Peru: hiking to within an inch of my life

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Its very difficult knowing where to start with summing up this beautiful country in such a short post, so I’ll stick to the usual tedious chronological format and hope for the best. It all started in Lima where we made our return to official Couchsurfing after a long absence. Obviously there is a nice familiarity to staying with friends as we had done previously in Costa Rica and Panama but there is a real excitement about turning up to meet a new Couchsurfing host. You get the anonymity buzz from a first blind date but with the safety net of traveling with your partner. Sometimes you luck out (somehow in our cases, every time) and get a brilliant host. Lima was no exception, our host Diego is attempting to earn himself the title of best Couchsurfing host and he is well on his way, we had a ball. It was bizarre at first being in such a developed city with supermarkets full of foods we were craving in a while, like asparagus! We enjoyed the piratey mists once we learned that it never really rains, something that brought much amusement after running home in grey skies to avoid a downpour that would never come. We were also told that the food would be amazing in Peru, so we sampled the best of the recommended bunch pretty early on, starting with cerviche by the sea and pisco sours, which were far better than any I’d had in cocktail bars before. We stayed in the posh neighbourhood of Magdalena so I think we have a pretty biased view of the city, once you get to the outskirts its blatently obvious to see the disparities between the rich and poor. The informal housing settlements in the hills are vast. The traffic is insane, everyone wants to get ahead so they are willing to block roads in order to get ahead by a few metres, something that is explained in greater detail in my worst bus journey post. Overall we really liked the capital and were sad to be leaving our host.
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We took a bus down to Ica to spend a couple of days in Huaccachina, an oasis in the middle of the dunes. As beautiful as the photos make it seem, it is just a tourist trap location surrounded by sand but there were plenty of adventure activities to fill our time. Climbing the dunes was literally an uphill struggle, the steep bank behind our hostel was particularly difficult but it was worth it to get the views from that height and good preparation for Cusco. We successfully bummed it back down, filling our pockets with half the dune in the process. The following day we went dune buggying and sand boarding, the former had a little more adrenaline involved because of the fear of being flung out of the roll cage by dodgy seat belts in the buggy. During the long wait at the bus station for ‘the worst bus journey of my life’ we met one of the coolest travelers I’ve ever stumbled upon. Ryan the solo Korean extraordinaire was hitching alone from Alaska to Santiago with less than $1000 to his name. He was camping wherever possible and living on bread and bananas and the kindness of Korean business owners. He walked the full distance from Cusco to Aguas Calientes with all his gear after 3 nights of sleeping on the bus station floor and working for food and a ticket to Machu picchu. A real inspiration of a traveller and despite being an economics and philosophy student he vehemently believed in his own market of trading love.
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So I’ve written a separate post about the hellish journey to Cusco that’ll hopefully bring a giggle after our suffering, but arriving in this magical city was worth enduring a 30 hour bus ride for. Being smacked in the face by the altitude was still a shock despite all the forewarning we’d received. Its like waking up in a foreign land and body where you have to train your lungs to work all over again. Walking down the street with your backpack on becomes as taxing as running a marathon. I was straight on the coca tea to recover and muster the energy to climb stairs, but mostly to satisfy the curiosity as to whether it actually works. Simply put it does the trick, especially when little old ladies put around 20 fresh leaves in a cup. Instantly your dizzyness fades and you feel like you could conquer an Iron Man. I found my lovely friend Olivia in Hilo where she works, a beautiful little handmade clothing store akin to those on the lanes of Brighton an environment closer to the roots I know her from than Peru. It was lovely to see a friendly face with advice on where to stay in town away from the party hostels on a Friday night. We ended up in the nicest room on the top floor or El Arcano a wonderful little guesthouse in San Blas. The only problem with the location was that it was near all of the really nice places to eat. If you’re not hiking, Cusco is the perfect place to get fat very quickly as its a foody paradise. The burger joint on the corner made the best burgers, fries and homemade sauces I’ve ever eaten and worst of all we were staying directly opposite a creperia. One of our nicest ventures was to a hidden pizzeria in a courtyard complete with its own wood fired oven, decent pizzas again at last. We took it easy for a few days to allow ourselves to adjust, only taking on small hikes and making arrangements for Machu Picchu. We got a ticket without any issues, but they wouldn’t accept our student cards, so be sure to do your research before you go and get the specific one they demand and save yourself 50% on entry. Now the excitement could really build, we just had to get some rental hiking boots and a bus to Hydro.

All was well we bought enough energy bars to fuel an Antarctica expedition and took the bus to the construction site for the new dam. The sound of the water torrents was deafening, it was the most powerful water flow I’ve ever heard so an obvious location to start generating some electricity. Latin America is impressing me with its sustainable energy drive so far. Being the cheap skates that we are, we were unprepared to pay the extortionate fares for the train to Aguas Calientes so we hiked it, alongside the railway tracks. The hike took no longer than 2 and a half hours but the rain made it quite precarious at times. I clung to the rails of the slippery wobbly bridge hoping to save myself from the rapids below. We made it to the very damp tourist trap village and found a garishly loud coloured room to call home for a couple of soggy nights. We tempted fate and dared the rain to climb phutuq kusi, the mountain directly in front of Macchu Pichu. Under normal circumstances it would be a fairly dangerous hike. However we were attempting it during rainy season, alone, without guide nor gear, which made it VERY dangerous. The ladders are over 30 metres long at times and the rocks were slippy as hell with the constant surface run off and the wind and rain made you cling to the rocks from fear of the sheer drops either side. We only saw 5 other people on the entire hike and one of those was at tne entrance, the lovely groundsman who knew greetings in almost every language from around the world, including Swiss German and Romantsch, impressive little fella. The views were worth it once we summitted and we had the place to ourselves, with a full view of our next days adventure ahead, which made us all the more excited. The walk back down was a battle with the elements and we were low on water, I was trembling with fear reversing back down the slippy ladders, my white knuckles clinging on to the rungs and my heart jumped out of my body when one of the ladders came away from the wall. I’ve genuinely never been so proud of my own physical accomplishments before.
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So the next day was d day, a 4am start to get to the bridge at opening time at 5 and climb to the top gate for 6. I had been set the challenge of running up the 45 minute climb to be the first woman of the day to summit. I’d all but given up when I saw other women in running shorts and trainers whizzing ahead, but I realised I was overtaking them all one by one. To my surprise upon breathlessly reaching the top I was the only bird around for a long while. My faith in humanity was then shattered as everyone proceeded to push in front of me in the queue. There really are some utter cretins on the travel circuit at times, but this took the biscuit! I tried to not let it phase me as I was about to enter one of the most astonishing wonders of the world. It was overwhelming stepping inside and first seeing Sungate. The picture postcard view without anyone in shot and the rising clouds were far more impressive than I could have ever anticipated. But best was yet to come, we got the early gate ticket for Waynapicchu and although the climb was a real struggle even for an adept mountain goat and the hillsides were strewn with loud Argentinians, the view of the valley was absolutely sensational. We stayed as long as our bodies and minds would let us, pondering the capabilities of this incredible civilisation was taxing enough without the hiking. We ran back down, picked up our bags and hiked back to Hydro the same afternoon. Over 9 hours of strenuous trekking had taken its toll and we tried to fall asleep in the taxi but the obscenely dangerous driving and lightning flashes kept us awake. We planned to reach Ollantaytambo but the bus didn’t stop and we continued all the way back to freezing Cusco.

We only spent the day in Arequipa watching a bizarre police display from a balcony in the main square before heading on to Cabanaconde in the Colca Canyon. We had a bus so overfilled with people that the brakes and suspension couldn’t cope, which isn’t a fun experience on winding roads in one of the worlds deepest valleys. We thought that the entrance ticket being pushed upon us on the bus was a scam so we refused to pay it. Turns out its legit but we were never checked and saved yourself a good hundred dollars! We met people in the hostel from Farnborough and Marazion, tiny world, and hiked the canyon before spotting early morning condors. I just spotted one before the bus loads of tourists turned up and they all disappeared which was a lucky treat.
Next stop was Puno, hitchhiking by the roadside was cold and slow going but we made it by late evening. I quite liked the town itself despite its tourist set up for the islands. Uros was extremely gimmicky but I really enjoyed the presentation on how they are constructed in the form of a puppet show. It was our last stop in Peru and I was surprised by how quickly we had sped through and how cheap it was. I knew I’d miss the spectacular food but not the altitude and was looking forward to saving a few pennies in Bolivia, so across the border it was to pastures new.

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