This week we offer a very special blog. Catherine, who journeyed through Peru with us, shares her experiences and gives a magical and honest collection of her thoughts on the tour...
When flicking through travel guides you could be forgiven for believing that Machu Picchu was the only reason to visit Peru. Although certainly a worthy ‘headliner’, a tour through this magnificent and breathtaking country reveals so much more that amuses, inspires and astounds. Peru is a magical, multi faceted country where it’s people are passionate about it’s past and also excited about it’s future. It’s a young country with nearly 50% of the population under the age of 30 and this shows, it’s a country on the move and an incredibly exciting place to visit.
The recent Big Journey tour started in Lima, I’m ashamed to admit that my only perceptions of the town were based mainly on reading Paddington Bear to my children. Although there is a statue to the famous bear in the beautiful Lima district of Miraflores, the associations quickly ended there. Lima is a modern, vibrant and growing city which is home to some 10million people. To any western traveller the city is very familiar, replete with Starbucks and designer boutiques; it’s definitely not a vision of ‘darkest Peru’. As a first point of call it’s reassuringly familiar and makes a comfortable base to recover from the long flights.
Push a little further and the town offers some surprising hidden gems both historical and culinary: The Museo Larco feels more like a modern Art Gallery than a museum, displaying its stunning Incan and pre-Incan artifacts with both style and sensitivity; the delightful Plaza Mayor illustrates the huge influence of the Spanish colonists and the Cathedral of Lima with it’s maze of underground catacombs is a fascinating monument to the influence of the Catholic church, still felt throughout Lima today.
Dining in Lima, and indeed throughout Peru, is certainly not limited to the famous Cuy (Guinea Pig) dishes and the range of culinary delights on offer would please even the most world weary of ‘foody’ travellers. Restaurants such as Rosa Nautica and La Huaca Pucllana (sensitively built alongside the site of temple from which it derives its title) offer delicious cuisine that take influence from traditional Peruvian and Spanish origins and makes expert use of the natural abundance of fresh produce available locally.
Once all travellers were fully recovered from the flights, The big Journey tour moved inland to The Sacred Valley. The area feels older and more traditional than the modern, vibrant city of lima and the busting markets of Pisac are a great place to purchase gifts of Peruvian Silver and Alpaca. This is also the first of several locations that sit at altitudes over 2500m. Although warned to take it slowly, as a relatively fit 40yr old who is used to rushing around at a ferocious pace, I ignored the advice but paid the price after an overly enthusiastic charge at a flight of steps at the magical Incan Site of Ollantaytambo. Lesson learned, I accepted the enforced reduction in pace and perhaps for the first time, really allowed myself to take pause and absorb the ambiance and atmosphere of the place rather than ‘speed date’ the historical sites. Although the Incan civilization only ruled for approximately 100 years, their legacy was immense and deserves the respect of contemplation. The most famous of these is obviously Machu Picchu.
After a dramatic train journey, watching the landscape change from sandy browns to tropical, lush greens we arrived at Aguas Calientes, the small town that lies in the gorge below the famous ruins of Machu Picchu. The town has undeniably grown up to service the ever increasing tourist market, however, it has a certain busting charm and is leant a degree of energy and vibrancy from the enthusiastic backpacking residents. The town feels precarious and almost frivolous when overshadowed by the immense, dramatic mountains that form its surrounding walls, reminding you why you are there.
If I had only one tip to pass on to travellers to Machu Picchu, it would be start early. 3.30 feels like an unreasonable time for a wake up call until you see the lengthy queues forming at 5am for the busses up the mountain. The experience of the Big Journey team pays dividend throughout the trip, however, never more so than here. Once one the mountain, surrounded only by mist I will confess to a degree of disappointment. After all the hype, A 3.30am start - was this it? However, as the sun rises and burns away the mist, Machu Picchu reveals itself. Slowly at first, as though almost teasing you with glimpses of its dramatic silhouette and then finally through a blaze of sunshine the vibrant colors and spectacular site become clear. There is no other word than breathtaking. It is at once familiar and also overwhelming. We’re all so familiar with ‘the shot’ that its hard to explain the emotional reaction you get by standing there watching the sunrise. As the day progressed, we hiked high to explore the incredible surrounding landscape, we learned and appreciated the amazing feet of engineering undertaken by the Incas and generally made the most of our day at Machu Picchu. However, when we went down the mountain there was one thing that stayed with us all and that was the moment of tranquility at the start of the day when the mountain mist pulled back and we all took a deep breath and fell silent.
It was hard to imagine where the trip could go from there, but Peru continued to delight and surprise, Cusco town is a beautiful city and two days here gave us time to reflect and recharge before the next leg of the tour.
In 1532, when the Spanish arrived in Peru, Cusco was a thriving city, and capital of one of the world’s biggest empires. Astonished, the Spaniards realised that the city’s beauty surpassed anything they had seen before: the stonework; precious metals, used in a sacred context across the city, were supreme and in abundance - The invaders lost no time in plundering. The result is a fascinating combination of cultures, illustrated perfectly in the painting off the last Supper in Cusco Cathedral completed in 1753. At first glance the painting could be one of many European depictions of the scene by artists of the period, until on closer inspection you see not a loaf of bread or fish, but a roasted guinea pig taking central position.
And finally, the Journey took us to the Amazon Rainforest. For me, the best was definitely saved until last. Flying in, the runway looks like a dirt track that the rainforest could sweep over without hesitation or difficulty at any moment. We took a boat ride up the Amazon tributary to reach the Amazonica Lodge, which feels like the beginning of a journey into a truly different world.
The lodge is stylish in its simplicity and in a small area on the banks of the river, surrounded on all sides by the unbounded, dense jungle which feels and sounds alive. Night walks and jungle hikes revealed magical interior lakes; exotic birds, monkeys, Camen crocodiles, terrifyingly high rope bridges and silent but luminous insects. Never have I felt so much like a guest on the earth and never have I had so much respect. This is nature at it’s most spectacular and yet also sadly perhaps most vulnerable.
When taking time to swing in the lodge hammock and listen to the unfamiliar noises of creatures I couldn’t hope to name, I reflected that this was truly the end of a big journey. This trip had taken me from the comfort of the familiar, through the awe inspiring to the startlingly basic and primeval. It had forced me to slow down, to think, to accept and perhaps most importantly to allow time to respect.