I have recently returned from a slightly modified version of Tucan Travel’s Ballestas 1 tour. As I work in the London head office recruiting our tour leaders and drivers, during my trip I am required to also spend a bit of time in our Cuzco office struggling with their Spanish-speaking computers. This means that I don’t conclude my tour in La Paz, in fact I don’t get any further than Cuzco on this particular itinerary. Nonetheless, my experience was definitely something to scribble home about.
Our tour starts in Lima where you could be forgiven for cowering in your hotel room surviving only on room service and take away food so as to avoid muggings, kidnappings and car jackings just to name a few of the horror stories tourists post on forums. The reality is quite different and both of our joining hotels are located in the down town area shunned by the forum scribblers. However the downtown is ideal for shopping, sightseeing, eating out and getting a real feel for the city. It’s also surprisingly picturesque. Lima is one of those unfortunate places with a great deal of cloud cover so sometimes can look a bit sad and grey but the buildings in the downtown go all out to try to rectify this boasting bright yellows and oranges with ornate gardens located in its fountained squares. Even as we stroll around, monuments are being painted and gardens primped and premed.
From Lima we head to Pisco, our base from which we visit Paracas. Here we take a motorboat excursion out to explore the Ballestas Islands, home to penguins, cormorants, boobies (childish snigger) and pelicans and of course a few thousand sea lions. I have a slight obsession with the penguinos so I’m very keen to see them. We are advised straight away that a hat or hood is required as the birds like to target the boats. They certainly don’t disappoint and we all look like we’ve been doing a spot of painting I also come away with a full memory card.
Next on our itinerary is Huacachina, an emerald green Oasis sitting in the middle of an impressive dessert. Who knew Peru had its own dessert? Not I! Here we have the option of taking a dune buggy out over the sand dunes and sand board down the big ones. After a romp around the driver stops on a suitably terrifying looking dune and starts explaining the important aspects of hurtling down a vertical sand dune face first. The driver waxes the boards, shows us the safest position to take, how to slow down and most importantly stop, and which way to go down the dune (you would be surprised that some might struggle with this). He also explains where to stand afterwards so they we don’t end up playing human ten pin bowling. Those who don’t wish to participate are free to stay with the driver and the buggy or spend time by the oasis. After a few mouthfuls of sand I feel I have mastered the dunes and crown myself princess of Peru.
We then move on to Nazca where we have the option of taking a flight over the lines. My usual sceptical self is weighing up the pro’s and cons. It seems quite pricey so in honesty I am in two minds weather I should take part. Do they even look like things or are they squiggles? Is it like magic eye where you have to squint? What if someone gets in the way of the window, how many people are in the plane? Are the planes safe didn’t one fall out of the sky? Why don’t we get breakfast today? But what if they’re amazing? When will I get the chance to do it again? In answer to anyone wondering the same things; they do look like whales and monkeys and tree’s etc (although dog and frog are slightly ropey), you get your own little map and the pilot (quite fit) tells you what you’re flying over. You get your own window, safety belt, sick bag (some, not all people can suffer from air sickness – hence no breakfast). The planes are small and only 12 passengers per ride. However you get two pilots so double safe. The companies we use are very professional (hence the price). You get weighed before boarding and no baggage is allowed on board. The plane that crashed was apparently not a professional operator. It was amazing and I got very good pictures and thoroughly enjoyed my experience (no one was sick). I thoroughly recommend it and I’m still puzzled as to how they managed it.
As our base for the Colca Canyon we stay in Arequipa, Peru’s highest city? And if not highest certainly one of the prettiest. Here if you haven’t already it’s an excellent idea to start taking your altitude preventative remedies weather they be herbal or chemical or just chewing cocoa leaves. Being a creature of very little faith I go for chemical. We join a pooled tour consisting of Irish, American, and Belgian and set off on our way to Chivay stopping along the way for pictures, a brew (Cocoa tea) and various loo and souvenir stops. We’re all also chewing on our coca leaves. The method of chewing them having just been demonstrated. I am quietly buzzing and feel like having a little dance but I am assured that overdose is not possible…
Enroute to Chivay we make friends with various bambi/sheepy looking creatures. I have taken the initiative to Google them for the purpose of this blog (vicunas and alpacas). One orphan vicuna in particular was very friendly as he appeared to live by a café and had a nice time posing for photos and chewing my belt tag.
The wilder wildlife is also amazing and we see the condors in full flight riding the trefoils over the Canyon. Chinchilla’s bouncing around looking nervous. The scenery is spectacular and we can see for miles encompassing the villages, churches, rivers and farming terraces. We also visit the hot springs and watch the sunset over the valley before ending our visit with a trip to the local markets where a gentleman randomly pulls a python out of a sports bag. Who would buy that…?
Just as I’m thinking I am invincible to altitude and feeling quite intrepid it strikes (well I think it does being greedy I will just about eat anything except pears). We are having a look around Arequipa I am feeling a bit irritated and tired and opt to have an early night rather than visit the mummy. Next thing I am woken from slumber to find myself skilfully sitting on the loo whilst being sick into the shower. I adopt this position for some time.
Usually on a Discovery tour (or disco as we affectionately call them in the office) we would travel from A to B onTucan Travel’s trucks. However so that I get a well rounded experience I am also travelling by public bus. Sadly this is the case today and it’s a 10 hour journey to Cuzco. I am wondering what I have done in a previous life to deserve this. Someone has managed to spill a whole bottle of something that smells like bourbon and someone else has an exceedingly smelly sandwich, the loo has long since filled capacity and its very hot. As I hold on to dear life I try to appreciate the stunning scenery. I also watch the various on board movies and various sales people selling things that smell amazing but I daren’t eat. However it’s not all doom and gloom about 5 hours in I start enjoying myself I have learnt Spanish swear words from the on board movie and a nice lady has given me some sweets a gesture which I have returned. I’ve been winked at by the guy in the next seat and the child behind me is trying to touch my funny coloured hair thinking I haven’t noticed. We arrive in Cuzco by night and I meet some of the office staff for a wee drink (medicinal purposes only).
During my visit to Cuzco I am introduced to Tucan Travel’s office staff (a combination of Peruvian, British, Australian, Scandinavian and of course Focker the dog) all of whom work extremely hard to keep our Latin America product running as it should. I am shown around all of our hotels there by our destination manager Zac who I am later told couldn’t quite tell what I was saying most of the time (Derbyshire accent). I am also taken to the truck park where you will find our fleet manager, Bill, an exceedingly tall dusty looking gentleman (when at work) originally from the UK who potters around cigarette in mouth tirelessly maintaining and servicing our trucks as they pass through along with their respective drivers. I get a guided tour and inevitably quite dusty but leave slightly more familiar with our famous big yellow trucks. During my sightseeing I find myself somewhat out of breath however I am told this is normal.
From Cuzco we then fly to Puerto Maldonado for our excursion into the Amazon jungle. I’m very excited about this despite still feeling dodgy but I’m not about to let it stop me. I’ve become quite adept at running and having my own personal toilet roll about me at all times. The first thing that hits us is the heat. Due to the altitude of Cuzco its quite cool making the humidity of the jungle very apparent. We take a cooling boat ride along the river to the lodge where we are staying. En route we see macaws, capybara and cayman we also get a lunch box which I am dismayed to discover I have no appetite for. Upon arrival there is a football match starting in a clearing and our tour leader immediately runs off to get his kit on. The rest of us if not playing watch and explore our new jungle home. My jungle neighbours include a grumpy parrot that was rescued from animal traders (particularly dislikes women), howler monkeys, various multi coloured butterfly and a tarantula sitting in the roof of the football spectators area (a wooden platform thing). There are also a number of tamarins hanging around the kitchen area with the intent to nab some left over’s.
During the night I am woken by scrabbling and immediately switch on my torch to see who my visitor is excited that I might have a new pet monkey to share clothes with. It turns out to be a mouse climbing up my mesh window, slightly disappointed I leave it to scurry around. I check my shoes very carefully the next morning. Well I say morning we get up for breakfast at some ungodly hour for our first nature walk to the lake in the hope that we will see the giant otters. Our efforts are rewarded and we watch them take their morning swim across the lake.
On our return to Cuzco we prepare for the Inca Trail trek the part of the tour I have been most excited about but found slightly worrying at the same time. We have a briefing with our guide, Santi and were given our bags which must weigh less than 5kg. Once we have an idea of how things will run and the itinerary we spend the rest of the evening running up and down to and from reception weighing bags and deciding what we need and what we don’t. I’m also dismayed to once again be feeling quite rubbish. The next morning walking sticks collected and bags packed we are taken to the start of the trail. This is followed by group photos and the trek begins. Despite the number of people trekking I am surprised that the trails aren’t that busy. At certain points of interest we come across other groups but not at the volume I was expecting. We take hills at our own pace and the group walks together with plenty of stops for drinks and photos and snacks and of course lots of stories and explanations from our guide. The latter half of the day is mostly up hill and we start feeling the strain however by dusk we are settled in our first camp. We can also see Dead Woman’s Pass (so named as it’s the silhouette of a woman lying down breast included) far ahead its looks a steep long way away. I sleep through the evening meal and wake almost 10 hours later.
The next day I’m feeling revived and ready to take on the pass. We are provided with our snack packs (including chocolate) and once again we travel together as a group in stages. The weather is thankfully cool and we all motivate each other to the pass clapping and cheering when we each get to the top. It would be nice to gloss over this part of the trek however I am no mountain goat particularly on the steep bits although I am not at the back I am definitely not leading either and my stomach is being particularly uncooperative. At one particular point I find the only way I can get a decent breath is to bend down and pant (quietly regretting every cigarette I ever touched). Its feels like a huge achievement to get to the pass and after photos for mum and a few snacks etc. We begin our decent down the other side which I am very cheerful about in fact I’m practically skipping.
Throughout the trek the porters are carrying all of our 5kg bags and camping equipment resulting in load of 20kg each. We are told that all porters are provided with shoes by the Inca trail authority but most chose not to wear them preferring their own shoes. All trekkers are requested to give way to the porters and let them pass. As the trek progresses we soon learn which porters are ours and we all say hello and cheer for them each time we see them on the trail. We get little shy smile in response. They must think we are odd but the fact that these people have done the trek multiple times carrying the loads that they do makes our own accomplishments seem somewhat less significant by comparison. I hope they know how much it is appreciated.
The third day of trekking is particularly long and we arrive into camp at dusk but the scenery is stunning. We are literally walking above the clouds. We also stop at several feats of Inca architecture. It’s hard not to be impressed how advanced they were and how they adapted to surroundings many would find inhospitable.
The final day of the trek starts at 4am when we queue up at the checkpoint for the final leg of the trek towards the sun gate. The group is chilly but generally excited as we wait in line. We also know that the majority of the steep bits are over with.
I can hear a few disgruntled mumblings regarding toilets however I would feel terrible if the porters were asked to carry around loos as well. I conclude that maybe some people are aren’t dealing too well with the fatigue and would be better suited to taking the train from their hotel. I’ve also got bigger things on my mind. I’ve managed to lose the bottom of my walking trousers somewhere along the way so I am feeling particularly fresh this morning and as usual my tummy is talking to its self. I have lost all appetite and was almost sick on someone the previous night during the thanks giving ceremony for the porters. However this is the big day we’ve all been working towards and nothing not even a bodily malfunction is going to spoil it. Its starts to get light as we walk and my legs gradually begin to thaw. Tummy is still chattering away. We eventually climb up quite a steep set of stone steps and at the top is the view we have all been waiting for. We all scramble over and take a seat to make the most of the view as the sun gradually creeps over the familiar site of Machu Picchu. Photos are taken for mum and everyone is in high spirits no one or thing can ruin this moment.
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