Days 24-27: An Early Test

The birthday celebrations couldn’t have started any better: we had a fantastic room with a unspoilt view of Lake Titicaca.

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After lunch we ventured for a walk around Esteves island, where the hotel is situated. We spotted wild alpacas and had spectacular views of the lake.

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It was then on to the hotels spa, intense steam room, somewhat cool sauna and a bubbling jacuzzi. As we sat in our bathrobes watching the sun go down over Lake Titicaca we were fortunate enough to see a group of alpacas making there way home. Life doesn’t get much better than this, we thought. However, it was at the dinner table when things started to take a turn for the worst…

S: As I made my menu selections, I began to feel a slight dizziness in my head and that dreaded churning of the stomach. I couldn’t believe it, my birthday night in wonderful sorroundings, and I couldn’t get my food down. It was with much disappointment that we had to cut the evening short and head to our room.

Unfortunately a night’s sleep made no difference and we had to call out a doctor the following day. I was diagnosed with an infection of the intestine and given a concotion of colourful pills. Once the doctor had departed, one of the hotel staff turned up at our room with a terrifying cylinder of oxygen and insisted I lay down for 10 minutes of treatment. S

R: not to be left out, I woke up the same morning with a badly-cricked neck, but thought nothing more of it. R

At lunchtime we headed for the bus station accompanied by Antonio who owns Kuntur Inn, our accommodation during the first two nights in Puno. He couldn’t do enough for us and soon we were on the bus and after three hours on a bumpy road we were crossing the border into Bolivia. Ten minutes from there, we were in Copacabana situated on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca. A short taxi ride saw us arrive at our new accomodation, the Ecolodge.

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R: our first night in Copacabana wasn’t a great one. Sophia was still unwell and I had an horrendous time with some strange fever which exacerbated the pains in my neck and all down my left side. Most peculiarly. R

Originally we only intended to stay at the Ecolodge for a couple of nights, head to Isla de Sol for an overnighter, and then on to La Paz. But we have time on our side and the Ecolodge is not a bad place to convalesce. It’s 20 minutes or so from the town, overlooks the bay and apart from a barking dog named Luna is peaceful both day and night.

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Days 21-23: Lakeland

Day 21 saw us back in Cusco for a well-earned day of recuperation in a place now familiar to us. The next day we embarked upon our first guided bus tour. In our defence it served as a one-way trip to Puno, with a few cultural stops on the way to break up the 10-hour journey. At a cost of little over £35, and including an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch, our backpacking pride is still intact. The most notable stop-off was at Abra La Raya, which at more than 4,300m above sea-level is famed for being… err… really high.

We entered Puno just as the sun was setting. It is a city of some 200,000 people and sits at the Peruvian edge of Lake Titicaca, touted as ‘the world’s highest navigable lake’. This does raise the question of what is the world’s highest ‘unnavigable lake’? We’ve still to find out.

Its location aside, Puno is a tad disappointing. Apart from the central plaza, much of the city is unfinished – and quite intentionally. A peculiarity of Puno’s taxation system means that no payments have to be made until each property is ‘completed’. So practically every building in Puno sits with scaffolding on its second or third floor and with no intention from the owner of it bejng completed for 10, 20 or 30 years, if at all. The unintended consequence of this is that Puno sadly resembles a huge building site.

If, however, you stand on the shoreline and look eastwards you can quite literally put the architectural disappointments behind you: spreading out in front of you is Titicaca, and that’s where our focus lay on Day 23.

We opted for a small half-day tour of Uros, one of the many floating islands on the lake. Here you get to spend time among the Aymara people and gain a bit of insight into how they live. Nowadays, in addition to fishing and farming, the Aymara supplement their income through tourism. Although an unforgettable experience, you do come away feeling slightly uneasy about intruding into their lives. But once you’ve been encouraged to buy various souvenirs and pay for a trip in their traditional boats you wonder who is exploiting whom.

Not quite sure what the answer is to these issues. Nonetheless it was a memorable morning and we’ve included some pictures below. Sophia insisted on one particular photograph being included. For some reason she thought it was hilarious.

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R: But before then is a very special day (Friday 21st October): it’s Sophia’s birthday! To celebrate we are staying in supposedly the best place in Puno – Hotel Libertador, situated on its very own lake overlooking Lake Titicaca. Well, Sophia is staying there. I’m camping in the hotel grounds. A budget is a budget after all.

Days 19-20: Machu Picchu

There are many ways to reach Machu Picchu. You can endure a seven-day trek across the mountains or take a luxury orient express-style train to the foot of the mountain. Our route was somewhere in between. We opted for a local collectivo from Cusco, which to the uninitiated seems to consist of a beat-up old transit van stuffed full of locals.

It took us on a two-hour trip through the winding mountain roads to Ollantaytambo, a small village in the Sacred Valley noted for its spectacular, steep Inca terraces – and its railway station. From there we boarded the Inca Rail Express and sat back to enjoy a lazy ride along what many regard as one of the greatest rail journeys in the world. Crystal clear rivers, smiling local farmers and snow-capped mountains were all on view from our carriage window.

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Unfortunately one of the greatest train routes in the world terminates at one of the worst towns in Peru – Aguas Calientes. Arisen solely as a gateway to Machu Picchu, bizarrely it is akin to a dusty, neglected Thai slum. Even stranger is the fact that AC is twinned with Howarth in Yorkshire – a delightful village home to the Bronte sisters.

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There are signs, however, that efforts are being made to make it more sympathetic to its surroundings, but the overwhelming impression is still one of a gringo nightmare overrun with pizzerias and massage parlours. Spending time in Aguas Calientes, one would imagine, is not that different to existing in a state of purgatory. But if this town is a antechamber to hell, it is also the entrance to heaven: Machu Picchu.

At this point, if we were better-read, we would have included some literary allusions to Dante and Milton. Perhaps even included a quote or two. But we’re not. So we haven’t.

After our very own night in purgatory, we rose at 4am, breakfasted quickly and set off when it was neither dark nor light. From Aguas Calientes you can either take the golden oldies bus or embark upon a steep, wheeze-inducing one-hour trek which cuts through the snaking bus route. We chose the latter.

As we staggered up the last few steps at the summit, it would be a lie to suggest that we were the first to reach the Pearly Gates. At least three bus loads and a handful of walkers had beaten us to it. But as we entered Machu Picchu itself and the vista opened up before us, we felt like the only two people there.

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At 6am much of the site was shrouded in cloud, giving it an other-wordly feel which verged on the mystical – well, it was certainly misty. By 10am the Inca city was glittering in intense sunshine and the day-trippers arriving from Cusco were scuttling through the ruins, huffing and puffing their way up and down the hand-finished steps and along the steep terraces. Machu Picchu took it all in its stride, however, and the ‘Kodak Factor’ wasn’t as keenly felt as at Iguazu Falls.

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Often when you visit a world famous location, building or work of art you are struck by how small it is or how ordinary it looks. Not so with Machu Picchu. It is neither small nor ordinary. Hopefully the photographs give some indication how of sublime it is, but another measure is the fact that we spent seven hours at MP and still found it difficult to tear ourselves away. Heaven indeed.

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It was then back down the mountainside and back down to earth. With MP still fresh in our minds, Aguas Calientes didn’t seem half as bad as before and soon we were back on the train and leaving behind our unforgettable experience of heaven and hell.

Days 17-18: Cusco in Pictures

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The Campania: the lesser-photographed, but no less impressive, of the main square’s two cathedrals.

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Despite the presence of MacDonalds and KFC, obesity isn’t a major issue in Cusco.

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Saqsaywaman: once the Royal & Ancient have removed the troublesome Inca ruins, Cusco’s 18-holer is set to be a mainstay of the South American tour.

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Even moving to Peru has failed to shake off those pesky kids.

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Cristo Redentor’s little brother.

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Who said water and electricity don’t mix? Peruvian plumbing at its best.

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A stunning collection of ‘primitive’ Peruvian art.

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A fine day out for the Waltons of Cusco.

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Since the demise of his only competitor in Cusco, the local roofer isn’t stuck for work.

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To Cusco. Salud!

Days 14-16: Tchau Brazil, Hola Peru

The rest of our stay in Iguazu was a mixture of further salubrious chilling (it was a sizzling 35C on Day 14)…

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…and visiting the area’s famous bird park (Day 15), which Sophia has already described. She didn’t mention, however, that it poured with rain throughout the two-hour trail and we were a touch water-logged afterwards. That’s the Brazilian rainforest for you though: a land of meteorological extremes.

Wednesday evening saw us say goodbye to Brazil as we flew to Lima. There we stayed in a very friendly hostel near the airport. It’s a pity it was no more than an overnight stop as it was equipped with a fusball table, full-sized pool table, playstation, classical guitar, acceptable breakfasts and a black cat called Sabrina who likes snoozing on people’s shoulders.

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Then on to Cusco: a flight no longer than the Edinburgh-London commute but a journey to a different world. The sharp-banked, precipitous landing was a world away from London City Airport but worth the short-lived terror. Cradled in the arms of countless peaks, Cusco sits 8,000ft above sea level and is the launch pad for South America’s greatest archeological jewel – Machu Picchu. But more of Cusco later…

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