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La Castellana Hotel

Two weeks in Peru: Amazon to the Andes

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This year for an adventure “holiday” I was off to Peru for two weeks. G Adventures offers an Amazon to the Andes package that included quite a bit in the twelve days. As I was to find out, it’s all packed in pretty tight.

Since I had travelled with G Adventures two years ago when I trekked up Mt Kilimanjaro and had an amazing experience, it was a quick and easy decision to go with them again. After flights from Halifax to Toronto and Toronto to San Salvador — with a 20 minute connection! — I arrived in Lima at the eye-watering hour of 2:05AM. The cab took my travel partner Blaise and I on a whirlwind tour of some dodgy parts of Lima before getting us to our hotel in the very nice Miraflores neighbourhood. Our beds were a welcome sight and it wasn’t long before we were fast asleep. The next morning we were up, refreshed by hot showers and a breakfast with some very nice coffee in the hotel courtyard. We decided to take it easy and simple relaxed most of the day while making plans for supper.

Monday June 1 #monday-june-1

On our free day in Lima we decided to stretch our legs and walk the neighbourhood. We headed down to the ocean to get some fresh air and a nice view. The Larcomar shopping area is a new and somewhat upscale outdoor shopping located high up on a cliff overlooking the beach. The walk from our hotel was a good introduction the insanity of Lima traffic, and just getting there was an adventure. If you think drivers don’t respect cyclists and pedestrians where you live, you should see Lima. If you’re not in a vehicle, you’re dirt and you best get out of the damn way. Traffic signals don’t mean too much as do crosswalks, so it’s a quick lesson to always look around you at all times. After a nice coffee at the mall it was back to the sidewalk of Ave Jose Larco to head north toward central Miraflores and Kennedy Park, a funny little urban park that has its own population of cats.

This park is somewhat famous for its cats, but it’s also a nice area just to sit, people watch and try to tune out the incessant horn blowing of the traffic on the busy streets surrounding it. The cats were cool though, totally at home in the park and not at all aggressive or annoying. They fit right in and used the park in much the same way as the humans.

As usual, we had a meeting with a local G Adventures representative who went over the rest of the trip with the entire group, so we also got to meet who we’d be travelling with. It’s a good thing G does these meetings as invariably there are people who are completely unprepared for the trip. I can’t imagine spending that much money and travelling halfway around the world without reading the trip details before leaving home but there are people who do exactly that.

Cats in Kennedy Park, Lima
Cats in Kennedy Park, Lima

Tuesday June 2 #tuesday-june-2

The next morning it was up at 4:30AM — early mornings would be a theme throughout the trip — to pack ourselves and bags on a bus and head to the airport for the flight to Cusco. After a quick flight into the interior of Peru where it’s a bit warmer, we were at our new hotel, the Prisma, a nice little spot on one of the many busy Cusco streets. After checking in and a quick rest it was time for a guided city tour with another very knowledgable G Adventures guide.

We visited small markets, large markets, local markets and gringo markets. We walked narrow Incan streets and breathed in all the exhaust. One of the many things I love about visiting parts of the world that are so different than my own is really getting into the local vibe. Here in Cusco it seems to be a non-stop carnival, people and cars everywhere and shopkeepers hawking their wares. As tourists you’re of course a target for it all but I don’t mind. I just love taking it all in, annoying massage requests and all.

After a quick afternoon nap to catch up on some sleep we were all back together again for a quick walk up to the G Adventures office for another quick rundown of the trek, to meet our trek guide and gather our duffel bag. This duffel bag was the only thing we could take on the trek and it was limited to 8kg for those of us hiking the Lares Trek. This proved to be quite the challenge for much of the group, I somehow managed to get my bag down to around 5kg. That lightweight gear I have certainly paid off!

San Pedro market, Cusco
San Pedro market, Cusco

Wednesday June 3 #wednesday-june-3

It was a little bit of a sleep-in this morning, 6:30AM, before a bit of breakfast and on another bus with our duffel bags for a tour of the Sacred Valley on our way to Ollantaytambo where we would split into our Inca Trail and Lares Trek groups and start the hike. But hiking was for the next day, this day was full of beautiful scenery and people.

Our first stop was a women’s weaving co-operative in the village of Ccaccaccollo where G Adventures and Planeterra Foundation helped create a community centre where the local craftswomen can not only sell their beautiful, handmade clothing but also tell travellers the story of their culture, tradition and craft. This was a highlight of the trip for me as I could really see and feel how these small communities live and how tourism can have a positive and lasting contribution. I hadn’t planned on spending any money on this day but I couldn’t resist the beautiful alpaca scarves and mitts. Not only will they keep me warm and dry during our cold winters here in Canada, but I’ll be able to continue to tell the story of how they were made and the people who work so hard to make them.

After the co-op we were back in the bus to stop and take some photos of the gorgeous valley scenery and head to an amazing Incan ruin, the hilltop citadel of Pisac. Again, the engineering involved in making the mountainside terraces and buildings was astounding to see. After the tour of Pisac we were off again to another G Adventures/Planeterra supported initiative for lunch, the community-run Parwa Restaurant at Huchuy Qosco. The food and service here was amazing and I highly recommend it if you can stop in. It was another wonderful experience combining local people, food and culture.

From here it was on to the town of Ollantaytambo to check in to our hotel for the night, rest a little and get ready for an early evening walk through the town and its mountainside Inca ruins. It was a relatively early night as we wanted to get some sleep before starting our trek.


Thursday June 4 #thursday-june-4

Trek day! I was happy to have a good night’s sleep in a real bed as it was going to be the last bit of civilization for a few days. Today we began the Lares Trek, a companion hike to the Inca Trail that is shorter in distance but gets up to a higher elevation. Originally we were planning on doing the Inca Trail but couldn’t get trail permits as they were sold out already, months in advance. If you’re going to do the Inca Trail, make sure to book very early to get your permits. The group split up at the hotel heading in different directions. We would meet up again at Machu Picchu in a few days at the end of our respective treks.

For us on the Lares trek, the first day isn’t too bad. It’s not a long hike on this day, but it does start out going straight up! The trek begins at the Lares hot springs and some people said “hey, why don’t we have a quick dip before heading off?” but our guide advised that those who did that in the past didn’t want to get out and hike. Better to visit the hot springs after the trek. The bus ride to the trailhead took us on some high, narrow, windy roads common to the area and part of the experience. Can you really say you’ve visited South America if you haven’t been on a bus over these crazy roads? I don’t think you can. The weather on the trail eventually turned to rain which is why you always carry your rain gear in your day pack. Don’t leave home without it or suffer the consequences.

Eventually we made it to the lunch spot where our porters had setup a tent to keep us warm and out of the rain while we ate a very nice hot lunch with hot cups of cocoa tea. It was very welcome, but before long we were back on the trail, another steady climb. After a couple of hours of slowly going up we made it to our first night’s campsite where again, our porters had setup our tents and prepared some hot drinks for us. What would trekkers do without porters and cooks? Starve and freeze, that’s what. These guys are the real heroes of these adventures and I was happy to learn about their lives over the source of the trek. We also had llamas and donkeys carrying our gear which was pretty cool to see. That was the reason we needed lighter duffel bags, as the animals can’t carry heavy loads over the difficult terrain of the trek. It was always a pleasure to see them pass us on the trail as they made their way with their handlers from camp to camp. After supper we all just went to our tents and slept, we were pretty beat from the hike, rain and altitude.

Llamas with our gear on the Lares Trek
Llamas with our gear on the Lares Trek

Friday June 5 #friday-june-5

Day two of the trek and we were up early again with a tent-rattling wake-up call complete with a hot cup of cocoa tea. It had been a chill night and a hot drink was very welcome. We had 40 minutes to get up, get dressed and pack up all our things before breakfast, a bit of a challenge with the early time and cold temperature. After a hot breakfast and more hot drinks, we took some time to get introduced to our porters, cooks and horsemen. They each have amazing stories and I’m happy I travel with a company like G Adventures that takes time out to teach about the people who make these treks the incredible adventures they are.

As yesterday we started off going up and up and up. We began the day at 3600 metres AMSL and before lunch would be at the maximum elevation of the trek at 4800 metres AMSL. This was a very difficult day of hiking, perhaps one of the three or four most difficult I’ve ever done. Along the way though we stopped to say hello to some local children who were out helping with their family’s alpacas and llamas. These kids go to school for most of the week in town, then come back home for the weekend to help out. They are fun, charming, cute and hard-working kids. We had stopped at a local market before beginning the hike the day before and bought some bread and fruit for the kids so they were happy to see us! The eldest son on this day wanted to be a guide and lead trekkers like me through his valleys and over his mountains. We all told him to keep up with his school and training so one day we might be back to have him guide us and tell us more of his people’s stories.

After that nice rest it was an endless march to the top of the pass. Luckily we got to rest every 15 minutes or so, but even then it didn’t seem enough for my legs, especially over 4000 metres. Every 20 or 30 steps felt like an eternity, I just couldn’t get enough oxygen to my legs. But slowly, slowly we made it to the top. Shrouded in cloud I finally made it to 4800 metres and was greeted by an incredible view of the other side of the ridge. On that side the valley was green and lush, the opposite of what was behind me, grey and cold and cloudy. After a quick rest and a few photos it was time to go down, down, down to the second day’s campsite.

It was nice to be heading back down where the air was a bit richer and warmer. Again we stopped for a hot lunch in a tent the porters had setup for us. I can’t tell you how good it feels to have warm food and drinks on the mountain. After lunch we were off again towards camp. The guides decided to push to the second campsite to make the next day a little easier. By the time I rolled into camp it was getting early in the evening and the sun was just going down over the surrounding peaks. I was very happy to arrive! There were a few fellow trekkers that didn’t make it until well after dark, a little scary to be honest.

In the end though we all made it to camp safe and enjoyed supper and many laughs together. It had been a long day, about 12 hours of hiking up and down and we were all very happy to just curl up in our sleeping bags.

Finally made it to the top, 4800m
Finally made it to the top, 4800m

Saturday June 6 #saturday-june-6

Since we hiked a little further the day before we got to sleep in until 7:30AM! So nice. From camp it was a nice, relatively easy hike to where the bus was to meet us. We stopped by a local’s home and got to spread out on his “lawn” for a few hours of relaxing and lunch. We even had a quick game of soccer, something that was much more difficult than usual thanks to the elevation. Some of my fellow trekkers looked at us like we were nuts but it’s hard to turn down a fun kick around with a soccer ball. It was northern hemisphere versus the south. The south won but these are the sort of things that I’ll remember for a long time.

After lunch we were back on a nice air-conditioned bus to take our weary bodies back to civilization in Ollantaytambo where we picked up some things from the hotel and headed to the train station for a ride up another valley to Aguas Calientes, the start of the trip up to Machu Picchu. The group met up at a local restaurant where I enjoyed a nice, cold beer and a pizza as a treat for supper. It was then back to the hotel as it was going to be yet another early morning. I kept track of the trek with my GPS, you can view a map of the Lares Trek route at the link at the end of this post.

Trekking group at the end of the Lares Trek
Trekking group at the end of the Lares Trek

Sunday June 7 #sunday-june-7

Yet another early morning — I told you this was going to be a theme — this time we were up at 4AM to get in line for one of the first buses up to Machu Picchu. The buses start running at 5:30AM and the ride up is about half an hour. We wanted to be up there early so we had a prime viewing spot for the sunrise at around 6:45AM. There are quite a few people up there early but the crowds get really crazy around 10AM so if you’re heading there for a visit I’ll advise you to get there early.

We made it up the site with plenty of time to spare and put our tired legs to work again climbing up to a prime spot overlooking the town. The clouds were low to begin with but as the sun came up over the mountain peaks it turned into the most magical and incredible view. The clouds burned off and the sun lit up the site. I can see why people chose to build here, it’s an amazing place. After some photos and time to take it all in we gathered for a two-hour guided tour of the site. These G Adventures guides have an incredible amount of knowledge and I felt lucky once more to be experiencing these magical place with them.

After the tour we wandered around for another hour but by this time the crowds had taken over and we decided to catch the 10:45AM bus back down to Aguas Calientes to relax with a cold drink and wander the town. We met the rest of the group for our final lunch together and say thanks to our guides. We then hopped back on the train back to Ollantaytambo and then on to Cusco.

We made it back to the Hotel Prisma and retrieved our bags from storage, emptied out our duffel bags and air some thing out. There were some stinky clothes in there after almost a week. There was no rush tonight though as the following day was a free day to do whatever and I looked very much forward to a little relaxation.

Machu Picchu at sunrise
Machu Picchu at sunrise

Monday June 8 #monday-june-8

A day off! I had the best sleep of the trip so far, a combination of exhaustion and a decent mattress. We wandered Cusco visiting markets and small streets taking lots of photos. I even had time to drop off a bag of laundry that was very much in need of a wash. There are plenty of spots around to get laundry done and it’s quite inexpensive. Other than laundry I treated myself to a nice brunch of coffee and chocolate banana waffles at The Meeting Place, a small cafe in the much quieter San Blas neighbourhood. I highly recommend it.

In the early evening we headed back to the G Adventures office in Cusco for a meeting to learn about our few days in the jungle in the Tambopata National Reserve, then back to the hotel to pack another duffel bag and get ready for the morning flight.

The streets of Cusco, Peru
The streets of Cusco, Peru

Tuesday June 9 / Wednesday June 10 #tuesday-june-9-wednesday-june-10

It’s a quick 30 minute flight up and over the mountains from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado where we’d set off into the jungle. This is the closest Peruvian town the to the Brazilian border so it’s a little on edge from the drug trafficking trade but it wasn’t bad at all. We stopped into the G Adventures outpost office where we did some lat minute packing of our duffel bags, loaded up another bus and headed down a dusty, bumpy dirt road for an hour to where the boats were waiting for us to take us 2.5 hours up the Tambopata River. After a rainy and wet boat ride we made it to the Tambopata Ecolodge where we were greeted with glasses of fresh fruit juice and the keys to our cabin.

After a short introduction the to the lodge and the cabins — don’t burn the place down please — it was time for a little relaxation and quick tour of the lodge. There is no electricity or internet as you’d expect, but they did have some decent solar-heated hot water for showers which was great. Part of the mandate of the lodge is to have as little impact on the environment as possible and they do a great job. They even have some solar-charged batteries available a couple of times a day in case you need to charge a device. Pretty cool.

Before supper we went on a short night walk through the jungle, but it was pouring rain so many of the creatures remained hidden. We did get to see a cat eye snake and some insects though. The following morning we woke early to get up river for our morning jungle walk. This was more what I was expecting with a hot, steamy jungle with huge trees and lots of creatures. Our guide found a tarantula burrow and managed to coax the big spider out for us. You know that these are large spiders but it’s still a surprise when you see them up close and in person. The diversity of species and incredible adaptations they’ve made to succeed in the jungle is truly remarkable. You really get to feel small in this place, not only is everything out to kill you, you also have access to plants that provide medicine.

We then headed out on a small boat onto an oxbow lake where fed piranhas. Now that was cool, to see them so close you could hear their little jaws clamping shut. I would not want to fall into that water no matter how many times I’m told they don’t go after humans. Of course, it was around this time that the rains came again, pouring down on us with amazing fury. My raincoat certainly got well used on this part of the trip, unfortunately though I think I stunk it up so bad it’s beyond redemption. We headed back down river to the lodge for lunch and a little relaxation before some of us headed back out up river to visit a local farm, one that supplies the lodge with much of its food. This was another fun educational experience, to meet local people and learn about how they live and contribute. We then had some time to relax back at the lodge before waiting for the sun to set and head out on the water for a nighttime caiman hunt. Yes, it’s true, out on the water in the pitch black night to look for monsters.

This was another highlight of the trip as the sky was clear and full of stars and our amazing guide found seven caimans on the river bank, including one that was around 1.3 metres long. Our very skilled boat drive got us incredibly close to it, we were all silent with our mouths wide open, amazed at what we seeing right in front of us. That was the talk of the supper table back at the lodge and had everyone buzzing. Before long it was time to head back to our cabins and get some rest and pack up for our return trip in the morning to the big city.

It poured rain all night, including some thunder and lightning, but our well-constructed thatch roof kept us dry. I slept amazingly well and will never forget the sound of the rain, the insects and the birds.

Incredible colour in the jungle
Incredible colour in the jungle

Winding down #winding-down

Back on the boat heading down river to Puerto Maldonado meant my adventure was nearing its end. Even though there was so much packed into twelve days and I was tired I didn’t want it to end. I was having so much fun learning and exploring I wanted it to keep going, on to the next amazing place. We made it back to Lima and the Castellana Hotel that evening, the same place where this all started. It was both comforting and bittersweet to be back.

The group headed out for one last supper together at the amazing Miraflores restaurant Saqra where I enjoyed the local specialty ceviche before indulging in a beautiful steak. The food and service here were both incredible and I would highly recommend it if it fits into your budget.

The next day I moved to a more upscale hotel I arranged at a steep discount thanks to my brother. The hotel and staff were amazing but the location left a lot to be desired. It obviously caters to the type of clientele that doesn’t particularly like to walk and explore the area. No problem though as we did so anyway, escaping the bland neighbourhood of San Isidro and walked up to the historic district. This was more like it as the streets were full of people and life.

The crowded streets of Lima
The crowded streets of Lima

It was an amazing, jam-packed two weeks in Peru. A trip I won’t forget to be sure and one I’d recommend. Peru is a wonderful country full of warm, proud people and an incredibly diverse geography. Ocean, desert, jungle and mountains are all available to explore in the context of an ancient and colourful culture.

Big thanks to G Adventures and their incredible guides for helping to make my adventure truly memorable and remarkable!

Check out a map: Two weeks in Peru: Amazon to the Andes