Peru & Ecuador, 2008


Peru as a destination—or more accurately, Machu Picchu—was Lynda’s original choice for her 60th birthday. We ended up in Egypt for that occasion yet Peru kept presenting itself, and we eventually made the decision to book Ramblers' "The Six Faces of Peru" holiday. We started the groundwork early. Yet somehow we were in the usual scramble to get to Vancouver airport yawning-early (too early for our usual celebratory drink) on the morning on Day 0 of our trip: March 28th, 2008...

Day 0-1: Meeting the Group

Ramblers trips fly out of the UK so we made our own arrangements to meet the group in Lima. We didn’t notice until we were at Vancouver airport that we didn’t have much time to spare in Toronto to make our connection to Lima...and then our plane got mechanical problems! Thankfully, we made it—barely—getting into Lima after midnight. Getting a cab to our hotel was easier if a little more expensive than we expected. The cab took us through a city that was just buzzing considering the time of night, past the bustling casino strip (for locals, not tourists according to our cab driver) and into the tourist district of Miraflores an hour later. We were very relieved to find the wobbly hotel arrangement made through Ramblers was in place. Two hurdles out the way.

Woke to an earthquake tremor—two major jolts of the building that set off car alarms but didn’t seem to particularly bother anyone—and overcast skies. After breakfast, we opted for the recommended walk to the beach. Miraflores turns out to be quite safe. Elsewhere in Lima violence is rare but opportunistic crimes”, such as pockets picked and the occasional mugging, are common enough so we didn’t feel like facing that just yet. So we walked the four blocks from the hotel and came out on a cliff top road overlooking the Pacific. From the path along the top we could see down to the beach road a hundred feet below us; out in the surf dozens of surfers were trying their luck. In either direction we could see perhaps a couple of miles of crescent beach; very serene. We explored the very modern mall at the top and eventually found the path to the beach and dipped our feet in the Pacific. Chilly! Surfers all in wetsuits.

Had an excellent lunch at a café across the street from the hotel. It’s hard to find people who speak English here even in the middle of the tourist area. We returned to the hotel and found a note from the group leader telling us of a meeting with the group that evening. We filled in time and met up with what seemed to be a very good group that evening. The tour began.

Day 2: On to Arequippa

Lunch in ArequippaAnother early morning start: bus to the airport at 8am—brutal for the Brits, who had only just hauled in after a 26 hour transatlantic trip the day before. It’s a bit chaotic at the airport trying to get 22 people with bags ticketed; we managed to skirt a horrendous line-up to pay the airport tax (US$30!) but we’re eventually on the plane. Only an hour and a half flying time (1202Km) South and inland to Arequippa. Then out of the plane, meet our guide Jorge, board the bus and finally arrive at the hotel.

Beautiful old hotel we’re in. We check in, have a quick lunch, and then head out on the bus almost immediately for a look at the valley on the outskirts of the city. Jorge points out the agriculture and countryside, and some of the plants and flowers nearby. He seems thankfully expert on the birds (he identifies a flock of Mountain Parakeets).

Then back into town for a walk around the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. This is almost an enclosed town within the city. Several centuries ago, the founder Doña Maria de Guzman, began allowing the second girl of each noble family in Arequippa (the first was married off) to enter the convent at the age of 12, to spend the rest of their lives in isolation with other girls and women. Their families paid a small fortune as a dowry to keep them here and avoid the dishonour of not being able to afford this “privilege”. At first there was less hardship, as each girl was allowed several black servants, to attend parties with musicians invited in for the occasion, and to live in a fashion generally not too different from that of their sisters out in society. In 1871, however, Pope Pius IX sent the formidable Sister Josefa Cadena to straighten things out, and the girls found themselves living in the chaste austerity of a single sparse room. Our guide paints the party-line picture of these women spending their time seclusion, obediently praying, sewing and weaving... One wonders how many of these rich teenagers, knowing their elder sisters were living in high society with their families, surrendered so easily to a life of imposed poverty and deprivation! For one hundred years, life in the convent was so closed off that it became shrouded in mystery. Only in 1970, when the city forced it to open its doors to tourism, did old practices end. Today a small group of nuns still live in the seclusion of one part of the their own choice, one would assume.

Then onto the Iglesia de la Compañia, a Jesuit church known mostly for its "churrigeuresque" altar, a cedar structure carved in a particularly ornate style and covered in gold leaf. We spend some time here looking at paintings that may be as many as four centuries old. The style is obviously Spanish yet clearly Catholicism here—as elsewhere—bent a little to local beliefs: birds, fruits and flowers important to local people have their place in many paintings .

Arequippa is a proudly distinct area, traditionally independent from the Spanish (as they see it) city of Lima; at one time it  even had a distinct flag and passport. Many if not most of the country people here are descended from Quechuans, who pre-dated the Incas. It has other influences: the cathedral and several other historic buildings have to be routinely restored after earthquakes—1600 was a particularly bad year, when the city was completely destroyed by a combination of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Day 3: To Colca

Wild Vicuña

We made an early start as it is a long ride to Colca. We cross the river in the middle of town and take a few pictures. Then we’re off, heading North up around the side of el Misti. Looking back, the terrain around Arequippa is a light green sparse semi-desert landscape, similar to what you often find around Vegas; flowers are bloom in abundance. But our guide tells us that anyone in this area who is younger than 15 years has never seen this green before, as there has been a drought for that many years.

Chachani on our left El Misti on our right We climb up towards the three volcanoes looming over Arequippa, and over the shoulder of El Misti—at 19100 ft, still looming another 3,000 feet above us; we can now see that the snow is only that from a recent fall and is beginning to melt off. Chachani (19,930ft) looms on our left and Pichu Picchu (18, 277ft), further off behind El Misti. We’re into the “Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca”, an area set aside as a national park so as to prevent the complete eradication of Vicuñas and other wildlife by a peasantry for whom food would otherwise be a more pressing need than conservation.

The bus drive is fascinating. We’re up around 13-14,000 feet now and whizzing across the great plain of the altiplano. There are “hills” close to us and occasionally in the distance on our left we can occasionally see the bigger peaks of Nevado Ampato (20,702ft), Sabancaya (19,606ft) and Hualca Hualca (19,767 ft), mountains considered sacred by the Incas

In between, we are mesmerized by the herds of alpacas (tails down) and llamas (tails up) that we pass. And unexpectedly, a couple of condors, like black gliders with their enormous wingspan, cruise past a nearby peak. Later on this road, the guide stops and points out some Vizcachas—an animal that is in the same family as a Chinchilla but looks more like a rabbit.

A website explains the problem. “Viscachas are a different animal than chinchillas even though they're grouped together under the same Family classification Chinchillidae; just as okapis are different from giraffes but they're both in the Family "Giraffidae." Perhaps the problem was that originally the Families Chinchillidae and Giraffidae only had a single genus under them and the family name naturally reflected that genus; then viscachas and okapis were added to their respective families at a later date.”

We step out of the bus for lunch and making my way through to the washroom at the back of the restaurant, I’m out of breath from my short walk and can’t figure out why the room is moving about; the effects of altitude are among us. We all decide to try the Coca tea with our desiccated cheese sandwiches for lunch. Not bad. Everyone’s feeling weird. Lyn picks up some coca candies that we develop a taste for.

The bus hammers on across the wilderness. The roads are quite good and we make good speed.

Wild VicunaWe notice the children often have alpaca pets, which encourages tourists to take pictures. But the kids are extremely careful and gentle with their cares. Alpacas are prone to spitting at people who offend them, which might account for some of the mutual respect but there is more to it than that. Unlike many of the cultures we have visited, where animals seem to be little more than walking dinner or a utility beast with no more feelings than a handcart, people here seem to care immensely for their animals. At one point on the road we find a dead alpaca, struck by a bus only recently. The drivers on our bus are outraged. It’s nice to see.

We begin to make the climb up to Pachabamba, the highest point of our trip. Those with altimeters agree that the highest point is 4800m. We stop briefly to look around (we aren’t going far; we’re too exhausted). Then we begin the plunge towards Colca canyon. It’s a long way off and a long way down but we can now see the green jewel of the valley off in the distance. As we pull down the last thousand feet or so, the scene is amazing.

In front of us, flowing down the Colca Canyon is the Colca River, making its way to the Pacific Ocean.

Colca Lodge. Hot pools are just bottom left cornerWe cross the Colca and can see our destination: the Colca Lodge. But it takes us another 15 minutes touring a backroad through fields chock-full with vegetables of all kinds, to come back around and down the slope to the Colca Lodge parking lot. We don’t need any encouragement to take things slowly. That evening, we wander down the river to the hot-spring fed pools. We’re only a 20m from the river and a few hardy European souls try the hot-pool/freezing river combo. For us, it's out of the tub, up to the bar and for me time to try a pisco sour at the bar while Lyn changes. Great! Best ever. Until I found that Lyn was getting oxygen while I living it up. She misses dinner but she’s OK.

Day 4:Colca Canyon…

…one of the three highlights of our trip. After this our third day in Peru and Lyn said that if we had to go home now, the trip would still have been worth it. I agree.

Peruvian barbed-wire!Colca, at 3191m (10,469 ft),is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon, and the world’s second deepest canyon…only 150m less than the next canyon over, the Cotahuasi.

Earthquake rents across valley We get up early because we want to catch the condors (and avoid the worst of the morning crowds). There four llamas chewing the cud outside our cabin as we head for breakfast, but we’re soon on the bus; we cross the river and take the bumpy road down the canyon.

We have two hours of driving down the canyon to reach the viewing point for the condors. We stop in the village of Yanque to see children Condor juvenile crusing with Mum (Dad?)in costume putting on a dance they do every morning, and to take a few photos of the interesting church here where some women are doing restoration work. Then out on the road to the condor lookout. At first, the fields slope easily to the river which ambles along just below us. The opposite bank is steeper but we can see a road that services the occasional terraced farm on the other side. On this side, though the fields and terraces bank away on our left more gradually up to the high points. But after an hour and a half, the river begins to drop away beyond a platform of fields on our right; the cliffs on the other side get steeper and all signs of human habitation disappear; and the cliffs on our immediate left are getting steeper too. By the time we arrive at the lookout and disembark, we’re looking across at 3,000 ft of almost vertical wall opposite and above us, and we walk to the edge of the canyon, there’s a shear drop to the river about 3,000 feet below.  A Peregrine Falcon drifts over and an American Kestrel sits on a rock below us, and then an adult condor and a juvenile cruise can be seen wheeling about in the canyon about 1,000ft below us. These are massive birds, weighing as much as 15kg, with wingspans up to 10ft; they can live for 50 years. We see a few more Condors and take photos for another half hour. Our group then begins a brief walk along the edge of the canyon (don’t worry, it’s a constructed path!); as we leave a couple of condors sweep up and pass 20 ft over the heads of a Japanese tour group back where we were standing. Quechuan woman. Might be Mismi behind her but hard to tell

It’s a nice walk, if a little exhausting because of the altitude. The bus a ride so they pack up and join us on picks us up. On the way back, we stop the bus to admire the wares of a couple of Quechuan women who have spread out on blankets and belongings by the side of the road. It seems that they want the bus. It’s how people travel in this part of the world!

We “do” Chivay: a pleasant town. At the market we buy supplies for a planned visit to a school tomorrow as well as for ourselves. There is very little pressure to buy here. People will press things on us but disappear if we express no interest. Very painless shopping. Then we take the bus back to Yanque and do a walk back to the lodge. As hike down the cliff behind the village to the river, we wait to cross the bridge to allow some Quechuan women herding sheep to cross in our direction so that we don’t confuse the sheep; as the women pass by, they are laughing hysterically because one of the sheep keeps biting their bums for some reason.

Day 5: Colca to Puno

We’re up and away early, woken by a loudspeaker-amplified political harangue drifting across the river from the direction of Yanque at 6am. Geez.

Our route to Puno takes us about half way back along the route to Arequippa but we stop at the top of the Pachabamba pass to view the peculiar plant growth. It looks like green lichen on some rocks by the side of the road, and feeling it seems to confirm this. But a closer look reveals that the “rock” is actually a plant which is three inches deep and has a very hard exterior surface. This is protected now as the locals used to burn it for firewood.

Back behind Yanque rises the relatively unremarkable peak of Nevado Mismi. On the far Northern slope of this peak a small stream becomes the Apurimac river; this later joins the Mantaro River and becomes the Ene, Ampato, Sabancaya and Hualca Hualca behind uswhich in turn joins with Perené River to become the Tambo River which joins with the Urubamba to become the Ucayali River which joins with the Marañon river (and others) to form the Amazon. Mount Mismi, being the furthest point from the mouth of the Amazon, is now considered to be the “source” of the Amazon.

Then down to the altiplano; after about an hour we stop at a single low-slung building in the middle of nowhere that houses a school for half a dozen Quechuan children run by a very devoted teacher from Arequippa. We chat, deliver the vegetables and other fare that we bought yesterday for them at the market in Chivay; the kids are initially shy but gradually warm up. They sing a couple of local songs for us and when they finish, one of the boys asks us to sing a song for them. Someone suggests Old MacDonald had a Ol' MacDonald had a and off we go, the Brits really getting into it. The kids love it.

More altiplano; turn left at the junction and we’re now on the road to Puno. Up we go and over another pass of about 15,000ft and then down onto a second plain; main difference is that there are few llama or alpacaFlamingos and other birdsherds here: it’s just countryside. We have lunch by a small lake with plenty of bird life, including two species of flamingo. Very peaceful.

Plain of Lake TiticacaWe drop then over a brow and pick up a river, and follow it along the Titicaca plain into Juliaca. There are farms, and occasional disturbing signs (our first) of a careless commercial traffic—garbage discarded by the highway. Juliaca is an ugly town but we are now only an hour from Puno.

Coming into Juliaca, Lake T. in the distance Puno and Lake Titicaca We reach Puno across the farmed flats that edge onto Lake Titicaca. We drive up over a hill and there below is the first sign of the old town, nestled in the hills, and sitting on the edge of the vast lake of Titicaca. We have to leave the bus on the edge of town and take minibuses to the hotel because the streets are so narrow.

Day 6: Puno and Lake Titicaca

The lake is 8300 square kilometres in area—just under half the size of Lake Ontario but still the largest in South America. It is also the highest (at 12,500 ft) lake in the world navigable by commercial ships. The shoreline visible across the lake is Bolivia. A landlocked country, Bolivia nonetheless maintains a navy…on the lake. Five rivers flow into Titicaca but only one flows out…and this single outflow accounts for only 10% of the water loss from the lake; the other 90% is carried off by wind and sun.

We have a new guide here, Ubaldo. My altitude symptom seemed to be sleeplessness; I only got 2 hours sleep the night before so decided to skip the day on the lake. Lynda went with the group, first to the floating islands, 5km out into the lake. These islands, made out of the totora reeds that grow in the shallows of Lake Titicaca, were built centuries ago by the Uros tribe, seeking refuge from the Inca and other aggressive tribes. The islands are huge floating rafts of reeds; the reeds rot from the bottom so need to be constantly replenished but as long as one steps carefully around any rotting sections. Whole villages live on these islands although nowadays Lynda suspects that the inhabitants of the islands that accept tourists probably live in Puno and only do this as a day job. Further out, there are villages that still live in the traditional way but tourists are not allowed in.

Then on to Taquile, a 7 km sq. not-floating island that is home to about 2000 people, who remain separate from the other Quechuan tribes on the mainland. The Ramblers group walked across the island, our guide greeting each islander he met by name and often asking for their age as well!

Day 7: On to Cuzco

Puno to Cuzco We’re ready to board a new bus now, the trip delayed a little because one of the other tour groups in the hotel has taken off to the railway station with one of our group’s bags. But we’re eventually on board (bag rescued) and heading out of town, back towards Juliaca, through Juliaca, and heading due North—about 200km—to Cuzco. We stop at the Sillustani Burial site, overlooking Lake Umaya (higher than Titicaca, but only navigable by small boats). These ruins were the burial site for the nobility of the warlike Colla people, who lived in this area before the Incas and later became Southern allies of the Incas. Whole families of the tribe’s rulers were buried in each cylindrical tower, together with the belongings they would need for the afterlife. One massive tower, 12m tall, is made of immense, finely carved blocks that have been raised into position by earthen ramps built beside the column in much the same way that it is suspected the Egyptian pyramids were constructed. evidence gathered from a ramp. What isn’t clear is whether this tower, significantly different from the others, was influenced by the Incas;

Our route takes us out along the plain of Titicaca, where occasionally we can see cattle grazing on the flat areas but the threat of flood leaves the flatland largely wild. Further up there is the occasional farm but much of it is just grassland. We head up a long winding valley, following both the train tracks and a river heading back in the direction of Lake Titicaca. We eventually pass the train and fifteen minutes later, reach La Raya pass (14,700ft), where we stop and get out. In front of us is the train station, with the train from Cuzco waiting for the train from Puno, that we just passed, to pull in alongside it on the only portion of double-track between the two cities. Behind the station is a small marsh. A small stream flows out of the right and this grows into the river we have been following to get here. A small stream flowing out of the marsh to the left (as we follow it down towards Cuzco) joins the Vilcanota River emerging from the Lago Languillayas in the hills behind us, and thence to the Amazon. Behind all of this rises the Nevado Ananti. It’s quite a geographical interest scene!

Back on the bus and now we head down the descending valley towards Cuzco. You’d think it would be the same on the descent as on the ascent, but here there is dense and clearly richer farming than we have seen so far, and this trend only increases as we continue to plunge. Eventually we hit the outskirts of Cuzco. Surprise! We thought this would be a small tourist town in the Andes. Instead, we find ourselves on the highway passing the airport heading into town, and even then we have another 20 minutes of city driving to make our way into the core of the city. 

Days 9-12: Cuzco

Cuzco from SaqsaywamanWe’re here for 4 days (5 nights). The hotel is in the middle of the old city, only two blocks from the main (Plaza de Las Armas) square and there are literally dozens of sightseeing spots within 10 minutes walk. These are old, stone-paved narrow streets. As we are finding in any town in Peru, cars (often mostly taxis) rule, and crossing the street means taking one’s life No idea who/what that is on the left one’s hands.

I’ll describe a little of the city experience and our three main excursions just to keep the text to a minimum.


Cuzco sits in a kind of bowl, with peaks (hills really, in this part of the world) of perhaps a thousand feet on all sides except the valley by which we entered yesterday. This opens to the South. This morning, we take the bus ruins.jpgand climb steadily up the hillsides. Walking down in the opposite direction, heading to work or to sell goods in the city, is a steady stream of Quechuan people dressed in full traditional dress.

Saqsaywaman is an enormous sprawl of ruins that was once the main Inca fortress presiding over the approach roadsZig-zagging wall symbolizes the teeth of the puma head of Saqsaywaman to Cuzco, and the site of associated temples. The 9th Inca, Pachacutec, the founder of the Inca empire, envisaged the city as shaped like the sacred puma; he conceived Saqsaywaman as the head. The “teeth” are clearly visible in the form of a zig-zagging wall in the ruins. head of pumaOne stone weighing 30 tons.

Truckin' down to Cuzco town...Due to its strategic advantage Saqsaywaman was the site of major battles between Spaniard and Inca. The Spaniards captured it (with major losses on both sides) when they originally took the city, but made the mistake of subsequently relaxing their vigilance. walking downThe Inca Manco retook it and used it as a base for guerrilla attacks on the Spanish for some time before things came to a head, and a major Spanish cavalry attack forced Manco to retreat to Ollantaytambo, leaving so many dead that dozens of condors fed for weeks on the bodies. The Spanish celebrated this in grisly fashion, including eight condors on the coat of arms of Cuzco.walking down2

The Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley lies on the other side of the hills to the North and East of Cuzco. It is actually the valley of the Rio Urubamba, which flows on past Machu Picchu, and it isn’t clear why it got the name 'Sacred'. There are ruins at Ollantaytambo and Pisac that we'll see but these were as much military as religious in purpose.

The bus wheezes up the heights on the North side of the Cuzco, descends a little, and then crosses a fertile plain of farms and villages that could put us almost anywhere in the world if it was not for the clues provided by my altimeter. We cross this plain, drop through a gap and are in a narrower valley alongside the Urubamba; a few fields of flat farmland border the river but less than before before steep peaks arise on each side. We travel down this valley and it narrows as we go. After half an hour or so, we reach the end and we are suddenly in a narrow canyon, and in the village of Ollantaytambo. Here there are more remains of an old Inca fortress/terraces climbing high up the cliffs.

We take the same road back towards Cuzco, but continue along the river when we meet our road in entering from the right. We are heading for Pisac. We have lunch in Pisac, in an upstairs balcony of a quaint restaurant from which we can look out over the main market. Balcony seating requires that the people sitting further along from us are trapped; the waitress takes their order over our head and we must pass their plates to them. We then take another half an hour to wander around the market Again, no aggressive hawkers; people invite us over but that’s all.

Back on the bus and head up to more Incan ruins high above the town. When as we alight from the bus, we hear the sounds of (for once) beautiful Andean pipes and find an almost mystical figure in full costume standing on a ridge playing, the sounds echoing eerily up the nearby valley. This mystical scene is shattered when the flute player whips out a CD from under his costume as we approach and tries to sell us copies.

We hike up into the ruins (avoiding looking down the hundred foot drop at couple of points) and then down the hillside behind, back into Pisac, on a beautiful trail. The bus picks us up. The road back to Cuzco requires a steep zig-zag ascent up an impossible steep mountainside, to the top where we make our way through a hilly terrain that seems to place us somewhere in Devonshire in England…were it not—again—for the altimeter.

Machu Picchu

We needed a very early start because the train left at 6:10am in order to complete the 3.5 hour journey and arrive by 10am. The train was a surprise—the luxury train of 50 years ago rather than sleek modern model but complete with panoramic roof windows. Our assigned seats and tables were set for breakfast when we boarded.

But how would the train get out of the valley? In a very ingenious manner! We shunted out of the station and rumbled off into the suburbs Cuzco, passing through the usual maze of low-value real-estate that backs onto railways, and head mysteriously up what seemed to be a bit of a gulley. The train grinds to a halt stop, and then begins backing up. We see the tracks we come in on now appear on our left below us as the train backs around and a little up the hillside; soon it stops again and shunts forward, again on a new track, heading further up. And so in a series of five such reversals, the train zig-zags up about 1,000 feet of hillside!

Aguas CalientesThis takes an hour, and then we are heading down, almost alongside the road that we took to Ollantaytambo the other day. We pass Ollantaytambo after a couple of hours and are now heading down the steep canyon of the Urubamba. Occasionally we break out into some more open areas where we can see the peaks of nearby volcanoes. An hour or so plunging steadily downwards (we apparently lose 5,000 feet between high and low points), we begin passing through almost tropical jungle-like growth with tons of orchids on nearby trees. And then suddenly we’re into the town of Aguas Calientes.

We weave quickly through the market and out onto one of the line-up of buses that are waiting for the horde descending from both the trains and the hotels from town. We hammer across the river and begin the climb up the side of yet another steep peak. The drivers are really racing. There’s the occasional screech of brakes when they meet one of their number coming down the mountain (at equally breakneck speed) and one or the other has to back up. But for the most part it is haul-ass up this dirt road for 8km, with occasional bouts of lunch? vertigo as I glance out of the window to my left. 45 minutes later we’re at the top.

Out of the bus, through the ticket entrance (passport required) and into the ruins. We’re near the bottom of the ruins and we make our way across, stopping here and there for long (and interesting) dissertations by Ubaldo, about how this was built and what that was for. Eventually we arrive at the gate to the run up to Wayna Picchu. This is a separate peak. The attraction is not so much the ruins as the fact that you have the chance to climb about 10,000 steps in 40 minutes and say you’ve "done" Wayna Picchu.

Tempting though it might have been at sea-level to race up Wayna Picchu, at 3400 ft a leisurely lunch seems much more inviting. We head back up through the ruins and out on the Inca trail coming in. Lynda and a few others actually hoof it up to the Sun Gate(itself no mean climb), which is where those arriving at Machu Picchu on the Inca trail first glimpse the palace below (at least on clear days). They return to join us lounging at an intermediate point having lunch. It’s an absolutely spectacular spot. The ruins of Machu Picchu lie spread out below us; Wayna Picchu lies beyond that and we have a view down to the river and across to distant peaks. Best lunch view I’ve ever had.

Cuzco itself

Very nice town. We were only two blocks from the main square and on our free day, we wandered about, found lunch and some galleries and had a good time. We are both having small discomforts with the altitude but this trip is just a matter of battling through these. Did laundry…I know you want to know about this. The hotel was going to charge us 80 Soles (about $25) for our bag, accumulated over about a week. Seemed a bit of a rip-off so I took the stuff across the street and got a quote for 15 Soles! A bit of risk since it was also an internet café and we were leaving early next morning. They promised to have it ready for 5pm but no sign of our laundry at nearly 6 so I started to panic a bit. But it appears traffic was really bad for some reason so the guy eventually showed up on his bicycle. As an added bonus, our clothes had all manner of additional colors!

Tomorrow it's our anniversary: we've been married 15 years! But we'll be travelling most of the day tomorrow and may not get there in time for a relaxing dinner so we celebrate tonight. Lyn has a nice card and some underwear for me and I have a surprise for her!

Day 13-15: Amazon

The journey to Iquitos meant a morning flight to Lima; because our onward flight is delayed for 4 hours Sarah arranges a delightful excursion for lunch near the docks (actually more upscale than it sounds) area of Lima; we fly to Iquitos later that afternoon.

We arrive in warm rain at night. By the time we hit the hotel in Iquitos, the rain starts coming down in buckets. Uh oh. But next morning there is watery sunshine and it is hot. We no longer need fleecies to accommodate the altitude. There’s a bus strike in town so we have to walk along the waterfront to the launches that will take us down the Amazon. On our right is a section of Iquitos out in the flood zone (we’re not yet on the Amazon but close the mouth of one of the tributaries). Houses here have two stories; the inhabitants live in both levels in the dry season and then abandon the lower floor in the rainy season…when the river rises three feet!

Find the boats, jammed in between a multitude of other river-going vessels. How they manage to worm their way out between other boats is a miracle. We speed out down the river, swing left and make our way up another tributary and then up a tributary of that tributary (there’s a lot of water around here!) until we pull in towards what looks like a small village. It isn’t a village. It is a replica village where the Bora tribe put on shows for tourists. We shuffle into a hut that is clearly meant for village meetings, and take our seats. The Bora show us several dances but we are all mostly interested in watching the dancers. The older women clearly understand the deal and are mildly amused; they dance bare-breasted and seem to be enjoying themselves. The teenage girls are teenage girls. Carefully and modestly clothed they seem to prefer to be dead rather than doing this stuff in front of strangers. The boys are more into the game…and when the dance is over they begin to enthusiastically (but in a friendly way) push their crafts.

We buy a few paintings and blow-pipes and board the boats. It all had the slight taint of hokey commercialism, yet the tribe is probably just trying to keep customs and history alive and earn enough to stay well out of the way of foreigners, and how else to do that?

That's the rest of the Rambler's group in the yellow speedboat

We zoom out now (we’re doing 50 knots in these boats) into the Amazon and head downriver. I had vaguely imagined that the Amazon here, 3700km from the Atlantic, would be about the size of the Fraser River—perhaps 100m across. It's between 1-2 kilometres wide! Three major tributaries join here and there are ocean-going ships anchored out in the middle.

For an hour we pass river banks that show steady signs of life. People clear the jungle and start farms wherever they can, but these only last about four years before the surprisingly shallow topsoil (it’s clay underneath) gives out and they have to move on. Secondary jungle then takes over quickly but it takes 60 years before the same land can be farmed again. This surprises us because we assume that decay is constant and rapid. But so too is the rate of growth of new jungle; nutrition is removed almost as fast as it is deposited.

HeliotropesAn hour later, we pull in at the Heliotrope Lodge, named after the flaming red flowers that appear in abundance. This place looks great, although with the enormous river racing by carrying tons of debris the fact that this place is on stilts is a bit unnerving. We are located in comfortable cabins. Amenities aren't quite the same as yer five star city hotel: power shuts off at 10pm and shower water comes from huge water tanks at the top of a rickety tower over the bar, but neither proves to be a concern.

PedroWe take a quick break. In the dining room, a huge Scarlet Macaw named Pedro waddles along the rafter beams making his way here and there. Later we’ll be introduced to the mother sloth and her baby, hanging from the rails in the main thoroughfare; she seems to be in perpetual sleep and yet once in a while she'll magically disappear from one spot and reappear somewhere else.

After lunch the group splits into two. Lyn and I opt for the group led by Ricardo, who is reputedly the better bird guy. Our group heads out on a “Jungle walk”, starting out with a short jaunt along the river and then a rapid turn into the jungle. Our guide warns us not to touch a tree with a paralyzing sap or a march of army ants. He stops here and there along the trail to show us medicinal flowers and trees; he grabs a poisonous frog from under some ground cover; identifies the twenty odd birds that the twitchers see (but we only hear a flight of noisy Macaws). We see two kinds of monkey: spider monkeys barely bigger than mice, visible on a tree trunk 30m off, and squirrel monkeys that leap 30 feet out of the high canopy and plunge into neaby bushes. 

Both guides seem to have a knack of picking out iguanas snoozing in trees. On our first one, four of us with binoculars have a hard time finding what he's talking about until he patiently walks us down a tree and out along a limb where...holy crap!: there's a 3 feet long lizard, virtually indistinguishable from the branch, taking a nap. Actually, while the guides seem to spot one every five minutes, we have just as much difficulty finding each one. I think they must have a bunch of stuffed ones nailed up there.

One member of our group finds a tarantula in a palm tree. We see bats inside a mammoth tree. We cross several trails of leaf-eating ants (the column clearly flagged by the large pieces of leaf that each ant carries). We see a new bird every five minutes. And we’re only gone for two hours!

There’s a walk that evening for those who would like to go but we both skip it. We’re exhausted.

The next day I get up quietly at 6am (Lyn sleeping in) for the early morning bird walk…as if we Village on bankshaven’t seen a few already. We get into the boats, head upriver and then turn in along a small tributary. We spend about an hour putting around among the huge canopy overhead and see dozens of bird species. Our guides are excellent but even they can’t identify everything we see (too quick a glimpse or too far off or several birds seen at once). It’s a bonanza morning.

We get back in time for a hearty breakfast—the usual scrambled eggs but a few other delicacies besides. Then our group is off Pirhana fishing while the other group does the jungle walk. We head down the river in the boat for twenty minutes, spotting a number of new birds on the way, then turn into the mouth of a small tributary and immediately spot pink river dolphins. We hang around for a few minutes and soon see more pink and some grey dolphins too. Then we’re off again; up the small river a little further; we turn into the bank and get in under some trees. Great to get into shade as 10 man-hours of workit’s already smoking hot. The guide hands around what are essentially sticks with line and hook on them and a little meat for bait. We all throw our lines over the side and wait. Wrong terminology I know: doing nothing when you have a rod in the water is called fishing. It apparently helps to thrash your rod in the water as Pirhana are apparently attracted to something live and struggling. A few with the energy to do this try it, but I suspect that it mostly to keep the person fishing from dozing off: there are plenty of nibbles and even some near-catches but the fish always seem to get away. After half an hour of no action even the people not interested in birds are interested in birds. Eventually the boat driver hauls in one of the hand-sized fish with all the teeth that we’ve all heard about. Good thing there aren’t too many about: a woman from the other group fell off a steep bank into the Amazon on their jungle walk, and had to be hauled out in a hurry!

In the afternoon, we tour a sugar factory (read “legal distillery”) a little downriver. It’s quite interesting to see how the sugar cane is converted into both sugars and liquors. We get to try several product samples; I politely pass on tasting as the cups passed around; several people with bad colds (or worse) are ahead of me and I don’t want to miss Ecuador. Later I regret my cowardice as the vapour from most of these samples is probably sufficient to kill bacteria as large as mice.

More relaxing time in the hammocks that afternoon and evening.

Day 16: End of Peru

>Next morning we do a quick sortie down the river again to have a look at the enormous water lilies a little up from where we went fishing yesterday. Then back to the lodge, a quick lunch, in the launches and we’re off. We fly back from Iquitos and because of the delayed flight, are back into Lima after midnight, where the hotel has screwed up on the sandwiches they promised. We say goodbye to the group, as Lynda and I are flying to Ecuador early tomorrow morning a day before the end of their trip.

We’re actually pretty tired from all the travelling, but we’ve had an excellent trip so far.

Days 17-25: Ecuador

We fly to Quito without any surprises and are met at the airport, to our delight, by Rosanna and Edwin. They give us a quick but interesting tour around the old city of Quito, a great dinner in an interesting restaurant and then out to the airport to meet Bruce and Susan, who are in turn delighted to see all four of us!

For the benefit of non-relatives: There is a family backgdrop for this part of our trip. Our niece—Rosanna, daughter of Lynda's sister Susan and her husband Bruce, and her fiancee Edwin—bagged jobs in Ecuador, working at the Black Sheep Inn, just as we were booking Peru so we decided to add a week in Ecuador to our trip. Then Susan and Bruce opted to mesh their planned trip here with ours; we are to meet in Quito (today), stay at the same hotel and journey to the Black Sheep Inn together tomorrow.

But there's more! Rosanna and her fiancee, Edwin, who is from Archidona (see map), decided to get married quietly after we booked our trip. However, Edwin's family found out about it, waved aside the civil wedding and began arranging a "proper" wedding and reception for the week following our week in the Black Sheep Inn. Susan and Bruce changed their flights but we couldn't easily change ours. So at the end of this week, while we head back to Quito and then home, Rosanna, Edwin, Susan and Bruce will travel from the Black Sheep Inn to Archidona for wedding celebrations in Archidona and Tena. The rest of the Rosanna's family and friends—brothers Ryley and Malcolm and assorted friends will travel straight to Archidona without the week at the BSI.

In the map above, the trip going off to the right of the N-S PanAmerican highway, to Tena and Archidona, is the route taken by the wedding group at the end of the week. Here are photos of the wedding and the rest of their week. Note that the first page shows you a choice of 6 albums; they are not single pictures.

Next morning our driver Lex arrives on time at the hotel and after picking up supplies, we’re out on the road by 11am to begin the drive to the Black Sheep Inn. It’s overcast so we don’t see Cotopaxi, but we’re amazed by how green and “European” the countryside seems. We gather that the rainy season, far from being ended here, is in full session. Lex tells us that he was almost blocked by landslides behind and in front of him last time he went in to the BSI so we start to get a bit nervous about getting out on Saturday.

Thankfully, we don’t encounter major rain or show-stopping landslides on our way in to the BSI but the last hour of driving is an organ-rattling one, over troughs in the road and lots of slides. The Inn is delightful and our chalet, higher up the hillside, has spectacular views over the canyon. Unfortunately, the climb between the lodge and our room is 90 ft,

according to my altimeter—nine floors, and make that twenty at altitude. Doing that five or six times as day adds to our wheezing. We also have stoves in our room and boy do we need them! That evening, the clouds close in, the temperature drops; the rain overnight is heavy and steady. We can just hear the roads closing! However, before we can whinge too much, two tiny girls show up at the top of the steps and invite us down to see them dance (we gather that the Inn sponsors village activities).

On our second day, we wake to see clouds right down into the valley but as the sun comes up it burns off much of it and we do a hike along the ridge above the BSI in watery sunshine. We follow it up with a second hike and lunch down on the plateau of land that spreads out into the canyon below us. It’s very pleasant but walking is an effort at this altitude.

This is the main road out of Chugchilan. Note the ruts, as well as the 'slide' debris that Edwin is passing. A larger but still minor slide can be seen about 20m ahead, where some bushes have slid into the road wall. Bigger problems occur when a larger part of the hillside slumps onto and across the road.

I opt to hang around in the lodge for the third day as my foot is bothering me. The rest take a long hike with Edwin down into the canyon, but it is clear when they get back that things are going wrong. Bruce is violently ill and Lynda and Susan are not feeling well.

The next day, everyone is OK but not necessarily great. There were tentative plans for us to be driven to the Quilotoa Crater, 22kmalong the southern route but it seems that the road is blocked. So we arrange a horse ride up to the Cloud Forest. None of us are really horsey people so we’re not sure about this but a horsey person we were talking to the other night did this ride and said that his wife had never ridden before and had no problems. We meet the guide and his five horses down on the main road.  One at a time, he helps us on board our horses, and off we go, our guide walking the whole 15km trip behind the horses. It is clear that neither of the people who told us about this ride had my horse. He makes it clear from the beginning that the main road is just not his thing; he much prefers to travel on grass even if it means tiptoeing along the foot wide ridge right at the edge of the road with a steep plunge to the fields below. Even this would be OK if he and Lynda’s horse didn’t simultaneously engage in some sort of biting-jostling thing, as my horse tries to pass Lynda’s with either that steep drop or a wall or a barbed wire fence on the outside. It proves to be a long day.

Beautiful scenery though. We go up to about 11,500 ft, over a ridge where the farms have disappeared, down a narrow path, take a sharp turn between some trees and the horses come to a stop in a clearing. The other horses wait until their riders dismount; my horse stops, then immediately rolls on its side and turfs me off. Our guide then takes us on a 40 minute walk through the cloud forest, showing us a variety of orchids and plants. It is really a charming place.

We have lunch, mount our horses again, and take off this time back along the top of the ridges, with just fabulous views over the countryside. I reach an uneasy understanding with my horse that if I promise only to use the 11,500 ft upreins when something he is doing is suicidal as well as homicidal, he'll obey for an instant; we do better on the way back.

The end

That night Lynda and Susan are both really sick for most of the night and our holiday stops being fun. We eventually make it back to Quito, convoying with "the wedding group" of Rosanna, Edwin (the to-be-married couple) as well as Bruce, Susan for an hour or so out of the BSI, just in case there was a slide problem. Thence to Lima and then home but it’s four long days of filling in time and we are really glad to be home, which is unusual for our trips.

There were a few further highlights. On our early evening flight from Quito to Lima, I turned to Lynda to say something just as a snow-capped Cotopaxi, bathed in moonlight, came into view through the window behind her. We had a lovely day in Lima, with Lynda feeling much better. And on our flight back to Toronto, we flew over Niagara Falls in bright sunlight—the first time I’ve actually seen them from the air in all my years of flying in and out of Toronto.