Its Thursday and our final full day in Peru. It seems to have flashed passed but it also seems like we've been here forever. Unlike a "normal" holiday where we've stayed in one place for most of the time this one has felt like lots of shorter holidays back to back which has been good.
Our final arranged activity is chocolate making at the chocolate museum in Cusco. We started by learning about the Cacao bean which we then shelled, roasted and ground. We made a rough tasting tea from the shells and then some drinks from the ground beans. The first had honey, chilli and water added and the second was called conquistador hot chocolate with hot milk, cinnamon and clov s which was very tasty.
Unfortunately the event did go a bit downhill after this as we were then shown a mixing batch which was 70% cocoa and told it takes 24 hours to get to this stage. We were then told it has to be tempered and jane whispered to me that she'd always wanted to try and temper chocolate. However, this was all skirted over with no opportunity to learn or try and we were just given a cup of melted chocolate, a choice of plastic moods and some bits to mix in like gummy bears and smarties. It was a bit of fun but more like junior school play time than a chocolate making session.
We were asked to come back and collect them 40 minutes later so we went off to find some lunch.
Later we did some more exploring and had a look round the impressive main church in the main square. Everything is so over the top and covered in gold!
we were up and out for 8 and jane waited with us at the bus stop having decided not to come up for the full tour. I knew not to push her and she had got through the gates and seen the terracing the day before so she has been to Machu Picchu for real!
First stop was the Inca Bridge which is where the Inca trail continued but is now too dangerous to walk. It will be restored and the plan is that there will be another 4 day walk to a newer discovery that's further round the mountain that I can't spell. The bridge itself is a gap in the stone path built into a cliff where the incas put wooden boards that they could easily thrown down to protect themselves if needed. The walk round was pretty scary, I have to say, and very exposed.
We could see Wayna Picchu above MP which joe and I had been booked to do. When I'd found it at number 2 in the most dangerous walks on the planet I'd decided that life was too short anyway and a final 20 second free fall would just be a competition between either my heart giving out or landing like a splat of strawberry jam 1500ft below! I asked Juan Carlos how scary it is and he said that for him as a guide it is fine - however, when asked about the first time he said he'd been like Spider-Man and was stuck to the wall with both hands the whole way.
MP itself is everything I'd imagined and more. The stonework is incredible, the feats of engineering beyond comprehension and even beyond what I'd ever thought it could be. So many things in life can be a slight disappointment in reality but this certainly wasn't one of them!
We saw temples, houses, agricultural terracing and much more. At one point we sat for a rest and Tilly and Joe had a llama nuzzling them😊
This year the rules changed and tickets are lonely valid in the morning or the afternoon but by 12 we were ready to come down anyway.
There are a lot of tourists at MP but it doesn't spoil the visit. In its day there were around 1000 living there and now there are 2500 tourists in the mornings and the same again after lunch. It really is full to the limits as there were quite a few people trying to buy tickets having come up on the bus but were unable to get in. I had wondered why anyone would come all that way without tickets but they sell out months in advance so I suppose it's always worth the offchance to get in.
Another fun packed bus journey down and we found Jane and went out for a leasurely lunch before getting the train down at 4.20
The train is very slow and clunky but there was some entertainment and a little fashion show by the train crew to try and get us to buy clothes. It was a bit of fun and made the journey enjoyable.
The train terminated in Ollyamtambo station and our car driver had already retrieved our suitcases from the hotel and was rearing to go. It was a 2 hour journey but the alternative was the 2.5 hour longer Cusco train and then a 30 minute car journey from the station so no better!
We arrived in Cusco at 8 and went out for a lovely dinner complete with the essential Pisco Sours!
once a knackered Tilly joined us at the sun gate she enlightened us on the joys Jane had had on the journey. They'd been met ok at the station but the hotel wouldn't let them have a room as it was before checking in time. I don't believe they had no rooms as many people check out very early to visit Machu Picchu but rules are rules! They got a bus up the mountain at about 11.30 on what must be one of the worlds most horrendous bus journeys. It takes you up over 400m in a zigzag quote with the bus half hanging over the edge of the precipice - well ok it's not quite hanging over but it certainly feels like it. It sales about 25 minutes and by the time the reached the top jane was terrified and in tears despite having her eyes closed mat of the way. They just got through the entrance turnstiles before Jane decided that enough us enough and she'd go and sit and have a drink in the cafe by the entrance. MP is precariously perched on the saddle if a mountain and every which way you go is very very high!
Joe, Tilly, Juan Carlos and I made our way back from the sun gate to the entrance to meet jane, have an ice cream and go back down. Although we were in MP we had as long as we wanted the following day to see it and we were tired so time to retrench!
It was a hairy bus journey but we made it alive!
It's an early train and the first time we'll be splitting up. The train to Agua Calientas at the base of Machu Piccu is like something out of a diffferent era. We have to show our passports to get on and are served drinks from an old airline trolley. We clank through the valley for an hour before Juan Carlos, Joe and I get off at km104 to do the final day of the inca trail. Jane and Tilly stay on board for a further 20 minutes to be me at the station by another guide.
When we get off we cross a bridge to reach a checkpoint that involves a lot of paperwork for what is just a walk. The number of walkers a day is strictly limited and about 12 have got off our train. We have about 700m to climb to get to Windy Wayna, an Incan terrace and temple that fed Maccu Picchu. The walk is fairly hard work and takes us about 2.5 hours along a path cut into the edge of the mountain. Some parts are paths, many are steep steps and most is very exposed to the valley with the river and train track up to 1500ft below. We saw ants an inch long, flying critters called firefires and beautiful wild orchids. Winay Wayna itself is stunning and amazing how they can build such a vast complex into the side of such a steep mountain.
We stop for an early lunch at the point where the 4-day inca hike trail meets ours and watch a team of porters arrive to unload their packs. Each pack is massive - maybe 50cm taller than them and must way 50kg. We saw one guy remove a canvas tent from the top of his pack and then pull out a full size gas canister! One of those 15kg ones we use for the BBQ back home! Full, that must weigh over 20kg on its own.
We're now at 2650m and have only another 100m to climb in a 2 hour walk to get to the sun gate. Juan Carlos goes off to phone the girl's guide to give them our progress.
As we reach the sun gate we get our first view of Machu Picchu and it is breathtaking. No photo can ever prepare you for the real thing. It is way below us and massive, spreading across the mountain top. We get news that Tilly and Jane have reached the city and Tilly will walk up to us, a walk of about 45 minutes.
Our hotel in Ollantaytambo was a beautiful oasis. We knew the hotel was located at the train station where the trains go to Machu Pichhu but we hadn't realised we'd have to walk down the station platform and go in through what looked like it could have originally been the waiting room. The platform was packed solid for the next train and was only a couple of feet wide at ground level (rather than train level) looking more like something out of Downton than a modern day station. The hotel behind was idyllic though with gardens, hummingbirds and the most incredible flowers.
The next day we relaxed in the morning before heading up to the main square for lunch - beer and pizza obviously. I should add that this isn't like going to Pizza Hut. We have never seen so many wood fired pizza ovens as in Peru and all these restaurants make handmade pizzas that really do taste good.
After lunch we went to the Archealogical site to explore the terraces, temples and fortifications. Jane made it halfway up before the height got the better of her but it was quite a long way down do we really didn't blame her!
A head bashing Tuktuk back to the hotel and jane and I went exploring in their farm and gardens. We found their distillery that had only been set up a few months previously by an interesting guy from New York City. They made Cana which is made from sugar cane (like Cachasa from Brazil) rather than grapes like Pisco. It tastes great and they're already supplying a couple of top restaurants in Lima.
After a delightful dinner in the hotel restaurant it was time for an early night as we had to meet at 5.15 for breakfast and an early train!
After returning to our bikes we had lunch before moving on. We have taken a bit of a family decision that whenever we go out for the day in future we're taking our own chef with us. There really is no other way to travel!
Back to the bikes and we soon turned off down this steep dirt track towards the salt ponds of Maras. The track got steeper and steeper and more and most twisty with a sheer drop off on one side until Jane decided that enough was enough and she would cycle no more. We waited for the van to come back up to collect her and we finished our ride that I admit was a tad hairy. Tilly and I did look back up to see the van jane was in edging past another vehicle at a particularly narrow spot and wondering if we were about to watch her death. She did say later that their windows were open and the conversation in some obscure language was on the lines of "pull over a bit further to let me passed you £&,!" And the reply was "I could get a London bus through that gap sideways, learn to drive!"
t the bottom though was the most amazing sight. The salt ponds have been there over 500 years and are fed by an underground stream that passes through a n underground salt lode. The result is water with over 20% salt content which is about twice that in salt water. Many hundreds of ponds have been built with little streams between them and the water is fed in the locals every morning to fill the ponds and let the water evaporate. Slowly but surely the salt level in these ponds rises and is harvested once or twice a month. The ponds cascade down always slightly lower than the ones above so the flow is always natural. You can buy salt very cheaply with some being white and others pink where there is a higher iron content.
We explored the lakes and then loaded up the bikes to head for Ollantaypambo for yet another hotel.
After 2 days with no internet we're finally back connected with the outside world!
We were picked up early from our hotel, for a change, and driven north east from Cusco into the mountains to find the sacred valley. On the way we stopped off at a big outside market with the usual type stalls plus some others that made an interesting changes. One guy had an open fire going and Alpaca joints splayed out on metal grids sizzling away tastefully close by. We tend to cook food/meat on top of the fire but this was a good 2 foot away so the fat from the meat dripped onto the ground rather than onto the fire. It smelled and sounded wonderful but it was going to be a good couple of hours before this was ready to eat. There was a live animal auction going in as well as a competition for who could get the most milk from a cow in a certain time. The whole looked to be the Peruvian equivalent of the County Show!
Another 10 minute drive and we were ready to set off on our bikes. No matter what we tried we couldn't get a helmet to fit me so we set off with 3 we'll protected heads and mine in a baseball cap I'd brought along for sun protection. We had a total of about 4 hours cycling to do with nearly all of it being down hill. This sounds good but in reality we were either going hell for leather down a steep dirt track trying desperately to stay at a reasonable speed using brakes or struggling uphill (ok, we were mostly pushing!).
It is a great way to see the countryside though and you GE a much better feeling than sitting in the back of a minibus. After about 3 hours we stopped and got into the support vehicle for a side trip to see an amazing ore-Incan terracing area at the village of Moray. We were beginning to learn that much of what has been credited to the Inca's isn't, they only reigned for 150 years in about 1450 and most of the structures were built 500-1000 years before that.
We were picked up at 8 by Santiago and 3 others for a days white water rafting. We were looked after so well as the 4 of them were just looking after us. Santiago led the expedition and was to steer our raft plus a kayaker for safety/rescue, a driver and a cook to prepare food for when we finished.
It was about a 2 hour drive to get to our starting spot and then they set Bout inflating our boat and getting things ready. We even had our own changing tent! We wore swimming costumes and were then provided with thermal tops, wetsuits, wet shoes, splash tops, gloves and helmets so we were fully kitted out.
We put the boat in the water with Tilly and joe at the front, jane and I in the middle and Santiago steering at the back. First we learnt how to get back in the boat if we well out which involved Joe and I getting wet but it was fun. Then it was off for the Rapids. The first couple sets were pretty tame and we knew the water level was low at this time of year so we admitted to each other later that we thought at this stage it might be a disappointing day. How wrong we were! There were some fantastic sections that I can't describe in words but the water was fast in the canyon and we had loads of fun. We stopped for chocolate and fruit to get some energy back and then it was time for some cliff jumping (well ok, it was a big rock).
The first to go was Joe and then I hear this voice say "I'm going next" to which I replied "who's this woman and where's my wife!" I don't know anyone who's more afraid of heights but up jane clambered and jumped from the top of this 15ft rock! I was next and then lastly Tilly who really doesn't like water unless it's in a chlorinated swimming pool. But after her mother had done it how could she not?
After about 2 hours in the water, which was more than enough in 6 degree water, we got to our finishing place and the crew had set up the van with a covered seating area, kitchen and even a toilet tent! We had a lovely leisurely cooked meal of beef, chicken, salads and soft drinks.
Another drive and we were back in Cusco.
Its Friday and time for our Peruvian cookery course. Jane and Tilly were a little unsure about this as they thought it might be too technical and hence no fun. Luckily, they were very wrong!
We were told to have a big breakfast and no lunch so by the time we were picked up at 2.30 we were getting a bit hungry. The afternoon started with a tour round the local market where we had a chance to look at fruit and vegetables we'd never seen before. Peruvian avocados are just so much better than ours being twice the size with a thin skin and the creamiest flesh ever. There's fruit that tastes like caramel and cactus fruit that's bright red and tastes heavenly. We also saw dried Alpaca foetus' which look as gross as you imagine which they don't eat but bury as an offering to the earth for good crops.
We did the course with another English family from Nottingham. It's strange that the only other English people we've met have been through Audley and we've not met or heard people while we've been out.
We then walked back and learned how to make Pisco Sours, something we'd seem many times but it was fun to make our own; 4 shots of Pisco, 2 of sugar syrup, 2 of line juice, 4 or 5 ice cubes, half an egg white and then shake well. Pour into glass and garnish with 3 drops of bitters. Perfect!
Our first food cooking was a layered potato dish that used waxy boiled potatoes, rehydrated dehydrated potatoes (yes, that's right) and cheese. These are are layered into a manikin dish and covered by a cheesy egg and evaporated milk mixture and then baked in the oven. The weird potatoes come from the locals preserving potatoes by leaving them out overnight in freezing high altitude conditions and then in the heat of the sun during the day. The result is a rock hard dried potato that will keep for years. When rehydrated is does taste a bit gross but when mixed with the cheesy mixture it was ok.
We also made 3 types if civeche which is raw fish covered in a citrus mixture (normally lime) with chillis, onion etc. It must only be left minutes after the mixture touches the fish or the fish starts to cook in the juice. It is generally spicy but tastes great. The next dish was a gorgeous quinoa risotto with mushrooms and a desert containing the fruits we'd got from the market and cream.
They use a lot of cheese in their cooking which is quite young and a little rubbery and very little choice. They also use evaporated milk as it lasts longer than fresh cream and fir them is lower fat and much cheaper.
The evening finished around 8 and we wondered back to our hotel.
Thursday was to prove to be a bit of a gruelling day's travelling!
Firstly a quick aside about the changes to this journey we had been informed beforehand. This was listed as a 6 hour bus journey in a tourist bus with stops for lunch and to see some sights. A month before we left we were told that it was now up to around 8 or 9 hours but what the heck - it was an adventure. A few days before we left Joanna at Audley called me to say that the bus was now taking around 10 hours so they were looking at options. To cut a not so long story shorter she called me later to say that we would now have a private transfer at no extra cost to us and it would stop at the sites as we wished - all sounded great. Anyway......
We were met at the hotel at 6.30 (our favourite time of day on holiday!) by Carmen and a big 18 seat minibus. We all climbed in and I made a throwaway comment about it being a big bus just for us and carmen replied "well it's just to the bus station....". I pointed out the error of her ways and I could see she honestly didn't know about the change. She was very apologetic about it all but she was actually great. There was a problem and she fixed it - within 25 minutes we had a private vehicle to take us to Cusco! I don't know where they found Raul at that time of the morning but he was great and we set off.
This had never been a 6 hour drive! Google maps said 6.15 with no traffic and no stops and it took us an hour to get out of Puno alone. It took about 8.15 hours to do the journey but we did see an incredible inca temple and a Catholic Church that they call their own Sisteen Chapel that was completely over the top. The stunning Andean scenery we were getting accustomed as we'd been spoiled with even more stunning views previously. Raul, our driver, was great and looked after us really well.
Our Tierra Viva hotel in Cusco was nicer than the others being built into an old colonial house with some inner courtyards and situated only 2 blocks from the main square. After being greeted by the Audley rep and having our rafting briefing we ventured out for dinner. We were recommended to an excellent restaurant called Modena that was only let down by the service. The setting and decor was lovely, my main course of pork belly on a bed of quinoa and rice risotto was probably the best of the holiday for me and our Pisco Sours were made from a trolley by our table. Unfortunately we had to ask more than once for someone to take our order and we would have had desert but gave up by then.