On a three month journey, Alison Payne continued to travel solo through Peru until she finally met up with her boyfriend.
The bus trip from Quito to Huaquillas, Ecuador’s main border town with Peru, was my first overnight trip. A guy sitting near me said the border crossing is dangerous for there is a no-man’s land where even locals get taken by crooked taxi drivers. He (Alberto) became my new friend and navigated us through passport control in both countries and found a taxi that charged an inflated but acceptable price. It was an uneasy trip, not only at the border but also when we got into Peru for police stopped and boarded the bus on several occasions.
I decided I deserved a break and followed Alberto’s suggestion to spend a few days in Máncora, Peru’s most idyllic beach. The days were sunny, the fish always fresh and perfectly cooked, and nothing to occupy my mind other than a book and getting a tan.
Trujillo and Cordillera Blanca
The next stop on my way down the north Peruvian coast was Trujillo to see the ruins of five archaeological sites. From there I boarded another night bus for Huaraz, known as ‘the capital of Andean adventure’. Huaraz is the setting-off point to the Cordillera Blanca and South America’s premier trekking area. I did the popular, four-day Santa Cruz trek. The highlight was crossing the Punta Unión Pass, with an elevation of 4,760 meters. The view is spectacular.
My boyfriend, Chris, met me in Lima and we hopped a flight to Cusco with enough time there for him to acclimatize to the high altitude before our trek to Machu Picchu. Cusco totally surprised me with its gorgeous Incan stonework, colonial balconies, narrow cobblestone streets and fantastic ‘novo andino’ restaurants. If you can accept the fact that people will be after you all the time to visit their restaurant, go on their tour, or have a massage, then you could easily stay in Cusco for a week. I indulged in some traditional Peruvian dishes: alpaca steaks (really delicious) and fried guinea pig (really gross).
We were signed up for the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu with four other couples. It was a five day trek that takes you through a spectacular pass in the mountains near the ruins. It also doesn’t require the three month lead time that you seem to need for the Inca Trail permit. We walked and tented for three days, spent a day at some thermal baths in the small town of Santa Teresa, and stayed the final night at a hotel in Aguas Calientes before the visit to Machu Picchu itself. A major earthquake caused an avalanche down the side of the mountain near where we were sleeping. Our Quechua guides said it was a sign that the mountain gods were welcoming us to the pass.
Arriving in Machu Picchu shortly after 6am was ideal for the ‘lost city’ was just as mysterious at that time of day as you would expect it to be. It was something to see the mist lift away from the mountain and reveal the ruins. But the magic wears away a little after noon when the train and buses from Cusco arrive and the population at the site increases. This city that clings impossibly to the side of huge, lush mountain peaks is truly one of the treasures of the world and being there was a highlight of my trip.
Call us huge nerds, but Chris and I had read about the mystery of the Nazca Lines when we were young and wanted to see them for ourselves. We boarded a night bus and crossed our fingers that the road to the coast would be open because of the earthquake. Many hours later we stepped out into the early-morning light of one of the driest, most desolate deserts in the world. A couple of hours later we were in a small four-seater plane weaving between about a dozen surreal figures that had been carved into the desert floor centuries ago. Later we saw ancient graves where the remains are preserved because the air and ground are so dry. We also managed to go sand boarding down enormous dunes.
Our next stop was Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city and described as the most beautiful. Indeed, it is gorgeous, being built almost entirely out of a white volcanic rock and chock full of great restaurants and shops. I had what was definitely one of my best meals of the trip—ostrich steaks accompanied by fabulous Chilean wine—and for a very affordable price. We visited the nearby Colca Canyon, the deepest in the world, to see the great Andean Condors, a gigantic vulture with a wing-span of about three meters that is featured in much of Andean mythology. We only had a day to do it so had to board the bus at 1:00am, travel six hours to Cruz del Condor (a popular viewpoint over the canyon where they’re often spotted), then return the same day to Arequipa before heading towards Bolivia. It was a long and bumpy ride but we were the first ones on the scene and did see a bunch of them gliding around. We decided the pain was worth it even though it was just for some birds that will eat anything that’s rotting.
If you think your home requires a lot of upkeep, consider yourself lucky that you don’t live on a sinking island made out of reeds. We visited the town of Puno, on the shores of the huge Lake Titicaca for really nothing other than to see the floating islands of the Uros people. We boarded a boat with a hoard of other tourists and a too-jokey guide to see how these few hundred people still live on islands they build themselves out of the totora reeds that grow in the shallow waters of the lake. They’ve been living there for centuries, just piling more layers of reeds on top of their small islands as the ones below rot away, and apparently settling disputes between themselves by simply taking a chainsaw and cutting the islands in half straight down the middle.
Onward to Bolivia and the Amazon.
Photo credits: Alison Payne
Edited from an interview with Alison Payne and from her blog.
© Riding the buses 2011