The mid-point of this trip was all about the altitude and the brilliant views that came along with it. As with the previous days, we veered between exploring urban streets and quiet backwaters, topped off by some time on the water. Here’s the abbreviated version of what we got up to (and for Part 1, click here).
Day 6 – Arequipa to Puno
It felt as though we left Arequipa and the Hotel Asturias a little too soon, and I would have liked to spend more time getting to know the city. However, we were back on the road again and heading for Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca – this time a six hour journey. With frequent stops for coca tea and vicuña spotting, we eased ourselves into the higher altitude, albeit nursing headaches, nausea and dizziness between us.
Our major stopping point en route was at Sillustani, home to a series of funeral towers, known as chullpas, built beside Lake Umayo. They held the remains of priests, dignitaries and whole families, all belonging to the Colla people, who lived on the altiplano (a wide plateau of the Andes). The chullpas were very sophisticated, using huge stone blocks to create tall, rounded shapes with the bodies then placed in a foetal position inside, their burial goods alongside them. Earlier parts of the ruins are thought to date from the 12th-13th century, but others show signs of Incan building influences, suggesting that they were able to carry on creating them once Incan rule began. After visiting Sillustani it was a short ride to Puno’s Hotel Casona Plaza.
Day 7 – Lake Titicaca, the Uros Islands and Taquile Island
The effects of the high altitude definitely continued today, and about half of us were feeling dodgy. However, it was worth battling the symptoms to see the incredible island communities based on Lake Titicaca. Armed with sexy plastic ponchos, we caught a boat over to the Uros Floating Islands, entirely made out of carefully layered totora reeds and accessorised with reed boats, which we got to ride in. Seeing the islanders’ unusual lifestyle was a real eye-opener, especially as their traditional Peruvian clothing contrasted with modern influences like a TV in one of their huts. Just don’t ask me how they powered it – without a solar panel in sight, I still can’t work that one out.
A further stop on Lake Titicaca was Taquile Island, which appealed to my feminist beliefs: this is a place where men, not women, do the knitting. We had lunch with the community (an optional extra – about 10-20 soles) before shopping for gorgeous knitwear and catching the boat back to the mainland. Back on dry land, we enjoyed more classic Peruvian dishes for dinner. Others braved the roasted guinea pig, but I went for the alpaca soup, which was a little greasy but very tasty. The restaurant also offered a free dance show, featuring elaborate costumes that felt a world away from the sequins and sparkle of Strictly Come Dancing in the UK.
Day 8 – Puno to Cusco
Time for another early start, and a ride on the very comfortable public bus to Cusco. After checking in at the Hotel Warary we had an introductory tour of the city and got to visit the famous Coca Museum. It should be noted that the coca leaf to cocaine transformation is a laborious one, so chewing a few leaves is not going to leave you with a class A habit, just a slightly tingling mouth.
The history of coca in Peruvian culture is actually really interesting – for example, Spanish conquistadors made indigenous labourers take it so they could force them to work for up to 48 hours straight – and the museum is definitely worth a visit, with other attractions such as trepanned skulls and ancient art. That evening I added a less cultural pit-stop to the agenda, with a meal and a customary pint of Guinness at the world’s highest Irish pub, Paddy’s. I even have a free poster to prove it. Honest.
Day 9 – Cusco (Free Day)
Having got into the routine of such a carefully planned itinerary, it felt strange to have time all to ourselves. Unfortunately I didn’t get to enjoy much of it as the highlight of my day was a visit from a local doctor, wearing Lemmy from Motörhead’s moustache and carrying a mobile with a revving motorbike ringtone. They don’t make British doctors anywhere near as cool as this.
The rest of the group, not plagued by illness, explored the San Pedro market, full of delicious food, and spent time at various museums in Cusco, highly rating the cathedral (25 sol entrance fee, and a passport is required for ID) and the Inca Museum (10 sol). We then all met up for a group dinner in the evening. As we’d be coming back to our hotel later in the trip, we were able to store our heavy bags and travel light over the next few days. In my case, I still ended up with two bags, as I am a stranger to minimalist packing…
Day 10 – Ollantaytambo and the Sacred Valley
Finally the rain descended, after our incredible good luck with the weather, and the plastic ponchos were out in force as we roamed the Sacred Valley in Urubamba, stopping along the way at Chinchero and Moray. Chinchero was considered to be the birthplace of the rainbow for the Incas and it was an important site for royals and dignitaries. There was a temple here, but a church lined with religious murals has replaced it – FYI, this happened a lot when the Conquistadors took over. After checking out the church, we saw the Incan terraces and walked through the cobbled streets. Further on, at Moray, we got to see the hypnotic pattern of circular terraces, created by the Incas to develop different micro-climates on each level.
For lunch we headed to a local woman’s house, pre-arranged by Intrepid. This gave us a glimpse of life for ordinary Peruvians in the Sacred Valley. We followed this up with a visit to one of the home brewed beer outlets seen on the road; they’re marked by red plastic bags hanging on poles outside people’s houses. Later that afternoon we reached the Hotel Tika Wasi, in Ollantaytambo. This town also had Incan terraces, but many of them were built ridiculously high up into the mountainside. It’s an important place for history lovers as this was where the Incas enjoyed one of their few victories against the Conquistadors.
Two thirds of the trip had now been ticked off and the group had really bonded, but we still had the classic adventure of Machu Picchu yet to come, as well as our second glimpses of Cusco and Lima. Stay tuned for the final part of the Majestic Peru adventure.