Peru

Day thirty: Sun Gate, Machu Pichu

DSC_9652

Our alarm goes off at 4am – our intention is to get up early and hike to the Sun Gate to watch sunrise over Machu Pichu.

It’s 4am, it’s dark and it’s absolutely pouring with rain – as it has been all through the night. It takes us about 2 seconds to cancel that plan and roll over back to sleep. To be fair, the three large pisco sours we had the night before may also have influenced our change of heart.

At breakfast we discover the first technology glitch of our trip. Some film clips from the Galápagos are not showing up in the draft films we had built. One clip was particularly special – it captured a seal playing in the water near us as we swam and then you see him snapping his teeth at us…. all a little too close for comfort.

Our hard drive was getting full and we conclude that my *emptying the trash* the night before must be the culprit. Bugger. We panic – buy some trash retrieval software – and try and locate the files. The short version of this story is that after several hours of trying… we fail to retrieve most of the missing film clips.

A big lesson is learnt and we promise to buy ourselves a larger backup drive on arrival in Santiago. Our drop box backup strategy was simply not working – we had underestimated the size of our daily backups plus the poor connection speeds we’d be getting.

Hoping that our day gets better, we head off on our second trip to Machu Pichu – still with the goal of reaching the Sun Gate.

While we’re in the valley, it starts to rain. We realise we’ve forgotten Mia’s coat… so we head back. Got the coat. We head off to Machu Pichu.

We get to the bus. We realise we’ve left the bus tickets behind… so we head back. Got the tickets. We head off to Machu Pichu.

We get half way to the bus. We realise we’ve left the GoPro in the restaurant where we had lunch. (I’m considering giving up on the day and just heading to the bar. Pisco Sours suddenly seem the way forward.) Got the GoPro. Thank you, thank you, thank you lovely restaurant staff. We head off to Machu Pichu.

It’s now so late in the day, the bus crowds are gone and we have our own personal bus ride all the way to the top. 

Onwards and upwards to the Sun Gate! The trail is mostly in the shade, uneven, narrow in places with several steep drops off to the side.

While we’re catching our breath half way up we spot two bears crossing the path just behind us. Albeit exciting, I’m desperately trying to recall the ‘bear rules’ we learnt over 15 years ago in Canada. Luckily they’re not interested in us and they head off into the bushes.

DSC_9583

With a whole lot of cheerleading, several water stops, some bribery for one particular member of the team, (Bruno Mars playing on my iPhone and the promise of ice cream at the bottom), we finally make it to the top. 

Many other hikers had overtaken us on the way and many had been privy to our need for motivational speeches, bribery and coercion. When we finally reach the Sun Gate we are welcomed with a round of applause and several “bravos” from the other hikers who are now sat, taking in the view.

Ours were the only children we saw on the hike up to the Sun Gate and several guides come and give them commendation for their achievement.

We see the Inca trail from the other side of Sun Gate and watch as several hikers near the end of their much tougher, four day hike. The weather is kind to them and they are welcomed with a totally clear and stunning view out over Machu Pichu City – I watch as a couple of them crack open a beer.

Down is much easier, particularly as everyone is on a high from their achievement. We stop off at Machu Pichu City for a few more photos at dusk. The archaeologists have left for the day, their endless repair work on the walls paused for another day and we hear the wardens blow their whistles. It’s time to make our way out.

Back down the valley to Aguas Calientes where we’re welcomed back with a downpour and a rainbow.

Take a look at our Machu Pichu film.

Tips: 

– You don’t need to pre-book a tour guide. There are several English speaking guides by the entrance gates waiting to be hired.

– You need your passport to get into Machu Pichu City. 

– You can stamp your passport with a Machu Pichu stamp on the way out. 

– Remember sun cream, raincoats and bug spray.

Day twenty nine: Machu Pichu

DSC_9415

Today is Machu Pichu day and we are all excited. The anticipation of seeing the iconic city of Machu Pichu is high as it’s expected to be one of the highlights of our South American trip. For one of us, this is their second time in Machu Pichu – this time around perhaps made even more special as they share the experience with their children.

We start the day here just outside Ollantaytambu. We’re on the vistadome, a gorgeous train with big windows, glass ceilings and breathtaking views.

We travel from the Andean highlands to the beginnings of the jungle before finally arriving at the town of Aguas Calientes – an odd little town. The train follows the path of a river almost all the way and we see rapids, boulders, mountains, snow, villages, churches, but most breathtaking are the pure, simple, untouched landscapes. The weather is clear and the whole experience is impressive and the service seamless.

IMG_9056

Today’s school task is simply… write an interesting list of all the things you can see out of the window. Even our reluctant writer writes reams of notes and ends up with a comprehensive list of over fifty things.

Just under two hours later we are met at the station, ditch our bags and are taken straight away to the gates of Machu Pichu. Today ‘Jimmy’ is our tour guide and we only have two others in our group (bizarrely, one is from Kingston, only a few miles from our home town).

DSC_9105

We learn all about the lost city from our guide and are advised how to hike up to higher ground to get ‘the money shot’. Jimmy gives us the history and a tour around the old buildings and then we’re left to our own devices to explore the city ourselves. The gates close at 4.30pm and we’re told a whistle will be blown to tell us when to make our way out.

DSC_9378

Inca Citadel of Machu Picchu (official name) is truly stunning, however I find the mountains opposite the city equally as stunning. They are green, lush and thick with trees all the way to the top with little sign of snow or rocky terrain – we are at 2,430 metres above sea level.

DSC_9199

We’re allowed to walk amongst the ruins, touch them, lean on them, sit on them, we’re even invited to try and move them. I think back to Stonehenge in the UK and how it is now roped off, out of reach. I recall stories from my mum’s childhood and of her being able to run between the stones and touch them. Surely the day will come when the Machu Pichu ruins will be roped off too? For now…. we continue to enjoy them, up close and personal.

DSC_8919

We have a wonderful day up there and try to ditch the reliance on cameras and take it all in – consciously trying to engrain this view into our memories.

When it’s time to leave, we catch the bus back down to Aguas Calientes. We stay here and later that evening share Pisco Sours with our new friends we met in Cusco. A little worse for wear, we make arrangements to meet up again in a couple of days time… the boys are ecstatic!

Tips: 

– The amount of luggage you can bring into Machu Pichu via the train is restricted, so you may need to take a subset of your luggage with you. They advise one small backpack per person.

– Try to book tickets on the left hand side (direction of travel) of the vistadome as it has a better view than the right – as you are immediately next to the river.

Day twenty-seven/twenty-eight: Cusco and Sacred Valley

IMG_8790

This morning we spot children in the hotel! Actual children. Blonde haired, English speaking children the same age as ours! Hallelujah! I’m sure my reaction was something akin to the child catcher (poor kids) as I bellowed “CHILDREN!” at them.

Luckily I didn’t scare them off and they all bonded over ‘friv’ on the lobby computers, chess and entertaining each other with funny accents… and before you know it a football match is scheduled for later in the day. Hmmm, just the small issue of a flat football and the lack of a pump to overcome.

IMG_8657

Today we take a city tour of Cusco. We make it to about half way through before being asked “Why does this man think walls are so interesting?” We are stood looking at our fifth wall. If you’ve ever been to Peru or studied the Incas, you’ll know their walls and building methods are a very important part of their history. But to this seven year old, we have touched, looked at, walked by and climbed on enough walls to last her lifetime.

Being accompanied by a rainstorm and a child without a raincoat for most of this cement-less wall experience made it all the more enjoyable.

DSC_8170

Let’s just say we ‘get through’ the trip to all the local historical monuments… the Plaza de Armas, the Cathedral, the Koricancha Temple, the ruins of the Kenko Amphitheater, Tambomachay, Puca Pucara, and my personal favourite…. Sacsayhuaman (pron. sexy-woman). 

We fail to find a football pump, so the children continue with funny accents and doing impressions with their new friends, they play chess and take turns on the lobby computers. We discover that no one (in the whole country) can be served alcohol as there’s a general election tomorrow.

That’s a new phenomenon to us – what does that tell you about a country? And what uproar would that cause if implemented in the UK? I try to put my case that I am not in fact voting, but alas no one will bend the rules. Perfect. Finally, the rainy-no-wine-wall-day comes to an end. Tomorrow’s another day…

DSC_8579

Today we’re off to the Sacred Valley. We have the same guide as yesterday, Puma, so we hear some of the same patter and enjoy his stories as he proudly talks about “my people”.

DSC_8882Blue skies today so we can actually see out of the windows and can see Sacsayhuaman (although still being reminded of Rod Stewart each time he says it). We drive to a little farm with llamas and alpacas and of course we stop off at a couple of obligatory artisan gift shops, a market and a silver shop on the way to our final destination today… Ollantaytambo.

IMG_8923Unfortunately we are joined for the second time by a family we had the displeasure of meeting yesterday. They consist of a grown man and his two parents from Europe (not the UK) and they are rude, gruff, shout, smoke, smell, they snort, they grunt, have miserable faces and are always late. Unfortunately they have chosen to do *all that* (minus the smoking) in the seats directly in front of us.

My heart sank when I saw them again this morning. We’re at the start of a six day tour and it dawned on me that we may have to listen to their bodily functions for the duration.

We’re all wearing small wireless earphones linked to Puma’s microphone to hear him as we walk through the ruins. This also means we have the pleasure of hearing the gruff family each time they complain to him. It also means we all hear Puma when he forgets his mic is on and complains about them to another guest. From the top of a ruin I start to jump and wave at Puma to alert him to turn his mic off, but he keeps going and keeps going.

Really really fortunately, the gruff family have chosen to not wear their earphones today.

DSC_8731

Several stunning, albeit wall-based archaeological sites later…. including the very beautiful Ollantaytambo… plus the obligatory 30p a piece photographs with locals in traditional dress holding llamas and lambs (right before they head home to pull on a pair of jeans) and we arrive at our hotel.

IMG_9041

We’re staying in a kind of canyon and the scenery is stunning. A late night campfire keeps the children entertained before bed… tomorrow we catch the vista dome train (not the nine hour one) to Machu Pichu. I am beyond excited!

Lost:

  • Ethan’s coat (left on the bus back in Cusco)

Found:

  • Ethan’s coat (thankfully located and returned by the tour company 24 hours later)

Day twenty-six: Puerto Maldonado to Cusco

IMG_8626 2

It’s our eldest son’s 9th birthday today. What do you get a nine year old in the jungle, with an already full backpack? 

We chose… a baseball cap, a new crisp clean t-shirt, a packet of haribos and an Amazonian keyring. The simplest set of gifts he has ever received. He also receives handmade birthday cards and a card from grandparents that we’ve been carrying around with us since we left the UK. 

The manager of the hotel delivered a personalised birthday cake to him at dinner last night, along with a Spanish rendition of Happy Birthday and this morning one of the guides is taking him on his own personal tour of the jungle – which he has decided to invite his siblings to. Hopefully making this one of his more memorable birthdays!

His birthday jungle tour was a success; more spiders, monkeys and macaws on secret jungle trails they hadn’t been on before.

It’s our last day in the jungle as we’re travelling to Cusco and onto the Sacred Valley and Machu Pichu next. So, back in the canoe, back along the river and back to the butterfly house. EVERYONE gets out a phone at the butterfly house as soon as they hit the wifi signal and you can hear a groan when the transfer to the airport is ready, no one appears to want to disconnect.

We then enter Puerto Maldonado airport… the HOTTEST AIRPORT IN THE WORLD. An airport which has also RUN OUT OF BOTTLED WATER!

It seems the only place where the air conditioning is working is the mens toilet, don’t ask me why. So far this is our worst airport experience and it was about to get worse.

As we go through the x-ray machines, an over zealous security guard decides to put a pin in the boys’ football to deflate it. This ball has travelled, successfully, inflated, from London to Miami, on four flights all over Ecuador, two flights already in Peru, even on the same carrier as his employer – twice. Nine flights under our belt with the same exact ball tells me that it is not about to explode onboard.

But at this crappy little airport, with no water and no air conditioning, where we are about to board one of our shortest flights is where we have our first ‘scene’ of the trip.

You see… the children don’t have much to play with and our boys play with that football every day…. and we don’t have a football pump and I’m pretty sure we’re going to struggle to find one in Machu Pichu amongst all the alpaca jumpers.

The boys are absolutely devastated. There are tears, there is shouting, there is blame, there was very nearly swearing and name calling, but as they do ultimately have the power to refuse access to the plane we calm down a bit. There was finally an apology, followed by a non-acceptance of that apology and the promise to the boys of the purchase of a pump as soon as humanly possible. I know they are allowed to do it – my point is, they didn’t *need* to do it, especially on his birthday.

So… Cusco….

IMG_8704

Cusco is at high altitude and we’ve booked two nights instead of one to help the family acclimatise before we travel onwards to Machu Pichu. The place is lovely and warm and we’re met at the airport by Mateo. We ask his help to rectify the football situation, hoping he might know where we can buy a pump. He doesn’t.

IMG_8700

We’re offered coca candy and told that the hotel will give us coca leaf tea and we should all have it – including the children. On the transfer we see school children in big jumpers, woollen tights and boots. I look at what we’re wearing and four of us are in shorts, and all of us are wearing flip flops.

Mateo takes us through the itinerary for the next few days. I find out that we will be spending over nine hours on a train in about a weeks’ time. NINE HOURS. Apparently it’s a very nice train, but that had totally passed me by… I make a note to pay more attention when we book stuff.

Lost:

– air

Day twenty-four: Amazon Jungle, Peru (2)

DSC_7187

This morning Checa takes the children on a jungle treasure hunt. They are taken through the jungle’s trail system to accomplish several tasks, earning them each a prize at the end.

We watch them as they knock lemons from a tree with a big stick and turn them into fresh lemonade for us all to drink… the best lemonade we’ve ever had.

DSC_6868

They eat termites… well, one of them does… props to you, Mia. They make bracelets from seeds and other jungle treasures.

IMG_8505

They have bow and arrow lessons, make fresh pizzas with the hotel chef (ahem… a genuine native Amazonian tradition, I’m sure), discover Macaws in the jungle and feed the resort’s pet spider monkey (saved when it was young as it had been abandoned by its mother).

DSC_6799

It was an incredible experience for them all and they arrive at lunch buzzing with stories to share.

Next we are taken in one of their motorised canoes to Gamitana creek. Checa guides us through the Gamitana Model Farm and all their fruit trees and crops. He uses his machete to help pick and peel all the fresh fruit for us to try – we taste fresh limes, lemons, bananas, grapefruits, kiwi and star fruit. Most were lovely – the star fruit and the bananas were not!

DSC_7113

We were shown around the farm’s banana house where the bananas are taken to help them ripen and sweeten. We also see the glass houses where peeled bananas are dried to supply local hotels for their breakfast buffets.

DSC_7088

At the huge sugarcane plants we’re told to stand back as snakes are usually hiding in the bottom. He cuts down one of the canes and chops it up for us all to taste. 

DSC_7013

We’ve never tried fresh sugar cane before – it is gorgeous. It’s like a sweet drink and it comes at just the right time as we were all flagging in the humidity – a sugar lift is exactly what we needed.

Then… to help purify our insides (or something) we drink sap from a dragon blood tree.

DSC_7177 2

We trek through the narrow jungle trails towards Sanipanga to an awaiting canoe for us to paddle back down the creek. It is a beautiful and almost silent journey, with only birds and the occasional fish interrupting us. 

DSC_7233

On the left hand side we see two people standing in the river up to their necks next to some heavy machinery dredging the river… it looks like a giant wash-board. They smile and wave…. but it’s a really odd sight. “Gold mining” says Checa. They are illegally dredging the banks of the river for gold. It causes erosion to the river banks, changes the course of the river and pollutes the water as they use high volumes of mercury. We’re told the police do all they can to control it but as it’s so lucrative mines continue to pop up all over the place.

We continue down the main river, heading back to the resort. The sun is going down and the river is absolutely beautiful.

Day twenty-five: Amazon Jungle, Peru (3)

DSC_7909

Last night was our first jungle night walk. In the blurb, there are words about – how biological activity differs between night and day, and the mystery of the animal activity that awakens in the rainforest after dark…. but actually, I think it’s all just a test of a person’s level of scaredy-cat-ness.

DSC_7283 DSC_7320

It appears that mine is quite high. We see two tarantulas, a scorpion (who btw jump), a funnel web spider (second deadliest spider in the world), lots of leaf cutter ants, insects and some beautifully peaceful sleeping dragonflies and butterflies.

DSC_7360

Happy when it’s all over, I find myself batting away imaginary creepy crawlies from my head for the next hour.

Today, right after discovering a frog by my shoes, we take a thirty minute boat ride to Lake Sandoval in the Tambopata National Reserve. It’s a 3km walk to reach the lake. It’s a beautiful secondary jungle and there are animal and bird noises everywhere. We’re learning to stop when we hear a branch snap to assess what it could be – a monkey, a macaw or a jaguar (only kidding). Our guide Checa has the most extraordinary ability to spot things, tiny things, amazing things, camouflaged things…. things we absolutely would have walked right past.

We see huge termite nests, butterflies, sleeping bats, monkeys, birds, caterpillars, beautiful macaws, he even entices a tarantula from its nest with a sharp blade of grass. Our most spectacular experience was being caught in the middle of three different groups of Red Howling Monkeys in a territorial howl off. They were in battle, but not one where they are in combat, this battle is won or lost on the volume of their howl. Whichever group loses… will simply retreat back to their territory.

It was incredible and really loud.

DSC_7538

Lake Sandoval itself is beautifully calm and peppered with fairytale-worthy-lily-pads. We are in wooden canoes and paddle out to watch giant river otters fishing for their young.

It’s beautiful and calm. All until… a small toilet emergency is required in the middle of the lake. Not ideal when you’re sat with other guests and have heard one too many stories about penis fish…. so creatively we find a new use for the Katmandu dry bag we’ve been carrying around for weeks.

DSC_8020

Back at our jungle base camp (ahem… I mean our swish resort) armed police arrive by boat just as we’re off on our final trip of the day. The leader asks to see the manager while some remain in the boat to man the jetty. Earlier that morning we had heard a big explosion and we’d assumed it was gold mine related. It was, but it wasn’t the gold miners doing the exploding… it was the police. They had discovered the mine we saw yesterday and blew up the equipment. Apparently the owner of the equipment will be jailed and fined and the workers will also receive a custodial sentence…. but first they have to catch them. They’ve been tipped off that they might be hiding on Inkaterra’s land and have come to search the place. These police are from the ‘hard-as-nails’ variety and however hard we try, we only manage to get one of them to smile (and show us his gun).

DSC_7919

We finish the day on top of the jungle…. literally. We walk through the treetops of the giant Amazon basin, across hanging bridges…. only two at a time. They are more difficult (and higher) than they look.

Day twenty-three: Amazon jungle, Peru (1)

DSC_6928

Our hearts sink. It’s the next morning in Lima and the same ultra efficient tour guide is waiting for us in the lobby to take us back to the airport. It’s only the airport. And it’s only a domestic flight! We haven’t done ‘tours’ like this before, but the realisation that we must have paid for her in some way dawns on us and that some people must genuinely need help to navigate airports.

Thankfully Andy feigns a massive headache and asks her to be quiet for the journey to help the tablets take effect. We try saying goodbye to her outside the airport building, but she’s having none of it. She comes with us to explain how to check in and takes the boarding passes from the check in staff first before passing them to us and escorting us to security. I’m not sure how much of Andy’s sarcasm landed with her but she may have twigged that he was lying when he said he didn’t know how to board a plane.

We part company with the tour guide, make a couple of discrete purchases for an upcoming birthday and board the plane… successfully… all by ourselves. Today we go into the jungle.

Our flight takes us to Puerto Maldonaldo, where we’re taken by van to a holding area at the rather lovely Inkaterra Butterfly House (did you know Peru is home to 3,800 species of butterflies?).

It’s at the butterfly house that we are told that this is the last wifi access for five days as there won’t be any at the resort. Of course! It’s a jungle! It makes total sense! But had this possibility dawned on us before now? Nope. Not at all. Andy even has a Skype call scheduled within the next 48 hours. Apologies and reschedule requests are promptly sent and we ‘power off’ all our devices.

IMG_8629

Next, we’re taken by a motorised canoe for an about an hour further into the jungle. As we are travelling lightly we are allowed to take all of our luggage. Others have to leave some behind at the butterfly house to collect later.

DSC_7849

Trailfinders have booked us into the Inkaterra Amazon resort. It is gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. The photos and blurb that we’d signed up to didn’t do it justice and we are happy that for the next 4 nights we will be in total jungle luxury (minus the wifi).

DSC_8025

Each group are given their own jungle guide and our family have been allocated Checa who later that evening takes us through all the tours and activities available to us over the next few days. He has grown up in the jungle and has an incredible amount of knowledge and the children warm to him instantly.

DSC_7218

We take the twighlight river cruise with Checa and his huge spotlight and search for nightjars, owls, capybaras and caimans. We’re successful with the caiman, all quite small and identified by the glare from the torch in their eyes. We also see capybaras but no owls or nightjars this time.

Items gifted:

– five Inkaterra branded refillable water bottles!!!!!

Day twenty-one/twenty-two: Miraflores, Lima

IMG_8461

The day starts in Quito with a painfully early gift of ‘breakfast in a bag’ (no one eats it). The owner of the guest house drives us back to the airport as today we leave Ecuador and head to Peru.

Thankful for the lack of any headrest screens onboard, we take the opportunity to do some school work on the flight to Lima (reading and journal writing today).

IMG_8451

Mia now features in seat-24A-lady’s journal. It was the sweetest moment as she lent over to tell Mia that she’d been inspired to get her journal out and start writing too. A journal she’d had since she was a young girl. She shared with Mia the importance of a journal and some of the pages from when she was a child.

I didn’t catch her name – she’s an American college student from North Carolina who had just visited her boyfriend in Quito and was on her way to visit her mum – who was starting a second career helping women in business – just outside of Lima. Her Spanish was impeccable.

We arrive at Lima airport… and a dog ate my apples. Well not quite, but I’d bought three apples at Quito airport to keep the kids going and they were sniffed out, confiscated, never to be eaten again. I felt like a trafficker… a criminal! Sorry Peru, I genuinely didn’t realise.

We’re collected by an overly efficient tour guide from the tour company. This is the only section of our trip that we’ve fully pre-booked from the UK. Trying to wing-it around Cusco, Machu Pichu, the Sacred Valley, the jungle, posh trains, small planes and Lake Titicaca didn’t feel like fun and offers so much room for error. This is a section we really wanted to get right.

DSC_6486

There’s only our family being collected, yet our overly efficient guide continues to hold our name board up high in the air (with the name still facing us) as she walks us the 300 yards through the pretty empty car park to the van.

We’re not good at being herded, it brings out the worst in us, and Andy and I flash each other several looks of annoyance on the way. It’s only a 20 minute journey but we each have a headache by the end of the transfer to the hotel – she didn’t shut up, her favourite phrase being “All roads lead to Rome”… *eye-roll*.

We are staying in the Miraflores neighborhood. It looks quite bohemian as we drive through, several coffee shops, bike repair shops, cool looking bars and restaurants. We’re told it’s well policed and an area that tourists will be safe in. The hotel is nice and we have massive rooms, but I am MOST excited by the sight of a big white bath! With a plug! HOORAY!

We ditch our bags and have lunch at a street cafe overlooking Parque Central de Miraflores – the five of us sit in a row, facing outwards, Paris style, with Andy and I like bookends.

The children need a good post lunch run around and initially we’re disappointed to find out that Parque Central is a ‘look-nice’ park rather than a ‘climb-on-stuff’ park, so we find ourselves inventing silly races for them to burn off their energy. An hour of obstacle jumping, hopping, forward rolling, dressing up, walking backwards and other silly antics later… and we’re done. Energy: burnt.

DSC_6518

We have one afternoon in Lima and decide to take a taxi to see the old town for a bit of historical building gazing and culture. We arrive to see the cathedral, the palace and the beautiful town square. We also happen upon a huddle of riot police hiding just around the corner – always a comforting sight.

DSC_6571

We take a walk a couple of streets beyond the square and stumble across a very impressive convent. Inside we find ourselves needing to explain the long line of confessional cupboards (sorry, I’m sure they’re not called that), as the children hadn’t seen them before. Several graphic images of Jesus on the cross help to lighten the mood and trigger some interesting conversations.

Sushi (and pisco sours) for dinner. Tomorrow we head to the jungle! 

Items lost:

  • two refillable water bottles, but only lost for 3 minutes (left on the plane and then retrieved)

Items bought:

  • replacement socks
  • local sim