Sunday, October 2, 2016

South America - 8th Stop: Peru (Inca Trail)

We started this whole journey a month ago in Peru, and have seen an awful lot since leaving its borders. Chile was incredible and Bolivia put in a solid shift too, knocking Peru back into third place, but it's not over yet. We're back now for the final stretch and Peru still has the ultimate ace up its sleeve - one of the wonders of the modern world - Machu Picchu. 

There are many different ways to get to Machu Picchu, and even though it's deep in the mountains, and was lost for so long, there are now regular trains to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, and even more regular buses up to Machu Picchu itself. However, we decided to take a more scenic route to the top, with a four day hike along the Inca Trail. If you do plan on doing it this way (and you definitely should!) then you'll need to be booking it a good 6 months in advance. 

We were ridiculously lucky when booking ours actually, as we left it a small bit late. Every tour company we had emailed was full and we were having virtual doors slammed in our face right, left and centre. We were willing to shape our whole five weeks around this trek, but every one of those days was booked out with every company we contacted. Except for one, Alpaca Expeditions. One company with one day free and just two single spots available. The Incan Gods were smiling down on us.

And this was no reject, last-resort travel company either. They were the top rated group on Tripadvisor, and they were incredible! I'll go into more detail throughout, but if you're looking for a recommendation, Alpaca Expeditions are the bees knees!

We had a day in Cusco before starting our trek, following an overnight bus from Copacabana. We'd be spending another three days here afterwards, so I'll save that for another blog entry. For now, let's hit the Inca Trail!

Day 1:

The first day was a nice, easy introduction to the trail - the hiking was manageable, the company was delightful, and the food was incredible! We were expecting the cuisine to be quite basic, seeing as we would be halfway up a mountain, but it was actually some of the best food we had in South America! I don't think I was hungry for even a second for the entire trip. There was too much food if anything!

I didn't think you could hike for four days and actually put on weight!

The first day also introduced us to the sweeping valleys and Incan ruins, which we would be seeing plenty of in the coming days.

Day 2:

The second day was definitely the most grueling of the lot, starting with a steep, 4 hour climb up to the top of Dead Woman's Pass. Well, I say 4 hours as that's the recommended time, but we blitzed it in 2 and a half cause we're fucking deadly! We were the first two at the top, which was great as we had the view over the valley all to ourselves before the hoards descended, or rather, ascended.

Going back down the other side, though a lot faster, was just as tough, as the steep decline was murder on the legs. Did someone order veal, cause my calves were on fire! At least when we got to the bottom, it was time for lunch and a well earned break.

Another thing worth noting from the trek, and day 2 in particular, was the amount of flora and fauna we encountered. I was expecting breath-taking scenery, but was pleasantly surprised by the beauty and diversity of the wildlife. 

We come across llamas everywhere we go, and the novelty hasn't worn off yet. We still think they're great! Throughout the trek, we've been passing by small villages and farmlands, so it was no surprise to see them there. But even at Machu Picchu itself there were lots roaming around, so we never had to work too hard for our daily llama pic.

We had a few more ups and downs after lunch (literal, rather than emotional), as we rose into the clouds, before descending to the Incan ruins of Sayacmarca. And that was almost it for day 2, with just a short walk to our campsite for the night.

Day 3:

Each day, the scenery got better and better, and day 3 continued the trend. In fact, some of the sites we visited that afternoon were arguably as impressive as Machu Picchu itself. The design is so different to anything you'd see anywhere else in the world, and the fantastic surroundings were just the icing on the cake. One of our favourites was Intipata - The Terraces of the Sun.

Just be careful you don't stumble over the edge!

Whenever we would approach a site, our guide, Herlin, would have us all look down at the ground and pace slowly forward. Then, when it was time, we would all look up. It was a great idea, as our first impression would be the site in its full glory, rather than it slowly coming into view piece by piece. The emotion hit you all at once, and that feeling was especially powerful at our final stop of the day, WiƱay Wayna. We were all a bit misty eyed. Even the hillside was in tiers!

We also made our video diary here as we figured it would be too crowded at Machu Picchu:

That evening, after dinner, we also said our final goodbyes to our porters, or Chasquis, as they're called. They use the term Chasqui, as porter implies they simply transport things from one place to another. Whereas our Chasquis carried all of our belongings, tents and supplies for the duration of the trek, as well as cooking our food and setting up our campsite every evening before we arrived. We even had a portable toilet (I hope the guy carrying that got paid extra!)

After that, it was an early night as we had an even earlier start the next morning.

Day 4:

So, this was it, the day we had been waiting for. And even though we were up at 3:15, that was just to be at the top of the queue for when the gates opened, which wasn't until 5:30. So, we planted ourselves down and tried to get a bit more sleep before the day started for real. It was a good thing we made the effort to get here early too, as when the clock struck half 5, there were hundreds of hikers in line behind us.

This meant that we were able to take off and have Machu Picchu all to ourselves! Or so we thought. As the sun was rising, mist was clearing and Machu Picchu was getting closer, we saw some people approaching us out of the fog. Where the hell did they come from?! It was like first meeting the others from Lost. We thought we were the only ones!

It turns out they had come up from Aguas Calientes, which made it even worse! Not only were we not the first here, but we were beaten by people who got the bus! Ah well, it was still amazing and relatively quiet.

It certainly lived up to expectations too, which is always a worry when visiting such a famous site. It was just one of those places where you could spend the whole day, just looking at the same thing. And in fact, we did! We spent about 7 hours up there in total, and almost missed our train back to Cusco! Totally worth it though.

What an Inca-redible view!

You may think this is the most Peruvian picture imaginable - a llama overlooking Machu Picchu - but I'll go one better. How about two llamas having sex at Machu Picchu?!

And this is what it looks like when a young llama is scarred for life:

Even his little llama mascara is running.

And that was it for Machu Picchu. That afternoon, we got a train from Aguas Calientes back to Cusco. The train ticket was included in the price of the trek, but they must have sold out of economy tickets as we were upgraded to first class! This is the first time this has ever happened to us! We were given food and drink, there was a fashion show, and some sort of clown/wolf dancing up and down the aisle! What more could you ask for?!

We were the only ones in our group that were upgraded too, which made it all the sweeter!

And so we arrived back in Cusco, said our goodbyes, and that was it for our Machu Picchu trek. We had an excellent time, and as I said before, if you are planning on doing something similar, you can't go wrong with Alpaca Expeditions. Just be sure to book well in advance!

For now, we had three full days in Cusco, before returning to Lima, and ultimately Dublin. I'll cover all of that in my next and final blog for this trip. So, see you then!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

South America - 7th Stop: Bolivia (Lake Titicaca)

Welcome to Lake Titicaca - the world's highest navigable lake, and also the number one place name for a childish giggle. This was our last stop in Bolivia before we looped back into Peru, and the lake itself is actually split between both countries. There are a few towns on both sides of the border, but we thought it would be best to just have a solid stint in one, rather than hopping from place to place. So, we settled down for a lovely three days on the lakeside of Copacabana (not that one).

We travelled from La Paz with a company called Bolivia Hop, who I should probably talk about, seeing as we did much of the first leg of our journey with their sister company, Peru Hop. It's definitely the easiest way to travel along the main routes in these two countries, and although it's a bit more expensive than local transport, it's worth it for the ease of travel. They also give good discounts on certain accommodation and expeditions, which has saved us quite a bit. It's owned by two Irish guys as well, so another reason to give them your custom!

Just like in Sucre, we decided to splash out (by Bolivian standards) on super accommodation, and this one is well up there with the nicest places we've stayed anywhere in the world. There are two hotels, run by the same owner, on the hillside overlooking the lake - Hotel La Cupula and Hostal Las Olas - and they are absolute works of art. Each chalet is so beautifully designed, I would've happily lived there. In fact, I'd gladly live in that room now if they could somehow fly it to Dublin! There was a hot tub (which we used everyday, just because), a fireplace, an incredible view over the lake, and lovely gardens with hammocks and llamas! What more could you ask for?!

Seriously, if you're ever in Copacabana, or if you're ever in South America, make a detour and visit this place! 

It's funny how having such nice accommodation can shape your view of a town. Looking back on our time in Copacabana, we have nothing but fond memories, but if we had stayed in just a random hostel, I don't think Copacabana would have made any sort of impression on us. The town has a couple of nice spots, but doesn't really stand out besides in any major way. There's a short hike to a lookout point, a church and town square, all quite nice, but that's about it.

The biggest attraction here is the lake itself, and its central island, Isla del Sol, so named as it was believed to be the birthplace of the Inca sun god. Speaking of the Incas though, when do you think their empire was around? Well, apparently it was from between 1438 - 1533. It makes sense when you consider they were conquered by the Spanish during the age of exploration, but I just always imagined them being around hundreds of years before then.

Anyway, we spent a day on Isla del Sol, getting a morning boat to the northern town of Challapampa, before hiking the length of the island, and departing from the south that evening. Some people recommend spending the night here, but we found that we saw all that we needed to see in one day, and besides, we couldn't wait to get back to our sweet room! It was still a day well spent though.

Back in Copacabana, we twice went for breakfast in a lovely spot called El Condor and the Eagle Cafe. It's worth mentioning as it's owned by a guy from Cork, and he even imports in Barry's tea especially! The food was incredible as well; good, hearty Irish food. A great little treat where you'd least expect it.

And just to prove that the Irish can't go anywhere without bumping into someone from home - on our second visit there, we got chatting to a couple who were also from Cork. After a few minutes of conversation, we realised the guy was friends with my brother and our mothers grew up together! The owner just smiled to himself as he listened. I'm sure this kinda thing happens all the time in there.

And that was all for Copacabana, a decent town, hoisted up by incredible accommodation. We made our video diary in our front garden, and it gives you a good visual of how nice the place was inside and out.

That was also the end for Bolivia, as we jumped on a night bus to Peru. As a whole, Bolivia was very nice, with Salar de Uyuni and Death Road the highlights. The thing is though, as has happened before, it was hyped up a little too much for us beforehand. We had heard from a few people previously that Bolivia was their absolute favourite, and so we were expecting more than we ended up getting. We've had the same story with Laos and Sri Lanka in the past. Bolivia was still great and we enjoyed our time here, just don't travel anywhere with prior expectations!

For now, it was off to Cusco to put Peru properly on the map as we began our trek up to Machu Picchu! See you then!