TEN DAYS IN PERU

How do I even begin to capture the essence of this colourful and diverse country without writing a novel the size of War and Peace? South America is home to a myriad of special places and I consider myself lucky to have seen even just a tiny glimpse of her epic beauty. After ten days in Peru I considered cancelling my flights, establishing a guinea pig ranch and learning to speak fluent Spanish. “Dónde está el baño” (where is the toilet?) can only get you to the toilet and back, and trust me – there are so many wonderful things to see and experience in wonderful Peru and you will certainly want to get further than the toilet.

I am going to begin with a disclaimer about the quality of these photos. As you will undoubtedly see, they are not the sharpest images. I literally had to copy and paste them one by one from my instagram account after suffering a freak USB catastrophe that resulted in the loss of ALL my South America photos. Real tears were cried in the aftermath, but we must keep calm and carry on in these situations because no amount of sobbing or praying to the Incan Gods will bring them back. I absolutely freaking loved Peru, so in the name of promoting this fabulous country and illustrating my experience, I proudly share these photos in all their fuzzy glory.

I have ALWAYS wanted to visit Machu Picchu, ever since I was a little girl it has been a faraway exotic dream of mine and I will remain fascinated by the history of the Incan civilization and the mystery of their culture. But… do you know what else Peru has in abundance? Llamas (well, I think they are mostly alpacas these days, plus the occasional baby goat dressed as a llama to lure the tourists)! I have been a lover of these long-necked frolicking beauties since the beginning of time, so needless to say I was filled with absolute glee to see (and pet) an array of gorgeous llamas during my Peruvian adventure.

On arrival in Lima, I immediately fell in love with Peruvian food. Simple, healthy, and delicious! Lomo Saltaldo is my spirit meal (traditional Peruvian dish – basically a stir fry that combines marinated strips of sirloin with onions, tomatoes, french fries and rice) and I ordered it every single day for ten days straight, apart from that time I did the unthinkable and had guinea pig, which is supposedly a Peruvian speciality. On this trip, I also discovered quinoa for the first time and learned the pronunciation is keen-wah, which made me appear super cultured when I returned home… until fast forward six months and quinoa is now the latest health food craze in Australia and everybody is eating it by the kilogram.

I would love to say that I spent three months hiking through the Peruvian Andes with a wooden cane… alas this would be vastly untrue. Due to time constraints (and terrible hiking ability) I booked a tour with a fantastic travel company called Intrepid, who took care of all of the itinerary planning, accommodation bookings and touring. There were four of us on tour with a Peruvian tour leader, staying in cosy guest houses and travelling on local transport, which felt authentic and adventurous. The itinerary gave us a really good overview of Peru and allowed me to fit in all the places I had planned to see.

Prior to leaving Australia, I heard a few horror stories about Lima being dangerous. We stayed in Miraflores, a safe and friendly area for tourists and I felt secure the entire time. Lima is full of very small people that looked at me like I was a 50 foot woman from Mars, so maybe that gave me a sense of security. The centre of Lima is filled with beautiful colonial architecture and churches on every corner. It was early December, so the city was decorated with fairy lights and tinsel for Christmas. We embarked on an epic walking tour around Lima, followed by a visit to the catacombs underneath a Franciscan Monastery from 1673, which is perfect if you like sculls and human bones. Following that, we were introduced to heaven. A giant cinnamon doughnut stick filled with custard. I still think about that thing and often consider flying 18 hours just to get another one.

Moving on, we set off for Cuzco by plane. I just loved Cuzco! So much history and tradition, plus it was the perfect place to shop before Machu Picchu. You may need some time to acclimatise to Cuzco’s 3450 metre altitude, which left me feeling light headed and nauseous upon arrival. But as the saying goes, no rest for the wicked. We went straight to the San Pedro markets to buy all the woollen goodies we could fit in our bags, then embarked on a huge walk to check out the cathedral at Plaza de Armas, the Sacsayhuaman fortress ruins, ladies in traditional dress with goats disguised as llamas, and the old city walls (that you are forbidden to touch). We learned about the locally grown coca leaves that are used to make coca cola (and cocaine), and drank some coca tea.

Next up was the Sacred Valley, which was a two hour drive from Cuzco. Imagine green mountainous terrain with ancient ruins, sprawling towns, and farming. The valley yields a diverse array of crops, especially maize and corn, both staple Peruvian food sources. We stopped in Chinchero to watch the local women weaving ponchos, drank pink corn beer called Chicha, and then arrived in Ollantaytambo to explore the ancient ruins and spend the night in the Andean highlands.

At Ollantaytambo, there is a prominent archeological site that sits at 2792 meters above sea level. Upon climbing very slowly to the top of the ruins I could barely breathe and had to sit down and try to calm myself down. Altitude does some very strange things to your body when you are not used to it, and I had a little panic attack when I struggled to breathe the same amount of oxygen as I do at sea level.

You can begin the 4 day Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu from Ollantaytambo, so it was a busy little town. I chose to take the train. The Inca Trail is a 40km hike up some steep and undulating terrain, and honestly, four days of hiking up hill at high altitude is not really something that I enjoy.

The following day, we boarded a train to Aguas Calientes, a village nestled in a cloud forest at the foot of Machu Picchu. This town is a sanctuary for weary hikers who have returned from days of trekking. You can find day spas, massage parlours, and mineral springs to ease tired muscles. My travel buddy Carina and I chose to have a manicure and pedicure as a treat, despite catching the train and not suffering from the long trek.

We woke up at 5am the next day to head up the mountain to Machu Picchu and I will never ever forget my very first glimpse.

Although so much mystery still surrounds the origins of Machu Picchu, it is believed that it was built around 1440 as a retreat for Incan nobility or is an ancient astronomical observatory. We spent 4 hours with a archeologist wandering around the ruined temples, palaces, and living quarters. What a memorable day it was! I was utterly mesmerised by the energy of Machu Picchu, it is such a special experience that you have to visit to fully understand.

And of course, the llamas! I wanted to adopt them all. The resident llamas are very friendly since they are so accustomed to people. They just come over and share your lunch with you, munch on some grass, and pose for the camera like trained supermodels. I have heard they spit, but these llamas were pretty relaxed. Or maybe they are alpacas, I can’t really tell the difference to be honest! Whatever they were, I want one!

After such a life altering experience at Machu Picchu, I knew it would be impossible to follow it up with another experience even half as magical… but Peru is the country that just keeps on giving and I was equally as enamoured with Lake Titicaca. Southbound to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca we were introduced to the amazing Quechuan Indian people.

We stayed with a local family who cooked for us, dressed us in traditional clothing, and shared their way of life with us. We visited a school at the top of the island and got to watch the local ladies making knitted goods. We slept in mud brick houses with no electricity overlooking Lake Titicaca, which was another surreal “pinch me” moment. When we left the island, the ladies gave us little bouquets of flowers and waved us off at the dock.

The next day we set off to the Uros Islands, which are built out of the totora reeds that are found in the shallows of the lake. The Uros people still live traditionally with houses and boats made out of the reeds. I have always wanted to visit these islands, which were fascinating to see first hand. There were four families living on the island with small children and animals. The offered us artwork and jewellery they had made and took us for a ride in the boat made of reeds, similar to a viking ship.

Sadly, my Peruvian adventure came to an end after ten life changing days. It was action packed from start to finish and I was exhausted by the end. I can only say wonderful things about Intrepid, the local guide who showed us around her country was so passionate and knowledgeable, which made the trip so special and the tour operated seamlessly.

I went to Peru in December, which is the summer and the wettest season! I was extremely lucky with the weather, but Peru does frequently experience devastating floods and landslides during the summer months. The winter is the driest season, from May to September and is the best time to hike the Inca Trail.

Two BIGGEST pearls of wisdom!

1. Plan ahead for Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail is closed in February for annual maintenance. You are still able to visit Machu Picchu, but you won’t be able to hike the famous Inca Trail. There are alternative routes, such as the Lares trail and five other options.

2. The other important piece of information is that the Peruvian Government only issue 500 Inca Trail permits per day, including permits for the support staff who accompany the groups, like cooks, guides and porters. So in reality, only around 200 permits are available for tourists each day and you cannot simply show up in your hiking boots and set off on your merry way. You must must must book in advance if you want to hike the Inca Trail – that is the most important thing!

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