on peru: lake titicaca adventure

Went to bed fully clothed, under layers of blankets and still rise feeling the hollow cold that comes with high altitude. We were given a quick breakfast before being hustled down to the quayside, barley giving us a chance to say good-bye to our hosts and leave some small parting gifts.

Swiftly board the H.M.S Leaky Bottom and make way on a 2 hour steam to neighbouring Taquile for a guided walk and lunch. The water is choppy for a boat of this size, but in reality is very calm, with clear skies and a bright sun overhead. Nonetheless some are still suffering from the gentle rocking and head outside for fresh air.

The pier at Amantani creates a small marina for shelter. Taquile’s sticks out into the water offering little of anything. Rising ahead of us is the rocky slopes of this long, thin island. A nicely-laid stone path crawls around the island to where the centre of the community, a pleasant square, sits on a plateau on the terraces. The square is fringed on three sides with stone buildings, a chapel, and is open along its Eastern edge, providing a sweeping view over the lake to Bolivia. Here we took a break to enjoy the peace and quiet before being guided onwards to a house on the other side of the ridge where we would have lunch.

As we squeezed through the narrow gaps between the buildings, we were dropped onto a wonderful terrace overlooking the lake. A long table had been laid and set, underneath a pale yellow canvas awning, bathing the space in a dull glow, shielding us from the intense sun. The view was truly astounding, and not for the first time I’d felt we were perched on the Mediterranean coast instead of an island lake in Peru.

My lake-gazing was interrupted by our host, wearing the traditional attire of the island’s inhabitants (not dissimilar to that of the reed island inhabitants), who gave us a small talk of his life here. This was followed with our lunch, a vegetable soup, and roasted trout from the lake. The dinner was a welcome change from what we’d had on the trek and left me feeling quite satisfied. A cold beer to follow this up was just the perfect accompaniment to kick back and relax, lazily staring out over the sapphire waters.

Sadly paradise isn’t permanent, and we were back on the boat and making for Puno before the cold of the beer had left me. The steam back was at least 3 hours if not more. By the time we arrived back in Puno the clouds were slowly blotting out the sun, leaving us a little down and out after the day’s auspicious start. Collectively we missed Cuzco’s cobbled streets and did not look forward to another rainy night in Puno’s congested streets. Relaying this to our guide we quickly elected for the night bus back home. We would have some time to ourselves before boarding later in the evening for a gunshot ride to the Incan heartland.

Note: overnight buses are rarely pleasant, regardless of class or destination.

Arriving in Cuzco around 3am we were thrilled to see our home away from home – Ecopackers Hostel! Checking in under the cover of darkness, I scurried up to my room and quickly went to sleep, exhausted from the patchy sleep on the bus.

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on peru: lake titicaca adventure

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Rising with the sun, we packed our gear and mad ourselves presentable before being ferried down to the docks. Here we boarded a small tour boat which took us out onto the lake. I was immediately struck by the intensity of the sun. At this altitude there is less atmosphere to protect my feeble, Scottish skin from the harsh UV rays – you can almost feel your skin fizzling!

It was the sheer size of the lake that struck me next, and we weren’t even out of the bay and into the main body of water yet! Our guide (loose term in his case) showed us a map, on which the bay of Puno (our current location) was a tiny annexe to the massive sea of fresh water that made up the rest of the lake. He also attempted to liken the shape of Titicaca to a puma – something Peruvians seem to apply to just about everything. Though it takes a certain amount of pisco to see the puma on that map.

Our’s was a slow speed. Ploughing away through the reed forests until emerging before one of many island communities, living on floating islands of reed and timber. Our guide informed us that these people were descended from the original inhabitants of the lake’s shores who fled the Spanish advance by moving onto the lake, living on boats, hidden amongst the reed-forest. Over time they developed a system of artificial islands, whereby they cut loose deep sections of the reeds’ root system, tying them together and layering reeds overtop. These islands are anchored with tall wooden stakes which can be seen sticking up out of the water like lonely, long dead trees.

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We were taken to one of these islands, where the leader of this community described life on these islands and the trials of living on lake the size of a small ocean. Afterwards we were taken on a short 10minute boat ride onto the lake on one of the gondola-esque reed boats. Once back on the island we were shown into the small homes they lived in and forced to look interested in all the tat they were trying to sell us. It became clear that this part of the tour was really just an opportunity for the islanders to make some dough, which is perfectly fine but it would be nice if they made more of an effort to hide it!

From here we were another three hours in the boat until we were out of the bay and into the big water! The faraway shores are almost hidden by the curvature of the Earth, just the clouds and the mountainous landscape of Bolivia is visible. The water here was distinctly more choppy than in the sheltered bay. A few passengers were feeling the negative effects of sea sickness, though I’m pleased to say I’m not one of them 🙂

It wasn’t long before we reached the island of Amantani, where we would be spending the night in a home stay. The island looked quite barren, with two brown, rocky peaks, and a smattering of greenery near the shores. Small, concrete and render homes are spattered around, climbing the hillsides, narrow paths crisscrossing through bare fields and settlements. As we approached the island, the boat turned to dock on the short, stone jetty sticking out to form a sheltered hole against the storms which cross the lake.

We were welcomed by the families who were opening their homes to us for the night. Our group was broken up and led away, up the stoney paths and into the farms. I was led in a group of four by a young mother who’s home was just a few minutes away from the shore but sat atop an outcrop of rock with a spectacular view out across the lake. Here we were introduced to her husband and young son, before being given our lunch and allowed to wander off on our own. It being such a fine day, we elected to head down to the beach and sit down and enjoy the sun as it fried our skin.

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After a few hours of lounging on the beach, we returned to our home stay for dinner and then a guided walk up to the island’s Eastern peak where we would wait to watch the sunset.

The walk up the hills was warm and breathless – Lake Titicaca sits at 3800m above sea level – taking us through terraces of brown, dry fields, waiting for the rainy season before filling with crops once again. As we came over the top of the ridge forming the spine of the island, we were treated to views across the lake, with large islands and peninsulas sticking out into the body of water. We continued up a stone path which took us to a simple temple at the top of the hill. From here we would watch the sun go down across the lake’s islands and mountains.

The custom at this temple is to pick up a stone, walk around three times, repeating a wish in your head, and then throwing the stone through the door into the empty square that is the temple – I wished for a Euromillions win. As the sun started to dip below the horizon, the heat quickly faded away and the breeze picked up. Though this made things a bit chilly, it didn’t dampen the beauty of the sunset.

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As it got dark, we could see the frost starting to form on the ground. I made a beeline down the hills and back to our home stay before I was frozen. It wasn’t long before I had a few more layers on and had warmed up considerably. The evening’s entertainment was a party at the village hall where we could have beer and dance to the local’s version of the Gypsy Kings. We were given ponchos and hats, the girls received some proper Peruvian dress, and we were led back to the heart of the settlement and into a small, warm building which quickly became packed with the people from our tour boat, and the families who are hosting them.

We spent most of the night here dancing to pan flutes and bad guitar before being led back down to the house in the pitch black. Across the lake, thunderstorms were rolling over the shores of Bolivia, lighting up in fits and bursts of lightning. Overhead, the same carpet of stars we had enjoyed on the first night of our trek, were back again. The arching band of light that is the Milky Way stretched over head. Distinct colours and clouds of gas visible, even with my poor eyesight. it was a good finish to the day.

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on peru: lake titicaca adventure

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What a hangover! The night out was good but the punishment was so, so bad. With a 10 hour bus trip ahead of us to take us from Cuzco to Puno on Lake Titicaca, the entire team was looking forward to sleep, food, and fluids. However bad we were feeling surely did not compare to Joe who returned 10 minutes before we were supposed to leave! Needless to say he was very quiet for the majority of the journey.

Now, as it turns out we weren’t on a direct bus to Puno. We were on a tour bus which made a number of stops along the way. Any other day and I would have been very interested in hopping off and seeing what Peru had to offer. But today I was reeling with a hangover and was in no mood for any of it. Not a good attitude I know but it couldn’t be helped. 

The long road East took us through small, bleak towns where the majority of buildings are incomplete (apparently this is the result of some absurd Peruvian tax law where no one finishes their homes to save money), stopping of at museums which were little more than two-room houses with rocks on shelves. We got to stop for lunch which was a small relief – though the food was very poor. After that it was a straight shot to Puno, arriving as night began to fall. 

I do not doubt that the landscape and scenery would have been very impressive had it been sunny, but it wasn’t so we saw very little. The highlight of the trip was when we encountered some freaky Alpacas on one of our stops.

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Puno was a nice sight, with a carpet of lights climbing the surrounding hills around the lake front. The city centre is a hive of activity. The streets are narrow, with buildings built hard up against the roads, often leaving little or now space for pedestrians as taxis and buses hurl up and down the streets. By this time it was raining, with waterfalls cascading down from high above, splashing into pools and rivers which flow down the streets towards the lake – Not sandal weather! There are people everywhere, milling around, avoiding the rain and waves of water thrown up as cars pass by.

We were led to our hostel, a long, narrow building reaching back from the street front. Our rooms had all the necessities; toilet, shower, sink, bed (I think the mattress was actually just planks of wood), and even a small TV which got some English channels (not that we’d waste a lot of time in our rooms). The rooms weren’t exactly stylish or clean but it had everything we needed. 

Our guide took us out for a chinese (hey we just fancied something fried!) and a short walk around the block. The rain was still coming down so we called it an early night as we’d be up and out again to catch the boat out onto the lake. 

I think we were unfair to Puno, just as we were to Lima. We weren’t in the best of spirits anyway, and with the weather, we allowed ourselves to just lump Puno onto the ‘shite’ list when we’d hardly seen a thing. If I’m ever in Peru again, I hope to pass through Puno and give it a second try.

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Step 5: All Done!

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I was back into STA Travel yesterday to get the last push sorted, booked, and paid for. As always, I arrived far too early, eager to get the admin finished and leave the road clear for departure. Today I hoped to get; a Greyhound Australia Kilometre Pass (10,000km), Travel Insurance, West Coast Experience Tour, and the Perth to Adelaide Wildlife Adventure Tour (shark cage diving an optional extra).

And I’m pleased to say I got it all, and a YHA card which helped save a bit on the bus pass. Somehow I’ve managed to book when everything is being reduced! I’ve saved on pretty much everything – but still spent a lot overall. The bonus for me is that the first month of my Aussie adventure is prepared, and will cover roughly a quarter of the coastline. On top of that, I’ve got 40 nights prepaid with BASE and NOMAD hostels (with a total of 4 nights thrown in for free) which will cover most of my travels. Plus my 10,000km Pass which should take me most of the way – I hope to find some ride shares or tours for the rest of the distance.

This takes a lot of the stress out of the first few weeks because I know that a lot of the usual concerns (accommodation, transport, tax code, etc.) have already been taken care of. All I need to do is book ahead to ensure I get my spot, then spend the rest of the time having fun!

I’m pleased I chose to book 2 big excursions for Western Oz. They’ll take me around all the things I had hoped to do anyway, but with a guide and a group of folk in the same boat.

West Coast Experience:

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The West Coast Experience tour is a 7 day trip from Perth to Exmouth and back. The itinerary is right up my alley, snorkelling, wildlife, dramatic landscape, and Aboriginal experience. Day 1 takes you North to the Pinnacles Desert in Nambung National Park on a guided tour, before heading up to Kalbarri for an overnight stay on the Big River Ranch.

Day 2 will take me to Murchison’s Gorge, Kalbarri National Park, Shell Beach and Monkey Mia where we overnight. The next morning we swim with the dolphins and have options of sea kayaking, swimming with manta rays, and other ocean based frolicking.

At the the end of day 4 we head up to Exmouth and the next day, enjoy a guided tour of the Cape Range National Park and finish the day with a snorkelling trip in Turquoise Bay. The following day we start to make our way back to Perth, stopping off at Carnarvon, staying overnight, then visiting the Kalbarri coastal cliffs, feeding kangaroos at Greenough Wildlife Park before going sand boarding at Lancelin.

This trip sounds awesome! Can’t wait to kick my trip off here (plus I got it for a reduced rate) before heading East. These trips also give me loads of time in Perth to explore the city, luckily I have a cousin who stays there and has kindly offered to put me up whilst in Perth.

Perth to Adelaide Wildlife Adventure:

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After my time in Perth is wrapped up I’ll be joining a fantastic tour, heading East to Adelaide. The highlights are:

• Take a camel trek around devils peak
• Witness Lake Gairdner’s sunset colours
• See abundant wildlife at Gawler Ranges
• Swim with Sea Lions and Dolphins
• Learn to surf the waves and sand dunes
• Explore Esperance and Cape Le Grand
• Marvel at the rock formations of Albany
• Walk the Valley of Giants tree top walk
• Vist Margaret River and explore a cave
• Learn about amazing aboriginal cultures

I’ll be doing the trip backwards from what’s advertised in the brochure, but the rough plan is:

Day 1: Start the trip by heading up the western coast via the surfer’s paradise of Yallingup in the margaret river region plus visits to an ancient cave and a local vineyard.

Day 2: Head to Albany today, where the incredible granite formations of The Natural Bridge and The gap are just two of the many highlights. Towering old growth forests once dominated the landscape of the south west and you get to experience the majesty of the forest in the valley of the giants tree top walk.

Day 3: Today head to the Stirling ranges stopping for a hike on the way. The day is left flexible as to which park to visit depending on the time of year and weather.

Day 4: This area is too spectacular to experience in one afternoon so you have a full free day for you to take in some hikes, go swimming or relax at the beach. Look out for the kangaroos chilling right on the sand!

Day 5: Get set for some of Australia’s most beautiful scenery. This area of Western Australia has no fewer than nine National parks. Take in the most spectacular of all, Cape Le grand National park. Stunning blue seas mix with powder white beaches and secluded bays affording a swim or two. in the afternoon stretch your legs on Frenchman peak with great views to the islands of the recherche Archipelago.

Day 6: The reality of the Nullarbor really hits you; this huge expanse of karst limestone has many hidden secrets including the biggest underground lake system in Australia. Settle in for a big day’s drive across the plain, taking in Caiguna ‘Blow Hole’ and the story of Skylab at Balladonia, before your next overnight camp and an IMAX-sized version of the great southern night sky.

Day 7: The Nullarbor plain and the great Australian Bight are two of Australia’s icons and today you will head into some of the most remote country on the planet. Stop briefly at the dingo fence, which runs for a staggering 5,320km (3,303 miles). At the head of the Bight stop to take in the staggering sheer drop of the Bunda Cliffs where Australia suddenly and dramatically ends and drops into the ocean. if travelling between June and October it is very likely you will get to see some giants of the ocean, the southern right whales.

Day 8: This morning head out to find some of Australia’s best waves and spend two hours under the instruction of a qualified surfing teacher learning this most Australian of pastimes. That magic moment where you and the wave become one as you surf towards the shore could be the beginning of a lifelong addiction.

Day 9: The eyre peninsula is one of those great secrets many people have not yet discovered. pass through port Augusta and on to Bairds Bay, a beautiful coastline where you can opt to swim with sea lions and dolphins. in the afternoon arrive at your farm stay and head out in search of kangaroos, wombats and emus.

Day 10: Journey into the rusty, rugged gorges, abandoned homesteads and red gums of one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth – the Southern Flinders ranges. Walk Alligator gorge before heading towards Warren gorge and your first overnight camp.

Taken direct from STA’s website and will be slightly out of order as I’ve simply put the days in reverse. If you’re looking to do the same then consult your agent.

So needless to say I’m pretty pumped to be going away! Just need to wait out the next three months, save up some extra dosh, and finally head off in February!

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on peru: Trek day 6 – Machu Picchu

At 4am the campsite awoke to the sounds of birds and the rush of the Riu Urumbamba beside us. The hillsides disappeared into the darkness above, though we knew we’d soon be making the final two hour climb to the Incan city.

Once ready, our team gathered and made for the gateway to the site and had our documents and passports checked before being allowed to cross the bridge. From here you could do what the buses do and follow the twisting road as it climbs the mountainside in a fit of hairpin turns, or you can take the hard way – a steady climb up a rough cut stone stairway which takes you all the way to the top. Naturally we opted for the climb.

The goal was to make a fast ascent and enter the UNESCO world heritage site in time to watch the sunrise. We looked up at the steep stone steps carved through the jungle, knowing it wasn’t going to be easy. Over the past few days one of our group had struggled badly, with swollen ankles and a poor tolerance for altitude or long climbs. I’m ashamed to say that I’d allowed the conditions to get the better of me and I’d been entirely unsupportive, viewing her struggle as holding us back, when we should have been pulling her forward as a team. It’s the ugly truth that when you take a group of strangers, dump them in the jungle, and test their limits that there’s going to be friction and soured tempers.

However, today we rallied more and helped spur on our suffering friend. Making it in time for the sunrise was quickly forgotten. What mattered now was that we finished the way we started, as a team. It was a hard climb which added to the pain our legs had suffered on yesterday’s mammoth trek. Every now and then, as we cut across the road on our climb, we were treated to views of the valley below us. Even in the dull morning light and heavy mists we still admired the dramatic landscape of plunging valley and surging, mountainous rock and jungle.

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The morning chill was gone and we were panting and slick with sweat by the time we reached the top, emptying out into a courtyard with the entrance to Machu Picchu directly ahead. What a feeling! After 5 full days of hiking through the Andes we’d finally reached our goal. All thoughts of the charity we’d done this for had gone from our minds as soon as we started and even now we only thought of how we’d struggled and succeeded.

Once the moment of elation was past, and we’d cooled down a bit, we entered the site and followed the path round and between two stone buildings, emerging through a narrow gap onto one of Machu Picchu’s terraces where we had views across half the site. The morning mists were rolling over the top of the ridge, partially obscuring the ancient city. We took a moment to take some group photos and receive an oral history of the site from our guide.

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Despite the clouds of mist, we were still impressed by the huge expanse of terraces climbing above and stretching below, each with its narrow strip of green. We agreed to meet back at the entrance by 1pm and were free to explore to our heart’s content. I immediately set off to climb the terraces to the very back of the site, where all those famous pictures are taken, hoping to get the perfect view. To get there, I and two other team mates wandered through the section of city which was once occupied by the royal and religious residents. The labyrinth of stairs, paths, and rooms create a fascinating warren to explore. Everywhere, there are narrow windows facing the path of the sun, important in the design of Incan settlements, in fact the entire site is built to follow the path of the Milky Way.

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As we climbed higher, above the royal quarter and onto the terraces above, the sun finally began to burn through the mist and light up the city. The warmth came back as well, though not as severe as in previous days, and the layers came off. Climbing higher you are treated to even better views out over the settlement, and the valleys which plummet down on either side. Machu Picchu is truly perched on the tip of the ridge line, no wonder it survived when so many other settlements were pillaged by the Spanish.

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At the back of the site, the view is fantastic. You can see swarms of tourists far below, crawling throughout the stones of the site. This was the perfect time for some cheesy holiday snaps!

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It was worth the effort to get here. I know that jetting of to see the world’s wonders has become a very easy, package holiday affair with little risk for the reward. But seeing as I had never done anything like this, I was quite proud of myself. Seeing as I had never ventured beyond the two-week beach holiday that’s so common in Britain I felt I had accomplished something in pushing myself well out of my comfort zone and onto a trek which would test my limits – and I enjoyed it! I might no go rushing back to the Salkantay Pass any time soon, but it was worth it.

After I’d had my period of reflection, I exited the site to get something to eat before we made our way back down to Aguas Calientes. Eating out on the terrace of a café was a nice bonus as I hammed into my burger, enjoying the view over the valleys. As our group gradually filtered out of the sanctuary and back into the courtyard where we’d started, we eyed up the plush buses lined up along the side and decided to catch a ride back to town. After all the trek was over, time for a bit of comfort again! And so we boarded and enjoyed the ride down as the road continuously folded back on itself all the way down to the river.

Once back in the bustling energy of Aguas Calientes we made for the same small bar we’d been in the night before. Here we met up with our guides who had elected to start on the beers without us :). Naturally we joined in and were soon revelling in our achievement and looking forward to being back in Cuzco. From here, Rolphy led us to the train station where we quickly hopped on, with a few bottles of wine, and enjoyed a long ride East.

We were forced to change onto a minibus for the last leg of the journey South to Cuzco, taking a road cutting across wide open plains with a huge wall of mountains around us. By the time we reached Cuzco we were knackered, but still riding the high and jolly on the wine from earlier. So a night out was called for! I won’t bore you with the drunken antics of a rabble of Brits abroad, however I will comment on the great beats laid down in Mama Africa’s which is located on the main square, across from the cathedrals.

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on peru: trek day 5

In the early morning of the fifth day of our trek, I awoke thinking that tomorrow we would make the final climb to Machu Picchu. It was a good feeling knowing I’d made it over the mountain and the previous days of the trek. Before I left for Peru my family and friends were warning me that my complete lack of preparation would see me hurt or killed, so it was nice to shrug off the previous days as challenge overcome.

The first leg of today’s trek would see us follow the path, climbing up the valley wall 700m above us before making the steep descent into the neighbouring valley. Leaving so early in the morning meant we would be sheltered from the sun’s heat for the duration of the ascent, which was a small mercy. Setting off through the narrow, forest lined trails from the plantation and back onto the trail, we waved good-bye to our last jungle campsite and made up the way we had gone the day before.

The climb took all of three hours of constant hiking and clambering up stone stairways. Even in the shade and morning chill, it wasn’t long before our group was panting and peeling our t-shirts from our slick skin. The walk was constant and punishing, but every now and then, rewarded us with a break in the jungle and unrivalled views out over the beautiful green valley as the sun rose over the ridges.

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Sadly, we couldn’t stand here forever. And so continued on, hiking along the narrow path, fringed by dense jungle and punctured with sudden breaks in the forest or waterfalls cascading down the valley wall. As we approached the day’s zenith the temperatures rose further, leaving us wiping our faces of arms of sweat and flies. We were in sore need of a break by the time we reached the last 50m or so of ascent, which rapidly went from a gradual path, to a climb on a steep, dirt stairway more like a dried river than a path. This was a hard climb which broke the lines of our group as we had to go at our own pace to reach the top. I’m proud to say that I was able to stay up near the front and managed the final struggle to the top.

The change was instant. We went from a path on a steep valley wall, to a small clearing in the middle of some incredibly dense forest. Tall, moss and vine covered trees reached upwards, their feet buried by ferns and carpets of greenery and plant life. It was cold under the canopy. The sweat leaving us shivering as we dried ourselves out and had a break as our group came together one by one. It was then that I heard this deep, guttural breathing sound above us. Rolphy announced that it was the sound of a sleeping howler monkey up in the trees, though nothing could be seen curled up in the dense green, roof.

Once rested, we set off along the top of the ridge before beginning our steep descent down a path similar to the rugged river bed-type we covered in the final climb – such a descent is very hard on your legs and knees, and ours was no exception. The path was fringed by forest in the same way the ascent had been, offering brief glimpses to faraway ridges and mountains. Suddenly we were dumped out on a small clearing where a small Inca ruin sat.

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As Rolphy described to us that small sites like these litter the hills and valleys surrounding Machu Picchu, we wondered around and found a small collection of buildings on a lower terrace. We took it as a photo opportunity and started snapping. We were shocked when Rolphy pointed to the ridge across the valley, towards a long, light green mark on the ridge line – Machu Picchu! We could see it from across the void, perched on a sharp ridge which plunged down into the valley below. It gave us a boost to see our target after a few days of hard slog.

We continued on our steep, punishing descent with slightly more excited yammering than before. However it wasn’t long before the suffocating heat, lack of wind, and unrelenting sun soured our moods and all chat died away for the three hour climb down the sheer valley wall. It wasn’t long before mozzies, flies, and wasps were whizzing around us, adding to our discomfort.

Note: the wasps in this part of the jungle are not the little yellow and black things that pester you back home. These are big, black, evil fuckers the size of your thumb that can easy keep up as you run away like a child.

Despite the slightly miserable conditions, we were once again treated to views of a jagged landscape of valleys and mountains, all carpeted in verdant green forest. The beauty of the landscape always catches you off guard, even after hours of hiking through it. The descent was hellish but it eventually ended. Leaving us at the bottom of the valley where the Riu Urubamba river surged past in a white torrent. Once the group was together we crossed the narrow suspension bridge strung across the wide river, and followed the path through tall rushes and bushes.

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This section was just as hot as the descent but was lightened by a slight breeze coming over the river, making this walk most pleasant. Once again it was the landscape which I most admired as I hiked along in the pounding heat. A sudden break in the valley wall revealed a huge waterfall thundering down and over the valley wall and into the Riu Urumbamba. Waves of spray washed over us as we passed on a bridge and onto a dirt road leading around into the next valley, where the road gave way to a huge industrialised track along the river, ending at the hydroelectric plant. This final stretch of the walk seemed to take ages as we made our way along the dusty road in the searing heat.

We came to a train stop near the plant where we could stop to get refreshments and have lunch. This break was sorely needed, though by now most of us had finished our water and were forced to stock up from a small shop for the hours ahead. The walk began parallel to the train tracks before suddenly merging with them, forcing us to walk on a narrow gravel strip – dangerously close if a train came along.

We followed the tracks in the relentless heat for a long time before reaching a rust-red bridge crossing a bend in the river. The pedestrian crossing here, was little more than thin sheets of metal laid over metal beams. Some were barley fixed to the frame, bouncing wildly as we crossed. It was now that a great freight train came upon us, thundering over the bridge, shaking the entire structure and us with it. The long blue snake was gone as quickly as it had come, leaving us shaken but unfazed as we continued on into the tunnel of trees which fenced the tracks. Here the only noise was the rustle of leaves in the wind and birds over the river. The line stretched away from us, following the river through this deep ravine of a valley.

When the trees finally ended, they gave way to sheer stone walls and a glaring sun over head. I began to bake in the heat and quickly became dehydrated. The supplies I picked up at the train stop were long finished and I was starting to get the headaches and cracked lips I’d been warned about at the start of the trek.

The tracks seemed to go on and on, with little relief from the heat and no water to relieve my thirst it was a punishing afternoon. Suddenly the forest opened up to reveal a busy road of backpackers, buses, and locals. We had arrived at our campsite at the base of Machu Picchu and just a fifteen minutes walk from Aguas Calientes. We made the last stretch of the walk, following the twisting river around a buckle in the valley before reaching the tiny tourist town.

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The Riu Urumbamba cuts through the centre of the town, leaving little ground to build on. As a result there are few buildings shorter than 4 stories, separated by narrow alleyways lined with market stalls and crowds of locals and tourists milling throughout. There are only a handful of roads, all congested with buses ferrying people up and down to the Inca city high above. Aguas Calientes struck us as having a very lively atmosphere with music spilling out from all the bars and restaurants which fringe the streets. We were led up to a tiny place overlooking the river where we had drinks and supper. We rewarded ourselves with beer and pizza after days of soup and rice. We earned a break and rightly took it before heading back to camp in the evening.

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on peru: trek day 4

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The fourth day of the trek began with the crossing of a narrow, surging river which came tumbling down from the ravine above us. The crossing was little more than a path of mud steps pounded out of the banks, separated by a scramble across huge boulders to the other side. We then followed a twisting road down the hillside to another river where we had to cross a much wider torrent of water. Here the original bridge was long gone, and had been replaced with a long narrow timber construction which bounces wildly as you run across.

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From here on we spent most of the day following an undulating path through the forest alongside the river. The forest and deep valley provided shelter from the sweltering heat that plagued us on previous days and made todays hike quite pleasant by comparison. Insects and mozzies still whir around you, but a thorough application of DEET helps keep them at bay.

We followed what Rolphy referred to as a ‘Peruvian flat’ i.e a path that climbs and drops as much as it had on any other part of the trek. This was much easier on our legs than the 3 hour climbs and descents which bugger your knees if you’re not used to it. Eventually we stopped off at a small village for lunch in a very relaxed, open walled restaurant overlooking the ravine and surrounding forest. It was the perfect place to put the feet up for half an hour before continuing on to Lucmabamba and the entrance to the Machu Picchu sanctuary.

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From here, the path changes from road, to a gentle incline of grass and stone steps. Though the slope is gentle, it is constant, and in places is closer to a stair case. The path was tiring compared to the walk we’d just had, taking us upwards through coffee plantations and through tunnels of trees, suddenly opening up providing views down the valley and over the tiny patches of green farm nestled in the dense jungle. Flocks of green parrots swarm far down below, over the forest canopy and along the valley. Be warned, most farms which line the path are guarded by semi-domestic wild dogs. It is important to walk past and make no threatening moves for fear of attack.

We followed the steep path through clefts in the valley wall where the slopes plunge, almost vertical, with waterfalls around you as you pick your way along the narrow path. We climbed half way up the ridge, being treated to beautiful views and light breezes before having to turn back and head down to our campsite in one of the coffee plantations.

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At our campsite we were given a tour of our host’s plantation and given an in depth description of coffee farming and production. We even got the opportunity to roast our own beans and grind our own coffee to have before our evening meal. Our host’s farm even had a small shop where we bought some wine and got a bit jolly in our tents that evening :D. After all you’ve got to enjoy yourself!

Much later in the evening, I got up to use the toilet (little more than a shack) and was joined by a bat who flew in and fluttered around for a while and decided it wasn’t his scene before flying straight out again. Now I couldn’t remember when I’d had my last rabies jab so thought it would be a good idea to make a sharp exit.

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on peru: trek day 3

The trek began after an early breakfast to weather which was not much better than the day before. Just a hundred or so metres above us there was still snow falling, the skies were still heavy and peppering us with drizzle and rain. The path was now a narrow track of mud, scree, and manure, taking us up into the pass.

What began as mud and rain quickly gave way to slush and snow. The winds began to pick up as we climbed higher, past cold streams with ice forming around stones and puddles, though the drizzle and snow was light, our faces were already soaked and freezing in the biting winds. We came across a small hut selling cheap plastic ponchos and I quickly snapped one up before the hikers behind us caught up and bought whatever was left.

It did little good. The blasted sheet of plastic got coated in dozen slush which constantly rose up and slapped me in the face as the gusts hurled around us.

If you google pictures of the Salkantay Pass, most of them show a steep, grassy trail through the mountains, bathed in sunlight. So I could be forgiven for expecting this would be our experience. However, the rains didn’t pass. Instead, by the time we reached the start of the pass, we were level with the snow line and were traipsing through light snow fall.

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As we climbed higher the winds grew more wild and the Dickensian snow fall quickly worsened to a -10C blizzard. The strength of the gusts sucked the breath out of my lungs which were already struggling with the low oxygen levels. This was the most torturous experience of my life. Having to constantly stop to catch my breath, my legs were on fire as my weary muscles screamed for relief. It wasn’t long before our group was spread across the mountainside, continuously stopping and catching up with one another, encouraging each other to push on. Suddenly the people who you’ve only known for a few days become your crutch, helping you and pushing you onwards when you need it most, and you for them!

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The higher we climbed, the harder it was to simply stay upright. The freezing cold was sapping us of our strength and warmth, our heads swimming with every step from lack of oxygen. in places the path plunged away on one side into the clouds, forcing you to hug the wall of snow for fear of being blown off on a long fall.

By now everything was soaking wet. Ice had formed around the hood of my jacket. When my poncho wasn’t busy doing fuck all to keep me dry, it was flying upwards to slap me in the face. I could barely manage ten steps before I had to pause and take a breath. I had a small backpack but it felt like a lead weight. Out of nowhere, my teammate Joe appeared, barely affected by all the crap that seemed to be dragging down the rest of us!

Joe is an extremely active individual who regularly climbs mountains and is planning to climb Mount Blanc next year.

In what was the most humbling act of selflessness, Joe took my pack from me and marched behind me, spurring me on up the last push before the summit. Though the bag weighed very little its sudden absence left me enough strength to go over the top without pausing. I will always be grateful for Joe’s help and encouragement. Indeed it inspired me to try and be more supportive to my other team mates.

Any high we got from reaching the summit was short-lived. The winds and temperatures on this side were much worse than what we’d just climbed through. Struggling ahead through a boulder field in a narrow cleft between the mountain and its siblings, we were pummelled by a constant torrent of wind and snow. Any path at the top was long since buried and so navigating back to the trail was sheer luck.

The group reunited a hundred metres below the pass and quickly made way down through desolate fields of scree, rock, and ice. It was still bitingly cold, but the air thickened in our lungs as we made a speedy descent. Before long we were clear of ice and wind and were reunited with our old friends rain and scree. About half an hour from the summit we stopped in at a farm for a break.

We had Quinoa soup and hot tea to get some energy into our bodies for the final push to our campsite. It was a while before we got some heat up and took some of the damp out of our clothes. It was apparent that we’d never dry out at this altitude, barely below the snow lines we’d just passed through. So we made way, refuelled and with a better mindset. This made all the difference as the chat soon came back, lifting the mood. Something which was sorely missed on the loneliness of the mountain.

Within an hour of leaving the farm-stop, we were in the jungle, shedding layers and wiping away the sweat! The change was remarkable. A stark reminder of the diverse landscape and changeable conditions in the Andes. We found ourselves in steep-walled valley, the view behind framing the Salkantay mountain we’d just passed.

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It wasn’t long before we reached our camp for the night. Nestled in the corner where three, short valleys meet, it was an incredibly peaceful, and beautiful way to end what had been the most challenging experience of my life – So I thought to myself as I enjoyed the last of the evening sun.

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on peru: trek day 2

On the second morning of the trek, we rose to light rain and a low ceiling of grey cloud. Only a few hundred metres above us the ridge lines were dusted in white snow, and we planned to climb much higher today as we set off on the mountain pass.

Leaving camp, our faces were wet with drizzle in minutes making for a less jubilant start than the previous day’s hike. The mood failed improve as we made our way along the mud and scree-strewn path. The lifeless weather sapped us of any will to make jokes or sing bad songs and left us thinking of putting one foot ahead of the other.

After continuing in this depressing fashion for two hours we finally stopped at a small bus shelter. By now we were all completely soaked through by rain and mist, the altitude draining us of our heat. Our guide took a moment to get us huddled around and told us that the rain here would be a blizzard up on the pass creating deep drifts. It was obvious from one look at our miserable troupe that we weren’t ready to go over the mountain. He made the decision that we would continue to the next farm, the last settlement before the pass began.

Frozen, but relieved that we wouldn’t be facing the pass, we started walking, spurred on by the promise of a hot meal and warm tent. It took less than an hour to reach camp. Having barely made any progress that day, we used the rest of the daylight to warm up and raise each other’s spirits.

Our camp was pitched up inside what must have been a stable. It was little more than a long shack built from raw timber and corrugated metal sheeting. The walls were canvas stretched between the wooden posts and tied back against the wind. The floor was a hard slab which leached the heat out of our drained bodies. In a lame attempt to dry our clothes and packs, we strung up lines throughout the shed, hanging our gear up to quietly drip in the cold shack.

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As the evening wore on, more travellers arrived, filling up the shack with tents and gear leaving little more than a narrow alley to the doorway. There were no stars to obsess over tonight, just rain and a bitter cold only avoided in our tents. Even the meal tent was chilled, having to wear our thermals and coats just to sit and gulp a bowl of soup. We wasted little time tonight, finishing our meal and retreating to our sleeping bags.

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On Peru: trek day 1

Setting off from the small town of Mollepata, we began on a simple road leading up into the hills, through farms and into the ‘countryside’ with pines and short, thorny trees overhead providing shade.

As we began climbing higher we immediately felt the shortness of breath we’d experienced the day before. Even taking a drink of water from the camel-pack in our backpacks left us struggling to catch our breath. The sun was baking, and before we’d even left the village I was wiping the sweat from my face.

Thankfully one of our teammates, Joe, had music playing from his phone throughout the afternoon, spurring us on over the initial struggle.

However, the music was nothing against the magnificent views of towering mountain ridges and plunging valleys – all cloaked in greenery without a single road or building in sight. Even in this valley, there were glimpses of snow capped heads peeking over the far off hills.

If we weren’t catching our breath, drinking water, wiping away the sweat, then we were whipping out our cameras and snapping at every gap in the trees – much to the frustration of our guide Rolphy, who was constantly pushing forward.

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As the afternoon wore on, we followed the path up and out of one valley, following the ridge line around and down into another. Even though by this point the trail is only wide enough to walk on in single file, you’ll still have rare encounters with small houses perched along the way. Proof of that the Inca’s network of roads and paths still support Peru’s agrarian population.

Finally stopping for a break at the peak of a ridge, just as it buckles northwards, we were gifted with a picturesque view of the Valley leading to mountain Salkantay. Gathered under a small, open walled hut, we could look north to the white, dagger like mountain, and follow the opposing ridge southwards and over the valleys we had passed through to get here. If there was ever a Kodak moment!

Sadly we couldn’t spend the night here, and were forced to continue down into the Salkantay Valley and onwards to our campsite. Which, as it turns out, is a field with the occasional horse, and an abundance of shit.

By this point I was exhausted. Lack of oxygen, lack of fluids, and the most exerting exercise I’d had in ages collected to leave me nackered (British for fucked). After setting up camp and having a good, hot meal, we were ready for bed before we noticed something amazing. STARS!

In the middle of the Andes, with clear skies, little pollution, and not a soul for miles around, you are treated to spectacularly dark skies and a corona of starlight arcing overhead in a cosmic display you’re unlikely to experience back home. As all of us lived in urban environments, we’d barely seen anything like this and spent hours lying down amongst the horse shit, staring at the skies and counting shooting stars. This is one of those moments which left me feeling very small and insignificant in comparison to the sheer scale of the universe, which doesn’t make for a party atmosphere.

After a brilliant saucer of light rose over the valley, out shining everything else, we finally went to bed, blinded by moonlight.