The Andes is a magical place. With striking landscapes and traditional communities that live and thrive here, it is the heart of indigenous South America. Nowhere quite compares to the mountain villages nestled between the looming volcanoes in Ecuador and the picturesque town of Otavalo, home to one of the largest handicraft markets and the most beautifully dressed locals on the continent. Our last visit to the Andes was at the tip of South America in Argentina, and the last time we had experienced such colourful cultural customs was in Bolivia and Peru back in October 2012. It was a refreshing change of scenery to arrive back in the Andes. We were so excited to be a part of this world all over again.
Deep within the South American continent lays one of the worlds most fascinating and enigmatic environments, the Amazon Jungle. Bizarre creatures roam the dense impenetrable forest with alien-like limbs and fluoro skin full of poison, alongside uncontacted tribes of primitive Indians. The Amazon is like an ecological war zone with every animal, plant, insect and organism defending itself against one another, battling for air, sun, water and a precarious place in this untamed wilderness. We survived twelve days travelling slowly along the Amazon River, now that we had hit dry land we were eager to launch ourselves into the depths of the unknown to learn how this fascinating ecosystem thrives.
Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake, at 3910m above sea level it is approximately 200km long by 60km wide, it’s really really big! The Lake spans the border of Peru and Bolivia, both countries claim to own 60% of the Lake, however the maps clearly show Peru has the majority share.
We finally made it to Machu Picchu! Discovered in 1911 by American Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu is the mysterious ancient Inca city perched ever so dramatically above the Urubamba Valley in Peru. Little is known about why the Inca’s built the city. It is estimated that construction began on it over 1000 years ago, and when the Spanish invaded the region in the 15th Century the Inca abandoned their most significant built work forever, letting the jungle over grow and consume the city hiding it for the next 500 years. The Spanish never found out about the city, luckily, as it would have been pillaged and destroyed like so many other ancient sites. It wasn’t until the 19th Century, when Hiram Bingham was looking for a different ancient city named Vilcabamba that he stumbled upon Machu Picchu with the help of a local farmer. Much of the ruins have been restored and rebuilt, with the jungle so carefully peeled away, revealing beautiful Inca stonework, temples and terraces.
It all began with a 4.30am start in Cusco. We boarded the bus, cold, tired and excited for the days ahead. We were about to embark on a once in a lifetime pilgrimage along the Inca Trail to the infamous Machu Picchu; the serene ancient ruins awaiting us at the end of the 40km trek. Having booked the trip in June, we were eager to put our hiking boots on and get trekking with our fellow adventurers.
The Camino Inca (Inca Trail) was a path created by the Inca over 500 years ago, as a path for the Inca Runners - messengers, to relay important messages between villages, and other significant sites. The path was also used by priests and other religious peoples as a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, stopping along the way at various religious sites and temples. Today many of these sites still dot the path in varying degrees of ruin. Machu Picchu is the climax at the end of the line; the ancient Inca city, and place of worship, perched atop a steep mountain, surrounded by craggy Andean peaks. Today it is not a religious pilgrimage, it is a walk though history, to learn and appreciate the lncas, their heritage, and the landscape that formed their beliefs. It is also a personal challenge, to conquer the high altitude mountains and rugged terrain.
The entirety of our trip to date has been self organised. After some investigation our trip into the Sacred Valley of the Inca’s would have to be done true gringo style, as an organised tour, due to time constraints. Our impulsive and expensive purchase of the tourist ticket in Cusco ensured that we would certainly have to make the trip into the Screed Valley, as half the value of the ticket was consumed in the Sacred Valley highlights.
The Valle Sagrado (The Sacred Valley) is in the Urubamba Valley, and was named so by the Inca’s due the vast fertile plains that line the valley floor, following the Urubamba River all the way from Pisac, near Cusco, to Machu Picchu. The valley is Sacred due to it’s ability to grow many different crops, in particular Maize (Corn), of which there are 200 varieties in this valley alone, and was the Inca civilisations vital source of life (food) grown from the earth – from their sacred god Pachamama.
Another over night bus later we arrived in Cusco in high spirits, high because of the altitude. Sitting at 3300m above sea level, Cusco is the launching pad into the ancient Inca Empire within the mountains and valleys that surround it.
Excitement began to creep in as our 4WD bus cruised along the high Altiplano. Finally we were getting into the real Peruvian wilderness! The Altiplano is the name given to the vast high altitude plains of the Andes. It is a sparsely vegetated landscape, almost desert like, which is home to native Alpacas and Vicunas, amongst other wildlife. At one point the altitude rose above 4000m, we knew it when our heads started pounding. Our first experience of really high altitude and we made it out ok.
Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city is a sprawling array of unfinished homes that surround the Colonial Old Town which is in complete contrast to the rest of the city. This was our first elevated city at an altitude of 2,335 metres, although not that high you could feel the difference slightly. The city is surrounded in snow capped mountings with the jewel in the crown being the volcanic mountain El Misti that towers over the city. This is no extinct monster; it is a dormant volcano that has been asleep since 1985. Its symmetrical cone shape, which reaches to 5,822 metres, is a distinctive orientation marker throughout the city.
Goodbye smelly, busy Lima. Hello, hot, scorching, desert Oasis.
We left Lima, eager to get out of the, hustle and bustle and into a quieter, more natural environment. Our next stop Huacachina, Peru! As soon as we were out of the city the the landscape quickly merged from slums clinging to the edge of the mountains, to barren, scorched desert. We arrived in Ica, after a surprisingly smooth 5hour bus ride. Ica itself was just a miniature version of Lima. We quickly jumped in the first (smallest) taxi we could find to drive the 7km to the little Oasis town of Huacachina.