Travel in the Inca Empire
I landed in Lima at the same time and on the same day of my departure from Auckland, at 6pm on October 19th, thanks to the different time zones.
The Peruvian capital immediately presented itself to me with its main characteristic: the incredible traffic and the numerous population. Two things that immediately reminded me why I hate any metropolis in the world (and I rarely speak well of a city), especially the most messy and rowdy ones.
The bus ride from the airport to the Miraflores district (20 km) lasted an hour and a half (but it was rush hour, at 6:30 pm), during which I was constantly bothered by horns and sudden stops. In the following days I would have found that there is no road rule in Peru, outside the green or red lights.
At the stop no one stops or slows down, simply every individual, by any means, stops the moment he is about to hit another vehicle, letting him pass and then slipping into the traffic, like an endless Tetris of cars. No one has or gives precedence, unless he is about to make an accident. The police at the side of the road agitated their arms for no reason, demanding to “move”, and accompanying each waving hand with a whistling of a whistle. All this means that to drive a few kilometres it takes easily an hour (the airport bus fortunately passes outside the city centre, so it is “faster”). The traffic would be a way more “smooth” if the road signs were complied with – however there are – even at the cost of being “forced” by a sign to slow down or stop, every now and then.
The Miraflores neighborhood, where I had booked a hostel, is probably the nicest and most neat of the city. In services and in appearance, it has little to envy to the great cities of the western world, and the seafront area is nice they take care of it. Apart from this area and the J.F. Kennedy Park there’s little to see, but it is undoubtedly the quietest and least dangerous area in which to live.
The Lima Centre is another thing. I went there the following morning, taking a bus that I paid 1.5 sol (0.6 €). The journey of about 9 km was covered in an hour and a quarter, and I regretted having left the hostel.
The centre of the Peruvian capital is much worse than Miraflores, with decrepit buildings, untidy streets, the smell of piss and shit in the narrow alleys, and dozens of stray dogs wandering here and there. Once you arrive at the Plaza de Armas, however, everything changes, and you are faced with a huge clean and tidy square, with a beautiful park, and surrounded by very beautiful buildings. On one side is the imposing Cathedral of Lima, in which they did not let me in because of a marriage in progress. The couple then went on board an American limousine, accompanied by a band. After they closed the doors of the Cathedral I decided to go to the nearby Museum of the Inquisition, where the guards at the gate – closed – told me they were fumigating the building, and it would be closed for the following three days.
So I decided to go for lunch, and I found a typical Peruvian restaurant, where a menu with tuna salad, rice, fried fish, potatoes and chicha (a sweet local drink based on corn), it cost me 8.5 sol (€ 2.5 – 3.8 NZ$).
Arriving from New Zealand, which is the country with the worse quality/price ratio of things – anything, especially food (well, you can find very good food, but you need to be rich, also at supermarket) – on the planet, I felt rich enough to afford real lunches and dinners. At least for a few days.*
I wandered a little longer and I decided to return to the quieter Miraflores, taking another bus for an hour and a quarter. I also decided that the visit to a Cathedral or the Museum of the Inquisition wasn’t worth all those hours of uncomfortable bus full of people, and so I never returned to the Centre of Lima. I spent the other three days walking around Miraflores, its parks and the promenade.
If you go to the Peruvian capital do not spend more than 2 days in total, it’s not worth it.
After I left the city I took a comfortable semi-cama bus (whose seat is a semi-bed) that took me in 9 hours to Huaraz, a city that rises north of Lima, in the middle of the Cordillera Blanca of the Andes.
During the lunch break in a restaurant on the street, after some chats with other travellers, I discovered that one of them was from Milan.
G. was going north, to Ecuador, and we stayed together for those three days in Huaraz and the two beautiful treks in the area. Arriving in Huaraz, which is at an altitude of 3,050 m, I understood why everyone advised to acclimatize in the city, before starting a trekking in the Andes. The walk from the bus station to the hostel (1 km), with my two backpacks, completely cut my breath and it’s been very difficult. Arrived at the hostel I had booked, no one opened me.
I knocked and rang the bell several times, but no one appeared. Suddenly a guest of the structure opened the door and told me to sit on a sofa, telling me that the owner would arrive within an hour.
I went to the bathroom to shit, but there was no toilet paper. I asked him, and he told me to try the other bathroom upstairs. I went up, and there was no paper there either. Luckily I had wisely stolen half a roll from Lima hostel, so I did what I had to do and went back to wait for the owner.
After an hour from my arrival, the guy arrived with his partner. “Sorry I was playing soccer,” he said. “Oh yeah, no worries,” I said. He told me he would check the room and then he disappeared. He came back after a few minutes and he took me to my room (four beds), where I saw a couple of people coming out with their backpacks and him fixing a blanket, finally telling me that this would be my bed. Actually he had just kicked off those two check-outs and rearranged the covers for me. I put my backpacks on the floor and realized the worst thing, the room did not have a door but a curtain hanging from the ceiling. And most of all, it is not really hot at night in Huaraz.
I thought about it for a few minutes, then I took my backpacks and I ran away from the hostel without saying anything to anyone (also because I didn’t meet him anywhere). While I was walking I told the situation to G., sending him a picture of the curtain-door, and he told me that at 5 soles more (€ 1) per night, he was in a hostel in the centre, and he also had the toilet in his room. After fifteen minutes of strenuous walk, I checked in there.
The next day I went with a tour (without a personal vehicle it is unthinkable to visit the beauties of South America. You need to relying on the tours, which take you at the hostel and leave you at the beginning of the treks, or take taxis/minivans to the places where you don’t need a guide), to the beautiful Pastoruri glacier. The glacier is located at 5,200 m of altitude, and the 2 km walk from the parking lot to the glacier was an impressive effort. Almost everyone on the bus was with his tongue on the ground, not used to such altitudes. When I got to the glacier, though, I almost forgot about it, because of the incredible natural show.
Unfortunately, again because of global warming, the glacier has moved back 400 m in four years (one of the fastest retreats in the world), although it still remains impressive.
The following day, with another tour, I did hike up the famous Lagoon 69. This is considered by many the most beautiful trekking in Peru, together with those of several days near Machu Picchu.
The ascent to Laguna 69 lasted about three hours, of which the last half hour walked with short and slow steps as an elderly person. To combat the “mal de altura” (altitude sickness), the use of coca is widespread in the Andes. The coca leaves can be chewed and kept in the mouth, or dipped in boiling water creating an infusion called “mate de coca“, or still bought in the pharmacy in the form of tablets. Unthinkable to face those altitudes without water and without the help of coca.
The 9 km climb leads to a final altitude of about 4,550 m. Even in this case, the arrival almost makes us forget the effort made, because you find yourself in front of a small azure lagoon, on which background there are cliffs rise above 6,000 m! The surrounding landscapes during all the hike are simply sublime.
Both tours cost 30 soles each (€ 8 – NZ$ 13), plus another 30 soles per day to enter to the Huascaràn National Park.
After I saluted G., the following day I returned to Lima, which I left immediately to reach Arequipa, 1,000 km further south.
During the long journeys on the Peruvian state of those early days, I noticed one thing, which at the moment I thought it was a coincidence, but after a dozen times that, I realized that it was not. The only clean, modern and well-kept buildings (outside the big cities) are the churches and the petrol stations. In every town you can see beautiful churches in front of clean and tidy squares, immediately flanked by decrepit houses, unfinished, without windows and paintings and very dirty streets, with piles of rubbish dumped on the ground. All this up to the next Repsol station (or some other brand), which magically appears bright and modern as in any western country. Vatican and oil will always win.
Anyway, not knowing well the Peruvian transport companies, I entrusted myself to a certain EconoCiva. Once I arrived at the bus station, I was surrounded by Peruvians who boarded cardboard boxes as baggage, and I did not see any other backpacker getting on my own bus. Then I understood why.
The name of the company is Civa, which has three types of buses: EconoCiva, SuperCiva and ExcluCiva. The economic one – mine – was just a normal bus, like the ones you used for school trips, and I had to stay on it for a night trip of 18 hours. Well, fuck. Never again.
Luckily, Arequipa is really beautiful, and I soon forgot about the uncomfortable journey. The “White City“, with a very Spanish style, is considered the most beautiful city in Peru, and I can confirm. The traffic in the city centre is normal, no one honks without reason, people even stop at stops or crosswalks to let you pass, and in a short time I felt sent back to the world I was used to. The streets and the beautiful Plaza de Armas are neat and clean, and you have to go to the suburbs to find more chaos or degradation.
The highlight of the area is the Canyon de Colca, the second deepest canyon in the world (twice deeper than the Grand Canyon), which you can visit with daily (very touristic) tours, or two or three day tours where you trekking and camping there (more adventurous). Due to my budget and following personal programs, I decided not to do this trekking, but it seems to be really nice.
After two days in the beautiful city of Arequipa I took a night bus (ExcluCiva, yes) to Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, and starting point to visit the most important historical site of the entire American continent: Machu Picchu.
Cuzco (Cusco for the Peruvians) is a city with about 400,000 inhabitants, set half in a valley and half in the surrounding hills. The altitude of the city is 3,500 m, and you can feel it during your walks in town. The city centre is very beautiful and well kept, with a huge Plaza de Armas surrounded by ancient buildings and the usual Spanish churches with two towers. The prices around there are basically European prices, and you really have to struggle to find food at “Peruvian prices”, especially if you are looking for vegetarian meals like me.
The third day I went to the colorful Mountain Vinicunca – or Rainbow Mountain – with a tour that left at 3 in the morning, to end with the return to the hostel after twelve hours. The trek is only an hour and a half, but also this place is at 5,000 m, and it means that the last half hour becomes a fatigue like hands-on-knees. The nearby Red Valley is even nicer, reachable from Vinicunca with a twenty-minute walk. A few other times in my life I had seen such incredible views that I could get emotional as on that occasion. It is certainly worth the 10 soles spent (to be added to the 100 spent for the Rainbow Mountain tour, with lunch and everything).
The following day I went to Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu.
So, to reach Mapi (local nickname for Machu Picchu), there are three alternatives:
– The cheap one, which consists in taking two minibuses (combi) from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo, and then from there to the hydroelectric power plant, from which you must then continue by foot to Aguas, for 12 km. About 10 soles for each minibus.
– The expensive one, which consists of taking a bus to Ollantaytambo (10 soles) and from there take a train to Aguas (two companies: Peru Rail or Inca Rail). The price is different depending on the timetable, but in any case it is from 50 to 90 USD (yes, yes) per trip (150 minutes), and remaining outside the absurd first class.
– The very expensive one – but the most beautiful according to who made it – which consists of hiking for 3 to 5 days from Cuzco or Ollantaytambo, with guides and even cooks and porters who bring you the tent, etc. In this case the prices start from 400 USD up to 1,000 USD, depending on the services included.
Of course you can also do these different treks (the names are: Salkantay trek, Inca trail and Jungle trail) by your own, but in this case you must have all the camping gear, and take it with you for four or five days on the Andes, along with everything else.
Plus, after these costs there is the ticket for Machu Picchu (the trekking tours usually include it), which costs 152 soles (40 € – 67 NZ $), if you don’t have a Peruvian passport.
I got to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes at 4:30 in the morning, walking the steps leading to the Inca city, and avoiding the 24 USD minibus that runs along the road with hairpin turns nearby.
I knew it would be hard – and it was – but it took me about 50 minutes, when people told me it was a hour and a half, so probably if you do not stop to drink at every part of stairs, you can easily do it in less than a hour.
The day in Mapi began with a nice two hours rain, and big white clouds that completely covered the city. After a series of curses (from all those present), the rain stopped and the clouds began to dissolve and move quickly around the surrounding high peaks.
You can follow the many multilingual guides for a few soles, or walk around the site independently for as long as you want, until sunset. However, it is not more than two and a half hours to visit the city and even to the more far Sun Gate.
It is also possible to climb the two mountains near the city, Huayna Picchu and Montaña Machu Picchu, but the accesses are limited to 400 people a day each, with two shifts of 200 people. The ticket for the climb you choose (you can’t do both) costs a few dollars more.
After I asked to three different guards, in three different moments, if it was possible to go up again to the top of the city at the end of the tour (you must follow a one-way path in the ruins), all three answered “Yes, you can”. While I was waiting for the clouds to clear away, I decided to end up visiting the ruins, then return to the top to take some nice cloudless photos.
After exiting the archaeological site, I went to the entrance again, and there I was rejected. The guy at the turnstile told me that with a ticket you could only enter once and, therefore, I could not enter again. So I went again to the third and last guard I had talked to, a few meters before exiting the site, and he told me that at the entrance they would let me in, again. This guy did not speak English, I know ten words in Spanish, but eventually, after I used all my linguistic skills, the guy looked around, opened the wooden gate and in a low voice told me “Pasa, pasa!”.
So I could go up again to the mirador (lookout) and take my postcard picture of Machu Picchu (above).
Leaving Mapi and Cuzco, I went south, towards the last Peruvian stop: Puno. An ugly port city on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. The natural landscapes between Cuzco and Puno are stunning. As always, the shame is the presence of human beings who have ruined the landscape with dirty and totally degraded and overpopulated cities.
Apart from a couple of decent squares – surrounded by expensive restaurants (expensive for Peruvian standards) – the rest of Puno is quiet terrible. The only reason travellers go so far is to visit the small islands on the lake.
There are the famous artificial floating islands of the Uros, an ancient Aymara population, and the nearby natural islands of Taquile and Amantani, which are inhabited, and on which it is even possible to stay overnight.
The floating islands of the Uros are nothing but a great tourist attraction (by now), on which the inhabitants explain their history and some interesting technical notions about the particular life of the island, for about twenty minutes, and then they spend the rest of the time trying to sell you gadgets and food, or drinks, at European prices, with also a small kid demanding 1 soles to let you pee in a toilet without flush. And clearly the money were not to pay a cleaning service. Even feces are business down there.
The ferries that from Puno reach the floating islands and, after that, Taquile or Amantani, are the slowest boats I’ve ever seen. From Puno to Taquile (32 km), it takes about two and a half hours. Island tours can be booked in the city in many different agencies, with prices that vary without reason from 45 to 100 soles.The following day I left Peru to go by bus to La Paz, Bolivia.
My first experience in Peru was done.
Total: 20 days
Accommodation: 517 soles (134€, 223NZD)
Bus/Trains: 840,5 soles (219€, 362NZD)
Food: 461 soles (120€, 199NZD)
Taxi/Uber: 64,4 soles (17€, 28NZD)
Tours: 433 soles (112€, 187NZD)
Extra: 451,1 soles (117€, 194NZD)
Total: 2,767 soles (719€, 1,192NZD)