Days 17 to 19 Descent to the Jungle

Our short flight from Cusco at 3,399 Metres to Puerto Maldonado takes us down to only 183 metres above sea level and to temperatures of thirty-seven degrees. We are met at the airport by our local guide, Lucy and taken to the tour company offices to store our luggage. We can only take hand luggage on the boat for our three nights up the river. The Tambopata will eventually join the mighty Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean. There is nothing to be seen in Puerto Maldonado, until we get to the river and embark onto a narrow boat.

Putting on Life-jackets
River and forest

We are heading for a resort on the edge of The Tambopata National Reserve. It’s a three-hour journey following the curves of the river. Lucy has an eye for wild-life and re-directs the boatman whenever she spots something of interest. There are families of Capibara the largest rodent, but unlike rats, entirely vegetarian. They are known as the Hippopotamus of South America and like to bask in the river shallows. When startled they scuttle into the dense undergrowth but we manage to get quite close.

Capibara with Symbiotic black bird
More Capibara
Herrons on the rocks

Lucy also spots Cayman – the equivalent of Alligators but much smaller. They are extremely wary and dive under the water as we approach. The bird-life includes Herons and Egrets.  We also see evidence of slash and burn – a farming practice which is allowed by the government in this so-called ‘Buffer Zone’ around the National Park. The farmers are careful not to clear the river-bank so it’s difficult to tell how much forest has been destroyed. Of even greater concern are the illegal gold-mining dredges common along the river-bank. Fine grains of gold can be found in the river silt and mercury is used to capture the grains. A certain amount of mercury escapes into the water, a poison to living things. Lucy says that government has a clear-out every now and again, but the miners are back a few months later.

Slash and burn
Illegal gold mining
Tree hazzards

I also notice the fragility of the cliffs and evidence of slips into the river, constantly eroding. The river is full of trees which have fallen and along with the soil create hazards and the muddy look of the water.

Steps to our Hotel
The view downstream
My Cabin
My Cabin






It’s a long flight of steps up to the beginnings of a walkway which will take us to our Jungle hotel. We meet up with Squirrel monkeys and there are Brown Agouti (another rodent) grazing on the hotel lawn. After settling in, we gather for the sunset and encounter a group of Capuchin monkeys. The local beer is good here and we can put it on a tab to pay later. After dinner I walk to the very end of the walk-way to my hut, setting off solar lighting as I go. The light from my phone fills in any gaps.

This is not malaria country, but we are provided with excellent mosquito nets to sleep under. We plastered on repellent on the river against other biting insects.

Sunset up the river

We have four am start in the morning so time to sleep.






Day 18 Up the river in the dark

The Audience waits

The temperature has dropped somewhat by three thirty when I wake. We are off to see Parrots and Macaws feeding on the riverbank two hours further up the river. We have a packed breakfast and I am amazed at the skill of the boatman, steering up shallow rapids and avoiding sunken logs in the dark. We are not the first to arrive, the shore is already lined with other tourists sitting on lightweight plastic stools staring at the cliffs opposite, some with binoculars and telescopes. We don’t know exactly when the birds will arrive, but we are in good time and they soon gather.

Green Parrots

The Parrots come first then the Macaws. They are cautious, watching out for predators which would most likely be monkeys. All is well, and they descend onto the yellow cliffs and start to eat the clay. Their diet is low on Sodium and the clay has plenty so they have adapted their behaviour accordingly. It’s an amazing experience watching these magnificent birds through Lucy’s telescope. There are three different colour combinations: blue and yellow then two versions of red, yellow green and blue. The parrots are green. Every now and then an alarm goes out and they swoop up into the air in a magnificent display to roost on the highest trees. Eventually they all pair up and wander off to do whatever they have to do.




The feeding cliffs
The forest feeds the river
Ready to swim








We travel further up the river for a swim. It’s considerably warmer that Lake Titicaca but quite shallow and of course brown. Lucy has swum in the river and assures us there are no Piranhas or Cayman here.  We stop for a packed lunch before heading back down-stream.

Ficus giant
Complex spider web community

It’s siesta time until our jungle walk. Lucy points out mostly insects but there are giant Ficus trees which have grown up around a  tree. The host has now died and rotted away to leave the Ficus supported by its cathedral – like arches. Suddenly Det wants to know about a hole in the forest floor. Lucy says it’s a Tarantula burrow, and prepares a twig to tease it out. They are apparently not as dangerous as imagined but we are pretty impressed.


Later we are again witness to the sunset as we set of on our night-time Cayman hunt. Lucy has an instinct for knowing what to look for and sure enough we get up close to these ancient creatures who pretend they are invisible by keeping still. Eventually, they panic and leap into the water.

Day 19 Fishing

Sunrise on the river






Not such an early rise today, a four-forty-five start, in time to greet the dawn over the river. We are heading to an oxbow lake, which everyone claims to have learnt about in Geography. It’s a bend in the river at some time cut off and abandoned, leaving whatever lived there to adapt and survive.

More steps and mud
Forest giant hosts a termite nest
A walking tree (with legs)








It’s quite a walk through the jungle observing the forest and the creatures which live here. The unmistakable remains of cow dung can be seen and Lucy says that the fences are clearly not working. She has already pointed out to us the razor-sharp spines on the fronds of a palm tree, which the Amazonians use as darts on their blow-pipes. She’s also shown us a very ordinary plant which has anaesthetic properties. When these leaves are ground into a paste and the darts charged, an animal on a branch can pass out and fall to the ground. It’s not quite the story told, of poisoned darts, when I was a child but I do wonder what happens if the cows get to eat these leaves.

Oxbow Lake

The lake is calm and serine, we are the only people around. Two very basic catamarans are tethered in the reeds and our boatman takes a long pole and pushes us out silently along the edge of the lake to observe weird looking birds and shags, drying their wings in the weak early morning sunshine.

Eating Breakfast

Suddenly, there is another boat on the lake and a third, further up. We stay close to the edge and eat our breakfast. Lucy and the boatman have brought sticks and nylon thread which get turned into fishing rods. Red meat is on the hooks and we proceed to fish for Piranha. I can feel them nibbling and the trick is to jerk up the rod to get the hook embedded, but my reactions are not fast enough and they nibble abound the hook leaving it empty. I’ve never been keen on catching fish you don’t intend to eat, so I’m relieved that my efforts are unsuccessful.

Fishing for Piranha
Big teeth
Two Piranha






There are enough Piranha being caught for me to see how aggressive they look with such huge teeth. Just maybe, they rely on this daily feed of meat from tourists to survive, and maybe the shags eat the Piranhas for lunch. On the way back to the river, we come across the runaway cows who seem to know exactly where they are going.

Bizarre Birds
Shags drying out


Another Tarantula
Nest of leaf-cutter ants
Spiky tree
Vines will grow up anything to get light
River Beach

Back at the lodge, it’s time for siesta before a late afternoon boat ride for beer on a beach, encounters with more Capibara and another sunset experience. We finish with a night walk in the forest.


Faces in a termite nest
More Capibara














Another dawn













Lucy wears a head-lamp, which can switch to ultraviolet light so we can see an otherwise invisible scorpion.  Two days in the rainforest has been enough for me to realize the fragility of this ecosystem and how precarious it is living here. Plants need to climb up a large tree to reach the light and there’s a tree which can move sideways to do the same.

When a giant falls, saplings which have been waiting patiently for decades, suddenly leap into growth in a race to command the light. The natural action of the river erodes the edges of the forest which falls into the water, carrying silt and vegetation down-stream. Meanwhile, the tectonic plates underneath the Andes continue to push upwards.




Days 15 & 16 Cusco

Catholic Cathedral with Golden Inca

On the surface, the Spanish seem to have left little of Imperial Cusco. Angela is taking us around the city. The main square is meant to impress with not just one, but two massive cathedrals. The Catholic one on the upper side and the Jesuit Cathedral to the right.

Jesuit Cathedral
Spanish Arches


Because the Jesuits built a larger one, the Catholics built an addition to the side of their cathedral.



Inca foundation to Spanish building


Charming Spanish corner on Inca foundations



Many of these  European style buildings have collapsed and been rebuilt in the same way after earthquake damage. The city boasts fine Spanish colonnades where tourists can shop or eat but Angela takes us to the heart of the old city of the Inca and suddenly, I realise that there are ancient Inca walls everywhere, beautifully tied in with no mortar and no room for even a credit card to slip between the stones.

The Spanish have built on top of these ancient walls which slope inwards to guard against the quakes. The Spanish walls rise vertically from on top. This whole block is where the main Inca palace was and there is a part remaining where we can enter as the late afternoon sun casts our shadows on the walls.

Our shadows

Windows align and huge corner-stones tie into surrounding stones creating incredible stability. Angela tells us that the walls of this palace were decorated with beaten gold and silver just as we might use wall-paper.

Windows align

The Spanish were beside themselves with excitement and just grabbed as much as they could. What an interesting clash of cultures. One who venerated precious metals for their beauty and regarded them as sacred and the other who valued them for their economic value. I wonder how much original Inca gold lies in the darkness of European bank vaults, never to see the light of day except briefly to be transferred or sold.

Gold was associated with the sun as in the origin myth, so light coming into the palace would have been important. Angela shows us a remaining portal where the sun would strike on a particular day of the year and the shadows cast by protrusions carved into the rocks would have told the time. Imagine the dazzle of light reflected off the huge golden representation of the Sun which once hung here.

Sun Portal
Condor pattern

All that remains is a contemporary painting of what we call the Milky Way. The Inca believed that all the water that flowed in rivers was recycled via the Milky Way at night time. This ancient idea of the Water Cycle is not entirely wrong as the Inca might have had limited experience of Oceans. In Māori mythology, the separation of the Sky Father and Earth Mother by their children pretty much follows the ‘Big Bang Theory’.

Milky Way


The Parade
Crowds watching

On our last day, a group of us make our way back to the main square to find that a huge political parade is happening. Teams of people in different coloured uniforms are marching past dignitaries. It’s all very colourful and dominated by a golden statue of the Inca Pachacuti.

We find a coffee place just off the square and wait to meet up with Richard who is going to take us to market.

Cheese stall
Food stall cooks
Can you spot the flower woman?
Newborn Llamas – dried
Rainbow Jelly






It’s a short walk to a vast covered area where just about everything is for sale. There are hats everywhere and I’ve seen a red one, like Paddington’s which would suit my neighbour in London but first we are treated to delicious fruit juices all freshly made on the spot. There is a huge area of food stalls where one or two at a time can sit and have an inexpensive meal. I spot another red hat, but it’s cash only here. I walk back to the shop where I saw the first one, but it’s not right, so I return to the market and part with cash. At this point it’s a balance to end the holiday with no left-over Peruvian Soule.

Hillside messages

Day 14 Cusco

Doorway from the Spanish era

We have time to explore independently today, and I’m keen to see the Inca Museum here in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire. Here is the legend of the origin of the Inca which both Angela and our Lake Titicaca guide have related.


“… There was a time when mankind was deplorably primitive, and lived in a savage state. One day, the sun god took pity on mankind and sent two of his children to civilize them. With this end in sight, he sent Manco Capaq and Mama Ocllo into Lake Titicaca. The two were given a golden sceptre by their father, and were commanded to establish an empire on the land where the sceptre sank. Manco Capaq and Mama Ocllo emerged from Lake Titicaca and began their journey. Their father, instructed them to penetrate the ground with the golden sceptre whenever they stopped to eat, drink, or rest.

When they arrived to Huanacaure Hill, the sceptre sank into the ground. Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo immediately established themselves in said place, and summoned mankind to begin the civilisations process. Manco Capac taught men to cultivate the land, and the arts of war. Mama Ocllo taught women to weave, make clothing and other domestic responsibilities. Mankind was so grateful that they began to worship Manco Capaq and Mama Ocllo as the children of the sun. So, Cusco was founded, the city’s name meaning “navel of the world” in Quechua. The children and descendants of the first settlers were recognised as the absolute rulers of all those who joined their territory…”

I can think of a number of instances when explorers came to ‘Civilise’ indigenous people.

Inca Pottery

Ingo and I start the day with reasonable coffee – something that I’d abandoned on quality grounds. Others in the group have slummed it with Starbucks. After my experience in Arequipa, I have stuck to black tea.  The Museum is not far away but it takes us a while to find it, having walked straight past it several times.

Inca building


I’m struck by a map of the various regions which made up the empire. They radiate in four directions with Cusco at the centre. While the Inca established themselves here, other similar civilisations in south America were also developing. Most worshiped the sun. The people of Cusco, ruled by The Inca, gradually took over these surrounding civilisations. Their weapons were basic; spears and clubs with shields – according to the early chroniclers from Spain. The Inca took the skills and abilities of the conquered people and improved them, they included their idols into the Inca religion and organised agriculture in such a way that farmers and other traders had no choice but to sell to the empire.

Planting potatoes

Sacrifices were made to the Sun God (mostly black Llama) and only in extremis were human sacrifices made.

The museum has images of Inca life. The drawing of potato planting with spades is very much like the Maori planning kumara with a ‘Ko’. The word kumara for sweet potato is similar in both languages. It is possible that the Polynesians did travel as far as South America.

Message to the Inca
Runnier delivers the accounts
Inca counts his assets
The Inca counts his assets








Examples of knotted string – an accounting system used to carry information to the Inca about the food supply, vital to feed the empire – can be see here. The knots were different sizes and colours to represent various goods.



There’s also a display of an Inca site with mummified bodies preserved in the foetal position ready to be reborn.

Incal burial

Angela has related that the Spanish came three times. On the first occasion, they couldn’t get through the jungle and  got malaria. The second time, they travelled along the ocean with only thirteen men. Pizaro had heard about the gold and silver (Cortez had already conquered the Aztecs of Mexico) and arrived in the north binging gifts of trinkets and mirrors plus an African slave. The local people were mesmerised and gave them presents of gold and silver by return. Pisaro took Children and alpacas back to Spain. Sensing there weas a lot more gold and silver to be found, Pizaro got permission from the King of Spain to return. The King demanded five percent of all the precious metals in return.

Body of statue – the head (pictured behind) is in Spain
Inca by Spanish Painter
Inka’s wife by spanish painter

On their previous visits, the Spaniards had unwittingly given the people small-pox so that by their third visit the population was much reduced and the empire was in the throes of a civil war. The Incas put up huge resistance against Pizaro’s 168 men who were equipped with armour, horses and guns. The Incas were out manoeuvred. The Spaniards called a meeting but they ambushed the Inca Atahuallpa. Now, Incas when they travelled could never touch the ground, being carried on a platform by servants. The Spanish shot the servants who were immediately replaced by others. Eventually, the Inca touched the ground and it was all over. The Spanish demanded that he convert to Christianity or else they would kill him and burn his body. Atahuallpa knew that a burnt body cannot be reincarnated so he was baptised. He also did a deal with the conquistadores and brought gold from Cusco. Pizaro, however, was greedy and knew there was more and killed Atahuallpa anyway who was at least happy to go into the next world – according to Angela. In four years, the Incas collapsed and more Spaniards came. In 1536 the first battle between the Incas and the Spaniards began ending with the new, young Inca retreating to the jungle until in 1572, the last Inca was killed.

Photo taken by Hyram Bingham in Machu Picchu

Angela has organised lunch in a huge restaurant where local people eat. Peruvians have a predilection for large meals at lunch time so I can see that all the portions are huge. I’m going to be brave and order a boiled pig’s skin salad. It turns out to be huge; heavy on the pig’s skin and light on the salad. I would have liked it the other way round and only got though half of it. Our free lunch-time entertainment was from a jolly troupe of folk dancers in colourful costumes.

Later, Angela shows us a vast mural (Peruvians are keen on these) showing the history – beginning with the children of the Sun arriving and the toil involved in building the Inca Empire. The scene moves on to the arrival of the Spanish and hence to the war of independence. The final scene shows Peruvians looking to a rainbow and a bright and hopeful future. Angela says this is yet to arrive.

Day 13 Four Stops to Cuzco

Professional Inca

We leave Ollantaytambo in the morning without exploring the markets and taking a fleeting look at the local man dressed at the Inca. Angela tells us that we are heading for Moray, an Inca laboratory and site of experimentation. We are now traveling through high planes with rolling fields which might be cultivated by tractors and we do see such vehicles on the road.

Wide open farmland


Circle 1
Circle 2
Circle 3

At first glance, these circular terraces at Moray might be taken for amphitheatres, but I’ve seen amphitheatres in Greece, Cyprus and Ephesus. Here, there is no stage or focus for an audience. The terraces are too wide to seat an audience so when Angela asks what we think they are, my offer is ‘to find which aspect is best for growing various crops.’ Ingo has a similar answer. Australian scientists in the 1950’s found different seeds in the ground. They measured the temperature at each level and found a significant difference of 6 -7 degrees. Each level corresponded to one thousand metres in altitude leading to a theory of early genetic modification. Crops brought from warmer climes may have been planted at the lower levels and gradually, over years, moved up the levels until they have become hardy to the high-altitude conditions. It’s plausible and astonishing. Potatoes, which we observed in Ollantaytambo were thriving, but they originally came from the Amazon basin and acclimatised here. As they are also frost tender, the rock terrace walls radiate warmth in the night. You can also see the traces of the irrigation system which feed each level. This, like all Inca sites are classed as UNESCO world herritage sites, which means that no speculative restoration can take place. Collapsed walls canot be rebuilt, which explains the heaps of rocks around the site and wooden bracing to prevent walls from collapsing.

HIgh Andes

Our next stop is at Salineras a hillside of four thousand-five-hundred salt ponds fed by a small stream issuing from deep within the mountain. It is not certain where the salt comes from. As most of South America came from under the sea, there may be salt deposits from an underground sea or warm water running though salt rocks.

The source
The full picture








It has been in use since pre-Inca times and the stream is now fed to scores of salt ponds cooperatively tended by families responsible for fifteen to thirty ponds. It looks like painstaking work filling the ponds for three days, waiting four days for the water to evaporate in the dry season. The result is three layers of different quality; the top layer is for the table, the second is the best quality and the third is for medicinal and agricultural use. The salt is then gathered, bagged and carried, by hand up to a storage area. There is predictably, an opportunity to buy salt. Angela says that this is the best salt as the oceans are so polluted with plastic these days.

Feed to the pond

Carrying the sack of salt
Tending the salt
Waiting to go
Street in Maras
Entrance to our host’s house

There are no handy lunch places in this part of the country, so an enterprising elderly couple in Maras have opened their home to lunch guests. This town, was build by the Spanish to collect taxes.  We are welcomed into a courtyard where we wash our hands with alcohol gel then climb the stairs to a large kitchen/dining room. Our starters are roasted corn nibbles, bread and cheese then chilled soup made with potatoes, carrots and broad beans.

Hand washing

The main course is chicken & onions with rice and potatoes. Our host is a musician and there is a beautiful harp near the window. He brings out a collection of instruments gives each of us one to play, then he leads the improvisation on his wooden flute, alternating with sections on a violin.

Upstairs balcony
Making Music

It’s great fun joining in – mostly with percussion instruments. I get a set of pan-pipes which challenges my skills to make much of a noise as I struggle to get the correct embouchure.

Woven bag and cactus infested with conchinel








Our last stop before Cuzco is Chinchero, an outdoor weaving centre where we witness spinning of wool with a spindle. It looks so simple, and the thread produced is very fine.

The main demonstration is the creation of dyes from natural products. Cochineal is an insect that lives on cactus plants. A small white creature which when crushed produces a bright red colour. The woman demonstrates how this can be used as a lipstick and guarantees that it last longer that modern lipstick and will not be spoilt by kissing. There is an opportunity to buy goods and a great deal of interest is taken by the group. We also meet a young Italian woman who is learning the Quechua language in order to complete her PhD in textiles. Quechua has been around in south America for over a thousand years and has various dialects. It is also thought to be the language which the Inca adopted and promoted for their empire.


Machu Picchu at last Day 12

On the Inca trail
Surrounded by mountains






We stand on the ‘Inca Trail’ looking down on a small city clinging to rocky slopes entirely surrounded by magnificent mountains. It’s the mountain behind us that is named Machu Picchu (old Mountain) as Angela points out and we have no idea what this settlement was called. The absence of written records leaves us on the impressions of early Spanish chroniclers and modern forensic investigation to speculate on what might have been. What we now refer to as Machu Picchu, we think, was started around 1450 and evidence suggests that it was some kind of university for studying the movement of the Sun, Moon and stars.

The Sun Gate

At a particular day of the year, the sun rises over a V shaped dent in the surrounding mountains, giving it the name of Sun Gate by later explorers.

It is certain that the Spanish never found it as it remained undisturbed and overgrown until it’s ‘rediscovery’ by the European Explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. He was actually looking for the ‘Lost City of the Incas’ and stumbled on this by mistake with the help of a local guide – the locals knew it was there all along. It wasn’t until the 1940 that access became easier and the way was opened up to tourists. In the 1950’s a road was made and a start was made clearing the site revealing what is now considered one of the modern wonders of the world.

Giant Inca steps






We continue our descent, past the food storage buildings and then the high-class buildings, typified by the perfectly fitting stone walls which could be the house of an Inca or priest. The upper-class people also had superior dwellings and the slaves made do with more basic masonry. The view down to the Urubamba River, far below is vertiginous.

Urubamba river
Huayna Picchu

No need for battlements or fortified walls. Nothing could approach from below without wings. Huayna Picchi is the instantly recognisable and picturesque back drop to this settlement around which the mist swirls, clears then regroups. A clear meadow between buildings might have been a games area for young people to exercise or maybe a forum.

Games medow
Agricultural terraces? Or just to stabalise the cliff.
Begonia grows between the rocks
Terrace walls
Chinchilla warming up in the sun

Sun Temple
Temple of the Condor
Temple of the Condor

There are temples; to the Sun and to the Condor. Some of the areas are cordoned off for today in an attempt to reduce the wear and tear on the pathways and walls, touched by four thousand people a day at the height of the season.




We travel back through the lower levels looking at ordinary housing and the water supply which comes from a spring in the mountains then onwards along the agricultural terraces where Llamas now graze. Once they grew corn and potatoes for the settlement.

The quary
Inca house -interior
Hig Class wall
Unfinished building
Waiting for a lintle – unfinished
detail of roof attachment
Water supply

There is no doubt that this is an extraordinary site and even though there is a stone quarry right in the middle of the town, moving and shaping the building stones remains impressive – on a par with the Egyptians over three-thousand years earlier – using rollers to transport huge blocks of stone – and yet no written language – no pictures, just gold and silver for decoration. Gold, it seems was sacred, going back to the first man and woman and ordinary people were forbidden to have it. It also had no monetary or economic value. A subject to be explored further in relation to the Spaniards.

Llamas graze
Agricultural terraces
Agricultural area








A different train takes us down the mountain and to the town of Ollantaytambo. After settling into our hotel, Angela wants to show us the spectacular Inca site which overlooks the town. The afternoon is fading and there is a chilly wind blowing. Only a few of us are up for this extra excursion. Agricultural terraces tower up the steep slope and on the left Angela points out pre-inca stone walls. The steps are steep and it is hard work. Ann and Ingo (who made it back to join us before Machu Picchu) are the only ones joining us.

Sun-lit cliffs with terraces
Pre-Inca building
Protrusions may be sun dials
More walls

At the top, we get a magnificent view of the valley and the hillside opposite is lit by the late afternoon sun to reveal more terraces, clinging to the steep slopes.




The big surprise, however, is the size of the rocks used to build the temple right at the top. Once again, they are perfectly fitted. The quarry, Angela points out, is half way up a mountain on the other side of the river. Rolled down the slope to the river edge. The river may have been diverted around the rocks then the painstaking task of rolling them up a path to the top of the hillside. This temple was never finished and cut stones remain abandoned on the pathway. It is probable that the arrival of the Spanish was the reason. The primitive Inca weapons were no match for the Spanish guns, they had no immunity to Smallpox which killed thousands and those who survived had little defence against Spanish Catholicism.

Ann in a perfect door way

Massive stones on their way up the hill
temple wall – unfinished
Potato crop








We ask Angela what Peru’s relationship with Spain is like now. ‘We have no relationship with Spain,’ she says. ‘It was a long time ago.’ Peru became independent from Spain in 1821. Angela clearly does not have any animosity towards Spain. There is no point. The descendants of the Inca people, however do have problems and try to deny their origins. Many go to Lima for work and find themselves isolated. The people here have long memories and it is clearly complicated.

By now it is almost dark, but I get to inspect a terrace of thriving potatoes near the bottom of the hillside. An event is being prepared where the whole hillside will be lit up later in the evening.

Day 11 & 12 Getting to Machu Picchu

Hot pools

It’s been a long time waiting for this. After my Bother and his kids walked the Inca trail over twenty years ago and my friends Max and Barbara took the train up a few years ago, I’ve longed to see this place of fabled beauty and mystery. My plans were put on hold in 2020 and now that it is almost in reach, the days stretch out seeming to delay gratification. The incident with the bike might have scuppered the whole thing, but no, here we are at Santa Theresa, catching a train to Aguas Calientes and one more sleep before the magic of Machu Picchu. We have time to stop at a hot springs resort and soak in the warm-ish water. I find the source entering the top pool – it helps to sooth bruised muscles and aching joints from yesterday.

The Triain to Aguas Calientes

We’ve been doing the whole approach differently from the usual itinerary. Tourists fly into Cusco at 3,399m, suffer from altitude sickness and then get the train to Machu Picchu at a mere 2,430m. We’ve been up to 4,000 and have been gradually acclimatising so that as Richard our leader says – ‘In Cusco we will be cooking with gas.’ Privately, I think that with the current price of gas, this may not be such a good analogy.

Nevertheless, here we are, by a railway track, in the jungle, having lunch on a veranda waiting for our departure time. Backpackers have arrived in droves and save the train fare by walking up the 7Km track to Aguas Calientes on the Urubamba River. The town is built on the steep sides of a valley and the train stops right in the middle of what looks like the main street.

The main road

We have the rest of the day to explore and shop. I catch up with writing then decide on a walk. By this time, it is beginning to rain and the streets are steep. There are offers of a massage every few metres and the place packed with the usual tourist souvenirs.

The next morning Angela leads us to where the busses transport up to four-thousand tourists a day to the site of Machu Picchu. We have to show our tickets to the site before getting on the bus as none are on sale at the entrance. Unusually, there is no queue and we pile onto the first bus. Once again, we pass the backpackers who are saving money by walking. The road is narrow and steep and the walkers have to stop and step off the road as we pass. It’s a slick operation and we are quickly walking the last few metres of the ‘Inca Trail’. Those who have done the four- or one-day hike, join us a few metres though the gate and we approach with anticipation. I am hoping the threatened rain will hold off – a little sunshine would be nice.

Rain threatens
Dresses up for the occasion and in the queue


Day 10 Down the Andes by Bike

Up to the pass

We are collected by a different mini-bus which then has made it’s way down the narrow dirt road to the Wifala Hotel. Once on a main road, we stop to connect to the trailer carrying our mountain bikes and continue to climb up to the divide over which all the rivers flow into the Amazon. The weather is grey with rain threatening. Apparently, it can be quite mystical cycling out of the mist into the sunshine. We are briefed to wear layers and that we will complete the journey in shorts and tee shirts.

Fluffy clouds

A short distance over the divide at over 4,000 metres, we come across ‘The Airport’. It is a large paved area between the road and a sheer cliff below which fluffy clouds swirl obscuring an almost certainly vertiginous view. The large H in the middle of this space is a clue that this so-called Airport is in fact a helicopter pad. There is no sign of rain and we proceed to get acquainted with our bikes as they are unloaded by the team supplying the bus, trailer and bikes.

Unloading the bikes at the Airport

The bikes seem huge with very wide handlebars and very fierce disc brakes.  It’s cold up here and I’ve got my down jacket on plus the first outing for my waterproof Mac, bright blue for visibility. There is a selection of helmets and find myself choosing between a bright yellow one and a blue helmet to match my Mac. It looks smart and has a visor at the front.

Our briefing is: No overtaking and to ride in single file, keeping a good distance between riders and definitely no overtaking our leader. We set off with patches of mist on both sides and I’m grateful for that as looking down brings on the vertigo and It’s clear that I have to concentrate on the road.

It just happens that I am first out behind our leader Roco – but he speeds on ahead – obviously used to leading a much younger party. I take it slowly to get used to the bike and the conditions.

Ready to go

The Hairpin bends are a huge challenge and about five minutes into the ride there is a shout to stop just around one of these bends and I see that Ann has fallen off and everyone except Rico, who is already around the next bend, has stopped. Anne has been caught by the gravel on the side of the road and is shocked and in pain. As she is a Doctor, she knows that she has broken something in her wrist and suspects multiple breaks in writs and hand. Eventually our support vehicle arrives, having taken a while to get the un-used bikes loaded up onto the trailer. We all help to carry Ann to the bus on a stretcher where she joins the four of our party who have declined to cycle. The plan is to take her and partner Ingo to the nearest town where they can get a taxi to Cusco and a hospital.

Somewhat shaken, we set out again with Richard (our tour guide) as the back and Charlie leading. Angela (our local guide for the Inca section) has gone ahead with the minibus to arrange for Ann to be transported to hospital.

We now descend into thick fog which turns to cold rain. The road is wet and quite scary and I can’t see more than fifteen to twenty metres ahead. We are overtaken by a car – a woman in the back has wound down her window and shouts ‘Where are your lights?’ She has a point and I’m quite glad to have my bright blue rain jacket – most of the other cyclists have no high viz gear at all. The hairpin bends are treacherous and Charlie loses control and looks ready to fall into the V-shaped ditch on the inside of the road. He manages to stay out of the ditch, but falls in the process. As I catch up, I break too hard and also fall off. No harm is done and we wait for the others to catch up. After a few minutes it is clear that Rico is not coming back, so we re-mount and continue cautiously and find him waiting several hairpin bends away.  We ask him to slow down.

It gradually gets warmer and there are now numerous fords over the road where small rivers flow, wetting our shoes as we ride through them. A car overtakes me on one such ford – they are always on a hairpin bend – forcing me off the road into another minor fall.

Slowly the fog and rain disperses and we all begin to enjoy the ride. We pass banana trees (not indigenous to the Americas) indicating that we are now in a tropical climate. Until now we have been free-wheeling down the Andes with the breaks on all the time and both hands on the wide handlebars. The strain on shoulders and neck is considerable. Now that there is some peddling to do, the unaccustomed exercise is welcome. Suddenly we see the rest of our party and the minibus waiting for us. I do a small wave and immediately apply the brakes, only to flip head over heels. The visor on my helmet breaks  as I hit the ground and I feel it graze my  forehead, plough into the bridge of my nose and continue downwards to graze the end of my nose and chin. I end up with one leg tangled in the bike. Nigel, who is a nurse rushes to the rescue with tissues to mop up the blood and someone else picks up the offending visor. I don’t think I’ve broken anything and the helmet has saved any contact with the ground. I’m able to stand and walk, but Angela is convinced that I will need a stich on my nose and after applying a pad of gauze with tape tells me there is a clinic at a nearby town. Richard is convinced I will need ice as he expects to see my eyes puff up and sets of – I have to shout after him not to bother. Ice will only delay the healing and I’m not convinced that my eyes will puff up anyway. Angela has Iodine which she liberally dabs on my superficial wounds. It reminds me of my childhood, when Iodine was the go-to antiseptic. I think that my knees will also need looking at – they have both been grazed through my jeans. They both get the Iodine treatment. We wait for the bikes to be loaded up onto the trailer on what seems to be more Inca constructions. This is a resting post for the runners who carried vital information to the Inca.

There is no queue at the clinic emergency room. Two nurses clean me up and plaster antiseptic cream on everything. It’s the equivalent of Savlon, which I have never liked. The three of us have a laugh as they try to find out if my nose is broken or if I am in pain – neither is the case. They do agree with Angela that I need stitches but they don’t have any fine enough thread for this job and we have to do to a larger hospital at the regional City forty minutes away. It is decided to try it but we have a tight window of opportunity to get to Santa Theresa. There are major roadworks and we’ve already missed the 3 – 4 pm slot and now have to make the 6 -7pm to get to our hotel for the night.

Angela and I arrive at the Emergency department, which seems very quiet, and are directed to Triage. Poking our heads though the open doorway we can see a man on a bed with cathodes on his chest. It looks like he’s had a heart attack and two men, possible relatives, are running in and out looking very anxious. After ten minutes we can go in, but first the paper-work has to be completed and my height, weight and blood pressure measured. Predictably the latter is on the high side.

There is no bustle – everything is calm and seems slow. It’s my turn on the bed and the middle aged, kindly nurse, who has done the paper work examines and cleans my wounds. She cuts a diagonal out of a green cloth and places over my face, then patiently delivers a local anaesthetic. We wait. The cock ticks. Will we make to portal between 6 and 7? Finally, the stiches come and I still don’t know how many. More than one – maybe three or four.

‘Muchas gracious Señora,’ I say as she finishes. I’m handed anti-inflammatory and paracetamol tablets with instructions. Angela has gone ahead with 100 Soules from me, to pay but she also has to get the prescription for antibacterial cream form the pharmacy. There is change from the S100 for the whole procedure (£22) so no point even sending in an insurance claim. We now rush out to find our minibus. Our companions have been relaxing, having coffee which they allege is the best so far found in Peru.

Walter (our driver) drives heroically, getting to our portal by ten past six and we will make it to our hotel. The major roadworks are creating a highway to Santa Theresa and it’s pretty hard going over rocky dirt roads with traffic going in both directions, sheer drops and single file sections. It’s dark by the time we get to the Eco Lodge, having missed the turnoff. There is a steep climb up crazy paved steps carrying our luggage. We have just made it in time to eat a meal before the staff leave at Eight-thirty. I treat myself to a beer.

Eco Lodge Lookout nest
Looking towards Machu Picchu

Day 9 The wonders of Inca agriculture and a surprise in Urubamba

High Altitude farming looking up
Peru’s National flower Kantuta bush (Cantua buxifolia)

Our bus snakes up the steep Andean mountains and delivers us to a well preserved and extensive hillside of Inca terraces. We have glimpses of this amazing site on the way up and struggle to photograph it from below as the trees along the road hide the full splendour.

My first observation is how closely the terraces hug the contours of the mountain, reminding me of similar terraces in South East Asia and China.

Working with the rural landscape is common around the world and different cultures have discovered the same solutions in spite of having no contact. They started at the bottom of the mountain and worked their way up almost to the top. What is different about these Inca terraces is the construction of the walls which, like their buildings, slope inwards towards the mountain slope.

This part of the world is where two massive continental plates have crashed together to create The Andes Mountain range. They still shake today and yet the terraces have held.

Built on the rock

The retaining wall above is founded on the rock base below the current level of the terrace. It’s like a huge raised bed and as a gardener, I know the benefits of growing in raised beds. Each one has a base of porous rocks, then a layer of sand, carried from Amazonian rivers and finally topsoil. Irrigation from the top terraces trickles down feeding the ones below, unlike trickle down economics. The walls absorb heat during the warm sunny days allowing crops to be kept warm though the very cold nights.

The Valley below

We circle around the top of these impressive terraces looking down to the valley, where crops are still grown and animals grazed. During the Inca time there was not enough land in these narrow valleys to feed the empire, so a solution had to be found.

The settlement is on the hill-top

At regular intervals in the retaining walls, there are stone steps jutting out, exactly as you would find in an English Dry-stone-wall in Yorkshire. Here is another example of a solution arrived at by different cultures. The gaps between Inca steps are huge – astonishing, as they had short legs. By all accounts these people were very strong and this persists in the present population, who are also acclimatised to the high altitude. Babies here are born with larger lungs and people have much larger chests to accommodate. A great example of evolution and adaptation.

The Gate-way
Just another impressive wall

As we approach the gateway to the settlement on top of the hill, we can see the way high-class walls have been built to indicate importance and these walls always follow the contours of the rock below. About half of our group are going to do the tramp down to the valley below.

Small holes in the cliff are Inca graves – long since looted

It’s been a struggle getting the breath in the heat of the day to get to the top and I’m never comfortable going downhill, so several of us go back to our minibus and descend in comfort.

Hotel Wifala


Once reunited, we travel on to Urubamba. Instead of a town with a main square, we find ourselves travelling though dusty roads, hardly wide enough for our minibus. We seem to be in the middle of nowhere, when suddenly we are alongside a white wall with a door. It’s the Wifala Harmony Hotel, which opens up to a Gaudi-esque Aladin’s cave.


Newly opened, this has been designed and built by a local architect inspired by the work of Gaudi. We are delighted by the contrast from other traditional Haciendas we have stayed in and spend time looking at everyone’s rooms – they are all different. There is time to explore the outside, but it’s a shame that the swimming pool and jacuzzi is still under construction. Dinner is even more of a surprise and the chef has produced the most elegantly presented nouvelle cuisine with just the right portions for us. There was a rush with phones to capture the food. Breakfast is likewise a work of art.

From Raqchi to Pisaq Day 8

Adobe mud wall – reinforced with stones and straw

After a breakfast of eggs at the homestay we say goodbye to our hosts and make for the Parque Arquelogico of Raqchi. This is our first major encounter with the Inca civilisation and it’s an impressive start.




Modern Inca wall decoration. The Sun & Moon

But first I need to make this ‘Inca’ thing clear. The word Inca means ruler. This civilisation was reaching it’s peak around 1400 AD. They had no written language so no one knows what this tribe of people called themselves. We only have observations made by some of the Spanish invaders plus archaeological detection and hypothesis. So, for convenience, I’m going to talk about Inca Culture. I had got the impression on Titicaca that there was some pride and identification about being ‘Inca’ emerging but Angela tells me this is not the case. It’s a long and complicated story as empire and the legacy usually are. As invaders themselves, the people of the Inca were not generally liked and as already mentioned, there were plenty of similar civilisations in South America at the time of the Inca rise. The people of the Inca were dark and short and their empire revolved around food production. They expanded not so much by brute force but by stealth and innovation.

Temple at Raqchi
Ancient irrigation still works

They had an advantage in that most of the other tribes were also sun worshipers so changes in religious practices would not have been huge – unlike the swich to Christianity – aka Spanish Catholicism. The Inc people were also very good at taking the ideas of others and making them better, developing systems and procedures, so that conquered people could see that they were better off.  Here at Raqchi, we find an irrigation system still flowing and there is the remains of a huge temple.

What the temple may have looked like

Storage huts
Ventilation of food huts

Behind this are scores of round stone walls, the remains of food storage buildings that once would have had steep thatched roofs. They were very well ventilated to keep piles of corn and potatoes cool. This was one of the food stores built to feed the empire. The Incas (rulers) understood that well fed people are more content.

However, the diet of carbohydrates meant that life expectancy was about forty and a seventeen-year-old could find himself as an Inca. Because the culture took the long view, projects begun by one Inca were expected to be completed by subsequent Incas. None of this modern-day cancelling by the next ruler that impedes progress.

Houses for sleeping aligned to the sun

The astonishing thing about Inca construction is that no mortar was used. Stones were fitted closely together and tied in. The granite stones were painstakingly hewed using harder stone tools – they didn’t have steel. The huge blocks were smoothed using sand mixed with Agave to give an ultra-smooth surface and the joints were so aligned, that you can’t even get a credit card between the blocks. The longer the wall took to build the higher the class of building. Time was no object.

Depiction of houses aligned to the sun
The Church at Andahuaylillas

Our next stop of the day is at Andahuayli-llas to see the so-called Sistine Chapel of The Americas. It is nothing like the Sistine Chapel of The Vatican. The biblical paintings are unremarkable – not even close to the brilliance of Michael Angelo, and hung in frames along the nave.

the Nave – look at the ceiling

However, there are several important features which makes this church worth a visit. The painted wooden roof beams are beautiful and a reminder of other mediaeval cathedrals – you just need to block out all the gilt and glitter from the tasteless shrines dotted around. These colourful and overly decorated pieces are typical of Catholic churches here.

St Christopher

What is most important are the examples of how the Peruvians smuggled their own culture past the Spanish Catholic authorities. Images of Christ are darker than their European counterparts and often clothed in bright Peruvian colours. Imagine my surprise on seeing my patron saint carrying the Christ Child – both dressed in high-viz green.

Christ with gold skirt – inca style

Christ on the cross is often depicted with a bright red skirt (Inca style) instead of the standard loin cloth. In some cases, the church chose to ignore such travesties so that some of the ancient culture today co-exists with Catholicism. The people switch to whichever practice suits their purpose.

Pisaq Hotel

We arrive in Pisaq at our hacienda- type hotel in time to check in laundry and to get a private view of the attached botanical gardens. The grandfather of the current owner of the hotel was a botanist and created this amazing and wild garden. The cacti collection is amazing and there is a collection of potato varieties. Peru boasts over four thousand different potatoes. The garden is alive with birds and if you are lucky, you might just get a glimpse of a hummingbird. My hotel window looks out over this garden.

Pisaq street
Botanical Garden
Botanical Garden
More Cacti
Even more Cacti