Lodgey and Life on the Road. Stories from South America.

14 August 2010

Viva el Peru!

Eager to leave Puno behind, we bus it that night to Arequipa to hike through the Colca Canyon – the world’s second deepest canyon.

Compared to many other South American cities, Arequipa is modern with a hint of a Middle Eastern appearance. We are only there for a day before hearing that the biggest festival in South America is on in a few days time in Cusco. So Geezer and I make a last minute decision to catch an overnight bus to Cusco for the festival and come back to Arequipa because we don’t have enough time to hike the canyon with Meg and Hunter, and get to Cusco for the festival.

So we have a day of swinging in an Arequipan hammock before heading to Cusco. A nice break until Geezer twats himself when he sits on a chair, which rips so he falls straight through – much to our amusement.

We arrive in Cusco early morning eager to find out about the Inti Raymi Festival – a tradition that has been around for centuries. Being peak season, we are also keen to book spots on the Inca Trail. We are mortified when we find out that the tickets for the festival are sold out and, after asking every Peruvian in sight about the festival, no one has any idea what is going on. All we are told is that it starts ‘here’ (everyone seems to vaguely point south) and finishes at the Sacsayhuamán (pronounced sexy woman!) Inca ruins sometime in the afternoon.

To make things worse, permits for the Inca Trail are booked out until October and there is no way of getting on the hike. So we approach SAS Travel, who I’ve trekked with in the past (and were fabulous), and ask whether there is any way of getting on the Inca Trail. When I mention that I’m a travel writer and that people would benefit about knowing how far in advance you really need to book, their ears prick up and tell us about a loop hole in the rules. If I write to the Peruvian government body that issues the permits requesting a special pass as a travel writer then we may be able to fill two spots in a week’s time made vacant by a last minute cancellation. We speed over to an internet cafe, type up a letter and send it off with high hopes.

In the meantime, an email has come through from our lovely old travel buddies, Lou and Rachel, saying they are in Cusco and need to immediately catch up with us for old time’s sake. So we vow to have a few drinks and an early night because we want to be up at 6am for the start of the festival.

We end up in a fabulous, almost underground, reggae bar with a live band and the girls get stuck in to mojitos, while Geezer is semi-sensible and goes to bed. I stagger back to the hostel with the girls at some ungodly hour swearing I’ll be fine by morning. But this has been our first night out while travelling and when the alarm goes off at 6am, I have a hangover the size of China.

We stumble around getting ready, have a cold shower (don’t get me started about the lack of hot water on this continent), wrap up in our woollies and head to the square – to find it completely deserted. The grandstand is empty and the few police patrolling the square “think” the parade starts in about half an hour.

So we wait. And wait. And wait. Until 10:30am. By which time, I’m feeling so shabby that I skulk into Macca’s and order the fattiest thing I can find. Then I catch myself in the mirror and almost shriek at the sight of me. I mutter to myself that if I see anyone I know, I will die (but convince myself that the chances are remote). I then hear “Kirst! Fred!” Turn around. And there stands our lovely Australian friend Tom who we met on our Antarctic cruise and who we have randomly bumped in to ever since.

“Wow! You look baaaad!” He quickly realises what he is dealing with and bids us a fond farewell. I now not only have the dry horrors, but the all over horrors.

We then hear the sound of distant drums and finally see the parade coming. But the crowd is now so thick that we can barely see anything and the parade stops in front of the grandstand, not coming even close to where we are standing. It is heartbreaking. We battle through the crowd to get a better vantage spot but it is too difficult.

We decide to sack it off, pack our bags and head straight up to Sacsayhuamán where there is already a massive crowd surrounding the main arena. Sacsayhuamán is an important site in Inca terms and the ruins there are impressive – certainly a great festival backdrop. Built in 1200AD, it was once believed to be a fortress to represent the puma, an animal worshipped by the Incas. The massive stones are so tightly spaced that not even a sheet of paper will fit between them. And they are in all sorts of shapes and sizes, interlocked inside allowing the ruins to survive several major earthquakes.

We nestle in to a prickly spot on the hill amongst a group of locals who snigger at me gingerly picking out prickles from my feet.

Eventually the cavalcade arrives and the parade begins with groups of dancers representing different Inca communities telling their story from ages past. They are followed by an Inca king and a llama which will be sacrificed as part of the proceedings. (I’m relieved to see that it’s not a real llama but a woman dressed up. In traditional times, llamas were slaughtered as offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth).)

After several hours of roasting in the sun, we decide to leave and find a local eating house with a million dollar view over Cusco and the surrounding hills stamped with 'Viva el Peru! We stuff ouselves before boarding our overnight bus back to Arequipa.

With such a dodgy start to the day, we are relieved that it has actually turned out to be a great little side trip.

Poo to Puno

Frankly – the less said about the floating islands, the better. Horribly touristy and, although the scenery is pretty good on one of the islands, we can’t wait to get out of there.

Our tour guide, Bruno, is the most irritating, uninformed idiot and several times we bite our tongues to stop ourselves from a smart response. When he leaves us stranded on the island, our boat taking off without us, it is confirmed. He really is a knob.

But despite the tour being painful (eg when Bruno stops us to say “everybodeeeeeeee... this is a treeeeeeeeeee”), we still manage to enjoy ourselves. The four of us stay with an unwelcoming family who serve us lunch comprising of a broad bean, a tiny potato in its jacket and three sweet potato-ish yam-like things. My mouth is so dry from eating the starchiest meal in the world that I can’t swallow and I spend the day fearing I’ve accidentally swallowed a fur ball. We all agree that we need plenty of wine to make sure the meal has gone down.

After lunch we brave the high altitude to hike up to a good spot for sunset, away from the tourists. It turns out that we have picked the one spot where all the tourists go for sunset and we’ve not been sat there for ten minutes when we are swarmed by a crowd. Bruno discovers that we’ve escaped from the tour and exclaims loudly “haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa... you made it up here by yourselves! Very goooooooood. And you have wine! Ohhhhhhhhhhhh....”.

After a brilliant sunset , we make our way back to our host’s house, scrambling through paddocks in the dark, much to the concern of the locals.

Our hosts (relieved to see we made our way back in the dark) invite us in for dinner. Their house is a basic mud brick hut with a thatched roof and a dirt floor. They have no electricity and no running water. The matriarch of the family, who is probably only aged 30, is hunched over a fire cooking our dinner. After the primitive lunch, I’m sceptical about the possibility of a sumptuous dinner and have secretly stashed a snickers bar under my pillow. My hunch is right. She delivers up a watery soup made with quinoa, their local grain, and vegetables. The main course is rice and the most horrid vegetable curry. Thankfully the room is so dark that I can’t actually see what I’m eating and we still have some red wine left to wash down the gruel.

Earlier that day when we’d arrived at our host’s house, we had made a point of introducing ourselves and thanking our gracious hosts for their hospitality. (I suspect my Spanish came out more like.. “Meg, Hunter, Fred and Kirsten we are. Pleased meet you to. Thank you hospitality for your Senor.”) We presented them with kilos of flour, sugar, rice and pasta to thank them. Our Senora snatched the bags off us, unpadlocked a storeroom and literally threw them in there before marching inside.

So when the gruel emerges for dinner, we are surprised.

During dinner, Senor tells us that they have three sons all away at boarding school. Allowing gringos to stay pays for their sons’ education. So despite the death stares from Senora as she is cooking dinner, I can understand why they do it and why they must hate it. But I feel like I'm walking on eggshells in their presence.

Our host begrudgingly dresses us up in Peruvian garb and takes us to the local disco - part of the tour. Instead we decide to put Geezer and Hunter in the women’s clothes, and Meg and I in the men’s. On the way to the disco, Geezer steps into a giant pool of pig’s slop and emerges up to his knees in mud. Having knocked back a few wines by this stage, we are quite literally rolling around the grass laughing. Even Senora can’t hide her amusement.

We walk into the disco to a few stares and dance the night away to pan pipes and drums. Leaving, I think, an impression.

The next morning we are woken by Senora early for breakfast. We quickly throw our bags together and wait anxiously for breakfast... desperately hopeful that it might be something palatable. When the driest pancake in Peru is put on each of our plates, I wonder how on earth I’m going to sink it – especially since I have the dry horrors from too many wines the night before.

So I ask quietly... “Erm... Senora? Is there any chance you might... erm... have any jam?” The look I get from her is so horrifying that I momentarily consider climbing under the table to hide. Instead I stuff as much of the pancake in my mouth, smile at her and think of England. Not being much of breakfast people anyway, the boys exit stage left with their tea.

Our hosts happily walk us to their pier to catch our boat and we spend a few hours travelling to island number two listening to Bruno bang on about nothing.

Our second island is much nicer and less touristy and we bid our moody tour group and Bruno farewell, choosing to stay an extra night. At last, we are on our own so we walk the perimeter of the island while the sun is setting. Our hosts this time are lovely.

The next morning we hike down to a beach on the island and make a mad dash into the icy waters of Lake Titicaca in our underpants. We thaw out and go to catch our boat, which we discover has left without us because Bruno hasn’t booked us in. Eventually another boat from the same moody company agrees to take us back and we spend five hours on the slowest boat in the world heading back to Poo-no.