Inca Gold! A journey from the Amazon Jungle to Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca and The Galapagos Islands
Updated: Jan 13
My turn for our destination choice, and, as I was turning 50, I couldn't think of a more sensational adventure than experiencing Machu Picchu. To add the Amazon Jungle, Lake Titicaca and the Galapagos Islands, was icing on my birthday cake!
March 2017 saw us heading off for our first ever South American holiday...a destination that had been number two on my all time bucket list - just behind climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
And, seeing that I did 'Kili' for my 40th, it just seemed perfect to do Machu Picchu for my 50th!
(Can't imagine what we'll come up with for my 60th! Haha. )
This is one place that Trev wasn't so keen on going.
We had been watching a funny series on cable ... "An Idiot Abroad" - where these two English comedians sent their dry, dull and negative friend around the world to see the 'Wonders'. Of Machu Picchu, he described it as "It's just a bunch of old rocks on a hill - I don't see what all the fuss is about..." Hilarious, and Trev kept reminding me that I had dragged him halfway around the world to see "A bunch of old rocks on a hill." "Trust me," I said. "This will be EPIC!"
It's a ways to get there from Australia, or anywhere I suspect - never a simple or direct process...That's what makes travelling even more adventurous, I reckon. It's rarely on a platter, well, at least some of the trips we plan anyway.
Brisbane - Auckland - Santiago - Lima, then overnight, and the next morning: Lima - Cuzco - Puerto Maldonado, then an hour and a half bus ride on a slippery muddy track, followed by a 3 hour powered canoe trip up the Tambopota River, a tributary of the mighty Amazon, to the Tambopota Ecolodge.
Got all that? ;) Definitely not in Kansas anymore! It's not always about the destination remember - the journey is a major chapter of the book.
It had been flooding in Peru, dangerously so, and even downtown Lima was without running water in the week leading up to our arrival, naturally I was concerned we could be stranded at the airport. But, the Universe was shining, and the area we were heading, Miraflores, was OK, and free from perils by the time we arrived.
We didn't have much time in our gorgeous boutique hotel,
'Hotel Antigua Miraflores' before we had our first get together with the rest of our G-Adventures tour group, so we headed over to where the action was... one busy bartender making their national drink, 'Pisco Sour'...
My new favourite drink, and choice of poison for this whole adventure!! And to be honest, these were the best we had on tour. Or were we jet lagged? I don't know, but they didn't touch the sides. :)
We were coming back here in two weeks, so after meeting the rest of the crew, and a good 'getting to know you chat', we pretty much headed to bed to collapse. "See you bright and early", said our travel guide and soon to be awesome friend, Ekaterina, (Karty for short.) This was our first ever G Adventures tour, probably first organised tour of any kind to be honest, and these guys really had their ducks in a row. Every night we knew where and when we had to be in the morning, what to wear temperature wise (always - LAYERS, with rain protection, hehe), where we were off to and what to expect. Considering where we were going, sometimes really off the beaten track and totally off grid on a foreign continent, this was a good thing!
A fast 1 hour's flight to Cuzco, then a further short 30 minute flight to the edge of the Amazon, Puerto Maldonado. I really felt 'jiggly' landing in Cuzco, as we went from sea level to 3400 metres, kind of like I had 100 strong coffees. And this gorgeous town was to be my nemesis for annoying altitude sickness. Yes, I had done Kilimanjaro, but we had spent quite a few days slowing acclimatising for that.
Flying in is another kettle of fish. Anyway, that was to be later, as Puerto Maldonado is our immediate destination, and is under 200 metres in altitude, so all we had to contend with there was heat, humidity, mosquitoes, mud, tarantulas, snakes, piranhas, and no power. Brilliant! What was Trev saying? I wasn't listening.
(Just kidding, he never complains.) "This will be epic, I think..."
Arriving in the tiny town of Puerto Maldonado, we were driven to the local offices to rearrange our luggage, as we were only allowed a soft, 15 kilo bag with us for the three days, as large luggage wouldn't fit in the canoes. Fine by us.
We were wearing our hiking boots anyway, and the rest is hot weather,
mosquito and rain proof clothing, and toiletries. That's all that's required.
We saw plenty of cute Capybaras languishing in the mud on the river bank, as well as Red Howler Monkeys, whose sound was extraordinary - it didn't sound like an animal, it sounded like heavy machinery, and they can be heard from up to 5 kms away.
Welcome to the environmentally friendly, Tambopota Ecolodge.
It was sooooo quiet at night, oh except for the one night Peru were playing their qualifying match for the World Cup. They kept the generators on late as a treat for their staff, and we heard every cheer, and every cry of anguish. They won, phew, so the crew were all super happy the next day, albeit somewhat 'tired'.
I'm happy to support Peru now, they are a nation of such kind people.
The next couple of days were spent hiking in the jungle, (amid a kazillion screaming mosquitos - make sure you pack your repellant!)...cruising the still yet piranha filled oxbow lake, river canoeing at night, in the pitch black, looking for alligator eyes under spotlights, and enjoying the stars overheard, shining like beacons. You've never seen the Southern Cross like here in The Amazon. And we are starting to learn about the Incas, and their reliance on the constellations. I'll get to that later.
We saw a shy tarantula, check out my video on the wall, I never thought I'd be fascinated watching a spider, but she was so shy, and, yes, lovely.
We had a friendly sloth up a tree outside our common room one night, and everyone ran out to see it, and it's like, "Hey, no hurry, it's not going anywhere fast..!" We fed the piranhas, and the guides told us of the tricks they play on each other, often letting go of the other guide's tied up boat, and they have to swim for it, amongst the piranhas...they say "It's ok, as long as you aren't bleeding..." We also happened across a poison dart frog...they are tiny, but don't stroke them, you won't turn into a prince! And they reckon Aussie animals want to kill us!
And lastly a group photo next to a giant tree.
It was beautiful.
Raw, natural, and without the clutter of humans. There's something about nature that always draws me to it. I'm not one that loves a city life. Give me boots, a hat, and a camera, and I'm happy.
Back to Cuzco, via the canoes, muddy bus track and tiny plane ride...and we were back in the ancient 'Centre of The World.' This is where it all began for the Incas, and there still are so many buildings with Inca foundations still visable here. They are easy to spot. They are perfect. You can't even fit your fingernail into the gaps between the hand carved stones that needed no mortar.
The Spanish came and built on top of them, and often they fell in earthquakes. Not the Inca remnants.
Such an inate intelligence. And they remain. Well, the buildings do.
No-one ever really knows what happened to the Incas. We know the Spanish left them with disease, smallpox etc, and that killed most of the virile soldiers. However, when they left Machu Picchu, apparently ladened with the gold that would have been there...the gold never turned up. I love the romance that there still may be an 'El Dorado' somewhere in the jungle.
You can do 'The Inca Trail' to Machu Picchu, the exact same route the Incas used, and hid for so many years, but now, they have discovered the route they escaped on, and will have that opened up to hikers in the future. How fabulous!
But before we get there, we have quite a few days, working our way towards that famous citadel, that Wonder of The World, and we have a lot to learn and appreciate before we get there.
Starting with a planetarium visit in Cuzco, to learn about the night skies, the way the Incas saw them.
I must say, 80% of our group fell asleep in the dark, lol, but I for one was fascinated. They used what's known as the 'Dark Constellations'. The gaps between the stars, and they had shapes and names, and from these, they could decipher if a drought or flood was coming...when to plant, harvest or store.
Where do you think the terms La Niña, and El Niño come from?
Still hugely important weather events in this day and age. They knew.
The solstices were also an important part of their calendar, and like other ancient civilisations, their buildings worked liked sundials, and are still accurate today.
Okay, history lessons over, time for photos!
Time for one of those mountain drives that you see on Nat Geo...a little butt puckering went on around the corners, I tell you! Welcome to, 'The Sacred Valley'. This is the beginning, and the entire route towards Machu Picchu. It's where they farmed, and learned terracing, to be able to produce the crops they grew in high altitude.
Next stop, Ollantaytambo. An important Inca stop, also, it's where the hikers will pick up the Inca Trail. Half our group is hiking, the other half is hotelling, sightseeing, and catching the train there. That's us!
This is a fabulous spot.
Amazing ruins, so perfectly manicured and restored. There is a bustling market place where we haggled for some nice inca patterned bags. This was back-packer heaven. Young, fit foreigners from all countries, gathering, ready for the 4 day Inca Trail. We were the oldies, prepping to bid them adios. :)
This was our last night together for a while as a full group, and I had a call from home that distressed me. We knew Cyclone Debbie was thrashing our home on the Gold Coast, and with my two kids (20 and 17) holding down the fort in a black out, with horrendous wind and rain, I felt a million miles away from them, and for the first time ever on holidays I sobbed like a baby.
(Well, maybe second time, I cried on top of Kilimanjaro, but those were joyful tears!)
Nothing I could do, even though they assured me they were ok, they even learnt how to fire up the generator for power, still alas, my motherly instinct kicked in and I felt helpless. Anyway, I pulled myself together, pulled up my 'big girl pants', and soldiered on.
We all live and learn. They were fine. I, not so much! ;) I'm such a sook.
The following morning saw the hikers leave before we arose, so we then had a great day planned, heading to the highlands above Cuzco, to the salt mines. Not at all what you'd expect. I always envisioned salt mines to be like slave labour, child workers etc, but not this place. Every family owns one of this little salt pools, where they harvest it, and market it for themselves. Beautiful pink Perviuan rock salt.
This little stream at the top left, is what washes down into the pools, then evaporates, leaving the salt. We tasted the water to our lips, it was warm and salty.
Then another archeological site where the Incas grew their potatoes, at various levels, to prep them for altitude. Each 2 terraces going down, equated in a 1 degree temperature drop, so they could groom their future crops according to where they needed to grow.
Such clever farmers.
Back to Cuzco for some free time to explore this unique city. I love main squares in South American countries...they are usually lined with great restaurants which are always good to park at and 'people watch.' There will be a church there, and it's great to take the time to just 'sit'. Peru, let me add, prides itself with great organic cuisine, and in Lima, they have 2 out of the top 10 restaurants in the world there. We had a few meals at Pepe Zeta Bistro, where you'll NEVER find a more delicious chocolate milkshake - EVER! It was like liquid chocolate, and South American chocolate is SOOOOOO good!
However, the altitude was knocking me around, particularly at night. I remember waking up thinking the air had been sucked out of the room, and I physically felt I had to remember to breathe. It was actually quite disconcerting. Lots of water, and hot coca tea and Panadol.
The San Pedro markets were in our sights, and G Adventures had organised for a local guide to walk us through. It was so colourful, the food so fresh, and yes, there was everything, every part of a beast - nothing is wasted in these countries. I'll spare you the most gruesome of photos...
I managed to haggle the purchase of a gorgeous Alpaca poncho, for $25. Not sure how often I'll wear it on the Gold Coast, but I loved it, and it's going to be treasured!
Our last morning before heading off towards Machu Picchu, so we got up early for one more walk to the main square. It was a Sunday, and we were pleasantly surprised to find out they had a Military Parade on, which was such a treat.
It's a pity the others were back at the hotel sleeping in. Snooze you lose!
So now, its adios Cuzco for now, and hello Machu Picchu. FINALLY!
Time for that long bus ride through the Sacred Valley again, to Ollantaytambo, where we'll pick up the very scenic Machu Picchu Train, one of the Top Ten rail trips in the world, and my train loving Trev can't wait!!
Arriving in the cute, bustling, steep little town of Aguas Calientes, it reminded us a lot like Europe.
The river was absolutely pummelling down, it was a good thing we chose not to go white water rafting!
As per usual, the clouds are covering the mountains in the distance where Machu Picchu hides, so we are really hoping we have reasonable weather in the morning, as we are heading up there first thing, to meet the rest of our team, the hikers, as they will be coming in through the famous 'Sun Gate' at dawn, and we are to meet them at the iconic site, right in front of the ancient city. The classic postcard shot we're all familiar with, and I'll be gutted if it's pouring with rain. Fingers crossed...
We're nearly there!!
The buses head up and down the mountain, all day long.
It's a very steep climb, with many hairpin bends and wash outs, that makes that ass puckering bus trip in the Sacred Valley seem like a kiddies ride at a park. This was crazy!
What was even more crazy, Trev saw the bus drivers check their watches when they return...apparently they race each other!
O M G!
Anyhoo, we live to tell the tale, and the weather Gods blessed us with a picture perfect morning. I was filled with anticipation as we neared this historical site;
a place I have waited half my life to see.
Trev beat me there by a minute or so, and turned to me - with tears in his eyes and said,
"Are you ready for this?"
I'll never forget it, and with a lump in my throat, then, and now, this is what appeared in front of my eyes.
We watched as the light clouds parted like sheer curtains, and we were left without words. Check out my video on the wall. It still takes my breath away.
Bunch of old rocks on a hill?
The look on Trev's face says it all.
It ranks up there as one of the best days of our lives!
It's hard to show just a few photos, as the site has so many aspects to it. Let me leave it with you, and perhaps, you want to go and see for yourself. Don't forget to give way to the gorgeous llamas...
It hurt to leave.
But by lunchtime the drizzle had set in, so there was no point staying,
and we had a 3pm train to catch.
So we donned our $2 condom styled ponchos, sat in the rain for as long as we could, took a few more pics, and headed down the mountain, through the mist and wash outs, and the mad crazy bus drivers!
Another interesting side note - due to the rain that came that afternoon, there was a landslide over the train tracks, just after we had gotten through. Thank you Universe, for allowing us safe passage!!
Back to Cuzco for one last stop, and some much needed bed rest for our hikers. We on the other hand, had this free day planned for some time.
First, it was going to be white water rafting, however, due to prior flooding, the rivers were just too high. Plan B - Quad biking around the high alpine lakes...DONE!
It was actually my first ever time at riding a quad, and we both had the best time. We were gone for hours, going through plenty off mud, dodging working donkeys on the road, and riding through desolate little townships.
What an exhilarating experience!
We were so completely covered in mud by the end of the day, we asked the hotel if they could quickly wash our clothes as we were leaving first thing in the morning. Great... I think they boiled my jeans, because they shrunk 2 sizes and I couldn't get into them for the rest of the trip!
Time to pack up and leave the charming Cuzco, once and for all. It's been such a fantastic base to work from. Now, we have a 9 hour bus trip ahead, to get to Lake Titicaca, home of the famous floating reed islands, and the people who still live on them.
This was to be our only full day's travelling, and to get to the 'World's highest navigable Lake - Titicaca', we had to drive through the highest plains in Peru. One stop I remember well, was the highest altitude spot, cue photo op, but I was more interested in the stalls selling alpaca goods.
I tried on a fluffy hat, just as you do, but I wouldn't pay the price, so I gave it back to the lady. Well! She wasn't impressed, and even chased me back onto the bus and threw it at me. She dropped her price from $100 to $20! I regret not buying it now, not that I would have ever had a use for it...but it was hilarious at the time - she was so cranky!
We drove through what our guide called 'Crazy Town' - Juliaca...A large, dusty, crowded and fairly poor city - A place where vigilantes are accepted in taking the law into their own hands. If someone commits a crime towards you, you can kill them.
Plain and simple. Not 'technically' legal, but they tend to look the other way... Saves the courts and prisons, they reckon. A total 'Black Market /Old West kind of town. Real Dodge(y) city!
Soooo, we pushed through here without stopping - however, we do have to fly out of here in a couple of days...
Next stop, the famous floating islands of Lake Titicaca, where I'll be celebrating my
OK, it was by chance it worked out this way, ideally I would love to have been at Machu Picchu for the big day, but this location turned out to so unique, and a brilliant place to remember this milestone.
The morning saw a surprise from our guide, Karty, for all of us...