Peru

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Dragging ourselves out the hotel door at 6am we clambered, sleepily, onto the van waiting to take us to the start of 3 day/4 night Lares trek.  The Lares Trek is an alternative route to the famous and insanely crowded Inca Trail.  Hearing good things from a couple we met in Quito we thought it sounded about our speed: between 3 to 6 hours of hiking a day, all meals included, the highest pass was 4400m above sea level and we only had to carry our daypacks.  Wanting to do out best to promote sustainable and fair tourism we looked around at a few tour companies and settled on Qente, a long-standing tour operator in Cusco.

We weren’t disappointed.

Craggy hills and low-lying clouds marked our ascent into the Andean highlands.  Our tour guide, Kari, introduced us to the native plants, explaining how the land is farmed as well as sharing an encyclopaedic knowledge of Inca history and mythology.  Dedicated to her job and intuitively aware of the trek and it’s impact on the locals Kari encouraged us to buy a big bag of bread explaining that bread is like cake to the highland kids. Unused to sugar the bread is less harsh on their teeth than packaged treats, and with the lack of dental care, fresh bread is the best option.  Personally I am still unsure about foreigners offering treats to the local kids as I think it encourages begging and the expectation that foreigners will always have something to give.  However when little kids started popping out behind rocks bellowing “GRINGOS!” and running down hills to meet us along our hike it was pretty nice to have something suitable for them.

We spent two nights camping, our first site at 3800m above sea level and the other at 4200m.  My god, was it ever cold. So cold that I think all of us had every imaginable layer of clothing on. So cold that were dreaming of hot showers, extra blankets and those long johns we didn’t buy.  Bed was right after dinner as the sun had long since disappeared taking the heat with it.  Curling up in our sleeping bags we waited, through bouts of icy sleep, for morning and the warm rays of the sun.

Lucky for us our last night was spent in a lux hotel in Aguas Calientes, complete with hot shower, before heading to Machu Picchu.  We rose the last day at 4am to get in line for the bus by 4:45am with hopes of getting a fairly exclusive ticket to climb the mountain directly across from Machu Picchu. Only 400 people per day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, where you can see the ruins from a bird’s eye view.  Stunned by the amount of tourists ahead of us we anxiously got on our bus and prepared ourselves to run to the ticket booth as soon as we got into the grounds.  Tickets and passports checked we followed Kari as she expertly wound her way  through the ruins to the ticket booth.  Coming in at numbers 385 and 386 we made it by the skin of our teeth.  Word to the wise, if you want to climb Huayna Picchu and if you are going to get up at 4am anyway you might as well get to the Machu Picchu bus line-up at 4:20am

Machu Picchu is truly amazing.  However by about 1pm the ruins are swarming with tourists, taking away a little of the specialness and making clean photo ops few and far between.  But it was quite a sight from Huayna Picchu and we were left uncertain about what this place really was… a city, a refuge, a place of chosen women?  It’s secretive location and lack of definitive explanation makes Machu Picchu a very mysterious, albeit heavily touristed, locale indeed.

We were warned:  “There are parades everyday all day.”

Sure, we thought, there will be some madness since Cusco’s main festival is coming up.. it’ll be fine.  Ummm, right.

It was Incansanity with hourly parades, fireworks, rainbow flags, and whole lot of dancing. Based on a religious ceremony honouring Inti, the sun god, June 24 also marks the winter solstice and according to the Peruvians it is time to party.

The days leading up to Inti Raymi were awash with bright colours and the vast array of different traditional costumes kept my finger on my camera’s shoot button at all times.  Smiles and laughter surrounded the festival, it was pretty hard not to get caught up in all the excitement.

Around 10am on the morning of June 24, along with locals and tourists we trudged up to Sacsayhuamán (pronounced close enough to ’sexy woman’ for gringo amusement) to find a place to sit to watch the day’s events.  Chairs can be purchased in the stands closer to the ceremonies for $90 USD … up on the rocks, with the locals, it’s free.  Tom scouted out a good place to sit and we settled in to wait until 1pm.  Normally what would have been a long boring wait turned out to be an entertaining show in Andean crowd antics.  People, giddy and perhaps a bit sauced, were ready for anything.  In the time we sat waiting at least three fights broke out and cheers, jeers and general excitement almost created full scale battles.  Finally the ceremony began and although we couldn’t hear what was going on we had a fairly clear view.  Everything was going okay until people started standing up vying for better viewing positions and greatly displeasing the hoards of people sitting behind them.  Starting with disgruntled yells of “Siéntense!!!” (sit down!) then escalating to throwing water bottles and then garbage, we began to get a bit concerned when the guy beside us picked up a fist-sized rock and lined up the man who had pelted his wife with a bag of half-eaten fruit. The sitters rained all sorts of debris on the unyielding standers to no avail.  We tried to hold our ground but when my head became someone’s armrest and the woman directly behind us crouched down because of the lack of ‘facilities’ we decided we had seen enough.

Barren

The Pan-American in Peru is in relatively good condition, not too may potholes and it it’s actually paved, but the oddest thing about the drive was the desolate and eerie landscape.  Perhaps it had to do with the lack of sun, it was overcast the whole time we drove, it felt like driving in a twilight zone version of Egypt.  Miles of sand lined the highway with rough-hewn hills dotting the background and very few vehicles on the road… very otherworldly.

Oasis

The Peruvians have made the most of this odd landscape turning it into a tourist attraction at Huacachina, a small oasis in the midst of miles of sandy dunes.  Here you can experience this unusual setting in the back of a dune buggy or, for the more athletic, try your hand at sandboarding.  Needing a break from the drive we decided to go for both.  Little did we know how hard sandboarding actually is!

Sandy times in Peru from Kels M on Vimeo.

(Vimeo has been having some issues as of late, please allow video to fully load before playing.)

Hot and hairless

Hot and hairless, except for the bad-ass mohawk and a tuft of fuzz on the tail, the Peruvian Hairless Dog is so dang ugly it is cool.  This breed (Perro sin Pelo del Peru) dates back to pre-inca times and has recently come back from the edge of extinction. The native cultures used the dogs for hunting and companionship, developing such bonds that some of these canines were mummified and buried along with their owners to assist them in finding their way to the afterworld.  Then, in rolled the Spanish conquistadors with huge war dogs that were often let loose on the smaller Peruvian dogs for entertainment, apparently these war dogs could take down 4 or 5 hairless Peruvian dogs without any trouble.

Hawt

Afterward the dogs were no longer kept as pets and they roamed along the coast scavenging for food.  In 1989 the Peruvian government decided to protect the breed and declared that each archeological site along Peru’s coast had to have a pair of these dogs.  To date this breed is Peru’s only world-registered breed.

Two noble beasts

Cleaner than most dogs (lack of hair means no fleas), loyal but wary of strangers, lively and protective, these dogs seem to be making a comeback as a pet in Peru. Referring to them as ‘luxury dogs’, many breeders are now offering the Peruvian Hairless Dog and it seems like quite a status symbol in Peru to own one.

Yes, a luxury dog

According to Peruvian folklore these dogs have higher body temperatures and curative qualities to help with asthma and rheumatism. From chatting with the locals we found out that some of the elderly folk sleep with these little guys to relieve arthritic pain! In the course researching this noble beast I discovered that there is also a Canadian Hairless Cat… who knew?

al-and-tom

Clos … I like to give it a slightly Germanic drawl so it sounds like house. We first heard about Concha Y Toro wines from Luisa, a retired dancer from New York, who put us up in Mexico City – ‘you can get a decent bottle of red for six bucks’.

Living by the beach and watching our budget at Bob’s place in Costa Rica we found the Concha Y Toro line again, this time as Clos de Pirque and in a one-litre tetra pack … travel friendly! Clos also made a solid showing in Mancora, Peru when we hung out with Al for a few days waiting for the swell.

Al did get in touch with us after we left Mancora…  “By the way I met a German guy who told me Clos in German is slang for toilet (bog, shitter, dunnie) you get the picture. Still enjoying the odd glass though.” And while it’s not winning any wine awards it has to be said that Clos is a real backpacker favorite, this resealable, nonbreakable and fairly drinkable gem will only set you back about 3 dollars.