Peru's Highlands and Jungles, and a bit about Brazil (By Jinnie Yeo)
20 May 2013
I had mixed feelings about going to Peru. I’d wanted to see Machu Picchu since I was 21 so I didn’t know how it could ever live up to my expectations after wanting to see it for so long. Also, I’d been to a lot of jungles already (in Asia, Central America and Africa) and lots of jungle ruins. Well, I was pleasantly surprised, Machu Picchu is spectacular, it lived up to every expectation and I found myself running around, really excited to explore more of it.
A very close friend of mine, Dave (he’s like my ‘brother from another mother’), moved to Peru to do conservation work in the Amazonian rainforest four years ago, with Fauna Forever. As I said before, I’d actually been wanting to visit South America for a long time, even before my friend moved there, so in May this year Alex (my boyfriend) and I decided it was time to go and see it for ourselves and also see what Dave was getting up to. One of my best friends, Jo, and her hubby, Brendon, decided to join us too.
I was very excited, not least because this would also mean I have now been to every continent in the world except Antarctica. One day, one day!! Dave and I decided to split doing an itinerary for the trip. He would obviously plan the jungle side to the trip and I would plan the rest. I always split my trips up a bit into a bit of activity, exploring and chilling right at the end. It makes for a real adventurous trip, albeit not the most relaxing, but I prefer getting the most out of a place and seeing as much as I can when I go somewhere new.
Well, I’ve done a dozen itineraries, I enjoy it and I know how to research places, find things off-the-beaten-track and decide what the best stuff to do are – for Alex and I. Planning a trip for friends is a very different kettle of fish. You have to consider what they like and what their standards in accommodation etc are. Somewhere down the line, it dawns on you that if anything goes wrong or isn’t up to scratch – you’re to blame. Keep that in mind before offering to plan a trip that involves others! It’s much more stressful. Luckily nothing major went wrong but it made me realize that maybe I’m not cut out for being a travel agent after all.
We landed in Puerto Maldonado after a long flight and a sleep-over in Sao Paulo involving many yummy (and strong) Caipirinhas . Dave was there waiting to pick us up from the tiny airport. I jumped on his motorbike with him and the others followed by tuk-tuk, Asian style! After a really good meal in town, we spent the night at the Fauna Forever base (where Dave works). These guys are great, if you’re interested in doing conservation work or volunteering or even if you’re just interested in taking a gap year and going somewhere off the beaten track and want to give something back to Mother Nature, I highly recommend getting in touch with them: www.faunaforever.org
The next morning we hired motorbikes and drove through muddy jungle roads to a nearby animal sanctuary, we saw a peccary and some really cute but very smelly baby peccaries, some beautiful toucans and my favourite: Red howler monkeys. The howler monkeys were very friendly and we got to hold them, they didn’t seem to mind my ‘Elmyra Fudd’-style over-petting either a real treat and a highlight for me! We didn’t have too long here as we had to get back to catch a cab to Lucerna and then a boat out to ARCC (the Amazon Research and Conservation Center, where we would be staying in the jungle)! The boat took us up the Las Piedras river, deeper and deeper into the jungle. It was around a 6-hour journey and we enjoyed the scenery and some local cuisine (chicken, egg and rice wrapped in a big palm leave – delicious!) whilst on the boat.
After we got settled at the ARCC (so beautiful and serene), we went on a night walk in the jungle. What an experience! Your senses are heightened and when you turn of your flashlight it is pitch dark, all you can hear are jungle sounds (monkeys, crickets and who knows what else?!) and you can just imagine a jaguar watching you! Our time at ARCC was special. Like I said before, I was really excited to see Dave but had my reservations about going to yet another jungle. This time though, I did get to experience something new because unlike before I actually saw what the interns (conservationist, biologists and scientists) got up to and it was really interesting. Coming to ARCC you actually learn a lot about what is going on around us and how conservation work is really important (and not in a boring way, but a really interactive, interesting way). Also, I saw some very big trees in this jungle – some of the biggest I’ve ever seen. I was hugging as many as I could (don’t ask – a very strange habit I’ve had since childhood).
Dave was great and organized a lot of fun activities for us whilst at ARCC. We did many jungle walks, Alex’s favorite was a very wild, bushwhacking one. We swam in a stream, smearing mud on our faces and spent a day tubing slowly down the river, admiring the jungle, monkeys and blue parrots as we floated down. We picnicked on the river banks. We also spent time on Lake Soledad and spotted a baby camen and some big river otters whilst sipping cold beers and eating Peruvian sweets.
We went up a ladder (to heaven – literally!) attached to a huge tree and had a chance to sit on the look-out deck and see the jungle from high above! Jo & Brendi made it up the ladder as well, even though they have fear of heights!!
One morning Alex and I made our way down to the lake really early and it had a blanket of mist over the top – stunning. I went to the jungle prepared for eating boring rice every night and nothing else, but to my surprise the food was really, really good! One night we had Peruvian Causa (Layered Potato and Tuna Salad) – so good! I wish I could remember more of the dishes, I just know we had big hearty meals and every one of them was tasty. Evening meals consisted of three courses. You definitely do not go hungry here!
By the time we left the jungle, we were all so chilled out and the London rat race was well and truly forgotten. I spent six blissful days not picking up my phone or going near a computer once – this doesn’t happen very often! On the 23rd May we did the boat trip back to Lucerna where we played a game of soccer with the local children (they annihilated us, I couldn’t even get ONE goal!), before getting a taxi back to Puerto. Back in the city, Dave took us to a great Thai restaurant at the Anaconda Lodge (highly recommended):
After lunch we flew to Cusco. I’ve had altitude sickness before (in Lijiang, China) but I was hoping I wouldn’t get it again. WRONG. My first day in Cusco was unfortunately spent in my room, hugging the toilet. My head was throbbing and I couldn’t keep down any of the coca tea I was given to help with altitude sickness. Luckily I was in a really nice room – we checked into Niños Hotel (http://ninoshotel.com/) and it was lovely. Poor Brendon was also sick, I’m not sure if he was puking or not but I know he spent the day in his room as well. Luckily by that evening, both of us felt better and were ready to hit the town with the others.
Cusco is a great city, it feels like somewhere different but it has all the things to make your stay there comfortable. Many, many, great restaurants to choose from. Cool bars. Cute local markets selling everything from sheep’s heads to bread, to these strange jelly deserts, to gifts and flowers. Everything you can think of. It has beautiful old churches, impressive Spanish architecture and cute cobbled streets. You can spend a long time just exploring this place with its different nooks and crannies. Try and spend at least 3 days exploring the city and its immediate surroundings.
We travel by taxi to Ollantaytambo and got the train to Aguas Calientes where we stayed overnight. I would have loved to have done the Inca Trail hike, but you have to book way in advance for this and we missed the opportunity unfortunately. The train ride was beautiful though, going past lakes and streams and passing through the Andes. Agues Calientes is a very touristy spot but it’s quite cool in its own way. Definitely only a one night stop-over town before MP though! Alex ate fried guinea pig, which tastes a lot like chicken but they serve it with a face and everything! Eeeeeek. Not for the faint hearted. We all drank Pisco sours – a really yummy Peruvian cocktail.
The next day, we got up really early and stood in a queue around 5am hoping to catch a bus and be one of the first people to arrive at Machu Picchu for the day. In the rush to get out the door and all the excitement, I totally forgot my passport! Rookie mistake! Luckily the officials let me in but REMEMBER your passport when going to see MP! Even though it doesn’t say this on the ticket, they want to see it. We were rewarded for getting up early by the most amazing site: low fog hanging over the ruins and hardly a person in site! Alpaca’s lazed around while we crept close to them to have photo’s taken with them.
Alex had heard about the Inca Bridge from someone back in the UK, so we headed off to look at it (it was built by the Incas as a secret entrance to Machu Picchu for the Inca army) the trail is cut into a cliff face with a 1,900 feet drop on the one side!
After having a rest and admiring the views we decided to move on, seeing as I didn’t have my passport, I couldn’t do Huayna Picchu but only Brendi seemed to fancy doing that anyway, so off he went to climb it, whilst Dave, Jo, Alex and I opted to do the Sun Gate walk. It’s a very scenic trail and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
That evening we got the 19:30 train back Ollantaytambo and stayed the night at Hostal Iskay – a great spot where Dave and his mom stayed before. The next day we got to look around Ollantaytambo a bit more. A small but very cute place. It feels a bit like a mid-western cowboy town. It’s hot, there are cactuses everywhere, dust, and dirt roads. I loved it. A local lady was selling barbequed sheep hearts, which Jo and I tried – they were really tasty! Alex and I also got to see some more Inca ruins for free – snuck in through the back way – local knowledge makes all the difference! We spent some time looking around a local market and before we knew it, it was time to leave.
Dave organized for us to go via La Terraza de los Incas’ in Chinchero to see some local woman colouring wool with insects and plants – very interesting! And they showed us how they weaved the material into blankets – hard work. We took some photo’s and made our way back to Cusco and back to Nino’s. The next day was Jo’s birthday, we had a bit of a special meal that evening at: Uchu steakhouse, Calle Palacio 135 Cusco (thank you food bloggers – I found this restaurant recommended by a Foodie in Cusco!) Dave had mahi-mahi (a white fish from the Peruvian coast), Brendi had alpaca and the rest of us had steak – all served on hot plates with chips or mash and sauces. Alex also had the ceviche to start and I had the chocolate mousse dessert. All very good, as was the wine!
The next morning, Dave took us for a big breakfast at Jacks (http://jackscafecusco.com) – OMG! Again: amazing food! The fresh mango juice with lime was the best juice I’ve ever had in my life! And the next day, it was sadly time to say goodbye to Dave and head home via Rio (Brazil). We booked into ‘Ladeira do Castro’ in Santa Teresa, which was lovely but don’t eat there – much better places to eat for much better value! Santa Terresa is a bohemian neighbourhood with bars and galleries, I loved staying here. We ate at Espirito Santa (http://espiritosanta.com.br/) and had Piranha soup. The food was great! We also went to Copacabana and Ipanema beach, where we were lucky enough to see pods of dolphins passing and jumping out of the water. Copacabana reminded me a lot of Durban in South Africa, prettier but similar. We ate a Brazilian meat feast in Copacabana – the meat was amazing! Sorry, enough about food. After just relaxing on the beach for a day and having a walk around the beautiful Jardim botanical gardens, it was time to catch a flight back to London.
By the way, about Rio airport: don’t bother going through security early and don’t expect to do any shopping after going through – there is nothing! Also, when flying into Rio, we couldn’t draw money from the banks in the airport (strange!), but don’t panic, banks in town work.
An amazing trip, none of us will ever forget!