Copacabana - Quito (07/07/16 - 16/08/16 )
Welcome to Peru
Peru welcomed us in such a rotten style that we were tempted to return to Bolivia! The border crossing went surprisingly smoothly but just a short distance into the country we were stopped by a carload of Police officers demanding to see our insurance certificate – this is not available at the border and has to be purchased in the next town! Very dodgy behaviour as they would have known the system and only after a long discussion did Martin eventually manage to retrieve his papers without parting with any cash. It took visits to two towns and several hours of traipsing around before finally acquiring the necessary insurance … all the while it was pouring with rain, the traffic crazy and drivers shocking!!! Darkness and after hours of searching in the rain for accommodation we found a hotel, parked the car and gathered our gear but by the time we got back to the foyer the price had risen and the room quality had dropped from the one originally offered! Pack gear back in truck, extract truck from locked carpark and off on the search again finally ending up camping in the back of a muddy wet petrol station!
An advantage of this city is that it has a nice peaceful campground just 20 minutes walk uphill from the city centre, a great place to relax and escape the touristy mayhem below. We began our visit with a city tour in the doubledeck open air bus, a great way to get orientation, a bit of history and an insight into the city. Located in south-eastern Peru at an elevation of about 3400m, it is an attractive city with a fascinating history and is designated as Peru's historical capital. It was used as a base for the expedition by Hiram Bingham in 1911 when he discovered Machu Picchu and today is used by most visitors as a base for their journey to these Inca ruins. A popular meeting place for tourists and locals alike is the Plaza de Armas, a main central plaza surrounded by many iconic historical buildings and used for significant events. During our visit we happened upon a flag raising ceremony full of pomp and protocol which was made slightly less official but definitely more entertaining by a mess-up and tangle of ropes during the attempt to raise the flag by local dignitaries taking some time to resolve it was difficult to take it all seriously!
About 4 minutes walk from our campground on a hill above the lovely city of Cusco are the Inca ruins of Sacsahuayman, we wandered there early one morning awed by the remains of a once impressive construction, gaping at the incredible precision with which the huge boulders were cut and fitted together. Cusco was the original capital of the Inca Empire and the city was built in the shape of a Puma with Sacsahuayman being the head and the zigzagging walls its teeth! Later the Spanish dismantled much of it and used the rocks to build their new city but today the remains are protected and gradually being restored.
Above the little agricultural town of Pisac are the ruins of Inca Pisac and after navigating the steep zigzagging narrow road the next challenge is to squeeze into random parking spots between the hundreds of tour buses right on the edge of the steep mountainside, it is then a further challenge to find space on the paths among the ruins! Despite the numbers of people it is an amazing experience to wander among what was once an extensive city including temple, baths, altars, fountains and ceremonial platform, all perched above ring upon ring of layered agricultural terraces. These ruins are located at the top of a hill at the entrance to the Sacred Valley supposedly to defend the southern end of the valley and control the route between the inca empire and the rain forest.
The salt evaporation ponds of Maras are several hundred ancient terraced ponds used since pre-Inca times and still in use today. Built in layers down a relatively steep slope they are all connected by an intricate system of channels which bring the salty water from a natural spring fed by a subterranean stream. Each pond is less than 4 metres square and shaped so that the water trickles down from one pool to the next. Amazingly the pools belong to the whole community and a cooperative system has been used since ancient times for the management and harvesting of the salt.
After seeing many dramatic pictures of Moray archeological site the reality was a bit disappointing as it was smaller than the photos suggested and being the dry season a bit drab and yet again jam packed with tourists. None the less it is a fascinating place consisting of huge terraced circular depressions in the hillside believed to have been used by the Incas for agricultural research.
After so much time in the mountains and also time pressure to get to Quito we opted for the coastal route north via the Panamericana, this began well with a visit to the famous Canon del pato, a narrow gorge with walls hundreds of metres high on either side and ended with a horrendous climb up over a steep single lane mountain pass all because a bridge was down on the main road just beyond the gorge.
Eventually reaching the Pacific coast we stopped at Huanchaco then Malabrigo beaches for a few days of fresh sea air, seafood meals and relaxing low altitude. Both are surfie towns but with a nice slow pace being off-season and are famous for the unusual reed fishing boats still used by some fishermen, also the Chan Chan ruins near Huanchaco which was once the rich capital of the Chimor empire in pre-Incan times and contains remnants of their intricate carvings, friezes and innovative construction designed to protect from the heat and harsh dry windy coastal climate.
Northern coastal Peru was a forgettable area, with some agriculture in irrigated areas the remainder seemed to be a dry dusty mess! We were shocked by the extent of the rubbish lining the highway, towns, homes, rivers, beaches, in-fact pretty much everywhere, sad and sickening!
Peru Coast - Quito
After northern Peru, Ecuador was paradise and we made our way to Quito via stops for a few days in Cuenca and Banos.
Cuenca apparently fights with Quito for supremacy in the beauty stakes and certainly lived up to expectation and to our eyes is the winner. The first day we did the open air bus tour which we discovered is a great way to orientate ourselves to a new city, then several days wandering the streets, museums, aviary, parks and river walks. The stunning architecture is a sensitive mix of old and new, the beautiful tranquil main plaza has old and new cathedrals facing onto either side, the old is now used as a museum and the new one stunningly built in 1885 is famous for the blue and white domes and the pink marble lined interior! Four rivers traverse the city and feed into the amazon river and it is surrounded by mountains, an unforgettable city appealing to a large variety and number of expats.
En route to Banos we deviated to the Ingapirca ruins, one of the rare places where the Inca managed to make peace and integrate with the local indigenous people, the Canari tribe. They lived together but retained their individual customs and autonomy, buildings constructed by the Incas show respect for Canari values and religious practices and it is still a fascinating place. We toured with a local guide of Canari descent who brought the place to life with his enthusiastic descriptions of the history.
We spent nearly a week in the quaint little tourist town of Banos, beautifully located in a river valley and surrounded by mountains including the still active Tungurahua volcano and popular for its many hot mineral springs. With a semi-tropical climate it is lush and green with bright tropical flowers decorating every opportunity and moody with morning rain and dense mist clearing to hot sunny days. The plentiful thermal baths mean the weekends are jam packed with visitors from Quito but the weekdays peaceful with just a smattering of tourists, it is known as the gateway to the amazon being the last large town before the amazon basin. The surrounding mountains are crisscrossed with plenty of great hiking trails which we made the most of, one climbing up over 650 stairs to a grotto and statue where the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared, and all giving spectacular views of the town and river valley. We departed Banos for Quito where we prepared for next adventures.