The South American traveller’s ultimate getaway

Looking for somewhere to break up that epic South America road trip and put your feet up awhile? I found it.

After crossing the border from Peru into Bolivia and reaching the tacky ‘resort’ of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca, we decided to head straight out into the middle of this, the world’s highest navigable body of water and spend the night there – why not? Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) is a three-hour boat ride out into the lake and with basic amenities, no cars, and barely electricity, is a little getaway from modern life, and indeed, life on the road.

This is what happened…

We took the boat that’s run by a sailors’ association from Copacabana’s waterfront. A small, rickety wooden boat with narrow bench seats didn’t make very comfortable travelling for the three-hour journey, but seeing the snow-caps of distant Andean mountains were a great distraction and a reminder of just how high up in the air we were, despite being in a boat on water…

The tips of the Cordillera Real as seen from a boat on Lake Titicacaca

The tips of the Cordillera Real mountain range as seen from the boat on Lake Titicaca

Traditionally dressed local mother and daughter on their commute back to Isla del Sol from the mainland

Mother and daughter on their commute back to Isla del Sol from the mainland, wearing the multi-tiered skirts and bowler hats that are long-standing traditions in the Andes

As we neared Isla del Sol, some discussion and confusion broke out among us foreign passengers as to where the boat was stopping first – the south or north of the island. We didn’t really know which one we’d prefer, so when the boat stopped at the south – or was it the north? – and most tourists got off, we decided to wing it to the north – or south – no idea what to expect there.

When the boat docked in Challapampa, the main settlement in the south/north, a girl in an ill-fitting wine-coloured velveteen dress was lazily hanging around the end of the wooden jetty. As we approached she gently spoke, “Habitacion?” We looked around, and with just a few up-turned boats on the sand backed by basic buildings, we agreed to be led by the girl.

We followed her along a sand path between the ramshackle buildings and must’ve crossed a narrow peninsula as now we saw the water again – from a beautiful sandy bay. We walked onto the beach and turned into her family’s guesthouse that was sitting right in the middle of the sand.

Basic, it was, but this was our view for a mere Bs.40 (around £2):

View of Lake Titicaca from Isla del Sol guesthouse

The window with the best view ever? Certainly a strong contender

We explored the town and found that a couple of the buildings served food – one in particular suddenly filled with travellers that night, all enjoying the set menu of vegetable soup, lake-fresh trout with rice, and coca tea. At dusk we strolled along the bays and were struck by the ethereal landscape in the light of the full moon.

Full moon over the boats moored off Ch'allampa

Full moon over the boats moored off Challapampa and the distant Cordillera Real

Sunset over Lake Titicaca, from Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun), Bolivia

Sunset at 12,500ft. Note the crops growing on the beach – every bit of land is used productively in these parts

The next morning, this was what I saw – as you can imagine, I couldn’t wait to get up and enjoy the beach…

Beach on Isla del Sol's northern end, Lake Titicaca

The beach in all its glory

It only took a few steps to stroll out through the gate to our guesthouse and we were on the sand.

Guesthouse on Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

The gates from our guesthouse straight onto the sand

The water looked tantalising, but surely at over 12,500ft (3800m) high in the Andes, it’s going to be freezing? No – it was the perfect temperature – refreshing for dips in-between sunbathing.

Rachel in Lake Titicaca

It’s not a bad life

The pigs were enjoying it too (it’s easy to forget that to the residents of Challapampa, this isn’t a beach, it’s common land for grazing their animals).

Pigs on the beach, Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

Pigs on the beach – what else?

My companion turned and said to me, “Everything we’ve done until now has led us here, so even the mistakes were worth it.”

Sailing away from Isla del Sol

Breaking on of my travel rules – looking back over my shoulder as we sail away from Challapampa and back to ‘reality’.

Letting it happen

Just over a year ago, I had arrived in Peru with absolutely no idea of what to do or where to go. It wasn’t long, however, before my adventures began and I found myself (thank you Johannes) in a funny little valley below Cusco with places I’d never heard of soon becoming my home, and people I’d never met soon to become friends.

Here are some of my photos taken within the space of just a few weeks of arriving in this new land. I think they show that sometimes the best laid plans are none at all…

Urubamba cross

The Cross, above Urubamba, solo

Salineras

Las Salineras – salt mines, with Alex

Puma walk

Walking down from Pumamarca, with Tara

Pisac

Discovering Pisac, solo

Phone

Back streets of Cusco, with Veronica

Koricancha, Cusco, Rachel Travels

Taking a break from exploring Cusco, with Jenna

Naupa temple

Naupa temple, with Johannes, Carlos, Juan Carlos

Ollanta

Above Ollantaytambo, solo

moon

The moon, somewhere in the valley, with some people

Kai, with many

Kai, with many

Looking down on the lights of Cusco from Q'enqo ruins at dusk

Looking down on the lights of Cusco from Q’enqo ruins at dusk, with Alex

Living with mountains

When I was living in a mini apartment in Cusco, I was lucky enough to have a panoramic view over mountains that would have exceeded 4000-metre altitudes. On bright days, I could even see at the end of the valley the almighty Ausangate – a significant peak in the area at a ginormous 6384 metres high. There is something about seeing mountains that makes the every-day special – each time I would look out the window, the scene would appear completely and utterly different with the changing light and cloud formations of the day.

Here are a few of my favourite shots of the same view from my apartment window:

Ausangate in full view on this bright sunny day

Ausangate (the snow-covered mountain) in full view on this bright sunny day

A misty morning with the mountains shrouded

A misty morning with the mountains shrouded (and Ausangate disappeared)

After an overcast day, the sun graces these few peaks with her presence

After an overcast day, the sun graces these few peaks with her presence for a few moments

After another unsettled day of weather, this cloud formation makes the landscape look volcanic

After another unsettled day of weather, this spectacular cloud formation makes the landscape look volcanic

Read about how I got to live in this cool apartment.

Crappy Christmas trees of South America

This will be my first Christmas away from home. I love Christmas to the point of obsession, but thankfully I haven’t missed it much out here as I’ve been too distracted by travelling and, well, it’s just not Christmassy. Most days are hot and sunny and I see more palm trees than Christmas trees. The cities don’t seem to make much effort with decorations either – but here are some of the trees I’ve spotted.

Workers from the town council were just constructing this ‘tree’ in Salta’s main plaza on the day I arrived (6th December), it’s the cheapest tree ever – just some tinsel wrapped round a wire up-ended cone…

Christmas tree in the main plaza, Salta, Argentina

Tinsel Christmas tree in the main plaza, Salta, Argentina

I don’t even remember seeing a Christmas tree in Córdoba or Buenos Aires.

This tree was randomly positioned – presumably to cheer up the dumping area for rubbish (residuos) in Colonia, Uruguay:

Rubbish Christmas tree, Colonia, Uruguay

Rubbish Christmas tree, Colonia, Uruguay

And this one in Montevideo is barely visible for all the lush green summer foliage of the real trees in the plaza around it:

Spot the tree in Montevideo

Spot the tree in Montevideo

At least this one in my hotel reception has been rigorously decorated:

Hotel Christmas effort

Hotel Christmas effort

Feliz navidad, dear readers xx

I went to Machu Picchu at last

As you may have read in my blog previously, I have become somewhat cynical about ruins, so after craving to see Machu Picchu for nigh on 15 years, I was apprehensive whether it would live up to the hype.

I rose at 4.30am to get to the site for sunrise. It had rained heavily all night, and sure enough when I eagerly went to the window, clouds hung low and a fog saturated the valley in which Machu Picchu Town sits. Trying to remain hopeful for it to clear later on, I busied myself with acquiring a lunch pack from the town’s handy 24-hour shops, and getting to the bus stop as quickly as possible.

The bus wound up the mountain towards the site entrance, and ever-thicker clouds. After we piled off the bus we joined 20,000* other people in a wide and long queue, and shuffled through airport-style gates to have tickets and passports scanned. We were then unleashed on to the site. Like animals released from pens, we all scattered around, bumping into each other, in an almost panic as to which way to go would be best.

We started climbing a set of wet stone steps; some of the tourists in inappropriate footwear slipped and struggled, while the rest of us barged upwards, no idea where we were headed, but knowing we had to get somewhere good, and fast.

I had a ticket that included entrance to Machu Picchu Mountain – I had been disappointed when the more popular Huayna Picchu Mountain tickets had sold out for the week. So I decided to head for the mountain and get away from the masses. Admittance to the mountain is only between 7-11am and I had some time to wait for the gate to open, so I sat on the edge of an Inca terrace, to breakfast on a ham and cheese croissant, alone at last in the peaceful fog.

Climbing Machu Picchu Moutain through the fog

Climbing the first of many steps up Machu Picchu Moutain through the fog

By now I had pretty much given up on the idea of seeing the sunrise, and concentrated instead on ascending the mountain. After 30 minutes of climbing, an opening appeared on the side of the path, just as the clouds began to lift off to reveal the mountain range opposite. I sat a while watching this beautiful phenomena of the sun slowly burning through. Then suddenly, magically, Machu Picchu began to emerge. The ruins on Huayna Picchu became visible first, on a craggy mountain. Then, below, the citadel now so familiar in my mind’s eye revealed itself in the flesh. The sun burnt harder and soon just a wispy cloud frame remained round the site. From this mountain, you get the classic view of Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu behind it, so in the end I was glad I got to climb this peak instead.

Clouds framing the site of Machu Picchu

Clouds framing the site of Machu Picchu

Satisfied and awe-inspired, I continued upwards. I didn’t know how high Machu Picchu Mountain is. I didn’t know how the rising sun would start to make me steam in the semi-jungle climate, nor how many increasingly vertiginous stone steps I would have to mount. I didn’t know how many times I would collapse on a step and vow not to continue.

But somehow I did, and every step was worth it – it was exhilirating to reach the summit with 360° views of the mountains all around, putting the site of Machu Picchu into its perplexing perspective. Here the Andes meet the High Jungle of the Amazon Basin, so the mountains pour with jungle down to the Urubamba River that swerves round the peaks that Machu Picchu straddles. The mountains are voluptuous with trees and life, making delicious viewing. The path all the way up had been buzzing with hummingbirds and butterflies.

Me atop Machu Picchu Mountain

Me atop Machu Picchu Mountain

When I descended and went to sign out at the warden’s cabin, I asked the time – 12 noon – we had been five hours on the mountain.

Now the site was completely different to how I left it early in the morning – the sun was blazing, and everywhere was brimming with brightly dressed tourists freshly bundled in off the train. I headed towards the ruins – I was to get close to them at long last!

My first impression? They looked fake. The buildings have been so extensively reconstructed and polished, they looked to me like Lego houses, and being surrounded by pristinely trimmed, lurid green European lawn grass doesn’t help the feeling of authenticity. I couldn’t help thinking they would have been better left how Hiram Bingham found them, with the jungle encroaching all around.

I veered off from the crowds to walk to the Inca Drawbridge. This for me was probably one of the most effecting ruins of the whole site – one I’d never heard of nor seen pictures of before. The Incas, in some miraculous feat, built a ‘road’ – a narrow path for us, but no less remarkable – clinging to a sheer mountain face. After following the path (trying not to look down to the thundering river below) for about 20 minutes, I stepped through a large rock chasm to see the road continuing round a curve in the mountainside, and almost opposite was the bridge – simply a gap in the stone road that would have been traversed by wooden planks.

Nowadays you’re not allowed to continue to the bridge as someone fell to their death from it some years ago. I was left unconvinced by the bridge itself, but for me, the thought of men constructing a road, with nothing but stones, suspended thousands of metres up this vertical rockface, some 550 years ago, was mind-blowing.

The vertigo-inducing Inca Road on Machu Picchu mountainside

The vertigo-inducing Inca Road on Machu Picchu mountainside

It was time to explore the citadel. Despite my first impression, I was still taken aback – these must be the most astonishing ruins I have ever seen – and I’ve seen a lot. The scale of the site is something I wasn’t expecting – this really is a city on a hilltop. I wandered narrow streets and broad plazas, admired temples and stood on top of rows of terraces that descended the mountainsides as far as the eye could see.

So did Machu Picchu live up to the hype? The moving way in which it appeared for me out of the clouds in the morning is one of those experiences of a lifetime; its spectacular location appealed to the mountain-lover in me; the sheer size, scale and quantity of ruins is extraordinary. What’s there not to like?

Me in an Inca window, Machu Picchu

Me in an Inca window, Machu Picchu

How to do Machu Picchu
By a trek:
various treks, including the four-day Inca Trail, can be arranged in Cusco or through tour companies from your home country.
Independently: by train (www.perurail.com; www.incarail.com; 1 hour 30 mins) from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley or organise a car from Cusco (approx 7 hours) through travel agencies there. You’ll arrive in Machu Picchu Town (commonly known as Aguas Calientes) where you can find accommodation ranging from innumerate hostals to select hotels. The town exists solely for tourists, so you’ll find everything you need here, from ATMs to bakeries, and the streets are lined with restaurants serving everything from Peruvian soups to Mexican enchiladas, and from English breakfasts to pizzas.
To get to the site: if you want to see the sunrise over the site, you’ll need to stay in Aguas Calientes the night before as the first trains don’t arrive until around 8am. You then take a bus (from right by the train tracks, the bus ticket office is also nearby; US$14 return; US$9 single) up to the site. You can walk if you fancy more exercise.
You must buy your ticket for Machu Picchu at least one day in advance – there is a ticket office just off the main plaza in Aguas Calientes.
Machu Picchu entrance fee: S/.128 basic entry; S/.142 to include Machu Picchu Mountain. There are discounts for children, students with ID, and Peruvian nationals. The site is open from 6am to 5pm every day.

My top tips for Machu Picchu

  • Contrary to what I read in my guidebook and other sources of information, you can take your own food and drinks in to the site – just be discreet and courteous about it. You can get a lunch pack from plenty of shops and cafés in Aguas Calientes.
  • There is a storage facility at the entrance gate for larger pieces of luggage at S/.3 a piece.
  • Be sure to take 2 litres of water if you’re spending the day there, and especially if climbing one of the peaks.
  • There is a café outside the entrance to the site, plus a café in the Sanctuary Lodge Hotel. Both are, as to be expected, overpriced.
  • Carry as little as possible.
  • Be sure to use plenty of sunscreen and reapply after every few hours; sunhat, sunglasses and a waterproof jacket are also essential.
  • Toilets are outside the entrance (S/.1).
  • Give yourself plenty of time in the site – there’s tonnes to see and a lot of ground to cover.
  • Before you get the train back home, unless you’re sunburnt like I was, stop for a soak in the hot springs (S/.10) in Aguas Calientes – you’ll deserve it!

*Not true. The Peruvian Ministry of Culture manages the site impeccably and with a limit of 2,500 people being allowed into the site each day, you never feel too encroached upon.

All information is correct as of the time of my visit (19/11/12).

Lima – misunderstood city

Peru’s capital, Lima, is often presented as a dangerous and generally unappealing city. Here’s my take on it, published on Stanfords’ blog.

And here are some of my favourite pictures I took of the city:

Three Irish girls and a church in Barranco, Lima

Three Irish girls and a church in Barranco, Lima

Kissing the silver cross of Padre Urraca in the Iglesia de La Merced in Lima, Peru

Kissing the silver cross of Padre Urraca in the Iglesia de La Merced in Lima, Peru

Lima's Plaza de Armas with taxis

Lima’s Plaza de Armas with taxis

Lima's Plaza de Armas by night

Lima’s Plaza de Armas by night

Mujer mural in Lima

Mujer (woman) mural in Lima

Piano player in Tram cafe, Miraflores, Lima

Piano player in Tram cafe, Miraflores, Lima