Peru & Ecuador, 2008
Overview

Introduction

Generally, although they're written to give others a general picture, my overviews aren't necessarily entertaining: they are an attempt to capture generalities about the trip—impressions, experiences and so on—that don’t fit easily into a description of day-to-day details, but it's not always easy to capture important impressions. Sometimes, in an effort to put words to something two weeks after we get back I'll record impressions that are too hasty or conversely long-winded, and still be off the target I'm seeking. These half-thoughts remain here in perpetuity even though my thinking might have changed the day after I posted this. Also this is often the trash heap: perils encountered are recorded here so as to keep the "journal" carefree and yet not mislead prospective travellers to these realms into believing that all was light and music on our trip.

But, to begin: This trip was more arduous than others we have undertaken, in part because we travelled a great deal and changed hotels constantly; in larger part because we battled health problems —altitude the main suspect—through the trip and particularly in Ecuador. We were almost gleeful to return home which is unusual for us. We were still gloomy when we got back. Having had to wear fleecies for much of this trip because we were at altitude, we had hoped to return to “Spring” here; instead we found ourselves in cold and unseasonably rainy weather!  

General Experience

We had high expectations for this trip. Lynda had chosen it as one of her prime destinations—largely of course to see Macchu Picchu but not that alone. Then we met a couple in South Africa who told us this was one of their favourite trips and that had sealed the deal.

We were not disappointed by the highs of the trip. Not only was Machu Picchu everything we had hoped for but there were magnificent bonuses from the Colca Canyon and the Amazon portion of the trip. Here's a quick rating of the bits and pieces:

PlaceRating
(1 to 5=best)
Notes
JohnLyn(?)
Peru
Lima33Disappointing. Lima has no old city that we could locate to walk around safely; “sights” tend to be isolated and you need to take a cab to get (safely) to most of them. The clifftop mall in Miraflores is a nice excellent fall-back destination…for an afternoon of shopping. If you have more time than we had and don’t arrive on a Monday (when all the major sights seem to be closed) you might have a better impression.
Arequippa35Nice old city with the Andes towering over it. Relatively safe to walk around in. Lyn really enjoyed the convent and the shopping.
Colca54Stunning location (Colca Lodge); Condors beautiful; lots of birds and a nice walk; spectacular scenery. Really enjoyed this 1.5 days.
Puno/L. Titicaca44I was sick for this but Lyn went out on the lake to visit the floating islands. Found it moderately interesting but thought that some of it geared to tourists and not authentic. Puno a nice town but not great. Bus ride to (from Colca) and out (to Cuzco) interesting.
Cuzco55Much to do around Cuzco and a large and pleasant town to boot.
Machu Picchu55Spectacular train ride in is exceeded by the site of Machu Picchu itself. Could be half the spectacle in bad weather though as the views depend on cloud level. I personally found the scenery more impressive than the ruins and for Lynda it was the opposite. But it was a close call.
Amazon54Amazing for me; more guarded for Lynda as she doesn’t like heat, jungle (=snakes, and other poisonous things). Depending on your like/dislike of birds, monkeys, poisonous frogs, tarantulas, dolphins and the Amazon racing by you, you too will love it/hate it.
Ecuador
Quito44Our hotel was right in the middle of the old city and we were able to walk around safely (before 6pm anyway) and see the many sights as well as enjoying a variety of restaurants within 10 minutes walk.
Black Sheep Inn33Loved meeting family and the BSI and surroundings were very pleasant. But this is not a location we should have visited in the rainy season on our tight schedule. Pinned inside by sickness, landslides and weather, this was a week that we were ultimately glad to end but it could have been different.

We were up and down of course:

Overall Conclusions

Peru, a challenge but worth it.

Ecuador. Some highs, some lows, some bullets dodged. We'd only do the back-country again in the dry season or on a more relaxed timetable.

Terrain and Scenery

What are the Andes like? What we saw were not the remote, sharp craggy peaks of the Himalayas; generally we travelled across or through:

  • highlands or altiplano of 14,000 ft and more, covered in sparse vegetation with the occasional herd of alpaca and llama. For a backdrop there were the occasional distant snow-capped peaks of 20,000 ft volcanoes
  • long, green farmed valleys bordered by ridges of peaks that might be clad in green vegetation, or terrace-farmed to extraordinary heights
  • sometimes we’d drive through countryside that might have been peaceful, hilly farmland in England or France…except that the road is 12,000 ft above sea level and the “hills” are 18,000 feet or more
  • dense forest along the banks of the Amazon

Cities and Ruins

We spent some time in the cities/towns of Arequippa, Puno, Cuzco, and to a lesser extent Lima. Lima seemed to have most of the usual negatives of a large city but few of the positives. However, Arequippa and Cuzco were both interesting, with a substantial core of old city and many places of interest. These cities have a strong Spanish flavour but many Inca walls (in part because the Spanish plundered nearby Inca fortresses for the stone). Puno is much smaller and we didn’t stay long enough there (or in Arequippa really) to do it justice.

We found the cities generally safe to walk around in…in daylight at least, but one has to be more careful at night.

Hotels

Hotels made up an interesting collection worthy of separate comment. The buildings were uniformly constructed in a square and of stone for some reason. No doubt the square provides inner rooms with some light (and a sterile view in daytime) but at night it acts as a sound-tunnel from the kitchens below, where a chef who is obviously lonely, plays a loud radio and chops and bangs for four hours. No sooner does he finish his work than guests who have a plane to catch begin rumbling their bags out of their rooms, along the stone corridors, over the tiled floors, waking those sleeping as well as some who died in the night. The acoustics are so good that in far off reception…the maids can be heard shouting gaily to one another of their escapades the night before. Sleep comes in snatches at places like these.

Staff in these hotels seems divided along ethnic lines. The maids were uniformly chosen from the shy but friendly Quechuan community; the hotel reception staff, on the other hand, are selected from Spanish aristocracy. At the Hotel San Antonio Executive Hotel in Lima, for example, I believe we were greeted by no less than the prince himself at the front desk. Unfortunately, between imperious greeting, friendly room service, and canoodling kitchen staff, there seemed to be little time for administration at several of the hotels we visited.

Food

We loved the food on this trip. Hotels on past trips usually laid on some sort of bland if not downright awful western stuff, such as scrambled eggs and dry rolls. These were there as usual but so also were some excellent jams and delicious local fruit platters. And when, as we did on a couple of occasions, we had a chance to sample local fare, it was delicious, with plenty of interesting delicacies such as palm hearts, fantastically flavourful avocado, ceviche (raw pickled fish) of various kinds, and wonderful deserts. The two dinners we had "out" (at restaurants) in Cuzco were absolutely fabulous. Everyone ate too much and suffered—a good thing.

People

Hotel staff aside (and I’m being unfair to some very nice hotel employees because only a couple did us wrong), we found people to be very friendly and surprisingly honest on this trip. I say surprisingly because we tourists of course follow the ruts formed by tourists around the world and humanity’s lower forms flock to those ruts like flies to…well bees to flowers perhaps. If, like us, you don’t spend enough time in a place or don’t know the language well enough to escape the ruts then life on the road becomes habitually one of guarded suspicion against all manner of attempts to part you from your money.   

But Peru was wonderful! We went into markets that were filled with tourists and didn’t get hassled at all. We’d ask the price of something and feel obliged to haggle a little; but on the whole the prices were so reasonable that it wasn’t worth the effort. Then we’d hand over our money and receive exactly the change we expected. We wandered into a basement market looking for some lunch supplies and found people staring at us…in a curious but friendly fashion. We just pointed to things and they gave us the right change when we held out money

I had only one slightly negative experience that is only of interest because it was so trivial. A shoe-shine boy offered to clean my shoes quickly for the regular price of 1 Soles (about 35 cents). He took too long but did a good job and I gave him 3 Soles. He demanded 10. I told him he had the choice of 3 or 1 and he took the 3! Later, we saw the police box the ears of one of the shoe-shine kids and suspected that there may be negative incentives to hassling tourists!

Birds and other wildlife

Fantastic birds. I actually recorded the birds I saw on this trip, having been “made” to do so in South Africa by a bird expert. Have a list of 90 birds that are recorded here. The Amazon was the big score of course, but we saw plenty all over.

Quite a few animals. Again, the Amazon was amazing but we saw vicuńa, vizcacas, llama, alpaca and a few lizards.

Ecuador

Meeting and spending time with family—particularly Edwin—was a big plus in Ecuador, and a couple of the days at the Black Sheep Inn provided superb views of spectacular countryside. But with the benefit of hindsight, this was a week we could have skipped because the stresses and negatives proved larger. This isn’t really a reflection on Ecuador, rather on the combination of circumstances. We were already bagged from our Peru trip; Lyn got sick; the weather was poor and the threat that landslides could derail our now keen desire to be on a plane home created a deepening gloom over our last few days. I think this is first time that we have been really glad that a vacation was over.

I’ll document the negatives separately so they don't overwhelm this and I can skip them elsewhere. I've only done so because it puzzles me a little why they cast such gloom over our trip on our immediate return (it's lifted a little now) and I'm hoping that somewhere in the telling of them, some light will emerge. elsewhere.

Schedule

Normally Lyn likes hassle-free holidays, which is why we book with Ramblers, who take care of all the details. We often have to separately book a couple of flights and perhaps a hotel for one night to meet the Ramblers group since they fly out of London. These flights can be tiresome because we have to coordinate a paid-for flight with the increasingly limited timetable available for one flight on points. But normally, any stress on that account is a one-time event before the trip, not during. Not so for this trip: an ever-present threat of missed connections hung like a pall over much of our trip because of the severe sting associated with any one:

  • We had a narrow window for our connection in Toronto for Lima; missing that connection would require us to chase the Ramblers group all over Peru instead of meeting them in Lima. So of course, as our plane taxis out onto the runway in Vancouver, the Captain announces a mechanical problem and we’re delayed for an hour! We made the connection in Toronto because the Lima flight was delayed for 30 minutes.
  • Slight concern that our Lima hotel booking might not be there when we arrive after midnight. No problem as it turns out but see next Lima arrival.
  • No further problems until we approach the end of the Peru trip and start thinking about our plane to Quito. TACA, the airline we are booked on, has mysteriously asked us to confirm our flight within 24 hours of take-off. This is unnerving. We saw local flights in Namibia summarily cancelled on an hour’s notice and suspect this is a “we’ll fly if we feel like it” schedule, and we’re going to have problems if the flight’s delayed! As if to confirm our fears LAN Peru arbitrarily delays the scheduled flights to and from Iquitos (in the Amazon) by 4 hours with little notice.
  • We’re 60 Km down the Amazon, preparing to head back to Iquitos to catch the (delayed) flight to Lima. Our plane to Quito leaves from Lima early tomorrow morning. The group loads into 2 “boats” (powered canoes almost). The slower boat takes off up the river. Ours won’t start! Fortunately after 10 minutes they finally get it working and we’re off, passing the other boat within 30 minutes. Phew.
  • Cab to the airport in Lima; TACA flight leaves on time; arrive Quito and find Rosanna and Edwin waiting at the airport. Huge sigh of relief.
  • Reports of landslides on the road to the Black Sheep Inn but who cares as we have no deadlines for another week.
  • On the road to the BSI, however, we begin to “get” the landslide problem. There has been massive rainfall, leading to mudslides across the road about every half a kilometre. Some of the slides are just a matter of the clay banks, where the road cuts into the hillside, collapsing across half the road; we just steer around these. Then there’s the occasional head-sized boulder in the middle of the road. But every couple of kilometres of the final hour of driving, a whole hillside has slumped across the road. We are fortunate that none are recent and the major blockage has been bulldozed away so we can drive over what’s left. But we’re already aware that the drivers are used to digging themselves out of trouble on a regular basis on this road.
    • A couple of days after we arrive at the BSI, we find that the South route out of the BSI (the road out of here) has had such a bad slide that the road is gone. It will take a couple of months of reconstruction to open it again. We’re down to one road out!
    • Fortunately, there is a new moon and although thunderous black clouds gather every morning, we get no more rain before we attempt to leave. The actual drive out is uneventful. Phew again.
    • When we arrive in Lima, sure enough the hotel has lost our reservation. A dark and thunderous John results in a discount at the more upscale companion hotel across the road and our uncertainties are over.

Comments: I can’t quite figure out why we got so stressed about all this. Disruptions in schedule are all part of travel and we used to just adjust. I think it was the fact that it was not just our plans but those of people we were linking up so “disruptions” on this trip could in fact have cost us major inconvenience and thousands of dollars. Or it could be that we're just getting older and getting used to holidays in which someone else handles all the details.

But note to self: when I plan travel and other arrangements in North America, I unconsciously travel on a tight schedule to minimize time wasted twiddling thumbs in airport lounges and overnights, and can do so because things run more or less on time. This is more of a gamble in South America, where delays and landslides on back-country roads may derail plans routinely. Unless you have (a) nerves of steel (b) lots of money, it would be wise to build plenty of flex into your schedule.

Altitude and other sicknesses

Here was I thinking that “serious” altitude sickness started at 15,000 ft and that since Cuzco was only about 11,000 ft we didn’t have anything to worry about. Wrong on a couple of counts. It turned out that Colca and Puno (elevation 12,600 ft) were higher than Cuzco and some of the passes we went over exceeded 15,000 ft!

We began feeling the altitude even at Arequippa, which was only 8,000 ft up. By the time we had sailed over the altiplano between Arequippa and Colca, averaging maybe 13,000ft and almost topping 16,000ft, we had four people in the group needing occasional 20 minute sessions breathing oxygen from the bottles provided routinely at the hotels and on our bus!

Everyone in our group of 22 suffered some symptoms of altitude sickness. Some missed several days of the tour, unable to leave the hotel to travel with the group on outings. Everyone missed at least a part of the tour, and many of us, even though we were less seriously impacted had ongoing digestive tract problems and fatigue. Climbing a flight of stairs could be exhausting.

The symptoms abated somewhat as we progressed. Those with serious problems began to get about and those of us with fewer problems found some solutions. But the symptoms didn’t seem to disappear. Even when we reached Quito on our way home, I was still weary going up a flight of stairs. We were told of “solutions” and preventative measures and these helped somewhat. Alchohol and carbonated drinks such as beer, overeating, and exercise in the first day or so, were deemed unhelpful. A few in the party who ignored the warning about drinking were noticeably absent from the next day’s outing.

Lyn and I were more cautious in Peru because we were pacing ourselves to handle the extra travel and week in Ecuador. Once we reached Ecuador, however, Lyn cast caution to the wind and I probably would have done so as well if I did not have a sore foot that I had to rest up on the third day. But Lyn, Susan and Bruce were severely sick over the last few days. Food poisoning was suspected but since I was the only one who escaped it, altitude sickness might also have been the cause here too, particularly since Lynda and Susan improved considerably once we returned to lower altitude.

End whinge, or as my nephew puts it (in HTML script):

</whinge>

Overall

In spite of the hazards, the trip, particularly in Peru, had highs that put it on a par with the best trips we’ve been on. The mix of stupendous scenery, hassle-free walking about, lovely people, excellent food, and of course, wonderful birds made this a memorable trip.

Recommendations: do Peru; it’s fantastic. Spend a lazy extra day in Arequippa or perhaps Colca to get better acclimatized. Skip Puno perhaps if you want a schedule with fewer stops. Do a lot of reading on altitude sickness before you go and expect minor health problems. But for the most part, if you acclimatize properly these won’t get in your way.

Ecuador is spectacular too and has a lot of the pros of Peru. Allow at least two days to acclimatize if you plan to do major walking; stay in the old city if you visit Quito; don’t go into the back country in the rainy season on a tight schedule.