Monday 15 July 2024

Last days in Peru: Waqra Pukara and the Three Rainbow Mountains

We really need to start making our way back to Chile soon but there is still so much to see and do in Peru. Even getting to the border is fun and busy. And of course, there are many more Inca sites to visit if you so wish to ...

When we were in Cusco, I did some research on the Incas (as you do!) and found out about a nearby site called Waqra Pukara. Much to my delight, it was in the right direction as we were driving to go to the border crossing and so...we went to see it. Waqra Pukara is at 4500 meters and it takes about 2 to 3 hours to walk to the site.  The walk to the site was quite short and easy (in comparison to what we’ve done so far) but, because of the altitude, it felt really difficult at times. Despite that, I really enjoyed the trek and was rewarded by the stunning site which was located in the most amazing place. You see, Waqra Pukara is on the high altiplano and on the edge of a canyon, nestled in between two gigantic rocks. In Quechua, 'waqra' means horn and 'pukara' means fortress so 'horn fortress'. Apparently, it wasn't built by the Incas but by the Canchis and, later on, was conquered by the Incas.

The site of Waqra Pukara itself was also impressive. I am not an expert or a historian but I’ve seen a fair deal of Inca sites by now to know that, although the stonework was good, it wasn’t ‘temple-quality’. That told us that it was a rather important place, but not a temple.  We can also figure this out because the doors were double framed, something which was common in important places. Although there wasn't much information about the purpose of the site, from the little search I did on the internet afterwards, it seems that Waqra Pukara was an Incan sanctuary. And I can totally see why given its magnificent place and the views.

Unfortunately, on the way back, I got a really bad headache and found hiking rather hard. The thing that kept me going (and slightly laughing) was that Ioanna got scared by two birds that flew in front of her very suddenly. It was hard to tell who was more scared, Ioanna or the birds. Me and Ioanna also saw another two birds that were walking like they were something out of a comic! They really were funny!

But Inca sites were not the only thing we visited on our way down to the border crossing. We also hiked to the three Palcoyo Rainbow Mountains. These weren't the most famous Rainbow mountain in Peru (Vinicunca) because we decided that it just is too busy with people and too high in terms of altitude to visit. But these are three other rainbow mountains very close by (known as Palcoyo Rainbow Mountains) and, apparently, equally stunning. From one viewpoint, you can see all three of them!  Because of the minerals, you get to see layers of different colours which appear like a rainbow. It's pretty hard to believe it's real We took loads of photos, and even some with the llamas that were there on the terraces, smile mister llama!

Our last night in Peru was spent by Lake Titicaca, and it felt nice to go back to places we’ve been before! And we also discovered the answer to a little mystery: In all of Peru, we’ve been seeing little colourful bull statues, and we finally found out what they mean. Apparently, the bulls are a symbol for good luck at home, but only if there are two of them together! People usually put them on their roof or in their home as decoration. And now it all made sense...! 

For now, bye Peru, hello Chile!












Wednesday 10 July 2024

Inti Raymi - a magical festival to the God Sun

Inti Raymi is the Inca celebration of the Sun, the most important festival in Peru. In Inca times, it would take place on the winter solstice (21st June). However, since the independence of Peru, it takes place on the 24th June instead. Nowadays, the main celebration takes place in Cusco and preparations for the festival last for months and months.

There are more than 800 people, including actors, dancers and musicians who star in this amazing theatrical performance that includes dances and praises to the Sun God. They are dressed in typical clothing and process through Cusco and perform outside important archaeological sites such as the temple of Qorikancha, the main square of the city and the Sacsayhuaman Archaeological Park.

Apparently, the Inti Raymi was established by Pachacutec and was celebrated every year during the winter solstice of the southern hemisphere, the day when the Sun was farthest from the Earth. It was so important that everyone from all around the Incan empire would gather in Cusco to attend. 

And of course, after spending a whole month in Cusco and the Sacred Valley, I thought that we HAD to get back to Cusco for Inti Raymi. But to see the performance from either Qorikancha or Saqusaywaman, we had to buy tickets that had long since sold out. So, in fact the main square was the only place you could enter the festival without a ticket. We arrived early in the morning to the main square, feeling very unsure that we will be able to see anything. You see the night before we overheard some people in our hotel saying that they planned to get to the main square at 4 in the morning to make sure they find a good spot. Our hopes were very low at this point but, luckily, we found a nice place at the front of the Cathedral. Phew....!

When the performance started, some actors dressed as guards rushed into the plaza checking every corner for intruders. That got the crowds very excited and created a great sense of suspense. After that, four big groups of people came in the plaza, each dressed as different tribes that were part of the Inca empire. They danced their way in the square and showed off their fabulous dresses. After them, four groups of soldiers came in with spears and shields and lined up in between two rows of the tribes. The interesting thing was that the men of the tribes were in front of the soldiers and the women behind.

There was a lot going on, but the whole plaza was in such celebratory mood and the whole performance was amazingly well choreographed. I guess they prepare for it for months, and it is the most important festivity in Peru!  

The bit that I loved the most was the characters dressed as a jaguar, a condor and a snake, the most important animals for the Inkas. They crept into the plaza and were acting out their respectable animals amongst the parade. In the whole of the procession, the jaguar was my favourite character.

After much anticipation, the Inca queen entered on a litter carried by some soldiers and was followed by someone carrying a shade for her and then her maids throwing flower petals behind her. That was very impressive and made everyone even more excited to see the Inca king. 

After the Queen's procession, came some people sweeping the floor with plants and then some women chucking flowers down for the king and his litter. And then he arrived! His litter had a golden seat and he was standing at its front with a golden staff and crown. The crowds went crazy as he passed and saluted them, and then stopped in the middle of the square where a replica of an Inca pyramid was.

He then went up the steps of the pyramid and started talking to his father, the Sun. All of this was in Quechua so we didn't understand anything he said but there was something about the triumphant return of the sun in the shortest day and the longest night and the beginning of the new agricultural year.

In Inca times, the shaman would sacrifice llamas so they can predict the prosperity and well-being of the coming year. But nowadays of course they don't do that. So what do they do? Well, there is a lot of singing and dancing and also they simulate a sacrifice with fake llamas and with a ceremony using coca leaves.  

I am so glad we managed to see Inti Raymi. When it was all over, I was buzzing! The whole city of Cusco was wrapped in an atmosphere of celebration and fun for the whole day and it was all such a huge party. Somehow, it felt like the best way to say goodbye to Cusco, the Sacred Valley and our Inca adventures.


Sunday 7 July 2024

Two days in the Cloud Forest: Wayqecha Biological Research Station

From one type of forest to the next! After visiting Manu National Park, we moved up to the Cloud Forest visiting one of the area's biological research stations, called Wayqecha (meaning brother in Quechua). Wayqecha is the highest of three biological research stations near Manu run by ACCA (Conservation Amazonica), and it is part of the park's buffer zone. All three research stations are placed in different types of environments within Manu and in different altitudes (up in the cloud forest or down near sea level), and therefore are able to study, understand and witness the impacts of climate change in the whole of the Amazon basin. Because Wayqecha is located near the transition between the cloud forest and the puna grasslands, the scientists have access to both these ecosystems.

At Wayqecha, we met with the scientific team and learnt about a number of projects they have. But the main project that takes place in Wayqecha (and I think the most interesting one) is the Andean Bear Conservation project. The main aim of the project is to understand how the bears move, what they eat and how their diet is affected by climate changes and generally what they do in this very wide area, so that the scientists can make sure they can survive during climate change. To understand how the bears use the different environments (from down to sea level up to the puna grasslands), the scientists go on very remote expeditions and install camera traps but also by trying to track them.

The interesting bit was that they use many different ways to track the bears  - mainly they use camera traps but also use literal traps (to catch the bears in cages) and then put a tracker on them. But mine and Ismene’s personal favourite way to track bear was Ukuku! Who is Ukuku I hear you ask? Well, Ukuku is Wayqecha’s own conservation and research dog! We loved her! Ukuku is amazing, and has been trained to detect bear poo and track bears for the scientists and volunteers working on the Andean Bear project. We also thought that Ukuku is the perfect name for her, as it means Andean bear in Quechua. She was really friendly, and we loved to stroke her. She was always happy, running around for ever and ever. 

Unfortunately, when we were there, I got quite ill with a dodgy tummy so didn't do much apart from lying in bed or on the sofa in the dinning area while Ismene, Ioanna and Dan went to visit the reserve - including the amazing cloud forest canopy walk! So I'll hand over to Ismene so she can tell you all the things she learnt from meeting with the scientists: 

Hello everyone. These are the things I learnt about the Andean bear at Wayqecha:

  • The Andean bear is also known as the spectacle bear and is vulnerable to extinction.
  • The Andean bear is the only bear in South America and lives in the Andean Amazon region from lowland forests, puna grassland, dry forest and cloud forests. In Peru, bears live from sea level to almost 5000 meters
  • It is an omnivore which means they will eat everything. They eat fruit, seeds, insects, and sometimes meat. But they don't eat meat often. They are mostly herbivores and they are very important for moving around seeds through the different environments they live in. Because the seeds they eat are not destroyed while they eat, they leave behind seeds in their poo which then grow again. Bears also break branches (because we all know how much they like rubbing on trees) which helps the light to come in the forest and that means that other trees can grow.
  • The only easy way to tell one apart from the other is their facial markings.
  • Ukuku is a shy bear who likes to live alone and is the least aggressive bear species in the world. 
  • Male bears are great travellers and they move about a lot, which I guess makes tracking them very difficult for the scientists.
  • Female bears give birth usually to two cubs who stay with their mum until they are one year old.
  • The three main dangers that the Andean bear faces are the following:
    • Climate change: Climate change is creating warmer temperatures in higher altitudes. Plants that would normally grow at lower altitude, now grow at higher levels and this may make it harder for bears to find the plants they need.
    • Human conflict: Human-bear conflict is common where Andean bears live. As omnivores, these bears have been known to occasionally eat cattle and raid crops which prompts farmers to kill or hunt bears to protect their farms. Unfortunately, there is also a demand for cubs in the pet trade and for bear parts in traditional medicine which leads to poaching. The scientists told us that it is estimated that about 200 bears are poached every year.
    • Habitat loss: As human communities have expanded in the tropical Andes, the habitat of the bear has been destroyed. Mining, oil extraction and building of roads and dams affects the Andean bear.

  • In order to help the bears, we need to reforest the cloud forest quickly!
  • Thanks Ismene. I also wanted to tell you a bit about the one last amazing thing we did before we left Wayqecha to go back to Cusco. We were recommended by everyone to visit a place called Tres Cruces where you can see this very beautiful and unique sunrise. To do this, we had to wake up early, and by early I don't mean 6 o'clock early. I mean 3 in the morning early! Apparently, this is a unique place to see the sunrise because you can see the sun rising up over the Amazon. As you are up on the puna grassland, at nearly 4,000m, you have an amazing view of the rainforest which stretches for miles and miles towards the horizon. 

    Even though everyone had recommended it, I didn't think that it would be worth it especially given how tired and unwell I felt the day before. But, we did wake up at 3 o'clock and we did go despite the cold. And, I must say, I am so glad we did because it was totally worth it. It was an unforgettable experience to see the clouds hanging over the Amazon, lit up as the sun rose from the horizon from its blanket of clouds. There's an amazing optical illusion where you get to see more than one sun because the light gets bent by the moisture in the air from the Amazon. If you look closely at the photo above, you can see a second, and maybe a third, red sun appearing from under the clouds!

    Here is a little video we took so you can see the sunrise in timelapse. Make sure you wait until the very end and focus on the clouds beneath. Can you spot the sun lighting them up from underneath?

    If you want to learn more about Wayqecha then you can click here for more information, and if you would prefer to learn about the Andean Bear project then click here.

    Bye from Ismene and Orestis.

    Wednesday 3 July 2024

    Back into the wild: a week in Manu National Park

    Hello from the very special and wild Manu National Park where we are spending a whole week. In my previous post, I talked a bit about why Manu is so special. This post is dedicated to all the stunning experiences and animal sightings on our tour. First off, know that the whole trip was brilliant! I loved every second of it and me and Ismene went pretty 'wild'.

    Just so you can get a sense of how our days were laid out, here in brief is how we spent the week: The first day, we had lunch with our tour group and then set off on the boat from the Atalaya pier to get to Treehouse Inn, a lodge in the Cultural zone of the park. The second day, we got up at 4.30am and set off to Casa Matsiguenka in the Reserve zone. It took us about 12 hours on the boat so it was a long day. On our third day, we stayed in Casa Matsiguenka and explored the truly magnificent primary forest. On our fourth day, we took the boat back to Treehouse Inn and stayed there for the next (fifth) day. On our sixth and last day, we took the boat back to the start of the Cultural zone and then we (me, Dan, Ioanna and Ismene) went to a research station up in the Cloud Forest.

    Of course, as you know the jungle is massive (he he) and, there is no way I can describe to you absolutely everything we saw. For that reason, I am only going to write about some of the most spectacular and important animal sightings. And because we stayed in several parts of the Amazon - the reserve zone and the cultural zone - I'll tell you what we spotted in each one. First off, know that over the whole trip, we saw 78 bird species which of course is not surprising if you think about Manu's biodiversity and wildlife!

    When we moved to the Reserve zone was when the real fun began. The first real highlight came as a real surprise to everyone when we were travelling, and this is probably because some people were falling asleep. Suddenly, our guide, Jasmani, stood up from his seat and shouted “sloth” jolting several people (including Ismene) out of their sleep. Ismene, jumped out of her chair, and looked around wildly! It turns out Jasmani was right; up in the trees, we could clearly see a sloth. A sloth that, funnily, seemed like he was doing pull-ups in the tree! Apparently, it was a really lucky sighting because sloths are remarkably difficult to spot and our guide only sees them a handful times a year.

    In the Reserve zone, on our way to Casa Matsiguenka, we also visited a huge and very important oxbow lake, called Otorongo Lake. As a bonus, it also had a twenty metres high watchtower where we spent some time looking over the lake and spotting animals. This is where we spotted giant otters swimming and diving in and out the shimmering lake waters, catching the last rays of the sun. They were beautiful even from afar, and seemed so elegant when they dipped in the water. 

    But there is another oxbow lake in the Reserve zone which is called Salvador Lake, and is deep in the pristine jungle. The first two days, we were travelling and exploring the rainforest from the boat, so it was really fun to explore the jungle on foot. It was even more fun to row a catamaran out on the lake so we can explore it properly and in silence, both early in the morning but also in the evening for a night safari. Me and Ismene also had a go paddling the catamaran which was tough work but really good fun!

    And we were very lucky because exploring the jungle on foot meant that we got to spot some really interesting animals but also plants. Very early in the morning though, out on the lake, we spotted some pre-historic birds: the cormorant, and the hoatzin. The hoatzins seemed frightened and on the edge, whenever someone took a photo of them, they would flap noisily out of the bushes and land crashing on another bush! They really made a racket. We also spotted a bird that is special to me, a bat falcon. Why special? Because I was once in a class named Falcons and falcons have been one of my favourite birds ever since. The bat falcon was perched in a dead tree, and he seemed at ease just looking down at us.

    But the highlight of the morning, was a group of red howler monkeys climbing in the trees. They seemed to have so much fun, at least when they weren't snoring! These ones were clambering in the trees and made it look so easy you would have thought anyone could do it.

    While exploring the jungle on foot, we also learnt about a symbiotic relationship between fire ants and a type of tree! A symbiotic relationship is where each part of the relationship does something to help the other. In this particular example, the fire ants have this type of tree that they live in, and to help this tree, they clear a space for it to grow, uncontested for light. In return for this help, the tree provides the ants with a space to live. Nice right?

    That night we came back to Santiago Lake and left with several more animals on our checklist: The cheekiest of which, being a squirrel monkey. It was amazing to see them, swinging through the trees. They seemed like young children, living a big fun life. 

    Later that evening, we also spotted white and black caimans. It was very exciting to see them in the dark waters of the lake as some of them thought we were threatening them and came rather close! I loved the way the caimans would slip through the water, they seemed so suspicious and I thought some of them were figuring out how to get onto the catamaran.

    On the fourth day, we left early to travel back to the Cultural zone, to the Treehouse Inn. Despite the very early start, it was incredible to see an absolutely epic sunrise! So beautiful! We also spotted the most amazing animal on our trip, but you’ll have to wait for it.

    What else did we see that morning? A capuchin monkey, a fishing bat and a sand coloured nighthawk!

    Now, I know I’ve got you all waiting for this amazing animal, but I promise it is better than you expect. It was better than any of us on the tour expected, even our guide. Like the sloth, it was Jasmani who spotted it: a beautiful jaguar!! It was astounding!

    The jaguar was so beautiful and, the best thing was that it wasn't shy at all. He was just lazily walking along the beach, glaring at us from time to time, all strong and muscly-shouldered. We had a clear view of it for more than 5 minutes! And, I have to say, in some way, it was more special to see a jaguar here in the rainforest than in the Pantanal in Brazil with all the other jaguars and the boats. Here, it was just our boat and the jaguar going on his morning stroll. Beautiful!

    On the next day, we did some really fun things - tubing and fishing - and they both were extraordinarily fun.

    The tubing was easy to do. We just had to cruise down the river in a rubber tube, but then everyone started paddling this way and that trying to tip other people in! It was really fun! And, luckily, no piranhas in sight :) Fishing was also really easy. You barely had to dip the meat in when the fish would bite, and then, you would lift it out and put it back in the water!

    But we also did a bit of cooking by the river. We used the bonfire to cook in the traditional Matsiguenka way, with no water, and no pot: just the fire, the chicken and nature. How? By putting the chicken in a piece of bamboo and stuffing the top with leaves! All you need is 15 minutes on the bonfire and the chicken is ready. It tasted delicious and it was fun learning the jungle ways!

    I loved our trip to Manu. It was so special being in such a remote and pristine environment, seeing all these incredible animals and birds and experiencing the jungle way of living. I wondered whether I will be able to come back again when I am older and how things will change in the years to come. Manu is still very wild and remains very well preserved, so I am hopeful.

    Tuesday 2 July 2024

    Back into the Amazon Rainforest: What makes Manu National Park so special?


    After our amazing (and what some might consider slightly tiring) trek to Machu Picchu, you would think Dan and Ioanna would let us rest for say a week. But nope, after just two days we were back on the road and down to the Peruvian Amazon for a six day tour in the very special Manu National Park in Peru!

    So what makes Manu so special? Let me give you a bit of context first: Manu is a national park and biosphere reserve which protects a very diverse number of ecosystems including lowland rainforests, cloud forests and Andean grasslands. It was established in the early 1970s and was recognised by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve in the late 80s.



    Manu is divided into three zones: the restricted use zone, which is the deepest part of the jungle with pristine forests and native communities (who I think are called the Uncontacted Tribes) and can be accessed only by some researchers and scientists; the reserve zone, which also includes primary rainforest and is only accessible for some tours for limited time; and lastly, the cultural zone, which is openly accessible to everyone who wishes to visit and where some small villages are.

    Manu has a massive biodiversity. A few facts for you:

    • In terms of animals, Manu has around 5% of the world's mammals (there are 139 registered mammal species), and around 75% of the park's mammal diversity is made up of bats, rodents and marsupials.
    • Unsurprisingly, in Manu there are 1850 registered bird species making Peru only second place for bird diversity after Colombia. Manu is the home of one of every ten bird species that inhabit the Earth. Isn't that amazing? And listen to this: during bird watching marathons, there was a world record set in Manu with 331 species of birds registered in one single day in Manu! Now, that's a lot of birds...
    • Of course one of the things that make Manu so special is its flora. There are 1650 known tree species and 4212 plant species in the park and it is estimated that, in just one hectare, 249 tree species were counted. There are also hundreds of different registered orchid species. It is so wild and so so green.

    Because of its wilderness, huge areas of Manu have not yet been studied (it is estimated that 60% of the park still hasn't been studied!) For that reason, it is still home to many uncontacted indigenous tribes. In fact, the uncontacted frontier shared between Peru, Brazil and Bolivia, where more uncontacted tribes live than anywhere in the world is in Manu. And to make life even more interesting, when we stopped at the Interpretation Centre, we were told by the park ranger that one of the stations is closed as the ranger working in that station got hit by an arrow from one of the tribes. No reason to worry about us or freak out or get angry with Dan and Ioanna for dragging us to all these wild, remote places! We're already out of the park now, so all safe. The uncontacted remained uncontacted while we were there :) 

    But there are also some indigenous tribes that live in the reserved zone: The Matsiguenka, the Ashaninka, the Amuesha, the Yine and the Mashco. In fact, there is a unique project within Peru that involves two native Matsiguenka communities located in the park - the Tayakome and the Yonibato -  who have set up a community enterprise to manage an ecotourism lodge. That means that they are responsible for setting up and running the accommodation in Casa Matsiguenka (where we stayed for two nights), guide services and handicrafts. This project enables the families to work on rotation so that they all benefit without really having to abandon their territory.

    I found the Matsiguenka really fascinating mainly because of their 'cosmovision'. The Matsiguenka believe that there are five levels in the universe: the first one is Inkite, the highest level which can only be seen at night in the stars; the Menkoripasta where we see the sky; the Kiptasi, which is the middle level and basically represents our world; the Kamaviri level which is where the Kamatsirini or the spirits of the dead live'; and finally, the Gamaironi level which is where the monsters and demons live.

    One of their myths is that the world where we live was created by two celestial beings: Tarorintsi and Kentivakor. Tarorintsi created all the good things, the humans and some sacred trees and plants. On the other hand, Kentivakor created all that is seen as useless beings in the world. Another of their myths says that the moon, Kashiri, fell in love with a beautiful woman and taught her how to sow and cultivate most of the edible plants. I thought both of these myths were very beautiful. The Matsiguenka also hold the Ceiba tree as sacred and believe it protects the forest.

    So, overall, Manu was the perfect place to have our second Amazon jungle experience, very wild and very pristine. In my next post, I'll tell you all about the animals we saw. Spoiler alert: there were more animals and birds than we saw in Cuyabeno, Ecuador - and some special ones too!


    Friday 28 June 2024

    Hiking the Inka trail to Machu Picchu Day 4

    Today is the day I've been waiting for for so many months. We finally visited the impressive, one and only, Machu Picchu!!! It-was-incredible!! Machu Picchu exceeded our expectations in every way. Its size, its stonework, and its location and views to the Urubamba valley, all of it was stunning.

    Ok, excuse my enthusiasm and sorry in advance because this is going to probably be a very lengthy post. Here it goes:

    We got up early at 3am but only really started to walk at 5am as that is when the gates to the last part of the hike open. I guess you are thinking why did you get up so early then? The answer is that we had to because our porters needed to pack all our stuff and arrive at the train station by 4 o'clock to get the train back to Cusco. Brutal! They definitely work hard, don’t they!!

    As we walked towards Machu Picchu, we were told that our first view of the citadel would be from the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate is a temple and was the official entrance to Machu Picchu for the Incan royalty there. During the summer solstice, the sun shines through the door of the Sun gate when looking up from the main Machu Picchu temple window below.

    It took us a couple of hours to get to the Sun Gate (climbing up the famous Monkey Steps - so called because they're steep enough to swing on! - which Ismene and I found such excellent fun, but Ioanna thought otherwise) but once we were there, we were all completely speechless. You get the first glimpse of Machu Picchu and the views were really breath taking. I will never forget looking down at Machu Picchu when the sun first hit the terraces. Just stunning! 

    After spending some time to take in the amazing views, we started descending towards Machu Picchu and saw the whole city clearer from the terraces which nowadays are used as the main viewpoint for the site. The closer we got to the site, the more amazed we felt. 

    I hope I haven't exhausted you completely with all the history because the main lesson is just about to start.

    Firstly a few fun facts for you: Hiram Bingham was an American academic and explorer who first found Machu Picchu in 1911 with the help of a local farmer and a nine year old boy called Pedro, who is
    known as the “first tour guide of Machu Picchu". Hiram Bingham was looking for the last lost city of the Incas and was on an expedition at the time. Pedro (the boy) showed Hiram Bingham around the site, but in the end, Hiram Bingham only stayed for two hours (less than tourists are allowed nowadays). That is because he decided that Machu Picchu can't be the lost city of the Incas and moved on towards the Amazon to continue his search. Apparently, he then found another Inca site, but as it was smaller than Machu Picchu, he decided to come back again to Machu Picchu with a newly organised expedition and explore the site a bit more carefully this time! That was lucky I guess... 

    Now a bit about the actual site: As we learnt on our tour, Inca cities were divided into four sectors - the royal/religious zone, the popular zone, the agricultural zone, and (in Machu Picchu) the sacred plaza.

    We started our tour at the main temple. This consists of a Sun (Inti) Temple above and, below the temple to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Unu (Water God) so all three of the most important Incan gods in one temple. The Pachamama temple was in a triangular shaped cave with no seats and just enough room for the priest. We ascended the stairs towards the Sun Temple and though we could not enter, we could see the difference in stonework quality from the nearby priest’s house (whose rooms are good quality stonework). This was the amazingly straight cut rock on rock construction, with no mortar!

    After this, we went to the King's house which was also incredible. Archaeologists say it must have been the King’s house as below him there is the water fountain street, so that he could have the first flow of water that enters Machu Picchu. In between his two rooms was a water mirror were if you pour water, you can see a reflection of the sun so that the king could talk to his father, the Sun (I mean, Incas didn’t have sun glasses)!

    Fun Fact: did you know that Inca beds were made of stone and hay?

    One of the most interesting buildings we visited was the Temple of the Condor. The Incas had carved a condor into a rock on the floor. Its head was on the floor and its wings were part of a different rock sticking up. The stonework was a bit odd, the room around the stone condor was nice, but on top of the condor there were some chambers for the priests to connect with the gods, and the stonework there was rather, well...drab. It was so 'un-Incan' as a construction which made me admire them even more for their ingenuity. 

    Here is an ironic anecdote: Even though the Spanish conquistadors never reached Machu Picchu, Spaniards still found a way to destroy it. How did they do that I hear you ask? Apparently, when the Spanish king Juan and Queen Sophia came to Machu Picchu, they took a helicopter. They decided to land the helicopter in the middle of the main square but because there was a rock in the way, they got the rock cut down so they could land the helicopter, disregarding the fact that the rock was probably another sacred or important rock. Silly, isn’t it? 

    I was so glad we did the trek, and was so proud of all of us for having made it. I really loved visiting the site and learnt so much from our guide JP and, although we were all tired by the end, I was sad when it was time to go. As a goodbye present, JP gave me and Ismene a replica kipu (knotted string used by the Incas for accounting and memorising) and a special haematite rock made of 70% iron, like that which the Incas would use for working stone in Machu Picchu. Very special gifts, from a very special guide to remind us of a very special adventure...

    After lunch in Aguas Calientes (the nearby town), we said goodbye to our trekking companions and enjoyed the amazing train ride back to the starting point in Ollantaytambo. The scenery was beautiful and we could still see Inca sites all along the valley from the train.

    Next time I write, we’ll be back in the Amazon rainforest so another amazing adventure awaits us. You definitely can't say that this is a boring blog...

    (You can read about Day 3, Day 2 and Day 1 here if you missed the posts)

    Thursday 27 June 2024

    Hiking the Inka trail to Machu Picchu Day 3

    Today, we had a later start at 5:30am which almost felt like a lazy lying-in.

    Before we started hiking, we were properly introduced to all our porters and chefs – they told us where they were from, what they carried in their bags during the trek and how many times or years they’ve been working on the trek. The youngest one was 19 years old and the oldest was 59 years old. Amazing right?

    After that, we started hiking aiming to reach our halfway point as early as possible so that we have time to relax and wait for the rest of the group. We could all feel our legs from yesterday's hike but the walk was enjoyable as we traversed through a mountain cloud forest up and back onto our favourite hilltops.

    We also passed through an old Inca tunnel which I thought was very impressive. JP found a small rope plat made by one of the locals of high grass. He told us all about the traditional way of making bridges which comes from the Inka times.

    He also described how once a year, the locals would cut the grass that grows at this part of the Andes and then twist and extend it to make ropes. The women twist the grass to make the ropes and the men make the bridge. Apparently, there is one such last bridge left in the area called Q'eswachaka and the rituals of remaking it take place in mid-June.

    When we reached the day’s highest point, we paused to catch our breath. And this was only to lose it again, when we took in the breath taking views of mountains, canyons, and the surrounding landscape that were without a doubt spectacular! 

    When we had relaxed, we went to a temple called Phuyupatamarca, a circular temple adorned with water fountains. Phuyupatamarca is at 3670 meters and because it's so high up, it's also known as 'The City above the Clouds'. JP said that it often feels like the whole site is floating above the clouds, but when we were there, the sun was shining bright and there was no clouds in the sky. He also explained to us that, scholars debate what Phuyupatamarca actually was, but there is a temple to the sun and several ceremonial fountains on the site. 

    After Phuyupatamarca, the landscape around me changed again to more jungly land. As I walked, I focused on this pristine environment which continually changed. After another hour or so of walking, I arrived at the Inca farming terraces called Intipata. Although the quality of Intipata's stonework was not as amazing as the other sites we've seen so far, it was very peaceful. In the end, I waited around two hours for the last people to arrive and because I really enjoyed the tranquillity of being there, I decided to stay with JP even after the rest of our group had left for our campsite.

    After a late lunch, we visited our last site before Machu Picchu, called Winay Wayna. Winay Wanya is an old Inca site that in Quechua means “forever young”. In Winya Wina, there is what some scholars think is a temple to the rainbow. You can see it if you look through its windows to the waterfall which is nearby. 

    That evening, our amazing chef Andres made us a cake! Can you believe it? How can they cook a cake without an oven you might wonder? We did too of course but I think the answer is they can because they are just amazing!

    At the end of the evening, we had one last goodbye ceremony with our porters to say thank you. As a group, we had to nominate someone to give a little speech to the porters and we all selected Ismene to do it. She's talked to so many of them during the first three days that it seemed appropriate for her to give the speech. We gathered all around and Ismene thanked them - in Spanish! - about carrying our things, the amazing food they provided but above all for their big smiles. Big smiles which seemed to get even bigger while she was giving the speech :)

    Machu Picchu tomorrow and I really can't wait. But we are getting up at 3am so I really need to get some sleep. Bye for now...

    Day 1 and Day 2 adventures on the trek if you missed them.