other border town of Desaguadero. From there we took a tourist bus to La Paz. Entering the world’s highest capital is an experience to remember. You’re driving through the slums of El Alto and suddenly you’re at the rim of a canyon with a sprawling city below at the bottom of the ‘bowl’, which climbs all the way up to the rim. In the background sits the famous Illampu amongst smaller snowy peaks. Walked through the markets and did some more shopping. This is a great place for it, with good quality items and at very cheap prices. Wondered down to San Francisco Plaza and walked around the surrounded neighbourhood.
Friday 8 September – La Paz - Uyuni
Had a last minute wonder round the central area before getting a bus to Oruro, three hours south of La Paz. From there I took the train down through some spectacular desert scenery to Uyuni, a cold, dusty desert town. Arriving at 22:30, I was happy to check into the first hotel I could find and into a warm(ish) bed.
Saturday 9 September – Salar de Uyuni tour, Day 1
I’d pre-booked a tour with a company called Reli tours who had been recommended to me. As they didn’t have enough people booked they put me with another agency, Tourismo el Desierto, who turned out to be fantastic. There were six of us on the tour and at 10am we set off in our Toyota Landcruiser. The first stop was a salt factory at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The salt is heated and dried, cleaned then hand packed in plastic bags, using a flame to seal the bags. The Salar de Uyuni is more that just a salt flat and has to be seen to be believed. It’s a surreal landscape of dazzling white crystallised salt with hexagonal cracks stretching all the way to the mountains far off into the horizon. When you’re driving though it it’s hard to believe you’re making any progress. We stopped at a salt hotel and then for lunch at Cactus Island, a rocky outcrop with hundreds of gigantic cacti. This oasis in the middle of the salt desert almost didn’t seem to belong there. We walked though along the trail while lunch was being prepared by our cook. We stopped a couple more times to walk along the flats, throwing Frisbees to each other, before arriving at our lodging, a basic but comfortable place that seemed to exist solely for tour groups.
Sunday 10 September – Salar de Uyuni tour, Day 2
We’d left the salar, and now the scenery had changed to brown barren landscapes, alternating from rocky to sandy, and always there were hills or mountains on the horizon. Small groups of vicunas (wild ‘versions’ of llamas) would wonder through, grazing on what appeared to be mud as there was hardly any vegetation here. We stopped briefly at a few places; a roacky are from where we could see a smouldering volcano, the ‘rock tree’, a tree-shaped outcrop, and a lake full of flamingos where we stopped for lunch. In the afternoon, we visited an amazingly vivid red lake, which looked like something from another planet, as most things in this region do.
Monday 11 September – Salar de Uyuni tour, Day 3 and San Pedro de Atacama
First stop was a geothermal field full of steaming geysers. Bubbling pools and steaming vents were all around us. We had to get there before sunrise, as they’re only active at this time. It was quite a sight watching the steam with the rising sun creating silhouettes of the onlookers. Our final stop of the tour was Laguna Verde, a bright green lake with a conical mountain behind. Nearby was a solitary Andean fox, happy to pose for pictures. We rushed to get to the Chilean border to catch the bus that was to transfer a busload of us to San Pedro de Atacama. The first thing I noticed about Chile was the people looked very different to Peruvians and Bolivians. There were far fewer native people here and they more closely resembled Spaniards. The second thing I noticed was the prices. I wanted to stay somewhere comfortable in my last view days and although 33USD isn’t much by western standards it was a lot more than I was used to. For the first time during my trip I was able to put on my shorts and sandals and I enjoyed the warmer climate, having dropped 1000m in altitude. That evening I wondered around the town, and walked into a residential area to see what life was like away from the restaurants and tour agencies.
Tuesday 12 September – San Pedro de Atacama and Valle del Lunar tour
There wasn’t much to do in San Pedro apart from the tours and I knew I would get a bit bored in three days. Today I did a tour to the Valle del Lunar. First we walked down through a canyon viewing the strange pinnacle-like rock formations and sand dunes with the imposing figure of the extinct volcano Licancabur on the Bolivian border. Then to a view point on a cliff edge from where were could wee more unusual rock formations, with a crusty white layer that gives the land here a unique appearance. This was also present at the site of the Three Marias, three figure-shaped rocks which we later stopped to see. Finally, for sunset, we went to a place where we could choose between three viewpoints to walk to. I chose a route along the ridge of a huge sand dune to a rocky ridge overlooking the valley. Although the sky wasn’t interesting that evening, behind us the chain of volcanoes was cast with a warm red glow as sun disappeared behind the distant mountains.
Wednesday 13 September – San Pedro de Atacama and Salar de Atacama tour
Another lazy morning and afternoon. In the evening I did the Salar de Atacama tour. I was curious to see how it would differ from the Uyuni salt flats but I was frustrated by a lengthy visit to Tocanai village, where we were shown a church and encouraged to shop in a handicraft shop. When I thought we were ready to leave we were then told we could go and see some llamas. They’re very cute but by the time we got to the salt flat it was only 20 minutes before sunset and the light was too low for decent photos. It was very different here to the Salar de Uyuni. The salt here was in large clumps, and it some ways it created a more interesting landscape. It was within Parc National Los Flamencos and nearby were shallow lakes where the birds were feeding. It was quite an amazing site and, although we stayed for half an hour after sunset watching the birds, it warranted at least a couple of hours.
Thursday 14 September – to Calama
After another very nice breakfast (I was really enjoying the food in Chile after the disappointing cuisine in Peru and Bolivia) I got the 10am bus to Calama, an hour and a half away. If San Pedro can be classed a tourist town, Calama was the complete opposite. There was nothing for me here, and for once I was glad to have cable TV and spend the rest of the day watching movies. I struggled even to find a restaurant here and I settled for a Chinese restaurant for my last meal of the trip! It was good though.
Friday 15 September – flight home
Left early this morning for a flight down to Santiago. The connecting flight home provided me with one of the best views I've had from a plane. We flew out to the Chilean coast before turning around towards the Andes. Extending as far as I could see in both directions were the snow-capped peaks of this the world’s longest mountain chain.