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PERU: On high altitude in the land of the Incas

Peru's Colca Canyon offers stunning views over the lands of the once mighty Incas. But you better choose carefully among the sights – not everything is top-notch.

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Colca Canyon, Peru. Photo: Traveling Reporter

Colca Canyon, Peru. Photo: Traveling Reporter

COLCA CANYON, PERU — We stand in fascination and silence at Colca Canyon, Peru, looking at a massive mountain, covered in green vegetation. The rock stretches through clouds towards the sky at the other side of the canyon. From the valley below comes the distant sound of a river; no more than a stream, or so it seems from this altitude.

The Andes, Peru. Photo: Traveling Reporter

The guide, who calls himself Lincoln after the U.S. President, says, “From here down to the river it is onethousand twohundred meters.”

It is impossible to grasp size and perspective of the place. The mind wanders off. How long does it take to fall 1,200 meters? If you do, would you hit the mountainside on your way down, or be able to go the whole distance in one stretch, undisturbed?

Lincoln the guide points towards a cliff halfway down on the opposite side of the canyon and says, “See those small white dots there?” We look at the dots; rocks maybe. “That’s a village. Those people have lived there since before the Incas. If you want to visit, the only way is by foot. There are no roads for cars.”


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We concentrate on the dots. Even this far away we are able to distinguish houses, or huts rather, a square and what might be a simple church, or community building. Spreading in several directions from the village, a network of paths is clearly visible from our location. It is as if taken right out of a Lord of the Rings movie. One path, walked by locals for five hundred or maybe a thousand years, runs north alongside the mountain. Another zick-zacks its way up towards the summit. Other small walkways make their way down to the Colca river below at the canyon floor.

 

Welcome to the sacred land of the Incas, high up in the mighty Andes of Peru, where time sometimes seems to have been standing still for decades. During a roadside stop we run across natives who live right there on the steppe, looking as if their only possiesions are the clothes they’re wearing. The terraces all over the countryside in Peru that made cultivation of the land possible were there long before Spanish and Portuguese captains set sail and navigated the Atlantic to find a new continent.

Colca Canyon, Andes, Peru

Colca Canyon, the Andes, Peru. From where we stand it’s more than a kilometer to the valley floor. Photo: Traveling Reporter

Colca Canyon, the Andes, Peru. From where we stand it’s more than a kilometer to the valley floor. Photo: Traveling Reporter

Mention the Peruvian Andes, and many will reply Macchu Pichu and the Inca Trail. The fabulous Inca city, which took 30 years to build, is undoubtedly well worth a visit, and the three-day walk covers some fantastic sceneries.

Editor’s Blog: Two days in the wilderness

But the Andes, not mentioning the rest of Peru, has so much more to offer. Trekking opportunities are plenty, walking tours are all over the place. The food is good, the sceneries will blow your mind.

 

We fly in from Rio de Janeiro to Lima’s international airport, and go immediately to catch another flight to Arequipa, the Peruvian city down south where most tourists seem to pass by. It is called the ‘Gringo Route’, a series of destinations that covers most of Peru’s most famous sights, including Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, Cuzco, Arequipa and its surroundings, and Lima.

Path to the Inca Drawbridge, Machu Picchu

Path to the Inca Drawbridge, Machu Picchu. You better take it nice and slow on this path. Mistakes might be fatal. Photo: Traveling Reporter

This is our route in Peru:
• Lima–Arequipa by air. Then the Colca Canyon during a two day bus tour.
• On to Puno and a tour on the lake Titicaca.
• On to Cusco by bus, and then to Ollantaytambo by train.
• From there, we hit Machu Picchu, via the quite horrible city of Aguas Calientes,
• after which we head back to Cusco, and from there on to Lima by pre-arranged flight.

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For travelers, the route offers a row of interesting sights:

• Especially Ollantaytambo is worth mentioning. The small town holds some great restaurants, an interesting and well-preserved Inca fortress and several trekking options. You can also rent bikes to cycle yourself out in the nature.

Puno hasn’t much to offer in itself, but Lake Titicaca, while looking pretty much as any lake, has some cool attractions, out of which the floating islands are well worth a visit.

Editor’s Blog: Floating commerce in Lake Titicaca

Cusco will stun you by its bad air quality. But besides that, the city is worth a few days of your time as it has good restaurants, shopping and nice churches, parks and squares to relax in. If nothing else, use the time to find out the best tour guide as you prepare for your Inca Trail adventure. Cusco is highly commercialized, but has managed to retain some of its original charm despite the shops, cafés and vendors.

Ollantaytambo Peru

The Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo, Peru. Photo: Traveling Reporter

• Less than an hour from Cusco by mini bus, the small town Pisac makes for a good day excursion. It has nice cafés and an old Inca ruin looming on a mountain top above the city, with steep climbs and some precarious passages to negotiate on your way down. After you arrive in Pisac, the best option is to take a taxi to the ruins, where you buy your entrance ticket, and then walk back to Pisac, where you’ll be able to flag down a mini bus back to Cusco.

Machu Piccu doesn’t need mentioning –  it’s one of the world’s true wonders. You need to see it, it’s as simple as that. Also, don’t miss the half-hour walk to the Old Inca DrawbridgeThe views will make you gasp for breath – but, please, stand still while taking in the views, as a fall down from this path along the mountainside will surely be fatal. The bridge itself is closed of these days for exactly that reason.

 

As in South East Asia, most travels in South America are done by bus. The quality of service differs widely among the bus companies. From Puno to Cusco, a 12 hour drive, we opt for a cheap ticket – and find ourselves in a bus that looks as if it has never been cleaned and with no working toilet. Peru is a huge country – its area is twice that of France – so it’s sometimes a good idea to cut time by catching a regional flight.

 

The Spaniards, led by Francisco Pizarro, invaded Peru in 1532 as the civilization of the Incas peaked. The conquistadores tore the Indian society apart and ruled Peru until 1821 when the colony declared its independence from Spain. It’s still easy to trace signs of bitterness among Peruvians against their former rulers.

The Red and Blue walls of the Sanka Catalina Monastery, Arequipa, Peru. Photo: Traveling Reporter

History here is rich and alive, which we get a taste of as we head for our first tourist attraction, the Santa Catalina monastery in Arequipa. The bright blue and red walls of the monastery hide a world that didn’t change much for 400 years of isolation from the outside world. Only in the 1970s did the nuns have running water put in.

But it is in the wilderness of the mighty Andes that Peru shows its real qualities. This is a place to experience nature, as well as the magnificent Condors of the Andes. Bird-lovers should take care, though, as the flying hunters come so close that you, in pure excitement, run the risk of setting foot out off a cliff in the middle of space.

“How many tourists fall down these cliffs each year,” we ask Lincoln the guide, trying to make a joke.

“One or two,” he replies, dead serious.

“Does any ever come back up?”

“No.”

 

Lastly, you shouldn’t forget Lima, the capital. The city feels reasonably clean, safe and with nice oceanfront walking areas, some good restaurants and decent shopping. We end up in the Miraflores neighborhood, a rather up-market part of town and a good place to relax after almost two week’s of cold nights and bad roads in the Andes.

A park downtown has specialized in fountains, a fun place to visit. At night a fabulous laser/water show is put on that you shouldn’t miss.

But there are other sides of the city, too; as it happens, we are in for a doubtful start. After we land in Lima’s small but modern international airport and grab a taxi, we pass one of the city’s waste dumps. It’s simple enough: Trucks back up down at the Pacific Ocean shoreline and clear their garbage practically into the sea. We can hardly believe our eyes – is this really 2012?

How to get there

The Traveling Reporter’s flight search for return tickets London–Lima in mid-September generated an American Airlines flight by the price of €1,057. However, it includes 2 stops on the outdoing leg of the journey, and the way back stretches out for 26 hours. Better flight schedules are available for only a few euros more.

How to get around

Condor-spotting at the Colca Canyon, Peru.

Lack of transport isn’t your biggest problem in Peru. Bus companies and tour operators are plenty, and it’s rather a question in finding the best guide.

Around cities like Arequipa and Cuzco (Machu Picchu) there are dozens of firms around, but not all of them are of good quality, so it’s worth spending half a day asking around. Also, check what kind of lodging is included in the tours. Up in the Andes, you need to bring binoculars to be able to watch details. The tour companies will tell you the guides will bring those – which sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

→ The Traveling Reporter recommends: Check out South American Explorer’s Club, with offices in Lima, Cusco and Quito, for traveler’s advice.

Safety

Peru seems so safe it’s almost boring. People are very friendly and welcoming. The Lonely Planet guide book asks you to use taxis in the roughest neighborhoods in Lima, but other than that it feels safe to walk almost everywhere. However, there are a few things to look out for:

Drug cartels are highly present in Peru, as well as in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and elsewhere, and cultivation of coca crops in Peru is on the rise. You wouldn’t want to be caught in a cartel road block in the middle of the night, so stay tuned on the latest information as to where the dangerous roads and areas are.

• The quality of roads, or, rather, the lack of it, is another potential source if nervousness. Accidents with buses do occur.

• Beware of signs of altitude sickness while in the Andes; you’ll often be at 3,000 to 5,000 meters above sea level. Take it easy during the first days on high altitudes.

• Also, part of Peru is within the borders of the Amazon subtropic climate zone. Check necessary vaccines and other precautions if you go there.

 

The editor of the Traveling Reporter works as a business news editor, and is a frequent traveler. When not doing any of that, he spends time on his boat and tries to figure out where to travel next. Two of his top destinations are the Philippines and San Francisco. Email Erik! Follow the Traveling Reporter at Stumbleupon, Tumblr, Chime In, Pinterest, Google+, Weibo, Storify, Facebook, Traveldudes, Myspace.