Tuesday, April 26, 2016

South America (Peru) - Day 122 - 123: Cusco

The bus pulled into Cusco at 6am, after a surprisingly uncomfortable night. Cruz del Sur's buses don't offer full cama, which meant we were in the 160-degree position for the duration. The food was pretty awful too; I'm not sure their inflated prices are justified, but at least our bags made it safely. Since it was early, we got a tea at the terminal before getting a taxi to Cusco's centre. I'd earmarked Jack's Cafe as a place to fill up on breakfast, but a misunderstanding by the taxi driver saw him try to drop us off somewhere he thought was good instead. Thanks to the school run traffic, we eventually arrived at our planned eatery at just after 8, with the tariff increased by 50% through no fault of our own. Still, the enormous stack of pancakes with mango cream made the hassle worth it, and Gilly wolfed down a full English like no-one's business.

It was time to find a hostel, since I'd read there was plenty of choice if we strolled around. I left Gilly with the bags whilst I did some recon in the San Blas area. It's outside of the main centre so the options are cheaper and there's far less traffic noise. After wandering around five or six which had prices ranging from £15 to £150 a night, I finally settled for Hostal El Arcano tucked away at the end of a no-through road. Twelve quid got us a double with spare bed, a private bathroom and lightning fast Wi-Fi (at least in comparison to Bolivia).

After settling in, we took a walk around the centre. The weather was grey and threatening rain but it didn't detract from Cusco's sublime architecture, and after picking up a couple of pastries, we joined Free Tours By Foot in one of the squares. This was a new outfit run by three brothers, and Richard was the one taking us around that day. Aside from his propensity to say "actually" at the end of almost every sentence, it was an enjoyable three hours. We took in San Pedro market, an old Incan palace, an alley where The Motorcycle Diaries was filmed, and a shop where we got to compare the difference between pure alpaca wool and wool blended with cotton. There are a LOT of shops in the city trying to pass off cotton as alpaca wool and chancing their arm with prices to match. Our already overloaded backpacks meant that we weren't in the market for any clothing, but it was good to feel the difference; some of the cotton blends are very convincing. The Incan stone which can be found in the base of many of the buildings is identifiable by the lack of cement or other material to bind the blocks. They are a work of art, slotting together on top of each other. In the alley mentioned above, you can see a comparison of Incan stone and more modern building blocks side-by-side. That the Incan blocks weigh hundreds of tonnes simply adds to their impressiveness. We ended the tour in a restaurant with a free pisco sour. Compared to their Chilean counterparts, the Peru version of the drink is frothier and doesn't have the same bite, but it's refreshing nonetheless.









On the way up to Loki Hostel to check out their in-house agency, we ran into Ash and Rhys who were also looking for treks. Backpackers really do keep running into each other! We arranged to meet up later as we were going shopping. Our waterproof jackets had finally waved a white flag and mine was basically being held together with duct tape, so we decided to get replacements. Cusco is the place to find knock-off outdoor gear, with surprisingly high quality materials made in Vietnam (where most of North Face's gear comes from anyway), and after wandering the streets for a couple of hours and with a bit of haggling, we came away with two genuine North Fake waterproof jackets for less than twenty quid apiece. Combined with a chance find of some flip-flops to replace the ones I bought in Singapore in 2012 (also held together by duct tape), it was a successful shopping outing. After a stop at a supermarket we decided to make pasta for dinner in the hostel's tiny, tiny kitchen, which was shared with the family who owned the place. A couple of TV shows and a glass of wine were followed by drinks with Rhys and Ash at a local bar where the 2-for-1 cocktails turned out to be weaker than the prices. Another bar with a pool table and more weak drinks followed before we went to The Craft, a molecular cocktail bar where the barman took his job very seriously, and we were able to actually get a pisco sour with actual pisco in it. After a few games of pool and a blast of PES on the in-house PS3, we called it a night.





The next day was dedicated to finding a Machu Picchu tour. It may seem easy enough, since every other shop in Cusco seems to be selling them, but we were after one that a) had decent reviews, and b) met our budget. We had decided against doing a full 4- or 5-day trek. Walking is all well and good, but 20-25km a day wasn't really something we fancied on the back of the Colca Canyon trek we'd just done. Instead, we wanted to do a Jungle Trek which almost all of the operators sell and which includes not just trekking but downhill biking, zip-lining and whitewater rafting. A few of the operators I'd researched were closed, some had no availability, and some weren't even at the addresses they were supposed to be. We had booked in a chocolate course at the ChocoMuseo later that afternoon, and had arranged to meet up with Rhys and Ash for food afterwards, so time was pressing. In the end, we went with a company called Aita Peru, mainly because the guy on the front desk was excellent at explaining exactly what was included and what we would be doing for the four days/three nights. It was $225 per person but this included entry to Machu Picchu and the return train journey, which cost around $100 on their own, so it looked like a very reasonable price. I celebrated with some llamas.


With that out of the way, we were free to concentrate on the chocolate course. This was a fun two hours with a chocolate chef who was hilarious. Her sense of humour was fantastic and she kept a straight face throughout every "fact" she told us, such as the milk in some Mayan hot chocolate coming from guinea pigs(!). We followed the entire process of making chocolate, from picking and roasting the beans before grinding them into cocoa paste, pressing the paste into butter, then refining the mixture into chocolate (dark or light, depending on preference). At each stage, we got to try different drinks made from the process. For instance, when the cocoa beans were roasted, they were then winnowed and the shells boiled into a chocolate-flavoured tea. During the grinding process, there was a competition to get the best paste - it needed to be squidgy and moist; mine was judged to be one of the best, although I shared that honour with four other people. I don't mind: I got a chocolate for winning.

A bit later, we got to try a thicker hot chocolate which the chef told us used to have blood added to it in Incan times. She then proceeded to ask for volunteers to offer a drop of blood to the mixture - a group of rowdy Israelis who had been entertaining throughout had one brave soul put his hand up, and it was only when the chef opened a cupboard and removed a rubber glove and a large needle that the guy decided to back out. Of course it was a joke, but the thoroughness of the ruse was impressive and great fun to watch. We also all had to sing to the jug of hot chocolate in order to infuse it with good vibes. The renditions ranged from Baa Baa Black Sheep to Jingle Bells, to a number of Israeli songs which involved a lot of shouting and jumping around.

At the end of the whole process, I opted for milk chocolate for my batch of chocolates while Gilly went for dark. We had a mould each into which we added the various toppings we wanted. Gilly chose coffee and raisins whilst the big kid in me went for everything that looked like I'd enjoy in a sweet shop, plus some chilli powder for a kick which was added into the final pair of chocs.










A couple of hours later, the two batches were ready (although mine tasted much better than they looked). Gilly went to pick them up, whilst I collected Rhys and Ash from The Craft - their new favourite home - and we all went out for a meal at Manka, the place where we had ended our walking tour. Their menu del dia was very reasonable, and we had a great meal before heading to Rhys and Ash's AirBnB digs. They were lending us their GoPro for our trek, which was very generous. If I were to plan our trip again, I'd definitely pick one up - they're cracking little cameras, very versatile and also perfect for diving. Something to consider for our next trip!




In the meantime, we had a Machu Picchu trek to pack for, so we ditched our big backpacks at El Arcano and loaded up our small ones, hoping that we had enough clothes, gear and chocolates for the next four days.

Monday, April 25, 2016

South America (Peru) - Day 119 - 121: Arequipa and Colca Canyon

After catching a golden sunrise over a less attractive industrial view, and eating a delicious breakfast at Tanta, we joined a free walking tour the next morning. The meeting point was a church square inhabited by a group of theatre performers who were wandering around singing, clapping, and making odd gesticulations which kept us entertained until the tour began. Our guide was very good and was a bit of a trooper, since he was the only one in the city doing the tour six days a week. From the church he took us all around central Arequipa, including a wool shop which had a llama and alpaca pen out the back. Alpacas are hilarious. Their faces are so expressive, and it's practically impossible to take a bad photo of them.











After the tour we tried to find a couple of art galleries, both of which were closed. It was bucketing down with rain and heading towards late afternoon, so we decided to take the advice of our tour guide and tracked down Museo Santuarios Andinos which was still open. In here we were taken around by a guide who showed us a number of artifacts pulled from the burial sites on mountains in the Andes by two scientists over the course of seven years, which had been remarkably well preserved by the ice and had retained almost all of their colour and texture. However, this wasn't the main discovery made by the men. That accolade goes to Juanita, the body of a girl who had been sacrificed in a religious ceremony, and which had been buried at the top of a mountain and frozen for hundreds of years (?????). The girl had been drugged and then given a blow to the temple to kill her outright, before being buried in the foetal position. The idea, as far as can be established, was to appease the mountain gods by offering a willing sacrifice. Juanita had accepted her fate from a young age and had travelled from Cusco for hundreds of miles to die. Her body wasn't in the museum as it was in a laboratory for tests, but another child's body (NAME??) - of 17 that had been discovered in total - was. The ice had preserved the skin, and as gruesome as it was to display a body in such a manner, it offered a fascinating insight into the practices of Incan religion.

We had learned from the tour that Arequipans are very proud of both their city and their cuisine. They have their coat of arms everywhere, and their signature dish is rocoto rellena: a very spicy pepper stuffed with mince. You can try and get this in other parts of Peru, but Arequipans will tell you that it won't be as good. With that in mind, we tried to find a recommended place to eat which served it in the evening, and after a 2km walk we arrived to find that the restaurant had been closed for maintenance for one day only, which happened to be that day. Typical luck. Somehow, we stumbled upon a restaurant called India which served, erm, Indian food. Actual Indian food. It was almost as good as curry from back home. Even the cold plates and the lack of naan bread couldn't detract. It wasn't rocoto rellena, but it did the job.  The city is also beautifully lit in the evening.


The next day, we were up at a stupid hour to trek down Colca Canyon. Our guide was Marcos, who didn't really offer much in the way of information on the trip, and was ever so slightly sleazy. Still, he did his job in getting us around. Our first stop was Cruz del Condor (Cross of the Condor) where we waited for a good half hour to try and spot some Andean Condors in the thick mist covering the mountain pass. About five minutes before we needed to leave, we spotted one flying through the fog at a great distance, and then two flying together. Then we were lucky enough to spot a couple of juveniles perched on a rock with an adult nearby. The condors were magnificent and their wingspan was huge; they soared on the air pockets in the canyon effortlessly. Soon after, we had stocked up on bananas and were descending into the canyon.











It was a tough hike. The heat was oppressive, our sandals kept getting filled with stones, and the path was steep. The views, however, were totally worth it. The river stretched out for miles, and the rock formations were fascinating - one even looked uncannily like a face. There were a couple of rest stops along the way with various local ladies selling goods. At one point we were told that we were at the last place that sold fruit on the trip; we decided to carry on regardless, and about two hours later came across what passed for a supermarket in the middle of the canyon - complete with fruit - run by a lady who was likely the richest woman in Colca Canyon. I guess he gets commission for pointing us towards the first lady...









After a full day's hike, we finally reached the base of the canyon and arrived at our lodging, Azul Cielo (Blue Sky). It had a pool - too cold for my delicate constitution - and a decent double room. Before long it was happy hour, and we were downing mojitos and cuba libres with Oliver from the US and Mo from Germany, before a basic dinner which was far too sparse for the amount of calories we'd burned on the descent.




We were up at 4am and ascending back up the canyon at 4:30am while it was still dark. This was probably a good thing, since we were unable to see how steep the climb was. A couple of the girls decided to take mules up to the top because one of them had somehow managed to break the soles of both of her hiking boots. With James Horner's Krull soundtrack blasting in my ears, I managed to march to the top before the mules arrived, and a minute before Gilly's head popped up. The hike up was tough, but since the morning air was cool, it was actually preferable to the descent the day before in the sweltering heat.

After a couple of games of cards and some more bananas whilst we waited for the rest of the crew to make it to the top, we were on our way to Chivay for breakfast in a pretty plaza before heading back to town via some stunning views of terraces on the hillside. Before getting back to town, we stopped off at some "thermal baths" which felt pretty much like a public swimming pool, but the heat took the edge off our aching limbs. We were dropped off outside Chaqcao with Olly and Mo, where we picked up a craft beer and some vegan chocolate cheesecake which tasted much better than it sounds.







It had been an exhausting day, so when we got to our Cruz del Sur overnight bus to Cusco, we were very much ready to sleep.