Sunday, 2 May 2010

Incas, In Cars and Incorrigible

Machu Picchu – The Lost City of The Incas

Hola faithful blog followers. Apologies for the lack of updates.

We spent a few good nights in Cusco getting our tourist on and mingling with the crème of public school gap yearers while awaiting the first available train to Machu Picchu. You don’t necessarily have to take a train, some people prefer to walk (The much publicised Inca trail) However, time constrained as we were, and much in need of the extra days relaxation, El treno won the vote. Particularly as it was not just any train, but the Inca Rail no less. Well ahead of their time those Incas.

Our evening train arrived in the modern Machu Picchu tourist Mecca in the late evening of the 8th, allowing us enough time to grab a bite to eat before catching some sleep. The modern Machu Picchu sits a 2 hour hike below the real Machu Picchu and our enthusiastic guide had told us we would need to leave at 4am to reach the lost city by sunrise. We duly arose as instructed and set off in the dark and rain, slightly too stupefied by the time of day to register how miserable the weather was. After completing the hard climb in only an hour and spending the next 60 minutes standing in the rain (we’re clearly too macho for our own good) we were rewarded by the most unremarkable sunrise you can imagine. The lost city of the Incas is hidden amongst a cloud forest, and along with being wetter than an otters pocket, the clouds are also quite the party poopers when trying to observe a sunrise. However, the additional advantage of being amongst the first 400 trekkers to the top each day is you then have the option of climbing one of the mountains that over look the city. Excellent, more climbing.

Our guide met us outside the main entrance (ie the touristy bit where they check you’ve paid rather than anything more Inca-esque) and, walking like blind men in the dense fog, led us to the outlying ruins. The tour lasted about 3 hours, roughly about the same time it took the burning Peruvian sun to lift the rain cloud above the city and reveal the absolutely majesty of Machu Picchu and it’s stunning setting, crowning the peak of a mountain with steep terraced slopes falling away to the churning white waters of the Urubamba river snaking along the valley floor. It really is one of the most breathtaking sights you can imagine. The mountains of Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu (for which it was re-named, the original Inca name is unknown) stand like citadels either side of the city which is surrounded in all directions by jungle green peaks and valleys. It spectacularly underlines why those pesky Conquistadores had so much trouble trying to find it! And yet, the view struggles to compete with the city itself. The place is absolutely massive, dwarfing any other ruin we have ever seen.

As the weather had lifted during our tour we decided it would be worth climbing Huayna Picchu and taking a look at the city from above. It’s another tough climb up the original stone steps left by the Incas, and involves crawling through a small tunnel through the rocks and up steps that stick horizontally out of the rock face, with a fairly hefty drop beyond. On the way up you are rewarded with yet more ruins, as not content with Machu Picchu itself the Incas also built a temple for their oracle up here! The final 20 meters is an any which way you can scramble over massive boulders, and then you are at the summit with the morning sun blazing down and Machu Picchu spread out below you. It’s really not a bad view at all. In fact so much so that as we sat and took it all in an Argentinian guy next to us dropped onto one knee and (a little breathlessly) asked his girlfriend to marry him.

After climbing back down to Machu Picchu we ordered the worlds most expensive cheeseburgers and then spent a good few hours walking round (Okay okay, sorry girls. She said yes. All very happy. Round of applause from everyone at the summit. They even posed with my teddybear penguin and Tom may have caught some of the proposal on camera, which we promised to send to them. Go grab yourself some Kleenex and then read the rest of the blog).

The Inca civilisation was vast, stretching from modern northern Chile, across Bolivia and Peru and up into Ecuador. They had just shy of a 100 major cities however as the Spanish conquered their territories they razed each city to the ground and rebuilt and renamed them. (In bouts of nationalistic pride a lot of these cities are now being renamed). As Machu Picchu was not discovered until 1911 it stands as a living monument to all things Inca. Anyway, I think I’ve run out of superlatives for it so I’ll let Phil’s camera do the talking.


After another overnight drive from Cusco we arrived into the smoggy and much maligned Peruvian capital of Lima. Although we had been advised about the difficulties of driving through, we felt that having tackled La Paz at rush hour we were more than qualified. Unfortunately poor old Barry was still suffering from her salt flat mishap and decided that she wanted another new set of bearings for her other front wheel. Unfortunately she reached the decision while we were driving down the main freeway through Lima. Be a team player Barry. However our decision to buy a Toyota has definitely been a winner as, having limped to a slightly dodgy looking mechanics, they had little problem finding new parts and fixing it.

We decided to spend a few nights chilling out in Lima with a few friends we had been running into since La Paz. The city itself is not that much to speak of but we had a good couple of nights out, culminating in a Moby concert on the 15th which was excellent.

About an hour south of the Ecuadorian border is a little beach town called Mancora and after another overnight drive we reached it on arguably the most important day of the calendar year, April 17th. Since arriving in Peru we have been continually pestered by policeman who seem to view foreigners as a legitimate secondary income and we, not overly inclined to wasting our time or money or both, had decided to take the fairly comical action of simply not stopping every time we were waived down. This may sound a little dangerous but we think that at some time one of us may have read something somewhere on the internet that may well have stated something to insinuate that they probably wouldn’t bother to chase us, which seemed concrete enough (in fact have a gander at this blog for one appraisal of the integrity of Peruvian police). We decided not to be too blasé about it and every time a policeman waved us to stop, we simply smiled and waved back. The first couple of times were a little nerve-racking but as you can probably imagine it got pretty funny pretty quickly. Unfortunately a few hours shy of Mancora we probably overstepped the mark, having slowed to a near stop, indicated to pull in as directed, and then just driven off, again. 60 seconds later the flashing lights behind us indicated that a certain amount of music needed to be faced. We were prepared. “Why didn’t you stop?” said the policeman carrying an AK47. “Speak you the English?” we countered. “You were told to stop. Why didn’t you stop?” the second cop demanded. “Speak English amigo, speak English?” “Which country are you from” he shot back. “Englishy. You speak Englishy”. Phil was going for an Oscar by this point “You need to turn around and go back to the check point” He demanded, gesticulating furiously. “No problemo” Tom said, and handed him a receipt from the last toll gate we’d been through. (We’d decided that along with deliberately not understanding anything we’d uselessly offer stuff to appear helpful). It worked, unfined and most importantly unAK47’ed we were on our way.

Our hostel in Mancora would not have been out of place in the Costa del Sol with a plethora of pasty white English bodies crisping nicely by the pool, just in time for the “Baywatch” themed fancy dress party that evening. It was pretty much the best place I could hope to be to celebrate my 29th birthday. We’d also run in to an aussie couple in Lima and the guy shared the same birthday, so it wasn’t long before we were making heroes of ourselves dancing half naked on top of the bar. The next few days were spent chilling on the beach (never, ever let a girl talk you into going horse riding on the beach, they just hand you the reins and let you have a completely uncontrolled, ball-bustingly fun gallop) and Tom and Phil waxed off their boards and got all gnarly on me, apparently off in search of the ultimate ride.

Ecuador (as made famous by Sash)

Despite absolutely loving the 1997 dance track we had all decided that Ecuador would simply be somewhere we drove through en route to Colombia and most importantly Cartagena on the North coast, where we will inevitably spend at least a week trying to get Barry on a boat to Panama. Which meant that we rattled through pretty darn quickly. The Ecuador – Peru border had the dubious title of “The worst border crossing in South America” which predictably meant that we had no problems getting through. Well, except for actually finding the immigration building in Ecuador. Take a right at the roundabout if you want to go through customs, otherwise apparently just press on. Must make smuggling very tricky. We settled in Machala for our first night, which is pretty poor and scummy but at least the incredible humidity meant that we weren’t concerned by the lack of hot water in our hotel.


Two more stops in Riobamba and Ibarra, which were both to be fair quite quaint, and we were on our way through the badlands to Colombia. South turned into north as we crossed the equator which lies just south of Ibarra. Actually, we crossed it twice due to the winding road but nonetheless it felt pretty cool now finding ourselves exactly half way round the Earth watching the GPS latitude count tick down to 0 then flip over to a northern scale. Thankfully, though, we've yet to come across men sporting flat caps, whippets on leads of bailing twine and saying "aye'oop," every now and again. And it certainly isn't grim! Onwards and upwards then to country number six... The Ecuador-Colombia border is one of those places the risk adverse foreign office website advises you not to travel through, so we set off at 6am to give ourselves a full days daylight as the one thing we didn’t fancy is cruising through FARC central at night. Although we probably did not spend enough time in Ecuador to give you a completely fair appraisal of it, one thing we can confidently say is that their road signs are absolutely useless and stand like a beacon of mediocrity amongst the rest of South America (which is saying something). Eventually though we reached the border and were instantly impressed by both the presence of the police and military in Colombia and their professionalism. We drove through a myriad of checkpoints on our way up to Popayan but happily they were more interested in doing their job than picking up a bribe. Once again the FCO scaremongering is being put to rest as we've made the call to take the western route up the country, passing through the previously notorious drug cartel hotspots of Cali and Medellin. Pablo Escobar and his cronies are now consigned to the annals of history (Escobar himself to a box six-feet under having been slotted by the police back in 1993 here in Medellin). Both cities are colourful, vibrant and very safe. As are the roads; the authorities are determined to ensure that visitors and locals alike can move around freely and without trepidation. Columbians are warm and welcoming and the country is one that we're all loving more by the minute.

We're just completing a few running repairs to Barry (the steering tie-rod has worked its way loose) before we tackle the next 650km to the Caribbean coast and the (reportedly) beautiful colonial town of Cartagena where we will pause to figure out the best way to get us all to Panama. A BBQ beckons this evening at our hostel. The sun is shining and I've just seen the fridge get restocked with the local brew. Happy times!


chris said...

Happy Belated Birthday Tim! Still sounds like you're having an amazing time, and you guys have certainly made South America a definite destination for me in the not to distant future (i hope)!!

Have fun!


chris said...

Also, i really do hope that you will be making this blog into an actual hardback book!!!

nic_ollier said...

Right, i've finally finished my long ass degree, where shall I meet you guys, at the top of Huayna Picchu? It all looks so awesome!

Tom said...

Sweet, bro! Well done on the degree. Kinda out of Peru now - if you can get to Mexico in the next few days then that would be cool; we're planning to be in the States on the 11th June...

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