So we had another very easy border crossing into Peru at Macara. We were through in about 45 minutes with new tourist cards and vehicle permit and again no mention about Francie. After about an hour of driving we left the green lush countryside we were used to in Ecuador and the landscape turned into miles of complete desert and sand dunes. It was incredible and not what we expected at all. The guide book had only described it as a dry, coastal region but not absolute desert. We felt like we were driving through Israel or somewhere in the Middle East. Unfortunately the first few towns we passed through were fairly ugly and dirty. There was litter thrown everywhere and the smell was awful. It looked like the people just drove out the road with their rubbish and used the desert as their dump. We stopped after several hours of driving in the middle of nowhere at what looked like a truck stop restaurant to get something to eat. As usual we never really know what we are ordering. They say “carne” for any kind of meat so it’s really a lottery as to what we will get. We were so hungry we didn’t really mind. That was until we noticed a clothes line hanging across the kitchen with what I thought was socks hanging from it and flies circling around everywhere. My stomach turned when I saw the woman take two “socks” from the clothesline and throw them on the grill. She served up the two pieces of meat that could easily have been driven over by a bus a hundred times, on a plate of rice and beans. Now we are not fussy by any means, we have tried everything and anything on this trip but this was the worst I had ever seen. Even Francie turned his nose up at it!
We spent our first night in Chiclayo so we could go to the famous witchdoctors’ market the following morning. The market itself is massive and you can buy anything from household goods, clothes, shoes, food, meat etc. But we headed for the corner where there were about 40 different witchdoctors and herbalists, all with their own stalls set up side by side. It was hilarious some of the stuff they were selling. The shelves were lined with every different colored box for any ailment you can think of; ulcers, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, warts, nervousness; God knows what was actually in the potions. One guy had dried cow hooves, bones and claws that apparently you are supposed to grate into water and drink as a tonic! Another tonic for strength was bull’s blood. They had all sorts of love potions as well which we did buy for the craic, although all it seems to be is a nice perfume. They also sold all sorts of weird voodoo dolls, shrunken heads and other strange healing charms. One woman managed to convince me to buy some magic face cream. When I looked up the ingredients in our dictionary, I discovered it was made of snail slime! It is definitely one of the most interesting markets we were ever at.
After the market we decided to get on the road and head south. A few days earlier the French family, who were way ahead of us in Lima, had sent a text warning us to ignore anyone signaling us to stop or pointing at something wrong with the van. As we were navigating our way out of the town about six different people kept shouting at us and pointing at the front wheel. The night before we had hit a huge uncovered manhole in the street so we didn’t think it strange that there could be something wrong with the wheel. When we pulled in to check it, a mechanic coincidentally showed up and started telling us our front wheel was wobbling. He bent down underneath and pulled a broken rubber gasket and said we had to go to his garage right away which was conveniently across the street. Then a nicely dressed couple on a motorbike pulled in. The woman spoke English and said these guys were trying to rob us and we should follow them to a proper garage to have the wheel checked. So we decided to follow them just to get out of that part of the town. The first garage they brought us too, all the mechanics were out on training. The second garage didn’t work with wheels or tires. So the final option was to go to her husband’s garage and he would order us new parts. At this stage we knew they were in on the scam too. When we asked what parts he was talking about, he said, without taking off the wheel mind you, that our rotor needed to be replaced. Well he got a nice surprise when we told him we replaced that very rotor only two months ago in Panama. Before this he was telling us there was no way we could keep driving and then all of a sudden we were fine to drive. It was obvious afterwards that all the people shouting and pointing, the mechanic and this couple were all together and probably all going to get a cut of whatever phantom part they were going to make us pay for. When we got out of the town, we pulled in and Jimmy took off the wheel and everything was fine. The broken gasket was probably already in the mechanic’s hand when he came over to us because it definitely didn’t fit anywhere on our van. It was just such a coincidence that we had hit a hole the night before that we wondered after if they had seen it happen and waited for us to leave the next day. Bunch of chancers!
We continued onto a beautiful little fishing village called Huanchaco where we got parking right on the beach beside our German friends, Thomas and Antonella. At the shipping agency in Panama we met a Peruvian man Juan and his English wife Pauline who were shipping their car to Ecuador. Juan used to be a professor in the college in Huanchaco so they were renting an apartment there for a month before continuing on their travels. It was a nice little reunion and Pauline very kindly cooked us all dinner one night. They even guided us into the town of Trujillo to help us find insurance. The police at the border said it wasn’t mandatory but everyone else said we needed it and the French were nearly fined for not having it. After going to three places in two days nobody would insure a campervan so we never did buy it and luckily were never asked for it either. From Huanchaco we were able to visit the ancient city Chan Chan which is the largest adobe city in the world dating back to AD 1300. It is really impressive and was well worth a visit. Huanchaco is the type of village we could have stayed in for weeks but after three days we decided to keep heading south.
The drive between Huanchaco and Lima was absolutely stunning and has to be up there with the most scenic drives ever. We passed hundreds of miles of untouched beaches with no roads even leading down to them. At the end of the day we finally found a road leading down to one of the beaches and spent the night there. The Germans were also there even though we had lost each other on the road earlier and had no idea if they were ahead or behind us. The next day we drove to Lima. We wanted to just see the downtown area and then stay on the beach somewhere but as we entered the city the highway was closed and we were directed off onto a side street. Most of the time it is pointless asking for directions because we get about ten different answers. After three hours of driving around in circles we finally got on the right road to the center but then took another wrong turn which dumped us into a traffic jam coming from a fiesta on the beach. We were so frustrated that when we found ourselves on the road out of the city we just kept going. We have decided now the remaining cities on our trip that we want to see and those we will miss as it is just a nightmare trying to get around them.
We headed on down the coast to Paracas Reserve. The towns we passed through looked really shabby and deserted. The houses were literally just one room little shacks. We read later that an earthquake hit this region in 2007 and completely wiped out a lot of the towns leaving over 10,000 people without houses. Those who decided to stay are still trying to recover and rebuild their homes. The reserve itself is one of the most beautiful places we have seen so far. It covers 335,000 ha on land and sea and is one of the most important marine reserves in the world, with the highest concentration of marine birds. We found parking on the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean and desert with nobody in sight except our German friends! We did a boat tour out to the Ballestas Islands which are dubbed the poor man’s Galapagos. As we couldn’t afford to do the Galapagos in Ecuador this suited us perfectly and gave us a glimpse of what we missed. The islands are eroded into numerous arches and caves which provide shelter for thousands of seabirds and sea lions. It was amazing to see and well worth a visit. We stayed a few days at the reserve because it really was beautiful and the best parking spot yet on our trip.
From the reserve we drove inland to the town of Huacachina which is just a small town built around an oasis in the desert. There are hundreds of acres of sand dunes in the surrounding area. We booked ourselves on an ATV buggy to do a tour of the dunes and try our hand at sand boarding. The buggy held eight people and as we fastened our seat belts we sat back to enjoy a nice drive through the dunes. We were very wrong. The driver took off at 50mph through the dunes, up to the top of a dune and just bombed it down about 100ft to the next one. It was like a roller coaster ride and we were sitting right in the front getting blasted in the face with sand and water from the engine. All the time I was thinking if we were doing this in America or Europe there would be all sorts of safety precautions and I wouldn’t feel afraid. But this was in Peru and when I asked the driver if he had ever tipped over the ATV he just smiled and shrugged “It’s possible” and then took off like a lunatic again. After the initial shock we just went with it and it actually turned out to be brilliant fun. We stopped at the top of a sand dune about 150ft high and the guy handed us all a sand board, exact same as a snow board. He showed us how to lie on the board, tuck our arms in, keep our legs off the ground and then one by one he pushed us down the sand dune. It was such a buzz. We went flying down these dunes at about 30mph. He would collect us at the bottom and then bring us to the top of another one, all the time they were getting higher and higher. I stayed on my stomach all the time but Jimmy, fairplay to him, stood up on the board and managed to stay up the whole way down. The very last dune was about 300ft high and we all opted to lie on the board for this one. It was so cool and we all wanted to just do it over and over again. Afterwards he drove us out further on the dunes where we watched the sunset and then he brought us back to the town on another roller coaster ride through the dark.
Our next stop was Nazca which we both were really looking forward to. The Nazca lines were only discovered about 70 years ago as they can only be seen from the air. They are spread over 500 sq km and consist of over 800 lines, 300 figures and some 70 animal and plant drawings. The most elaborate designs include a 90m long monkey, a condor with a 130m wingspan, a hummingbird and a spider. The lines were mostly made by removing sun-darkened stones from the desert surface to expose the lighter stones below. It is still a mystery as to who constructed these lines and for what reason. One theory is that they were made by the Nazca cultures from 900 BC to 600 AD and they were an astronomical calendar mapped out by sophisticated mathematics. Other scientists believe the lines were an extraterrestrial landing strip. Another theory is that 30% of the lines point to underground water sources so who knows. We stopped at the Nazca sign for a photo and to let Francie out for a run before entering the town. We assumed that there would have been a fence or some kind of barrier around the actual lines. When passing motorists started honking their horns at us and we saw the planes overhead we realized we were actually standing on the lines and just then Francie decided to relieve himself. We were mortified that some paying tourists were up in a plane to look down at the lines and here they see an Old English sheepdog taking a crap. We left quickly and drove on a few miles to an observation tower where three of the symbols can be seen, the Hands, the Lizard and the Tree. The guide starting speaking Gaelic to us! He has learnt some phrases from other Irish tourists. We ended up parking at the same hotel as the German couple in Nazca and arranged to do a flight tour of the lines together the next day. The plane was literally a tin can that only seated six people including the pilot. The pilot was a huge man and it took him nearly ten minutes just to get in and ready for take off. Even though I had taken motion sickness tablets, I was still feeling sick as soon as the plane took off. He swerved the plane from side to side so that everyone could get a view of the lines and figures. By the time we were just about able to make out the figures we were supposed to be looking at he had moved on to the next one. It was a bit disappointing after looking forward to it so much. Antonella was sick also and Thomas decided to tell us a story of some French tourists who died in one of these planes last year which really didn’t help the situation. Nevertheless it was still a good experience to fly over the Nazca lines and get a glimpse of these mysterious geoglyphs. After we started feeling normal again, we visited one of the many cemeteries in the area. Because of the dry, humidity free climate the mummies from the ancient Nazca civilization have been preserved perfectly, even the clothes and their hair! There were a couple of them that looked a bit like Sony and Cher. Apparently the longer the hair was the higher their status was in Nazcan times. Originally these people were buried in the tombs with all their treasure, ceramics and textiles. However 80 years ago robbers desecrated the graves and stole all the valuables leaving just the mummies. We also went to see the Paredones aqueducts dating back to 300 BC which still provide water for the local people today. We drank some of the water straight from one of the aqueducts and it was so fresh and pure. It always amazes us when we visit sites like this how advanced these ancient civilizations really were.
We left Nazca, the desert and sunshine and it took us two full days of driving to get to Cuzco. We drove up through mountains as Cuzco is 3,310m above sea level. We stopped in some random halfway town after the first day of driving and couldn’t believe how cold it got at night. It was freezing; we were throwing our shorts out of the way to try find our thermals and woolies. We also had our first pangs of altitude sickness. I never really expected it to make that much of a difference but by the time we arrived in Cuzco we both felt nauseous, short of breath and dizzy. We never fully acclimatized as for the rest of Peru we were between 3,000-5,000m high. The least little bit of walking or exercise had us gasping for breath.
Cuzco is a gorgeous town though, very touristy and full of gringos but still a pleasant stop. It is the main hub for getting to Machu Picchu, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. The ruins are beside a town called Agua Calientes but there is no road to this town. It is a bit of a tourist trap to be honest to try and exploit more money out of the gringo. Most people get the train from Cuzco to Agua Calientes which is usually about $130 per person. There is a local train that runs there but gringos are only allowed on this train at the Hydroelectrica station, an eight hour drive away. We saw some tour offices offering tours “by car” to Machu Picchu and went in to inquire. They said they drive to this Hydroelectrica station and then you get the train from there for $8 each. When we asked about the road conditions they realized we wanted to drive ourselves and said we needed a four wheel drive. There was also the option of doing the four day hike along the Inca Trail but that was booked up until July! We met the French family that night who had just returned from Machu Picchu. They had driven to Ollantaytambo and then hired a driver to bring them to Hydroelectrica for $15 each and then got the train. They said the road was brutal and terrifying. It spirals up the side of the mountain with an unbelievable drop to one side and there had been numerous landslides which washed out the road in sections. The kids reckoned we needed to take some valium before getting into the car. Lydie said she never felt as close to death before and was so glad they got their safe. We decided we would take the same route and hope that the driver would allow Francie in the car.
We left the following morning at 5am. Miriam, an Irish girl from Mayo and her boyfriend Rick from Manchester whom we met in Ecuador, came along with us. We got to Ollantaytambo and even though the French had just come back from there the whole situation had changed. One guy said there was no road; we had to take the train! We were told we couldn’t leave the van at the train station and none of them remembered a huge French van parked there the day before. Another guy said none of the drivers go all the way, we would have to get taxis from one town to the next and he wanted $50 per person to get to the first town! Finally two guys said we could drive the road no problem. We drove into the town plaza and asked a few more people and they said the road was fine. After debating for a bit we said we’d go for it and turn around if it got really bad. The road as far as Santa Maria took us about five hours and was paved for the first 3 hours but then turned to gravel. There were some bad sections where landslides had washed out the road but nothing Jimmy couldn’t handle. There were other parts where the river flowed across the road and we just had to drive right through it.We asked some people again in Santa Maria before continuing and they said the road was fine. The next two hours to Santa Teresa must have been the section the French kids were talking about. It was scary as hell and the most dangerous road we have ever driven. They say the most dangerous road in the world is in Bolivia but I think this one has to be up there too. Myself and Miriam were terrified to look out the window and on the verge of getting sick. I still don’t know how Jimmy kept it together. The road was literally breaking away in sections and all I could see was a never ending drop down to the valley floor. We met a few locals on the road who obviously had more of a right to the road than we did and insisted on making us reverse to let them pass. We were never so happy in all our lives to finally see the “Welcome to Santa Teresa” sign. A really nice family greeted us and brought us to their hostel. We parked up outside and they said they would look after the van. They called ahead to a friend of theirs in Agua Calientes who said Francie could stay in the hotel no problem. We got a taxi for $2 each to Hydroelectrica train station 20 minutes away, there’s no way we could have driven this last bit and there would have been nowhere to leave the van safely anyway. We walked three hours then along the train tracks to get to Agua Calientes. It was a pleasant walk until it started to spill rain and the waterproof pull-ups I bought turned out not to be water proof. Then there were parts of the tracks that went directly above the river. This wasn’t just any ordinary river. In white water rafting world, this would probably be graded a ten, hence why nobody has ever rafted it. I have never seen such huge rapids in my life. The planks of the tracks were too far apart for Francie to walk on and one slip he was gone without a hope of rescuing him. Poor Jimmy had to carry him in his arms while Rick guided Jimmy from one plank to the next. I don’t think Jimmy’s nerves have ever been tested as much in one day. We had to walk in the dark for the last hour also. When we finally arrived in the Agua Calientes at 7.30pm we all went straight for a beer. My trousers were soaked right through and I had only had the one pair with me. Miriam lent me a pair of hers. I was hoping to find a laundromat to get my own dried but there was a pizza oven in the restaurant and the owner took them off and put them right into the oven! By the time we had eaten and wound down with a few drinks my pants were bone dry. We all agreed it would have been easy to get the train from Cuzco but it wouldn’t have been half as eventful and memorable.
The next morning we were up and out again by 5am. We left Francie in the hotel room where the owner watched out for him. A shuttle bus brought us up to the gates of Machu Picchu ($40 each entrance fee). As soon as we were inside, we went straight over to queue up for the hike to Huayna Picchu. They only allow 400 people a day on the trail so you need to get in line as soon as possible. Huayna Picchu is one of the mountains overlooking the ruins of Machu Picchu. It is a really tough climb and took us just over an hour but the view at the top is well worth it. This was more of a highlight for us than been at Machu Picchu itself. It was absolutely incredible sitting on top of the mountain looking down on these ancient ruins. They were only discovered in 1911 and are the best preserved Inca ruins there are. The setting, I think, is the most amazing factor about them. We wondered how on earth the Incas managed to pick this location on top of a mountain buried in the jungle and completely inaccessible. It really must have been an astonishing sight when Hiram Bingham stumbled upon them. We stayed as long as we could on Huayna Picchu but eventually had to drag ourselves away to make room for the next group. Back down, we wandered around the ruins for a few more hours; every corner we turned gave us another beautiful view of the surroundings. It definitely deserves to be one of the new wonders of the world.
We walked back down to Agua Calientes. Francie was fine and hadn’t destroyed the hotel! We had a quick bit of lunch and then walked back the train tracks again all the way back to Hydroelectrica where we grabbed a taxi back to Santa Teresa. The van was intact and the owner of the hostel rushed off to get us beer after our long hike. We tried alpaca steak (first cousin to a llama) for dinner which was basically just very chewy beef. Later we met a Scottish man who is living in Santa Teresa. He told us only ten years ago it was a beautiful little village to visit but two simultaneous landslides in the rivers flooded the entire town. The people are still trying to rebuild the town but tourism is not as big as it used to be. Such a shame, they were such nice people and the hotel owner wanted to know would we recommend his place to people in the future. We told him absolutely. We drove all day and made it back safe and sound to Cuzco. The road didn’t seem as bad the second time around. We spent a few more days in Cuzco and went to a nearby market in Pisaq which sold some beautiful handicrafts. We also met the Germans again and went out to a nice restaurant to celebrate Thomas’ birthday.
From Cuzco we wanted to go to Arequipa but didn’t want to backtrack on the same road to Puno. We took a right turn in Sicuani and headed down the back roads instead. The guy at the gas station said it was a very bad road and we should go the other way but after driving to Santa Teresa we decided we could drive anywhere. We were glad we didn’t listen to him; it was an incredible drive through some really stunning landscape. Just mountains and lakes and fields of alpacas and llamas. The indigenous people here were dressed in their traditional clothes, long colorful skirts, shawls and porkpie hats. They are not very friendly people though but I think they are so poor that there really isn’t anything for them to smile about.All they seem to do all day is sit in their fields watching the few llamas, sheep or cows they have. They have very small, basic mud houses so I’m sure seeing our fancy moving house go by just makes them despise us rather than welcome us. The road was gravel all the way but not that bad at all. We stopped in a small town called Yauri that night where I don’t think the people there had ever seen anything like the van, us or the dog. It was one of those eerie twilight zones where we felt the whole town watching and talking about us.
The next day we continued driving through gorgeous countryside until we reached Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. It was again absolutely beautiful there and we spent the night in the last town of the canyon called Cabanaconde. We were up at 6am the following morning and drove back to the Cruz Del Condor, a viewing point where apparently you can see condors flying every day, the biggest flying birds in the world. We met another German couple in their campervan with two children, ages 5 and 3, and another on the way. They are a year travelling around South America and have another year to go. She is just going to have the baby somewhere in Argentina and they are not even telling their families until the baby is born because they will want them to go home. And ye all think we are mad! We stayed chatting with them for a few hours and in the meantime saw about 15-20 condors flying around the slopes of the canyon. One of them just perched itself on a rock in front of us just like it was posing for a photo. Another one flew so close over our heads that it sounded like a little jet. It was such a breathtaking experience to get so close to these enormous birds. Afterwards we drove back along the canyon to the town of Chivay to warm up in their hot springs. It is really freezing at night time and even though the sun shines during the day, it is still pretty chilly.
We headed then for the city of Arequipa, passing through a vicuna reserve along the way. They are very much like llamas and alpacas. Arequipa is a lovely city set in a valley at the foot of El Misti volcano which unfortunately wasn’t very visible when we were there. The plaza was lovely though with beautiful old buildings. I had read about a museum there which held the remains of a frozen little Inca girl called Juanita that was discovered on the slopes of a nearby mountain at 6,000m in 1995. Her body and clothes were perfectly mummified and preserved. They believe she was a human sacrifice offered to the mountain as the Incas believed the mountain was a sacred god that provided them with water and good harvests. The locals still make offerings to the mountains these days but no longer human sacrifices. So we went to the museum excited about seeing Juanita and she wasn’t there. She was off in the laboratory for maintenance, typical!
Our last stop in Peru was the town of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at 3,855m and is also the most sacred lake in the Andes. Legend has it that the sun god had his children spring from its waters to found Cuzco and the Inca dynasty. The views of the lake from Puno weren’t actually that great but on the road to Bolivia it was a lot better.
So that was Peru, probably the most diverse country we have travelled through yet. You will find it hard to believe looking at the photos that it is all the same country. It is such a beautiful country and there are so many other parts to the country that we didn’t see. We didn’t have one dull day in Peru, it was all an adventure every day. All the stories we heard about the police and how they would be stopping us for bribes all the time couldn’t be further from the truth. They were extremely friendly and we only were stopped once the entire way through. There’s so much to do and see in Peru we could easily have spent another month there but we are trying to keep moving to Ushuaia before the winter hits hard. Until next time, slan…..