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Arequipa

The White city

Ten years ago Arequipa was the lifesaving destination of our Peruvian trip. The combination of altitude and cold in Cusco had given me a case of bronchitis that got worse and worse the further we travelled. By the time we reached Puno breathing at night was like inhaling razor blades and I knew we had to descend to lower altitude as soon as possible. We took the overnight bus to Arequipa and although it was a terrible journey and we arrived late, after a good nights sleep I was on the road to recovery.
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This time around we'd not planned to go back to Arequipa Nascar was on the agenda. But we quick realised that by the time we got there we'd have no time before we had to leave for Lima. After much consideration we decided to go back to Arequipa as the connections from Cusco and Lima were better.

After the shitty bus ride in Bolivia we were hopeful of better bus rides in Peru. We had booked full reclining "cama" seats, with food and drink service. There was a video service but the only suitable movie was the "point break" remake, which was awfully stupid.

Hopes of a decent nights sleep on board proved to be unfounded. The road to Arequipa had not improved in ten years. I hate to think what we would have seen if we could see out the window as the bus weaved through switchback after switchback. Plunging cliffs no doubt.
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The bus stopped on the side of the road a couple of times during the night. I assumed this was simply to pick up passengers patiently waiting by the roadside, but the stops became progressively longer. At least when the bus was stopped there was a chance to grab a quick snooze! About 5am the bus finally stopped. When I peeked out of the window I saw we were in the middle of nowhere; a shabby mining town off in the distance. We'd broken down. A replacement bus was being sent from Arequipa but it would take over an hour to get here. Even with the bus still there was little rest. Shelly swore this was the last overnight bus we'd ever take.

We arrived in Arequipa about two hours late, which wasn't too bad considering. When booking accommodation we'd tried to find the place we'd stayed in last time. It had been converted from a hacienda with rustic rooms built into the amazing barrel vaulted stables/storehouse. The owners had only just completed the renovation and were extremely attentive and caring, especially to me as I was obviously ill at the time. When we left a couple of days later we promised we'd come back to them again next time. But search as we might we could not find the place. Maybe it had a new name now. Anyway, we booked a place just off the plaza da armas. Once again it was a converted mansion and very boutique with only 6 rooms. The room even had a little sitting room to the side. Thankfully they let us check straight in - at 9am in the morning - as we were shattered from the bus journey.
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After rest and refreshment we set out to explore. The Plaza das Armas was still magnificent. The cathedral at the northern end of the square is a fine piece of baroque theatre, but uninteresting inside. One curiosity was the confessional booths running along the front of the cathedral as both the priest and confessor were exposed to the public. Very odd.
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In the afternoon we took a walking tour of the old city. The tour included typical food as well as sights and history and was good value.
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We didn't really do that much with our time in Arequipa. There were plenty of sights left unseen. We could probably have stayed a few more days and done a few day trips to the surrounds, but we'd run out of time. We were flying to Lima.
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Posted by paulymx 05:22 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Macchu Piccu

Carlos, the owner of the jax hostel in olytanyambo was probably the most attentive hotelier we'd met on our travels. He provided helpful travel advice and, when we told him we had to leave at 6am the next morning to meet the Macchu Piccu train, he organised a packed breakfast and a motor tricycle taxi to take us to the station. Unfortunately, due to the previous nights festivities the single road through olytanyambo was closed and the taxis could not get through. We dragged our bags down the cobbled street to the other side of the square and flagged down a taxi trike for the rest of the journey.

We arrived at the train station with minutes to spare but had to drop off our luggage for the return journey, so joined the long queue at the railway counter. At the rate we were progressing in the line we would definitely miss the train. Luckily a railway guard flagged us over and directed us to a counter on the platform where we could drop the bags - hoping they'd make the return journey - and slipped aboard.
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Peru rail served breakfast on the train but it's still an expensive service. They pretty much have a monopoly on access to Macchu Piccu and they make the most of it.

Two hours later we arrived at Aguascalientes, the town at the base of the mountain below Macchu Piccu. We bought our park tickets and joined the massive queue for the buses to the mountain top. The ride takes about half an hour up a precipitous, winding road that is scarcely wide enough for a single bus.
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From the bottom of the valley Macchu Piccu is invisible, hidden by the trees. A glimpse appears only about half way up, whetting your appetite for the stunning views at the top.

A footpath winds up the mountain from the bus park at the top. It doesn't take long before you feel the altitude and exhaustion, making you wonder how the Trekkers survive four days of hiking this landscape.
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The path swings to the left and leads up to the mountain overlooking Macchu Piccu, or right across a large inca terrace. We swung to the right and headed to the Macchu Piccu lookout. Shelly found the precarious pathways terrifying. Her fear of heights having become acute as the years roll on. The selfies we took took some careful preparation and a lot of coaxing!
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Macchu Piccu is stunning. There are no other words for it. It looks as good in real life as it does in photos. Some places never live up to their image, such as the Pyramids, but not Macchu Piccu.
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The lncas were outstanding engineers. The fact that they could contemplate building on this site, let alone actually complete the construction, is a testament to their skills. First they had to cut down through the top of the mountain to reach the bedrock and create a platforms to build the on. Then they built foundations and drainage and cut terraces for field. The stone was dragged up here from the river, hundreds of meters below. It's thought that construction took about 40 years and was never finished before the Spanish destroyed the inca empire.
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We walked through the ruins for a bit over two hours before heading down the Aguascalientes for some lunch. Then it was a three and half hour train ride back to Cusco. The train travels along the river and the scenery was excellent.
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Cusco train station is about half an hour's drive from downtown Cusco (cusco itself being too steep for a train line). We grabbed a cab to the bus station. The driver took us back to town via a different route - a somewhat scary route, and we were both privately wondering whether we destined to be robbed in some dark back alley. But of course nothing like that happened and we arrived at the bus station safe and sound. We checked in to our overnight Arequipa bus

Posted by paulymx 17:13 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Olytaytambo

The living Inca town

To visit Macchu Piccu you can trek or take the train. The train from Cusco takes 4 hours and passes through many of the towns of the sacred valley of the Incas. 10 years ago we'd taken a tour of the valley (it is highly recommended) and had wanted to spend a little more time in the town of Olytaytambo.
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Olytaytambo is the last town accessible by road before Macchu Piccu. After that point the road peters out at the hydroelectric station and the only through to Macchu Piccu is by train or foot. We reasoned - quite incorrectly as it turned out - that we would be able to get a jump on the crowds at Macchu Piccu by starting at Olytaytambo early in the morning. It was not the case. Train tickets to Macchu Piccu are limited and are all basically booked out from Cusco. When we checked in at the Olytaytambo train station we were horrified to discover that there were only two seats available the next day and at an unreasonably early hour - and we had to pay for return tickets to and from Cusco. So much for saving time and money. Lesson for next time - book it all in Cusco or stay at Agua Calientes for a few days.
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We had organised a collectivo from Cusco to Olytaytambo. We were picked up at about 9am and arrived about 1am. The collectivo driver drove right past out hostel and dropped us at the train station, so we set about organising our Macchu Piccu tickets - which as I mentioned proved more difficult and took much longer than expected. By the time that was all done it was nearly 4pm so we had to rush over to the inca ruins that overlook the town.
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Olytaytambo's ruins are fabulous and if they were anywhere else they'd be an exceptional tourist attraction, but unfortunately they're overshadowed by the nearby (2 hours away!) Macchu Piccu. Still, a lot of people come here to visit the ruins, which consist of a temple/administrative complex beside the old town, with terraces covering the steep mountainside behind the temple. At the top of the terraces there are storerooms and a small temple/observatory building. There are more terraces and store rooms on the surrounding hillsides, placed so high and so steep it seems impossible anyone could even get up there. The inca were nothing if not ingenious engineers.
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The path up through the Olytaytambo terraces is insanely steep and as Shelly said, "precarious" and there were lots of tour groups crawling over each other. Shelly found the paths very stressful and was very pleased when we returned to ground level.
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We were very lucky to have arrived in Olytaytambo for a local festival. The streets around the small square we're filled with dancers. We sat outside at a local cafe and watched the parade for hours until the sun went down.
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There were going to be speeches and fireworks into the night but not understanding Spanish (or prepared for the cold) we called it night.

Posted by paulymx 15:17 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

Cusco

The beautiful city

Situated at an altitude of 3400 metres, Cusco (or originally Quosquo in the native Amara) was the former capital of the Inca empire. The inca empire was relatively short lived, only lasting from 1200 to 1500 before being overthrown by the Spanish. The Spanish captured the city in 1533 and immediately set about looting it, and there was a lot to loot. The great inca palace-temple complex of Koricancha was sheathed in gold and silver. The Spanish stripped the temple of its gold and silver, burnt the mummies of the inca emperors which were stored there, and then demolished the temple. A monastery was built over the ruins, but the stunning inca foundations and walls have been preserved.
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The inca stonework is so solid, smooth and stunning in its perfection. Although colonial Cusco has been knocked down by numerous earthquakes over the centuries the inca stonework has never even moved.
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Cusco is a beautiful city. I'd forgotten just how beautiful until we stepped out into the plaza das armas. Our hostel was literally 5 steps from the main square, which made up for its otherwise basic facilities.
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Two great cathedrals, built in the local red stone, crown two sides of the square, while arcaded shops cover the other two. Strangely there are no administrative buildings flanking the cathedrals.
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The city is so picturesque we could wander aimlessly for hours, but food was calling. We went to the Ciccolina tapas bar (which may in fact have Ben named after the Italian pornstar as there was a photo of her behind the bar). The food and cocktails were exceptional.
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One thing has changed since we were here 10 years ago - the city was filled with massage parlours. You could not walk 10 steps without being offered a massage. It was like being in Bali or Thailand. In fact some of the flyers were clearly pinched from Asia. It didn't take long before it became very annoying.

We enjoyed two days in Cusco, taking things pretty easy, before we set off to our next destination, the living inca town of Olytaytambo.

Posted by paulymx 15:04 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

La Paz

"You truly belong with us up here in the clouds"

10 years ago Shelly and I travelled across South America, taking in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Peru. One of the optional destinations on that trip was la Paz in Bolivia. La Paz is only an our or so South of Puno in Peru, on the southern shore of lake Titicaca. La Paz's location is extraordinary, even for Peru and Bolivia, being situated in a valley high in the Andes mountains. Everything about La Paz is about altitude - it has the highest international airport in the world, the highest cable car and the highest cheese fondu restaurant. That was why we wanted to go, but that trip I was badly affected by altitude sickness and caught bronchitis. By the time we reached Puno the thin air and freezing cold told me it was time to get out of Dodge and get to lower altitude. This time however, we were both fine with the altitude so La Paz was back on the agenda.

The flight from Uyuni took little over an hour - a much better proposition that the 16 hour overnight bus. Our hotel turned out to be right in the heart of the old city, one street from st Francisco cathedral. The location could not be better. However, we did not venture out that night. It was straight to the showers - our first in three days - and then to bed. We slept well.
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We opted to do a walking tour to orientate ourselves the next morning. La Paz is a huge city of more than a million people, chaotic and in some places dangerous. The meeting point was San Pedro's square, named after the 16th century church at its corner. It's more famous now though as the site of San Pedro's prison, which occupies an entire city block at the opposite corner to the church.
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The prison was built to hold about 2000 prisoners but currently houses 10 times that number. The prison is a microcosm of society. Everything has a price and everyone has to work. If you've got money, you can rent or buy a nice cell and furnish it as you see fit. Your family can also live with you in the prison. If you don't have money however, life is tough. Drugs are the prisons main industry. Cocaine is refined there and smuggled out. Up until a few years ago you could pay to spend a night in the prison - real hardcore travel accommodation! This all started several years ago when an American or British drug smuggler, who was nearing the end of his sentence, paid the guards to let him out to go nightclubbing (yes, if you have money you can do this sort of thing). He was lucky and picked up a girl and took her back to 'his place.' She told her friends and then some people called the guy and asked if he could show them around inside the prison. He arranged it with the guards and began offering tours. It was only a short step from there to offering accommodation inside. Lots of money was made, but when he was finally released the gangs took over and thing quickly fell apart. Visitors were robbed, held hostage and raped so the authorities shut it down. Scammers still try and swingle gullible travellers though.
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From the prison we swung through the central market (always an eye opener), sampled some street food, visited the witches market (which was all a bit touristy) before crossing La Paz' central thoroughfare (which is built over a river that use to separate the Spanish from the native towns) to Murillo Square and the presidential palace. The government district was fenced off by armed police as there were ongoing protests, although it looked to us like the police were simply bored by all this standing around. Bolivia has quite a lot of female police and their uniform is quite... appealing....
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That evening we went on a food and bar tour. The guide turned out to be Jorge from the day tour and we were the only customers. A little awkward! But it turned out ok. Jorge was interested in politics and we had a great evening discussing US foreign policy and Bolivian history. The food on the tour was excellent and our only complaint was there was too much of it!
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The next day we revisited some of the sights we'd only seen only briefly on the walking tour, such as the presidential palace. As I mentioned La Paz is the effective capital of Bolivia even if Sucre is still the official capital. La Paz' position, deep in an easy to blockade valley makes it susceptible to people power - and the Bolivian people have needed to wield that power pretty regularly. In the 1990s the US supported government basically nationalised all Bolivia's assets, including the water supply. A French multinational company imposed such a monopoly over water resources that farmers were denied the right to collect rainwater or drill bores on their own land. In 2000 public outrage led to protests and a blockade of the presidential palace. The government responded by instructing the army to fire on the crowds, killing many protesters. The police, who were stationed across the square from the palace, sided with the people and fired on the army, who retreated into the palace. The members of the government realised the game was up and fled, but not before ransacking the treasury and stealing the country's foreign reserves, which were spirited out the country on private jets to the US, where these traitorous f*ckers have enjoyed their ill gotten gains ever since. Some of them have even had the gall to return to Bolivia and run for reelection again! Why the government doesn't just arrest them the moment they step off the plane and shoot them is beyond me.
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La Paz' extraordinary location is a significant challenge to its infrastructure. The airport and industrial zone is on a plain above the city at 4300 metres. The suburbs then cascade down precipitous slopes to the old city. Buses, taxis and collectivos ply these routes but traffic congested and terribly slow. Many people have no other choice than to walk into town. The new government addressed the public transport challenge by building a cable car linking the Alta to the city. It was so successful that two more were built and another five are planned. By 2018 you will be able to travel by cable car to all areas of the city.
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Even though this is actually functional transport service, it is very popular with tourists as it provides stunning views over the city.
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Posted by paulymx 22:00 Archived in Bolivia Comments (0)

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