“Imagine you are here in a flash flood. Water swirls violently in the Amphitheatre like a washing machine pushing everything before it….” Just as I read these words on the explanatory sign, plump drops of rain strike me. Others impel like random bullets in to the thin layer of bulldust I am standing in. I look up at the series of vertical steel ladders with quite narrow steps that we will need to ascend to reach the Amphitheatre and more importantly, will later need to descend backwards. The image of the flash flood instantly becomes more vivid than the sign writer could ever have hoped for.
Common sense prevails. A flash flood in the next 20 minutes or so is not going to happen, but for one brief moment the visual was enhanced by the sudden rain into a moment of intensity.
Carnarvon Gorge in central western Queensland can claim to be one of the great National Parks of Australia. Even though it is practically in my backyard, this will be my first trip and another great expedition ticked off. A straight through drive from my house takes about the same time as a flight from Brisbane to Honolulu, or Sydney to Hong Kong. Almost anywhere you want to go from here is an expedition.
Time is on our side this trip so we make it a leisurely drive, enjoying a few of the sights with an overnight stop at Springsure. We hit Rolleston, a small township of maybe 40 houses, which is where we turn off the highway. It’s Sunday afternoon and the place is deserted. Glad we fuelled up earlier as the 24 hour servo is locked up as well. Was there anything else we should have got before we entered the National Park? Too late now; I’m not driving back over 70kms to Springsure unlike the unfortunate people we met later who were counting on that place as a fuel stop.
Whether you are a pitch a tent type, or a full modern luxury style of traveller, Carnarvon Gorge seems to have something for everyone. We opt for a point in the middle which is a tent on a platform complete with fly sheet and best of all, en suite facilities. That rather small tin tank on the right of the platform houses a perfectly adequate shower, with plenty of hot water, and toilet.
The tent can sleep 5 people and apart from the beds, it holds a small fridge, a pedestal fan, a handy hat stand along with a broom and dustpan. All you need really! The fan was used on the rare occasions we were inside during the day.
Timing can be everything when you travel and sometimes you hit the sweet spot. The week before, some visitors chose to leave as the heat was unbearable at over 40 degrees Celsius. In the interim, there had been a couple of good storms and we arrived to hot days for sure, but everything was greened up, water was running and nights were comfortable with just a light bed cover and the windows and doors rolled up to let the cool air flow through the bug mesh.
Our main aim at Carnarvon was to explore by hiking around, but what was so good about this place was that there was plenty to see and do for less mobile visitors. Kangaroos and wallabies everywhere, betong at night, active platypus in the creek, plenty of bird life and a bat colony – not totally welcome having relocated their roosting place a little too close by.
We were told there was a colony of 100,000 bats resident nearby. I assumed this was a slight exaggeration but after watching (and hearing) them on the move, I don’t doubt the numbers. It was like watching a continuous wave flowing on and on through the trees.
There are more than a dozen designated walks, some as short as under a kilometre and others around the 20 km mark return, though a lot longer if you walk in and out of each of the highlights along the way.
New visitors rolled in every day to hear the valuable information sessions, mingle in the happy hour or enjoy the roast evening meal. Large camp kitchens with bbq facilities are located around the facility. The main danger of the camp kitchen area is the exceptionally gifted abilities of the kookaburras to steal food right off your fork. After surviving two evenings maintaining a watchful eye, I was caught out on the last night. I saw, heard or felt nothing apart from a slight brushing of wing feathers on my face as a vigilant kookaburra stole the last mouthful right off my poised fork. All we could do was watch as the bird “killed” the catch on the adjacent grass. That is one lethal beak.
Beautiful in the wild
But beware when eating a sausage!
The sound of someone walking behind the tent in the middle of the dark night. A growling sound, neither a dog nor a possum. Another growl and I am wide awake. We have no really dangerous wild animals in Australia, apart from the odd venomous snakes and spiders so this was a wild animal sound uncommonly heard.
But I had once heard similar growling walking around one of the lovely bush tracks of Mt Majura in Canberra. There was a lot more intense growling on that occasion as two full-grown kangaroos fought it out in the late afternoon. Here, after only two growls and lots of silence I finally heard the definite thump, thump of a roo bounding away. The disturbed ground outside the tent in the morning provided evidence of the altercation during the night.
Hidden in the rugged ranges of Queensland’s central highlands, Carnarvon Gorge features towering sandstone cliffs, vibrantly coloured side gorges, diverse flora and fauna and Aboriginal rock art. This promo somehow seems understated and lacking in the drama and exhiliration after the real experience. Absolutely worth the effort of getting there!
Our guide Russell collects us and we realise with a silent Wow, this is just going to be the two of us with him for this adventure expedition. How brilliant is that? We collect a few final provisions and head off towards Puerto Rio Tranquilo and an amazing journey.
When planning a 3 month trip there are many things that have to be planned on the road. Or they just evolve. While it was low season in places like Machu Picchu, it was going to be high season in Patagonia so this expedition was one thing that was planned many, many months in advance.
Just one chance review I happened across in months of research led me to Rio Exploradores Laguna San Rafaeland what a gem of a trip that has turned out to be. A total stunner!
Timing hinged on the flight out of La Paz to Santiago going without a hitch. We needed to fly out of Santiago south to Balmaceda airport in Patagonia the very next day. Now I’ve seen people on various forums angsting about an unbelievably tiny window, maybe a matter of hours, between an international arrival and an onward flight but that is so not me. Even with 24 hours or so to play with, I was on tenterhooks on and off over the entire trip hoping that everything would go according to plan. It did!
Walking in to Balmaceda airport you stop wondering how to make the 45 minute journey into Coyhaique, our real jumping off point for this Patagonian expedition. Several different company representatives are strategically positioned in the arrivals area frantically waving tickets begging to be allowed to drive you direct to your hotel.
Coyhaique was a surprisingly happening place for a Thursday evening with a troupe of acrobatic buskers entertaining the reasonably large crowds of people thronging the Plaza and streets of this small place. I remember this is high season so there are plenty of tourists around, many of them appear to be Chileans. An excellent meal with good old-fashioned service that night sets us up for the first of four very big days in Patagonia.
The scenery is ever spectacular. All those snow-capped mountains I have tried to snap with varying degrees of success over this last few months through dirty bus windows was so unnecessary. Everything is larger than life and immediate here. There is a never-ending feast of mountains, rivers, lakes, waterfalls and stunning scenery.
After driving for about 90 minutes we reached the end of the sealed road and stop for an excellent lunch break at Cerro Castillo. Those country Chilenas make a mean soup. From here on, we will either be only be on roads that are dusty, narrow or corrugated or a combination of all three, or, on a boat of some description.
Over the four days we total maybe 1,000 kilometres. Hard work on unsealed roads, but unfailingly awesome at every turn. Not as hard though as for the many cyclists we see who are doing over 1,000 kilometres from Puerto Montt to O’Higgins on the Carretera Austral. The corrugated roads, the dust and the narrow sections in some parts make this a journey strictly for dedicated cyclists only. Plenty of hitchhikers as well doing the trek.
It still feels quite early in the Chilean daylight saving hours when we reach Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Not a lot of time to savour the luxury at the gorgeous Hostal El Puesto where shoes are dispensed with and woollen slippers are provided to walk around the wooden floors. We are soon heading off to tour the marble caves on Lake General Carrera, the second biggest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca. Another silent Wow as we realise what a jam-packed agenda this is going to be. Excellent.
Again it is just the two of us who head down to the picturesque little dock on the lake and head out at speed across the water. The caves and formations are a truly stunning marvel. The boatman is addicted to taking photos for his passengers it seems and snaps us at every conceivable angle at every opportunity.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo
It’s a small flat-bottomed boat and that’s how our rear ends feel after the trip back. The wind has picked up in the late evening and with it a pretty good swell. Our only option is to clutch the plank seat for grim death and just go with the exhilaration as we bump back over the choppy water.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo is a tiny town only 4 blocks square, but the food at El Puesto is a gourmet delight.
An early morning start as we have to be at the river crossing by 9am and it’s another 90 minutes on another dirt road to reach the river. Russell makes it all feel so relaxed though especially with a great Playlist to choose from. There’s always time to stop at a particularly spectacular spot for photos, to watch Andean condor soaring, or to fill our water bottles from the pure water pouring down a mountain side. We drink water that has probably rested up there frozen for thousands of years. Just hard to beat.
Night two was going to be camping out but an unusually wet summer means Ian from the company Rio Exploradores has had to come up with plan B. We reach the river crossing and meet Jaime the boatman and Rosa his wife. Their old house, a very rustic cabin, will be our home for the night so we dump our bags at their new, slightly less rustic home and hit the road in the van kept on the other side of the river. Today we are with seven other travellers, still a pretty small group. We’re off to the glacier and Laguna San Rafael.
The weather is perfect after many inclement days. We feel unbelievably lucky at the momentous timing choices made at least six months ago. When we finally reach the river there is no wind so with a surface like glass, the boat journey is maybe only two hours to the glacier.
The boat is small and fast with a cabin just big enough to protect our small group of passengers should the weather be inclement. All that thermal gear we carried for 3 months around the Galapagos and everywhere else we have been is finally having its big day. We can rug up enough to be able to sit outside for as long as the skipper allows, virtually the entire 2 hours there and then 2 hours back again.
It is such an amazing, special experience that I don’t want to miss a minute sitting in the cabin.
The journey starts in the river and then we move into the fjord. Mountains reflect in the water, there are hanging glaciers, birds skim at speed unbelievably close to the water surface, then we see some penguin. After some time, ice floes appear just dotting the surface initially, increasing in size and number. A massive Leopard seal suns itself on an iceberg. Our small boat means we are able to manoeuvre to get close views to the apparent disinterest of the enormous creature.
Finally the glacier proper appears broaching down into the water.
Lunch first though in the national park, a gourmet picnic complete with a shot of Pisco. We walk along the shore and see the spot where a hotel once stood to take in the glacier views. The glacier has long since retreated far, far back from this spot.
The glacier is still a majestic wonder of nature though. Two kilometres across and 250 metres deep at the entry point into the water, it cracks and growls, the noise resounding like cannon. Every time there is another enormous crack I look expecting to see yet another giant slab breaking off, but this action is back in the body of the glacier amongst the crevasses as it relentlessly grinds and moves like a living beast.
Several enormous pieces do calve off though thoroughly spectacularly. There is an enormous splash as the giant ice slabs plummet down only to rise and submerge and rise again.
A ritual of the glacier visit is to have a shot of whiskey, or Pisco, in a piece of glacier ice. A highly compressed solid piece of ice is ideal otherwise the alcohol quickly runs through. Luis fishes with a boat hook for the best slab he can find in the water nearby, carves a well in the top with his knife and then we sup our alcohol in turn.
Two hours back on the still glassy surface and I greedily drink in every moment of the journey out in the open back of the boat. Who knows when I will next do something like this again?
There’s still a van ride back to the river crossing and our cabin for the night. Rosa prepares a dinner of Chinook salmon from the river and Russell appears with a bottle of red. For an isolated place it is pretty convivial as people knock on the door of Jaime and Rosa’s cabin to share in some conversation or to participate in the mate tea ritual.
The night sky is amazing and the morning light beside the fast flowing river is beautiful. We can relax at the kitchen table looking out at the river because Jaime has his work life balance well in order, the first crossings don’t start before 9am. Time to just sit right on the river edge and meditate on the beauty as cars and people start to gather on the other side waiting for the boatman.
Plan B means we will go to the Rio Baker Confluencia today. We don’t know what we have missed due to the weather enforced change of plans, but it seems you can’t go too far wrong in Patagonia. We are in for another stupendous day.
First stop is the lookout we missed on day one. It is a pretty decent hike uphill again but after weeks at altitude climbing daily, this hike basically at sea level is a snap to reach the viewing point over the Exploradores glacier and the north face of San Valentin, Patagonia’s highest and possibly most dramatic peak. It is a stunning outlook over the glacier and mountains. Several groups far below us are heading out for a day trek over the glacier. So many young Chileans are enjoying their country.
It is a Sunday and we stop at a small village on the river where a Fiesta is under way. The asada has been well attacked and the revellers are dancing to the music, playing bocce or just relaxing on the river bank. Feels like a good time for an ice cream.
Back on the road and we finally start to follow the Rio Baker. The colour is the most stunning turquoise blue. Just extraordinarily beautiful. The viewing spot is on private property but the generous owner allows public access to what is for me, one of the top highlights of the entire 3 month trip.
Again a good hike in, about 700 metres. The sheep pastures with the mountain backdrops we pass by at the start of the trail are a bit reminiscent of New Zealand. We hear the thundering noise first and then finally the majestic sight is revealed -the enormous “Salton” waterfall at the confluence of the rivers Baker and Neff.
The stretch of river leading up to the Salton is a popular kayaking or rafting spot. A couple leave the water just as we arrive in such a calm and beautiful little bay only metres from the thundering drop. Again, we almost have the place to ourselves to explore this wonder from different vantage points.
The sight is compellingly mesmerising as we watch that mass of water thundering over the rocks with such a consistently strong volume and force. Thankfully a move to dam and flood the entire valley was thwarted. I hope this beautiful part of the world remains intact.
The day is not over yet. We drive to the location of ancient rock paintings, mostly hand outlines, up on a massive rock face.
Just a small section of Patagonia was all we managed to explore in a jam packed four days, but it was such an amazing adventure with nature really. Lakes of so many different colours seemed to be around every corner, the amazing rivers, glaciers, waterfalls with the majestic Andes Mountains as an ever present backdrop.
I loved every minute of this trip as you may be able to guess and a return to Patagonia has to be on the cards in the not too distant future.
For days Lake Titicaca has been our companion and now we travel out of Puno alongside it towards Bolivia.
This is a walk over border from Peru to Bolivia and of course it is up an inevitable hill, still at altitude. Makes me recall the range of different border crossings I have ever made.
The main thing is that this for me is a legal crossing so I record the event. In 1974, Australians needed visas all through South America, but we were assured in Brazil, no problem, no visa necessary. Perhaps one of those Austria / Australia problems.
Anyway after a week on a river boat going up the Amazon doing the hammock on the deck thing, followed by another 5 days on the Rio Madeira, a tributary of the Amazon, we crossed into the wilds of far northern Bolivian at Guajara Merim. Sans visa like innocent babes in the woods.
An unshaven rough looking man with a large pistol very obviously bulging in his back pocket accosted us in the hotel asking for our passports. In the face of our understandable reluctance, a tall American with a monkey on his shoulder (dead set true story) strolled by as if on cue and suggested we comply because this unlikely looking character was the chief of police.
Long story short, we didn’t end up in a Bolivian jungle jail for not having a visa. In fact we became the new best friends of the police chief for the week we were stranded there waiting for transport out. He very generously took us out to lunch but somehow made the American rancher from up river pay the tab.
Back to this trip, Copacabana is just over the border in Bolivia and here we stayed for 3 days in a fabulous hostel, La Cupula, with our own fireplace in the room and stunning lake views. Two alpacas were also permanent residents in the beautiful gardens.
One little strip of street in Copacabana is home to every traveller who passes through. Backpacks, beards, and long hair from one end to the other along with the odd buskers and travellers selling jewellery presumably to fund a bit more travel. Restaurants, tour organisers and shops selling woollen garments, jewellery and knick knacks line the street which leads down to the lake.
In spite of the freezing water, the lake is alive with activities for young and old and one hardy gent even takes a swim.
Great place to chill and relax for a few days – apart from the hill climbs of course.
We have an international connection in La Paz so a deadline approaches and we are back on a bus. At a point where the lake pinches in, there is a barge crossing. We need to cross the lake to get on the highway to La Paz so passengers are offloaded and the bus goes onto a barge with several cars. It takes us bus passengers a little while to realise we have to buy a ticket and hop onto a small motor boat replete with copious fumes to meet the bus.
After so long with the Lake as our companion, I miss it when we finally part ways and keep looking thinking I see it. The biggest lake in South America and such an iconic travel destination, for me at least.
Before we reach La Paz we have to negotiate El Alto, a city on the plain high above La Paz. This stretch of road in is an unbelievable nightmare section, totally congested as every car, truck and bus going in about 5 different directions on the dusty unmade road converges and no one wants to budge from their position. This is all a totally normal driving strategy, it just doesn’t work here because there are huge mounds of dirt where presumably there may have once been a bit more room to manoevre. Somehow we make it through eventually taking about 2 hours to do 60kms but the first sighting of La Paz itself makes it all worthwhile.
The city sits encased in a deep valley in the mountains and is quite spectacular. Once you are down in the city though, the streets are the inevitable steep hills to climb no matter where you want to go.
Just a very short stay but we want to go to Tiahuanaco or Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan civilization almost all the way back to Lake Titicaca but in a different direction from where we have just come.
Such a contrast to Machu Picchu in terms of visitor numbers, it is fabulous from our point of view with so few people venturing out here. One of our few tours, it was very modestly priced for a very full day and just so worth it.
Almost the very first thing you see in the first of two museums is a monolith of staggering proportions, 7.3 metres high. In spite of having resided outside a sports stadium in La Paz for 70 years in all sorts of conditions, ironically photography is now prohibited. Just a stunning spectacle.
The Sun Gate is the other famous work standing out in the ruins. As with many places both here and in Peru, many of the ruins are roped off.
Back in La Paz, there are many museum possibilities but not enough time so we opt for the musical museum. Great choice, it was so excellent.
It’s an early morning trip to the airport but the day dawns bright and clear yet again. As the highest international airport in the world at just over 4,000 metres, we traverse one last time the steep climb up out of the valley to the flatter El Alto. The tightest connection of the trip because we need to fly south the very next day from Santiago to Patagonia but I need not have worried. Having prebooked the more expensive national carrier throughout, the strategy appears to have paid off.
Experimenting with the multi city bookings helped to keep it a bit more economical and made a framework we had to run with. Turned out to be a good thing in the end I think with just 3 short months to play with.
All 13 LATAM flights have been on schedule, staff have been helpful and our luggage has always been there. Pretty good even though the in flight offering on an international flight would disappoint most. I’m used to not being able to eat most airline food, so no dramas for me.
Barely a week in Bolivia. It was added in to the journey more as a logistical tactic to get back to Santiago, but provided a few special experiences and a nice opportunity for reminiscing on my youthful adventures.
Road washout between Cusco and Chivay. We either abandon Colca Canyon altogether given our time frame, or take the expensive option and fly into Arequipa. Colca wins so we book another flight.
Just a 1 hour hop in the plane through the Andes. As we approach Arequipa, Colca is right there out the window and we seem to be not much higher than the snow caps. Very spectacular.
Arequipa is a bit lower in altitude than Cuzco but we will be ascending even higher again over the next couple of days
Heavy fog covers Arequipa as we head out on a pretty dodgy long detour. So lucky to fly in on time early the day before. The fog and cloud continues for several hours as we slog up the mountain behind slower vehicles. Next to nil visibility means passing is impossible.
Headgear worn by the women in these parts consists of beautifully embroidered white hats. Many women wear blankets wrapped around over their other clothes. The clouds close in again and as we stop to pick people up on the side of a hill, snow is falling.
This is the coldest it’s been so far and condor sightings are really looking a slim possibility in this weather – we do know we are in the wrong season but there’s always a hope.
After a barren landscape covered only with rocks, small bushes and spiky grasses that look like an army of smurfs positioned between the rocks, we finally start to get some canyon views.
When we do eventually get to Chivay, we are grateful to be going direct to our ultimate destination of Cabanaconde because the bus is full and everyone getting on at Chivay has to stand for quite a while.
Sitting on the right side of the bus is pretty important as the aisle full of standing people out of Chivay means there is nothing visible from the left.
In spite of fogged windows with droplets running down, the compulsion to snap away is strong. Plenty of alpaca are around and many are in such a picturesque landscape. Some good views of snow caps as well.
Only about an hour late into Cabanaconde but safe and sound after a fairly arduous weather impacted drive uphill, up mountain really, most of the way. I spot our hostel as we drive in to the tiny village in the rain and dark, but someone is waiting to meet us anyway.
We park straight in the restaurant close to the wood fire pizza oven to indulge in a glass of Argentine red and a very welcome huge meal, alpaca and pizza respectively.
In spite of an obvious zero chance of condor sighting, we break out the thermals and head out the next morning in the Pachamama kombi van to the main viewing spot. We are practically the last to leave the viewing site because it is so beautiful in the clouds. There are two other viewing spots, again no luck, but some spectacular views. It is now possible to see the trekking paths down the valley and up the other side, along with villages on the other side where the trekkers stay overnight.
Back in Cabanaconde, we are perhaps the only tourists in town not trekking for 2 or 3 days, but we head out on our own mini hike. Valley views are beautiful and in the far distance there is a waterfall pouring out with tremendous force.
Plenty of livestock to be seen in rough stone pens and the valley below is just covered in a patchwork of farms. A woman who has just fed her pigs is keen to have a little chat.
Cabanaconde has obviously attracted a few characters. We find a food spot that looks interesting and get a couple of great coffees from one such character.
Banana late lunch on the terrace of Pachamama watching the ever changing clouds hiding and then exposing the mountains surrounding us. Yet to see the volcano but who knows what tomorrow will bring. It is an amazing part of the world.
The road to Puno beckons and yes, we do end up seeing both the volcano and the condor. A phenomenal performance from several of the massive birds as if tracking us on the road and then swooping right alongside our viewing point.
What must it be like to live in a small village already at way over 3,000 metres, where sheer mountains rise up directly above for maybe up to 1,000 to 2,000 metres more like a giant fence of random but all encompassing rock.
We have been in this environment for a few days now. I try to take some comfort from the fact that the mountains appear to be solid rock in light of the huge amounts of seismic activity in Peru. The train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes follows the river along a very narrow passage through the mountains. Sometimes it is too narrow and we pass through a tunnel. The peaks rise up above us like giants looking down benignly with the highest reaching a snow capped 5,700 metres. A number of snow caps are more easily seen on the return journey.
Meanwhile the river is like none I’ve ever seen before. Full of absolutely massive rocks, the water tumbles through at phenomenal speed in an absolutely lethal spectacle. It is awesomely mesmerising.
Maybe halfway into our 90 minute journey the vegetation changes from being quite sparse with cacti and bromeliads to a more sub tropical feel. Warmer temperatures and more rain allow high altitude palms and orchids to flourish.
We kept our eyes peeled for the Spectacle Bear and the National bird Cock of the Rock along the way but no luck there.
Aguas Calientes is an end of the line pit stop with a feel of the wild west. Wall to wall eateries compete for your custom. Luckily someone from our hostel met us at the train as I don’t think my mud map would have worked in the rabbit warren. Looking over the rooftops reveals what looks like a shack shanty town on top of the touristy outlets at ground level.
Just up the steps is The Tree House restaurant. Obviously a foodie spot that we managed to luck into.
We meet people who like us have trained in to do Machu Picchu the next day. I would love to know how it panned out for some. A young Paraguayan woman who didn’t like heights and wasn’t sure she’d even go. An American woman just puffed out from walking up to the restaurant had a ticket to climb the mountain behind Machu Picchu which appears to be a vertical climb taking a couple of hours.
We head out at 05.30 and the queue for the bus is good 300 metres long – and it’s uphill to get to the end of the queue. People would have been there at 03.30 to get the first bus. It’s pretty efficient though and we are on a bus in 40 minutes with a 20 minute ride up the mountain.
A number of fit young things are walking up from the base. Extremely hard work
There is still cloud cover but we hopefully head up to the Sun Gate. Lots of early arrivers are heading down not having seen the sun. We pike at a great spot after 20 minutes and are rewarded with the sun breaking through the clouds wafting over the main site.
Fascinating with cloud cover, it is stunning in full sun light. We head down to join the masses. This is low season yet there are hundreds of people still and more continue to arrive.
My big mission is to find the location of my 1974 photo and recreate the event. I was already sure this would not be possible having seen many lovely places roped off.
We show the photo to one of the attendants. He smiled “Yes it is 3 Windows, but no puede”. OK, I can’t, so I find something a bit similar and Kerri snaps away until another attendant tells me I can’t have my leg hanging down.
It has been a full on few days and we leave Machu Picchu satisfied but exhausted. We jagged the timing for the day. Around lunch time it started to pour rain – those who got a later start would not have had such a pleasant experience.
There are 2 seasons here, wet and dry. So, for visitors in the rainy season, an overnight in Aguas Calientes with a very early morning start to get up the mountain would be my top tips to give yourself the best chance of a great experience of this magical place. We haven’t been here that long but it seems to rain later in the day and overnight.
I am glad I first visited in an easier and less well touristed time when you could clamber wherever you liked, but it’s pretty special to return nearly 43 years later and fulfil that long held promise to myself. So here’s the homage to my youthful adventurous self albeit not quite as I planned. 1974 – 2017.
Finally we are heading for the Sacred Valley and will use Ollantaytambo as an entry and exit point. The collectivo drops us of in yet another charming village Plaza and we make our way to Intitambo, our resting spot for two nights.
What a warm and welcoming hostel. None of these mountain hostels have heating but seem to be very well designed and constructed with extremely cosy beds.
The terrace looks straight out onto the ruins and always up, up to the peaks of the surrounding mountains.
Climbing any of the ruins in the Sacred Valley has an element of risk. We hear that the Pisac ruins are closed due to someone falling. Another person has died while doing a star jump for a photo and falling off a cliff – that is according to some reports. We see people doing exactly that so could be correct (star jumps that is, not falling).
The Ollantaytambo ruins extend up the mountain with various temples and the ever present water features at the base. In the wet season, mornings seem to be the optimal time to set out. The tracks may be a little precarious in the rain, though the yellow ponchos high up tell the story that people do undertake it in the rain.
Time is obviously a factor for a lot of people heading to Machu Picchu, so many seem to head straight back to Cuzco. Exhaustion plus in my book after a big day at MP. But if time is not an issue, Ollantaytambo is a perfect spot with nice accommodation, food and coffee. What more could you need?
Cuzco is a gem in the Peruvian Andes. Hippie heaven in another time, now a flashpacker paradise. This time I fly in rather than take an arduous bus ride from Lima. The taxi winds its way in El Centro through streets absolutely never designed for vehicular traffic.
We rattle over cobble stones and take our chances with the oncoming vehicles. Backing up is the only option, in the narrow streets that are reminiscent of Sevilla in terms of the dimensions.
At our highest elevation so far, there is no time to worry about altitude sickness, important business to attend to. First stop Plaza Mayor for Peru rail, but we just have to stop and take it in, the Plaza is splendidly beautiful and grand.
Train tickets to Aguas Calientes in hand and at phenomenal expense for a 90 minute journey, next stop the government department that sells entry tickets to Machu Picchu. A bit of a queue here and luckily we have plenty of soles because US$ are not accepted. Passports are required for both the train and MP tickets.
So over $300 each all up just to get the return train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes and to get into MP. Will be another US$50 for the return bus from AC to MP and return. Luckily it is only about $4 to get to Ollantaytambo from Cusco!
Priorities complete, we can now eat lunch, it’s nearly 4pm.
One of the things I love about South America and Cuba as well, is that there is never a wrong time to eat. If you want a 3 course meal at 4pm, no problem. If it’s only a small snack at 8pm also no problem.
Back to our lovely hostel, so convenient apart from the fact it’s uphill with just 67 or so steps at the end of the climb – that’s Cuzco. After 3 weeks of internet deprivation in Cuba, there is a lot of catch up and research waiting to be done.
Day 2 in Cuzco and instead of searching for the local bus, we take the expensive option and get a taxi to Tambomachay. It’s only about 8kms up the road, and the key word is UP. We go to about 3,700 metres and the plan is to walk back to Cuzco taking in the Inca ruins on the way.
There is quite a long walk in to the Tambomachay ruins and we are puffing a bit even on the flat to start with. We purchase the tourist ticket that covers 16 different sites through the Sacred Valley and will cover us for 10 days.
Such a beautiful location with the inevitable fast flowing water that seems to be present in every Andean location in this part of Peru. A herd of sheep flash down the adjacent hillside adding a touch of life to the ancient beauty we are exploring.
Just across the road is Pura Pucara, stop two in the ruins exploration for the day.
From here, we decide to take unmarked trails cross country to get to the next site. I have written some directional notes so we set off confidently past a huge stand of very tall eucalypts.
Immediately we know this was a great decision. It is so green, lots of rain here, and the countryside is stunning. We pass crops, stock and farms.
After about half an hour or so, my notes seem to taper and we are on the verge of heading back toward the road. Suddenly, from behind, we are hailed. “Going to the Temple of the Moon? I am going, come with me.”
Carrying an enormous shovel, the local man is clearly on his way to work somewhere. Seems like a great option so we take up the offer. He speaks no English but endeavours to educate us on the way, drawing a mud map of the extent of the Inca empire.
He points out the potatoes, an amazing range available in Peru, and plucks two different sorts of wild mint. The aroma of the first is so strong and aromatic, unlike any mint I have smelt before.
In spite of these interludes, he is clearly in a hurry. “Walk faster”.
We walk at an absolutely cracking pace, luckily mostly downhill. I am mesmerised by his feet and legs and keep a close eye on where he is stepping as we proceed along the rough and sometimes wet track.
His lower legs and feet look as if they have been beautifully crafted from clay, they are so sturdy, brown, strong and slightly muddy in the simple sandals.
Muy tranquilo he says waving at the spectacular landscape we are walking through. Absolutely, there is no better description to describe where we are. Just a wonderful 20 minutes or so sharing a small journey with this lovely man.
The Temple of the Moon is a good resting spot after our exertions in getting there. Having seen no one for an hour or more, it suddenly becomes comparatively busy. Locals are enjoying a Sunday picnic and tourists are coming in on horses from the lower ruins. Feels pretty special to have had that interlude on our own.
Next stop Q’enqa followed by the big one Saqsahuaman.
Coming from this direction and after such a huge effort already, it seems like a very long walk in to Saqsa. Beats coming the other way though which is as uphill as you can get from Cuzco.
Have to say I am a bit excited as this is one place I visited in 1974 and here it is. Wonderful to see again.
In spite of weary bodies, we have to do the main section, then it is downhill, sometimes just as difficult as uphill, back to Cuzco.
Plans for further activities are abandoned as we are stuffed to use the vernacular, so have a late lunch again, a coffee at our favourite spot and retire for the day with a cup of coca leaf tea.
The bed is super cosy with blankets and doona, no heating needed though I sneeze if I venture to the bathroom in bare feet. Quite cold at night. In spite of walking maybe 20kms at altitude over about 5 or 6 hours I don’t sleep as well as I thought I would. Maybe the body is overtired or maybe a couple of late coca leaf teas was not a good idea.
Real yoghurt, white and creamy is a treat for breakfast. I have to say that because to date Peruvian yoghurt has been bright pink and fairly liquid. Cuzco offers plenty of culinary treats. Kerri tries alpaca steak which she enjoys.
What I enjoy is a menu that has GF written after many meal options. That’s a first for me in South America even though I have no problem finding gluten free food. It’s a little more expensive not being able to eat a sandwich or pizza which seem to be available everywhere.
You’ve not heard anything until you hear prolonged, enormously loud claps of thunder bounce around the surrounding Andes mountains. Stupendously awesome. Even our favourite coffee barista was moved to call on her God at the noise level.
She recovers enough to tell us in such careful Spanish that I am able to get most of it, about the Fiestas that are currently happening in Cuzco. Every day different areas or suburbs are celebrating their saints. With a warning to be very careful of our belongings in the crowds, she encourages us to go to one. Sounds too good to miss.
San Sebastian Plaza is a riot of colour and noise. Participants are dressed in so many varieties of elaborate costumes. Masses of bands are playing so loudly the noise seems to vibrate right through me. As they finally start to march off, various band members gradually straggle out from a nearby drinking establishment. The crowds wait patiently but surge and relocate as the procession moves on. The dancers and musicians must be exhausted by the end. The day is very hot and most of the costumes are all encompassing often including full face masks.
Tomorrow we head off for three days to Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes for the Machu Picchu adventure.