The second month of my travels in South America this Summer was spent in Peru, known mostly for the pre-colonial Inca civilisation and Machu Picchu. I got back to the UK mid August for a Zoology field trip in Holt, Norfolk, and while I drafted parts of this post during the field trip, I didn't have much time and the field trip has ended. Currently in Iceland, trying to catch up on my backlog of posts I meant to write...
It's been very tempting to just sweep aside that past month, but I find that blogging helps consolidates my thoughts and makes me reflect on my experiences, so here goes an attempt to recall the past month. Squishing a whole month of experiences and thoughts into a blogpost is always tough and so I apologise in advance if it gets draggy.
|View of the Andes from the airplane|
Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu
I went for the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, an alternative trek that was highly recommended. The traditional Inca trail is supposed to have more ruins on route, whereas the Salkantay trek is mostly for the mountain scenery. I was rather unsure if I should be doing a 5D4N hike after just 1 night of acclimatisation, cos Cusco is about 3300 masl and Salkantay will entail going up to 4500 masl. But having already planned to do it and not really wanting to abort plans, I went for it anyway. Scouted around the afternoon I arrived for treks leaving the next day, and found a company that offered me US$200 + $25 for sleeping bag and hiking poles rental + $25 to change my return train to an earlier timing (1pm instead of 7pm). Kinda on the lower end of prices, a couple I met later on apparently paid US$350+ for the trek, but they also had better service, I think. Also, it turns out that it was more of a 5D5N hike, cos if you don't change the train to an earlier timing, you'll probably get back to Cusco about 10pm, or even up to 1am. I was leaving for my volunteering stint the next day and wanted a good night's sleep, so ended up paying to change to an earlier train.
|Horse just minding it's own business.|
Started at 4am, for the pick up. Then a 2 hour bus ride to the starting point of Mollepata, where we had breakfast. There were about 20+ of us in the group, and I later discovered we all booked our tours with different tour operators, and paid slightly different prices. After breakfast, we set off on the hike. It turned out that drinking water wasn't provided (and neither was toilet paper), and we would either have to buy bottled water, or purify tap water for ourselves. For some (stupid) reason or other, I decided that I would drink purified tap water and proceeded to fill my bottle. A decision I later regretted...
It was quite a nice walk, a fair bit of uphill, but it started raining about midday. We got to the campsite at Soraypampa, 3880 masl. It was really cold, and I was glad our tents were pitched under this huge canvas sheet that blocked most of the wind so we were nice and warm. And the sleeping bag I got from the trekking company was really good and warm too (: The night sky was amazing, filled with thousands of stars that make identifying constellations an impossible task. And I don't really know constellations in the Southern hemisphere (or anywhere really) in the first place anyway :P But we could see the milky way quite nicely, and it was just amazing.
|The start of the trek, before it started pouring on us.|
We were prepped that this would be the most difficult day of the hike, entailing 9-10 hours of walking. We would be going up Salkantay pass, then a little downhill before lunch, before another 2-3 hours of downhill walking to our campsite for that night. I had no idea it was going to be as difficult as it was for me though, nor as horrible.
We got up nice and early, and set off for the pass. The view wasn't as stunning as one would have hoped, for it was rather cloudy. Our guide gave us some coca leaves to chew on, and I did not like it at all :/ The going was really quite steep, and I was getting exhausted and lagging behind everyone else. Eventually though, I got up to the pass, we got a quick group shot, before heading back down towards lunch. I was feeling rather better (than the uphill climb), but was still lagging behind everyone else. By the time I got to lunch, I was thoroughly exhausted and had no appetite, and so just sat there watching everyone else have their lunch. Tried to eat a bit of the pasta but didn't have much success. I was getting really cold as well, and felt like throwing up, and people thought it might be the altitude, so I took half a Diamox pill. As everyone else got up to continue the journey though, I was feeling completely numb and weak and incapable of walking, and very very thankfully, one of my trek mates (my tent buddy!) had rented the mule for the day and kindly let me sit on it for the trek down to the campsite. There was absolutely no way I would have made it to the camp site that day if not for her kindness, and I'm super thankful for that.
The mule ride was not particularly enjoyable, I was desperately trying to stay on the mule and not fall off cos my limbs were feeling rather numb and incapable of holding on. Even after getting to the campsite, our tents weren't made yet, so I couldn't crawl into my sleeping bag and sleep. Threw up several times rather violently in the evening, while trying to sleep the sick feeling off. All in all, not a pleasant night/day :/
|Start of the day.|
|Late morning/mid day, at the top of the pass. So cloudy you could barely see anything :/|
Got up feeling a little better, the charcoal pill that another one of my trek mates gave me the night before worked and I was no longer throwing up (: This was also the last proper hiking day. The weather was a lot better, with clear blue skies and it was really hot and sunny. Towards mid day though, I was starting to feel the exhaustion again, and I was really glad to arrive in Santa Teresa for lunch. We parted with the people doing the 4D tour (instead of our 5D one) after lunch, and waited for the minibus to return to bring us to our campsite. We waited for a really long while, during which I napped, but by the time I got to the campsite I was feeling ill again, and while some of the rest in our group went to the hot springs, I huddled in all my layers in my sleeping bag and raged a fever. Eventually the fever broke, and I slept through the night, though that campsite seemed to be a particularly happening one, and was playing quite a lot of party/club music.
|Pretty awesome view from our campsite before setting off in the morning|
The last bit of hiking, though mostly on roads and rail way track. There was the option of taking the zipline and cutting out 2 hours of walking, for US$70, but I was too cheap/poor for that, so just walked with the rest of the group. It was a really nice day as well, clear and sunny, but it made walking on roads really uncomfortable. It was also the first time in a while I felt good enough to chat with my trek mates while walking, and so managed to have some conversation along the way instead of just monologuing in my head.
Even so, by the time we got to Aguas Calientes, I was desperately needing the toilet, and dashed into the first building I saw, which happened to be a really nice hotel, and again was the last to arrive and join the group. Felt well enough to explore the town a little before and after dinner though, and was also pretty glad we were staying in a hostel that night, where there was wifi. I also managed to catch up with a Singaporean couple who were also doing the Salkantay trek (albeit with a more expensive tour company) whom I met the day before on the trek, always nice to hear the familiar accent (:
|When the weather is beautiful, the trek is really quite awesome|
|The hidroelectrica railway track|
|Machu Picchu is located on that dip between the two peaks there, or so I was told...|
Finally the day that we were all looking forward to, when we finally arrive at Machu Picchu. The rest of my group decided to do the final stretch of walking up, but though I was no longer feeling sick, I still didn't think my body was up for it, and so "cheated" by taking the tourist bus instead. Joined the queue at 5am, and was on the 5th bus up. The lining up and boarding of bus were pretty efficient, though there was already a queue outside the gates of Machu Picchu formed by the trekkers. Some in my group were literally the first in line!
Machu Picchu was really pretty, I particularly liked the sunrise over the mountain range. Our tour guide gave us a quick tour of some landmarks, then we were free to roam around as long as we made it back for our return train. A few of us climbed up to the sun gate after the tour, where you get a really nice view of everything and made the stair-climbing up worth it. I couldn't stay too long cos my return train was at 1pm, and I decided I would save the US$10 and walk back down to Aguas Calientes, which didn't take as long as I expected. The train ride back to Ollataytambo was pretty luxurious and really scenic, which is why I guess the cheap tours organise the return trains at night when there wasn't much to see and tickets were probably cheaper.
|Just a typical "I've been there!" photo|
|Really awesome trek mates (minus the 4D people) :)|
|View from the sun gate.|
After a night in Cusco, I left for Villa Carmen biological station the next day.
Volunteering with Association para la Conservacion de la Cuenca Amazonia (ACCA)
Villa Carmen (VC) is one of three biological stations run by ACCA, located fairly close to Manu National Park, within the buffer zone. I had originally intended to volunteer at Wayqecha cloud forest biological station, but was told that there weren't many volunteers there at that moment and the science coordinator was on leave during the same period, and so decided to go to VC instead.
|View of Villa Carmen and the surrounding area from the top of one of the trails|
|The mischievous pair of Scarlet macaws that used to be someone's pets and now hang around the station.|
|A gondola/cable car that connects the two sides of the river.|
|The river Piñi Piñi is super tempting to swim in on a nice hot day.|
|The land used to belong to a guy who used to run a small domestic airlines, but a couple of his planes crashed. Not sure if this was one of them though..|
I spent a little more than 2 weeks there, and it was pretty nice. Much warmer weather, compared to Cusco, though for the first few days after I arrived, there was a cold spell. The nearby town, Pilcopata, runs on hydroelectric power, and the dam was under repair/maintenance/improvement works during the period as well, and so we went without main electricity/internet. I didn't mind much, rather enjoy these periods of disconnection, though my parents were probably rather worried :/
|Cute fluffy little chick! At the native Indian village near the biological station.|
|I think this is the cat eyed snake.|
|Capybara! But not wild, it was being taken care of by this animal shelter not too far from the station (1 hour walk). Though I'm not sure what animal shelter this was, cos the animals didn't seem injured or anything.|
|So cool to see cicada just after it has moulted and emerged!|
VC had lots of visitors, which made staying there rather interesting as there were always new people to talk to. There was a hymenopterist conference in Cusco, and some of them came to VC to collect specimens afterwards, and I went out with some of them during their stay here, which was pretty fun. Most of my time though was spent looking for tadpoles and frogs and snakes, as the volunteer coordinator for ACCA was trying to compile a checklist for species found at that station.
|Update: A Troschel's tree frog (Hypsiboas calcaratus) previously mislabelled as Hypsiboas geographicus|
|Sunset, while lazing on the banks of the river Pilcopata.|
|Another amazing view of the area from another hike up the mountain.|
All in all, it was pretty fun, with nice long hikes to waterfalls, swims in the river and various others. I will get round to blogging more about the biological side of things at some point, together with my experience at Bilsa biological station in Ecuador.
I did manage to spend a few days at Wayqecha cloud forest, which was between VC and Cusco anyway. There really were very few people at Wayqecha, mainly just 2 students from Lima conducting a research project and 1/2 staff. However I really enjoyed my time there, where all I did was go for solitary walks after breakfast and lunch, and I can take my own time to walk at my pace, enjoy the scenery, listen to the calls of the forest, admire the moss gardens, write in my journal and just chill. The cloud forest is really beautiful and picturesque, though it did get pretty cold at night, and I was rather reluctant to leave, especially cos I knew I wouldn't be getting this kind of experience again in a while.
|The cloud forest|
|Awesome moss garden!|
Back in Cusco, I spent most of my time walking around the city, visiting the Inka museum and the tiny natural history museum, and I was really proud of myself for finding places that sold nice cheap food (just 5/6 soles, or a little more than a pound).
The next day was spent in Quito in transit, slept in the airport cos the plane touched down at 1am and I was too lazy/cheap to find a hostel to sleep in for a couple of hours. Went to the city for the day though, via public transport, managed to make it to the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary mass, visited El Panecillo (which I managed in my previous blogpost that I meant to visit), the vivarium for snakes and amphibians, and their natural history museum too. Rather productive, I thought.
The two months in Ecuador and Peru have been amazing, and I can't quite believe how fast time flew. The whole of this summer has been passing pretty quickly in fact, and I can't seem to keep up with my blogging. But this post is long and draggy enough, and I want to sleep, so that's it for now (: