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

How to find an apartment in Cusco

Looking for a place to live can be stressful and time-consuming anywhere in the world, so when you’re looking for an apartment for a relatively temporary amount of time in the midst or end of travels, like me, you really don’t want to invest a lot of energy in the process. However, a bit of knowledge in advance can help smooth the way – read on for my experience of apartment-hunting in Cusco

I’ve done more than my fair share of house and flat viewings over the years, moving around regularly in London, but in Peru I was to experience a quite different process. There’s no trawling through Gumtree or RightMove here, and there’s rarely a telephone call made. We simply strolled the streets keeping an eagle eye out for signs on doorways, walls or lampposts, and popping into corner shops to ask the knowledgeable senora owners.

Apartment in Cusco

Apartment in Cusco

Where?
San Blas is the ‘artisan’ area and undoubtedly the most attractive area of Cusco, with steep cobbled lanes and white-washed houses with little blue balconies. So that’s where we started our search. Climbing up and down the vertiginous streets and steps that make up this neighbourhood soon helped us whittle down the options to the first three tiers of streets – any higher in this altitude and we’d either never leave the house or never go home. As you will read, our search later expanded to the more Cusquenian areas of Lucrepata and Wanchaq, both still in walking distance of the city centre.

When?
We had arrived in Cusco in mid-March, which is the tail-end of the low season here – it’s still raining regularly enough to put off the tourists, hippies, ‘artisans’ and others who make a living from the tourism industry – they all re-emerge in late March and early April. So in a way, we had our pick of the crop, on the other hand, the crop was sparse.

The results?

Se alquiler habitacions
When we knocked at this typical San Blas blue door, the owner took an age to answer and then peered at us dubiously, but when she found out what we were after, she became all smiles and eagerly showed us in. We stepped through a mud yard with chickens and a dazed-looking elderly man and up the wooden stairs, dodging the underwear that had been hung there to dry. We looked at the two rooms on offer – simple and unfurnished, but with sweet windows that looked out over San Blas. The price? S/.250 a month, plus S/.30 electric bill. Cheap, for sure, but we couldn’t quite get over that we’d need to step through mud, chickens and possibly an old man every time we needed to use the bathroom in the yard.

Besides, we fancied something more self-contained – our own kitchen to cook in would save a bunch of soles, too.

José’s old place
Higher up in San Blas, we came to a grocery store that had a sign up saying ‘Apartment for rent’. We enquired with the shopkeeper, who replied, “Yes, it’s upstairs, do you want to look? I’ll come with you.” The large senora then slowly manoeuvred out from behind the counter and closed up her shop to lead us up the stone steps at the side of the building. Carlos immediately recognised that she was going to show us the apartment that his friend José had lived in last year before he emigrated to Spain. “That’s the room I used to stay in!” he laughed as we walked through the three spacious bedrooms. The kitchen units lined the hallway. The price? S/.1,200 a month, bills excluded. And it had no furniture. So a bit pricey for us, but brilliant for three or four sharers.

End of San Blas
We kept walking, and a policeman patrolling the area who had already seen us once or twice asked if he could help with anything. When we explained our search, he kindly told us of all the notices he had spotted. One was at the end of that street. Thanking him for his kindness, we carried on and found the door with a sign sellotaped on saying ‘Mini apartment for rent’. We rang the bell and a young woman answered and gladly showed us in. We were immediately on a wooden staircase that went up one way and down the other. We went down a bit to the main part of the apartment – a large bedroom and a smaller room with chairs and a bathroom. The views over Cusco were tremendous, but the décor was distinctly granny-style, including an elaborate dressing table and horse-adorned clock. The kitchen was in a separate building, further down the stairs. The price? S/.780 a month, excluding bills.

San Blas neighbourhood in Cusco

San Blas neighbourhood in Cusco

We began to think this last one was our best option, though the price wasn’t good value and I wasn’t convinced by the décor nor the disjointed layout. We still had a phone number from a sign we’d seen posted on a wall though, so we called the guy and arranged to meet him that evening. This time, the apartment was in the Cusquenian area of Wanchaq, so a little way out of the historic centre, but therefore maybe better value for money and would give us a better feel of living like a local.

Wanchaq
We met the landlord by a water fountain in the pleasant Wanchaq plaza with its two big supermarkets. Enthusiastic about this new area, we had high hopes as he led us into an apartment complex. However, when he showed us the massive, four-bedroomed flat with a dirty kitchen, depressing bathroom and odd, hall-like living room, it turned out that we would be sharing this with him and three Argentineans. The price? S/.450 a month for the room, plus internet bill.

The One
We’d become a little down-hearted and decided to give house-hunting a rest for a couple of days. Then we were recommended to buy the local listings paperRueda de Negocios (available on all newsstands – look for the blue-ink paper). For just 50 centimos, we got three pages of apartment rentals listed. However, we bought it on a Friday, and we later found out that it comes out on Mondays and Thursdays, and most opportunities are snapped up even by noon the same day. So by the time we rang round the ones that sounded ok, they had already gone. There was one gleaming ray of hope though – a ‘mini-apartment’ that the ad said was part-furnished and preferred to be rented to foreigners. We called and it was still available so we arranged a viewing for that day. We were pleased to find it in the pleasant neighbourhood of Lucrepata – adjacent to San Blas, so still near the hub-bub, but quieter and more residential.

The neighbourhood of Lucrepata in Cusco

The neighbourhood of Lucrepata in Cusco

The apartment was in a modern five-storey building facing a peaceful square with well-kept gardens. It was indeed mini – with a lounge, bedroom, bathroom and the world’s tiniest kitchen, but it would suit us perfectly for a couple of months. It was clean and new and had all the right amount of furniture – sofas, bed, table, fridge, cooker, and the most perfect views through its massive windows across the park out the front to the mountains beyond. The price? S/.680 including all bills. We moved in that very night. And yes – things can happen that quickly. The landlord lived in the ground floor apartment so he wrote up the contract and we paid up two months’ rent while we were there.

The exchange rate at time of publishing was £1 to S/.4.

Here

Here cars run straight at you on zebra crossings
But the locals know they’re just getting on

Here manners are part of nature
And ‘bon appetit’, ‘thank you’ and ‘good day’
Are said by all, always

Here some things take weeks longer than they should
While moving house takes less than an hour

Here there isn’t the choice
To buy in the shops
But you realise you never needed it anyway

Here some houses are left unfinished and unsightly
Baring concrete, breeze blocks and metalwork
But indoors is a warm home with grandparents, parents and young

Here hardly anyone has a car
And carry heavy loads on backs
But they get to work together with friends inside the bus

Here children run wild and grubby
Always close to danger
But gleefully free of imagined fears

Here animals roam without leashes or fences
Living as they were meant to be

Here I don’t agree with things
Here I changed my mind

My love affair with books

Wanderlust Blog of the Week award

I’ve been very generously given files of books to read on my computer. I’ve got all the classics – from Carroll to Chekhov and from Kipling to Dickens; I’ve got all the titles by my favourite author, E M Forster; I’ve got poetry by all the greats, too.

I’d been desperate for a good read for a while, as English-language books are sparse in South America. I came from England last year with a ration of two books that I managed to stretch out over a few months, but by the time I hit Argentina, I was in need of a novel. The bookshops of Buenos Aires had small sections of ‘Pocket Books’– a euphemism for English books – but my eyes scanned and scanned the spines to see nothing but modern trash written by unknown authors. Finally, on a dusty hostel bookcase, I scavenged a 1986 copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. A young Meryl Streep’s face peering out from the cover reminded me I had seen the film version years back, and somewhat enjoyed it, so the book must be worth a go.

The battered book stayed wedged down the side of my backpack as a mammoth voyage across the continent ensued. When I finally settled in Cusco, had time to unpack, and even more time to sit and read, I at long last opened the cover of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and turned those first, delightfully aged and yellowed pages. I brought the book up to my nose and drank in the musty smell from the antiquated paper. And I settled down into what was to be one of the best stories I’ve read.

Would I have enjoyed it half as much if I read it on my odourless, clinical laptop screen? I don’t think so.

Since bookless, I have made several attempts to start reading my favourite books from their computer files – A Room with a View, Howard’s End, Through the Looking Glass, Wordsworth’s poems. But something just isn’t quite right.

Of all the books I have read in my life, I can remember the physical book as well as – or even as part of – the actual story. I remember my 1970s series of Famous Five books that lined my childhood bookcase; the big old hardback copy of Peter Pan and Wendy with its colour plates; and then I remember my first borrowed copy of Wuthering Heights; and, for me, A Room with a View will always be associated with a sturdy hardback borrowed from the library that I got sand between all the pages as I read it on the beach one summer between college years.

So now I have a vast digital library full of great books, but will I ever read them? I suspect not in that form.

No, not for me the Kindle, iPad or any other electronic device to read my stories; no, I’m going to wait for the next crumpled, fusty tome abandoned on a shelf and with which I can delve deliciously into another time, another place.

Rachel with The French Lieutenant's Woman in Cusco

Rachel with The French Lieutenant’s Woman in Cusco

 

This post appeared as Wanderlust’s blog of the week.

A grand adventure part 8 – The home stretch

Puno is another town we never expected to return to – merely a stopping off point for visiting the floating reed islands of Lake Titicaca, and apart from the views of the lake and mountains, the town itself is a little ugly and dull.

Puno's harbour on Lake Titicaca

Puno’s harbour on Lake Titicaca

However, it was still only early in the day yet and all the buses to Cusco didn’t leave until night, so we had time to kill in Puno. Our added challenge now was that we were down to our last few soles – how to make them stretch yet keep ourselves fed until we could access more money in Cusco tomorrow morning?

We bought S./1 (25p/38c) of bananas at the market, shared a market lunch (so half a soup, half a main course each) for S./7 (£1.70/40c) and then bought S./1 of bread and a S./1.50 packet of jam to have later. Now we were absolutely exhausted and large black clouds were rolling ominously in, so we headed back to the bus terminal and found a quiet spot upstairs to set up camp on the floor with our rucksacks as pillows and get some sleep. Even though I was lying on the cold hard floor of a bus station, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the rucksack. After a couple of hours though, the cold started to creep in, so we got up and went to sit with everyone else on the plastic seats downstairs and got out the laptop to watch a film.

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno, Peru

The shores of Lake Titicaca at Puno

When the film finished, we still had three hours to wait, so went for a lakeside stroll. It was dark and there was no one else out and about. As we neared the artisans’ market by the harbour, a man who had been leaning up against the wall muttered something as we approached and then started walking alongside us. Suddenly aware that both of us were carrying all our wordly possessions – two laptops included – I became convinced we were going to get mugged. Then when he spoke to a dog who started barking in attack mode at us, I thought “This is it!”.

But no, the mysterious man was just the night-watchman for the market who in fact was quelling his dog. He wished us a good night and we continued with our lakeside stroll, my heart took a while to slow down though.

Somehow, eventually, we had made eight hours dissolve and it was time to board the Cusco bus in what was now a torrential downpour.

Four months ago, I remembered, the route from Cusco to Puno was quick and painless, giving me the confidence to take on the much longer bus journeys in the rest of the continent, but this time for some reason, the bus was bumping and swerving all night. It soon became the worst bus journey I had had so far in terms of travel sickness and I was never so glad to see Cusco again.

It was 5 o’clock in the morning when we auto-piloted through Cusco’s bus terminal pursued by a taxi driver. We agreed to his rate – our very last few coins – and let him sweep us up to a hostel high up in the San Blas neighbourhood, where we collapsed into bed.

Some hours later, I awoke to the sun glowing through the door, and stepped out in to the hostel’s garden. Sparrows and hummingbirds fluttered around the fuchsias, and beyond, lay the terracotta tiled roofs of Cusco. I had been here before, but this time the city looked even more beautiful, and I knew there were many new adventures to come.

The rooftops of Cusco

The red rooftops of Cusco. Photo: Rachel Ricks

A grand adventure part 7 – Crossing borders again

We had gone round all the ticket booths at La Paz’s bus station to establish prices and routes to Cusco. Bs.170 (£16/US$25) was the average price for the 12-hour journey. We decided we could do it cheaper.

So on the morning of our departure we rose early to beat the marathon that was starting at 8am and would mean closures (and the resulting mayhem) of the city’s streets. After a fond farewell to our hostel, we backpacked to the corner where we caught one of La Paz’s funky Guatemalan public buses to the Cemetario – a district where not only do you go to get buried, but also to catch onward buses. Here, we could pick up a colectivo to Desaguadero – the border town with Peru.

Public city bus in La Paz

Public city bus in La Paz

I was feeling heavily nauseous with altitude, exertion and travel, so was not looking forward to the two-hour ride on a pull-down seat in the back of this minivan. After half an hour the driver stopped to try and pick up more passengers to fill the van. When people looked in and saw the only seats left were in the very tiny, very back row, they were reluctant to board, so the driver started shouting at Carlos, accusing him and his guitar of putting people off, “We can’t leave because of you!” Carlos demonstrated that he and his guitar weren’t taking up any more than one seat, but still the driver argued. Finally the couple sitting in the front got fed up and transferred to the back to get things moving.

We arrived at Desaguadero and I could see right away how it had acquired its name – translated into English: ‘drain’ – the effluent from Lake Titicaca all comes this way, and inbetween the usual unfinished houses and muddy roads of these parts, were big swamps floating with rubbish. We couldn’t move quick enough to the border post.

We crossed the Desaguadero river and entered Peru. Now I had a small worry – I had overstayed my Peruvian visa last time, and this time I wanted to request the longer, six-month one – how was that going to go down?

Some charming words from Carlos and a friendly immigration officer saw I got a six-month visa for Peru. Now first things first, some breakfast before progressing on to the next bus. We changed our bolivianos to soles with one of the senoras who sit along the road in a row under parasols and with six blankets wrapped around them, then moved on into the town. The market was right beside where the buses depart so we were able to check prices and schedules before grabbing avocado sandwiches for S./1 (25p/38c) each from a market senora. The colectivos to Puno run constantly, so as soon as one fills up, the next one pulls in to call “Puno! PunoPunoPunoPunoooo!” Always keen to get the front seat, I leapt up to the car, but a schoolgirl beat me to the best seat by the window. So I was stuck in the middle seat next to the gearstick, where there was nowhere for my legs. If I sat up straight, my head came above top of the windscreen so I couldn’t see out.

Two hours later, I had manoeuvred my aching legs into every position imaginable and all the time craning my head to try and see out, and was getting pretty desperate to get out of the car. The road follows the shores of Lake Titicaca the whole way, so I tried to distract myself with what I could see of the serene, glass-like waters of the lake. Then, like a mirage, Puno appeared on the horizon.

See how my epic voyage ends in part 8 coming soon!

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).

Adios, Urubamba

As I prepared to go away on this trip, facing the thought of leaving my life and loved ones in London was hard. What I didn’t expect was that I’d have to do it all again once I was actually out here. Yet here I am, preparing to leave Peru having spent more than three months living in the little town of Urubamba. And I feel sad.

It’s so true that only when you face losing something do you realise how much you love it – now I notice how the sun falls in my pretty little garden at different times of the day; now I spot all the shop and café owners in town who I recognise and who recognise me; I realise all the places I know where to buy exactly what I’m looking for; I know what all the prices should be; I remember how much I’ve changed since I first arrived wide-eyed. Now it’s time to start again, to be the stranger flailing around in the foreign land. It’s time for new adventures, challenges and surprises.

And this time, I don’t think I’ll be coming back to this place that has so warmly been my home.

So adios, Urubamba, gracias por su hospitalidad. Thank you Carlos and Carlos for your hospitality at Kai and the little house in Chajhuar. Thank you Johannes for taking me there to start with. Hasta luego, Cristian (don’t drink or smoke); chau Patrick, thank you for the dinners and the laughs; see you later, Clayton, Shon, Jason, Ronnie, Fran, Elise, Mel, Melinda, Erin, Ali.

Bring it on, Bolivia!

Urubamba's main plaza

Urubambians enjoying sundown in the main plaza

A meaty subject

Not for readers of a sensitive disposition, nor those whom are feeling peckish.

I am an animal lover.

I am also a food lover.

Therefore I have an enduring dilemma that most of the time I try to ignore, but certain recent situations here in Peru have brought the issue again to the fore: Is vegetarianism the way forward?

I love all food, so I wouldn’t go short if I was veggie. In fact, I veer towards veggie options anyway as they’re always more interesting than the same old meat dishes – vegetable lasagne I find is more flavoursome than an average beef one; and a typical sausage contains less than 30% pork. So would I really be missing much if I went meat-free?

Let’s face facts – it’s a dead animal, who 100% for sure would’ve suffered miserably at some point on its journey to my plate. Following years spent in the divine company of furred and feathered creatures, I have every evidence that animals possess individual personalities. When I eat a bit of one, I deny all knowledge that it was once a living, breathing, feeling being.

When I was on a contemplative walk recently, I sat down to rest in the shade on a country road. No one else was around, but suddenly I had company – a beautiful brown horned bullock appeared at the top of a ledge up the mountainside above me. He was tethered, but had managed to stretch so that he could peer over and nose at who was at the side of his land. We sat and looked into each others’ eyes for some time, enjoying the unusual companionship. Then spontaneously, tears began to roll down my cheeks. It hit me hard that this animal who – just like me, was enjoying the sunshine of this beautiful day – would soon be slaughtered and butchered just to fill someone’s burger.

The shops and markets in this valley do not hide or disguise where our dinners come from. In a busy shopping street in Cusco, I saw a chicken being pulled from its cage and its neck wrung fresh for the customer. Previous victims lay, beaks agape and legs akimbo, awaiting selection. In a major supermarket in Lima, an entire vaccum-packed piglet in the freezer section startled the life out of me. And in Urubamba’s market, cows’ heads sit staring eyelessly on the meat-sellers’ counters.

Last Sunday, I went with friends to buy beef for a big roast dinner. The shopkeeper and her daughter were conveniently in the middle of sawing bits off a cow’s leg balanced on wooden stool in the middle of the shop. She slapped a chunk of thigh on the scales to price up for us, taking our money and giving us the change with the same, unwiped, bare hands she had handled the flesh with.

It embarrasses me how I flinch and shudder at these sights in front of my Peruvian friends – after all, I eat all this meat as much as they do – and I know where it comes from. I should not be so surprised to see it outside of an unrecognisable shape and colour in a plastic tray inside a pretty cardboard package, but that’s just what I’ve had all my life. I wonder if meat was displayed as crudely as this in the UK and the US, whether we would still be such ravenous carnivores.

Then there was the other night, when I went for a special birthday dinner in a lovely restaurant in Ollantaytambo. After a couple of months of budget eating, this was my chance to treat myself. The speciality was 300g prime steak. With creamy sweet potato mash. And blue cheese sauce.

It was amazing.

Wish me luck.

The cow that looked into my soul

The bull that looked into my soul

How it happens

I have been in Peru for two months now, and for more or less most of that time I have been hanging out in a small, non-descript town in the Sacred Valley below Cusco. Bystanders might wonder why. I’m supposed to be travelling round South America, aren’t I?

While I was in Lima after my arrival from the UK, I was in a certain amount of turmoil as to how to start my trip. I had made no plans; in fact I’d not particularly given South America much thought in the months since I booked the ticket – I just had too many good things going on in London.

I was still at work right up to the day before my flight, so every minute of lunchtimes, evenings and weekends was spent in the good company of my lovely friends and family. I didn’t even pack until the morning before my flight.

It meant that when I finally arrived at a quiet hostel in a refined neighbourhood of Lima, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I knew I needed to catch up on lots of sleep. But I was still running on London adrenaline, plus I had the system of budget travel long installed in me: get going! See stuff! Do stuff! Don’t hang around wasting money on accommodation!

And I nearly did go after a couple of days of long lie-ins, languorous breakfasts at noon, and hours reclining on the hostel’s sofa with my laptop. I nearly stepped onto the backpacker conveyer belt. But something made me wait.

Somehow I calmed down, somehow I realised there was no rush; I needed to work out what it was that I truly wanted to do. And sure enough, good things happened.

I’m looking forward to discussing with you another time about the modern-day backpacker, sitting with their laptops connecting to WiFi but not to each other. And although I’m guilty as charged for being relieved that I brought my Netbook – after spending nine hours of every day of the past seven years as a web editor, I simply couldn’t unplug cold turkey – but I know when to put the machine down, to look up and smile at a real live person in my vicinity.

And this is how I met Johannes, who with a similar opinion, we got talking. He was heading to the Sacred Valley and I knew that’s where I was really craving to get to, too. So after nearly a week in Lima we flew to Cusco, then he generously encouraged me to join him to Urubamba, down in the valley, where he’d spent many times before.

It was hard at first – I knew no one, spoke no Spanish; in truth, I didn’t really know where I was or what I was doing. And Urubamba is not a tourist hub – it’s a real-life, hard-working town, so there are no hostels full of fellow backpackers, or cafes with WiFi to comfort and reassure in times of need.

I nearly left. Many times. But again, something made me wait. And that’s the one big dilemma of travel. I considered that if I move on, I’ll meet other people, have new and possibly better experiences. But might I miss out on opportunities here? By constantly moving, are travellers gaining experiences or losing out on others?

I went up to Cusco to stay with a local family while I attended a Spanish course. The end of the week was my chance to move on – Lake Titicaca, just over the border in Bolivia, beckoned.

But I did something I’ve never done before while travelling – I went back. As I rode the colectivo down the winding mountain road into the valley that night, and the familiar lights of Urubamba appeared, I almost wasn’t surprised when I saw a shooting star in the sky above the town.

I didn’t know what I was going to do, where I was going to stay, if anyone would care that I was back, and if I could actually use any of the Spanish that I’d studied. But something told me to wait – it was going to be wonderful.