The Peruvian Experience: Mildly Extreme Sports

After I had left Macchu Pichu, I had just over a week left in Peru. The official trek had finished and now, we had about eight days to run wild in Peru. Some of us chose to do independent travel, and some of us chose to go on the trips run by the travel company, which went to the Amazon, Lake Titicaca, and the Nazca Lines. I chose Lake Titicaca and the Nazca Lines – while the Amazon wildlife is undoubtedly fascinating, it has developed several interesting ways of killing people and I didn’t really fancy that.

After Macchu Pichu, we returned to Cusco, feeling mildly dazed and incredibly hungry after the whole experience. Most people used the day to shop around for souvenirs, but myself and a few others decided to leave the markets behind and sign up for white water rafting instead. While everyone else slept off a hangover, we clambered into a minibus, nursing our pounding heads, and set off for the hills.

We were going to be rafting down the Urubamba River. It’s a wide, blue ribbon of a river that twists and turns through the grey and brown hills, getting ever wider as it goes until it fans out into a huge, shallow bay filled with pearly pebbles. All the twists and turns, the jagged black rocks and the huge, high walls on either side made for some pretty good rapids. Our guide – who did all the steering – told us that the river was once sacred to the Incas, and as we drifted along the silent, deserted river, I could almost believe it.

I wasn’t very good at rafting. I was more enthusiastic than adept, and jumped into the freezing cold water a little too excitedly when our guide told us we could swim in the river. I spent the rest of the trip shivering and squeaking when the cold river water ran down my sleeve and into my armpit. It was still a lot of fun, once I worked out how to use the oar properly, but I don’t think I’ll be becoming an instructor any time soon. It was also pretty hard work, especially when we had to row against the current, and every so often we all had to throw ourselves into the middle of the boat when we were navigating some of the trickier rapids. Even though we didn’t go down anything higher than a Class Three rapid – and our instructor made us get out and walk along the shore if he thought it would be too difficult for us – by the end of it we were so exhausted we could barely clamber back up the river bank.

Well and truly shattered, we slunk back into the minibus, fell asleep within about five minutes of sitting down, and headed back for Cusco. The next day, we would set off for Lake Titicaca.

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The Peruvian Experience: Macchu Pichu

A week into my stay in Peru, I finally got the chance to visit Macchu Pichu. For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the idea of lost cities, both fictional and real, and I can still vividly remember the day when I first heard about the discovery of the ancient Incan complex, deep in the Peruvian jungle. On that cold, rainy day more than ten years ago, even as I cracked open the encyclopaedia I still felt a rush of excitement at the thought of seeing the stone ruins.

We didn’t trek straight into the Macchu Pichu complex, as I was hoping we would. We didn’t take the Inca Trail – the route which leads straight up to the Sun Gate at Macchu Pichu – but instead, trekked through the Lares Valley to the old sun temple at Ollantaytambo and got the train to Macchu Pichu Pueblo, where we stayed the night. Our tickets had been bought well in advance, and so when we arrived at our hostel, all we had to do was wait for the next morning, when our chance to see the lost city would come.

It was an incredibly early start. We set off at sunrise and climbed onto a tour bus, breakfast in hand, as we wound our way up the mountain path. Vines and creepers surrounded us; crawling down the mountain on one side, while a sheer drop was on the other. We drove higher and higher, the jungle plants growing thinner and thinner, until we finally reached the complex. By that time, it was about seven or eight o’clock in the morning, and the ticket barrier was already very busy. Once our tickets had been verified, we climbed another set of smooth, Incan steps, half overgrown by plants, and finally got our first glimpse of Macchu Pichu.

It was incredible.

The enormous stone ruins were half-open to the elements, making the open rooftops look like the ribs of a skeleton. Huge terraces ringed the mountainside in steep, narrow steps, running right up to the summit, which was half-hidden by plants. The smooth, pale stone gleamed in the early morning sunlight, making the complex beneath our feet look as if it was almost glowing. Vines, trees and flowers crawled up the mountainside and the ruins came down to meet them, disappearing into the jungle as they crept further down the mountain. And above it all, the enormous mountain of Huayna Pichu towered over us, silent and dark.

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It was, without a doubt, one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.

Because we arrived so early in the morning, the site was relatively quiet. We were by no means the only tourists there, but the complex was quiet enough that we occasionally had patches of the ruins to ourselves. They were more than beautiful; as we explored the Incan city the old buildings towered over us, crumbling in places but still majestic. We wound our way through tiny paths and steep steps in the quiet, still morning, half-lost among the ruins. At the centre of the city there was a small field, where llamas and alpacas were grazing. Occasionally they got bored and climbed out of their pen to explore alongside us, and more than once we turned a corner to find ourselves face to face with an angry-looking llama, as though we had wandered into its living room. As we moved through the old city and the day grew hotter, we saw more and more tourists, until by the time we left – around midday – the place was completely packed.

I’ve tried my best to do the city of Macchu Pichu justice, but words will always fall short when describing a place like that. It’s far more than just looking at the ruins; it’s more like standing in the midst of history, or finding a little pocket of the world that time has left in peace. With so many of the old Incan complexes destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors, seeing something so whole and so untouched almost felt like a gift. It is highly likely that there are other lost Incan cities hiding somewhere in the Peruvian jungle; countless Incan paths – smooth, paved paths, not just dirt tracks – have been found leading away from Macchu Pichu and spiralling off into the jungle. Those paths must have gone somewhere, although nobody knows where. The thought that there are dozens, possibly hundreds of old Incan cities just waiting to be discovered is an incredible one. Perhaps, in the future, they will be discovered by someone much luckier than I am, and whoever pulls back the vines and looks upon the cities for the first time in centuries will get to see the Incan civilisation as it was meant to be – ancient, proud and untouched.

But until that day, we must let Macchu Pichu keep its secrets.

The Peruvian Experience: Trekking

Our trek began on the fourth day of our trip to Peru, and when that day dawned, I was terrified. We were going to be trekking through the Lares Valley and reaching altitudes of over 4450m above sea level – and I hadn’t done any training. Before I left for Peru, the thought of exchanging a good book on the beach for an hour on an exercise bike seemed laughable; once I was there, I began to regret it.

However, the trek wasn’t as bad as I was expecting it to be. Admittedly, I was expecting to be airlifted back to Lima within the first half an hour, but the point still stands. But I was pleasantly surprised: the trek was hard work, but it wasn’t too difficult for me to handle and I recovered very quickly. I was also fortunate in that I didn’t suffer from altitude sickness – the worst I had to contend with was shortness of breath and I minor headache. I was incredibly lucky not to be throwing up or passing out: at worst, the extent of my altitude sickness was never more painful than a minor hangover.

My lack of altitude sickness allowed me to really appreciate the beautiful Peruvian countryside. We began trekking at the best possible time, just as winter was easing into spring. It didn’t rain once – even though we woke up with ice on the tents more than once – and we were greeting by glorious sunshine every day. We really saw the Lares Valley at its best. There was still snow gleaming on the black mountains, enormous, blue-green lakes lay feet below the mountain paths, and scrubby green and brown plants covered almost every inch of the mountainside. As we walked, we passed herds of llama and alpaca grazing in between the rocks. Old shepherds’ huts were dotted around the valley, each one built of dry stone and looking as though they’d been abandoned for years. Occasionally, children from a nearby village would run up to us and ask for sweets, or try to sell us drinks or traditional Peruvian clothes. We learnt to carry a small stock of boiled sweets with us at all times, so they wouldn’t have to leave empty handed.

The full trek lasted about four or five days. During that time, I had a bath in a suspiciously yellow hot spring, almost fell down several mountains, almost got abandoned in some old Incan ruins and missed out on a chance to buy a litre bottle of beer. All the while, we were walking through some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen. At the time, it was a little bit difficult to believe that I was really there; it all looked so beautiful and so surreal that I felt as if I was trekking through Middle Earth.

And then, finally, we arrived in Machu Picchu.

The Peruvian Experience: Saqsaywaman

On our third day in Peru we began the acclimatisation process. Altitude sickness can be fatal, so it was incredibly important that we adjusted in enough time before the trek. We went on a short walk up to the Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman, which was about 3800m above sea level at the highest point. We spent a morning climbing up to and exploring the ruins, and then headed home feeling thoroughly pleased with ourselves.

The ruins themselves were spectacular. No-one knows what the complex was intended for – our guides maintained it was the temple of the lightning god, whereas some historians believe it was a mountain fortress – but it is truly something to behold. Dark, hulking stone makes up the walls, each rock taller than a grown man. The smooth, neatly cut boulders fit together seamlessly, running along the hillside in a long, zigzag pattern and rows of terraces are cut into the earth. Historical documents say that when the conquistadors invaded, much of the fighting was concentrated around the site, and after the battle was one the Spanish invaders took apart most of the original Incan buildings and used the stone to build their own settlements. However, much of the site still remains intact. When I stood up on the hill, the last remnants of the Incan settlement sprawling out beneath my feet, I was struck by a sense of real awe. Despite the best efforts of the Spanish invaders to destroy it, the Incan legacy has lasted for centuries.

The rest of the acclimatisation trek was relatively easy. Our guides had chosen a route that took us up to the altitude we needed to reach, but avoided the steeper paths. We went through some truly beautiful countryside. Enormous green hills, some spotted with grey and brown rocks, were on our every side, twisting chaca trees lining the paths, while the city of Cusco lay miles below us. I loved seeing the city from a distance; watching the bustling city from the peace of the mountains is a strangely relaxing experience.

Then, we headed back into Cusco, where we had the afternoon free to explore. We spent a few hours climbing up the steep, stone streets with nothing in particular to do. We made our way past stalls groaning with colourful woven blankets, shop windows twinkling with hand-made jewellery, and restaurants with the windows thrown open, so the smell of roasting alpaca wafted down into the street. Dawdling through the streets of Cusco is perfectly safe, but it’s very difficult to go far without being stopped by a street seller. Most of them will leave you alone if you tell them you aren’t interested a couple of times, but on one memorable occasion two women came barrelling out of nowhere, pulled a lamb out of their shirt, threw it at my chest and asked me to pay for holding it.

The next day, the real work began.