Biking, Trekking, Mummies And Riding

Inevitably, the three day trek to Machu Picchu began early – at 7.30am we were picked up from our hotel in Cusco by a people carrier loaded with several bicycles on the roof and, once we’d collected the four others that would be on the trek with us, our driver took us and our guide, Henry, up to the highest peak to begin the cycle ride.

Abra Malaga, at around 4600m and near the base of a glacier is a pretty cold place to start cycling. We chose a bike each and wrapped up as warm as we could. It started as a double-gloves event for me, putting my £1 alpaca gloves on top of the cycling gloves provided by the tour company. Even that wasn’t enough and everyone was willing the sun to thaw us out as soon as possible as we began our descent.

The road wound its way back down the other side of the mountain, barely giving us 50 meters of straight before each hairpin bend and the views were stunning as we repeatedly twisted and turned on our way down. The sun began to have an effect by the time we’d been cycling for 30 minutes and I really started to enjoy the ride. The road was clear and the surface smooth and almost no effort was required in order to find yourself flying down the mountain – much braking needed in order to avoid overtaking our pacemaker and guide.

We stopped for a break and to remove some clothes which turned out to be a good idea when we later encountered some of the rivers which flowed across the road after having cascaded down the mountains all around.

This exhilarating cycling continued, with little or no effort for an hour or two and was followed by lunch and yet more downhill fun. It may have begun in a very cold climate but the temperature was now lovely and warm and I think it was fair to say that everyone was really enjoying it.

At lower altitudes, mosquitoes feel able to attack the tourists for their sweet blood and, when we stopped at a recently discovered Inca site, Henry’s explanation was largely lost to those present due to furious scratching and attempted killings.

It was at this point that we had to decide whether to continue cycling – the last 25km apparently featuring both up and down sections – or to put the bikes back on the car which had been faithfully following us down the hill (a fact that I had been very happy to note when one of my pedals wobbled and came clean off on one of the straights earlier!) and allow ourselves to be driven to our hostel for the night. Our travelling companions were four recent university graduates who’d not cycled since they’d embarked upon their enforced years of sitting around playing computer games and drinking, and one or two were clearly not keen. I did my best to hide my overwhelming desire to carry on cycling but I think I failed as we agreed to try another 15 minutes and see how we felt. Another few brief stops, after some fairly tough, but certainly not the worst uphill sections failed to provide a consensus for giving up and we all managed to do the whole route on bikes, arriving at our hostel in Santa Maria exhausted but happy – especially when a hammock and beer was provided by our host! Sadly, despite it being her birthday, Annika had to return to Cusco to do some tours with her mum so she bid us farewell and we headed off for some dinner and an early night.

I slept like a log that night and a good job too – next day was proper trekking day one. We were taken to the start of the uphill walk in a taxi and then the trek began in earnest. We climbed for around 2 hours until we found ourselves at a small house which provided us with a hammock each where we sat and relaxed for an hour, playing with the family monkey, Martin, and eating home made empanadas. Another hour or so of walking followed then lunch was devoured in a flash accompanied by some card games. 45 minutes more trekking through jungle and we reached the road, where we were collected by a local couple in a van and taken to Santa Teresa where a stunning wooden lodge was waiting to be our accommodation for the night.

Apart from the cycling, this was my favourite part of the trip. The lodge was very isolated, surrounded by jungle and huge mountains, and the hammocks and basic, virtually outdoor rooms gave the place a tremendously relaxed feel. It was a shame that Annika couldn’t be there as she would have loved it, going to bed in the pitch darkness looking at the stars through the gaps in the wooden frame of the cabin.

Once again I slept like a log but the others were kept awake by the insane dog that belonged to the lodge owner which barked at random intervals throughout the night.

The only girl remaining on the trip – April – felt quite ill the next morning and she struggled in the early part of the day as the boys played several games of ‘Premiership Past And Present’ to while away the time during the hard slog uphill.

This last day was the most exhausting, the sun beating down more than the previous day and the trail taking us up much steeper hills through the jungle. We climbed for more than three hours, stopping for lunch in a small restaurant before descending the whole distance we’d climbed in an hour and a half, my 35 year old knees beginning to give up as the kids bowled down in record time ahead of me. A train ride up to Aguas Calientes and we were ready for Machu Picchu the next day – but not before a reunion with Annika and her mother, who had been there all day having had to get an early train.

Next day, we rose at 4am to try and get to Machu Picchu before the hordes. We failed. Well, we did beat most of the unwashed up there but there was still hundreds of people milling around, including the now standard vast group of Israelis, pushing and shoving their way into queues and buses. Our guide showed us around the complex, situated at the top of one mountain (Machu Picchu means Old Mountain) and explained a few things and many photos were taken. By 10am we had seen all there was to see, incredible though it all was and we headed back down to town to try and get on an earlier train back to Cusco. Again, we failed as they were all booked up and so we had to wait in the tourist trap nightmare of a town until 9.30pm. The train was late and was followed by a minibus to Ollantaytambo and then a people carrier back to Cusco and we fell, exhausted, into our bed at 2.30am. Machu Picchu is an amazing place and really very interesting and the jungle trek that led us to it was superb but it was one hell of an effort. Still, it was worth it.

Annika and Lee had booked a morning of horse riding for the next day and, once they had returned, general exhaustion was the order of the day, leading to much sitting around and yawning followed by a night bus to Arequipa. The bus was supposed to be luxurious but it didn’t quite live up to the standards set by Andesmar buses in Argentina and even the bingo didn’t ease the pain of 10 hours overnight with Avatar in Spanish playing once again.

Arequipa is surrounded by no less than three volcanoes and many of the buildings are constructed from sillar, the local volcanic rock which gives Peru’s second largest city its nickname of The White City. We had planned to use it as a base to go and see Colca Canyon and its condors but the two day trek put us all off so we changed our minds.

Instead, we visited a fascinating museum which featured the mummy of a young Inca girl who had been sacrificed more than 500 years ago on top of one of the volcanoes and lay undiscovered until the 1990’s when she was found by some climbers and preserved, much like the children we saw in Salta. Our guide was excellent and explained how the girl was chosen from birth (her umbilical cord was buried with her) and was made to climb to the 6000m summit, only to be given a very strong alcoholic drink and clubbed around the head.

We then moved onto a convent in town which had many rooms but, ultimately, was quite dull – Lee’s comment in the guest book was “large – very large”.

The next day’s bus tour was an extremely rubbish way to spend money and waste time but we made up for it with a lunch of gargantuan proportions.

Our final day in Arequipa saw us all partake in some entertainment of the equine variety as I had missed out before. We were taken to a nearby ranch, saddled up (or whatever the phrase is) and plodded off in single file across the countryside. My horse, Santana, insisted on being first at all times and spent most of the time trying to find a gap through which to pass Annika’s steed, Montanero – with limited success as Montanero’s chief characteristic was that he didn’t like to be passed. The route began with some country trails and continued with a short road which led uphill to the spring from which the locals irrigated their land. Horses rested, we moved off into a local town, turning sharply down a steep, rocky lane which led through the fields and along a river, causing some pretty hairy moments as the horsey novices crashed into each other and various trees and bushes on the way down.

Four hours later, we plodded up the hill and back to base with sore posteriors and a new walk each – as well as a nice new odour of horse. It was the first time I had ever been on a horse and I think I liked it! I might get one for my commute to work. Do horses have to pay the congestion charge? Does IBM have horse parking? Hmmm.

So, Arequipa done and tonight we take a bus to Nasca to see the famous lines. This will almost certainly be the last long distance bus journey of our trip as Nasca to Lima is only 5 hours (yippee!) and Guatemala and Belize are small countries. You may have noticed that I am a little tired of the buses in South America so I am almost looking forward to this one. Almost.