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Beyond Machu Picchu

13 January 2017


Elizabeth's travel tips:

  1. Be open minded (this actually applies for any trip!).
  2. Budget about CAD$15 a day for lunch and about CAD$30 a day for dinner - portions are huge though so you can easily share with a friend.
  3. Good buys at the markets are textiles, artwork and silver jewellery - some vendors are willing to negotiate on price whereas others aren’t, so be willing to walk away.
  4. Consult a travel clinic and take what they prescribe - although I took an anti-malarial medication but didn’t get bit once, others were badly bitten. Plus I also took pills to prevent altitude sickness and was one of only a few that felt no ill-effects on the trip.
  5. Carry coins of 1, 2 or 5 soles to use for washrooms (bring your own TP) and taking photos of “llama mamas”.
  6. Opt for the very best footwear you can afford, with non-slip treads - the cobblestones are well-worn and very slippery even when dry (especially in Cusco).
  7. Take the hotel’s business card with you when you head out so that if you get lost, you can show the card to a taxi driver and they’ll know exactly where to take you.

Our first was spent doing a city tour of Lima, which included a visit to the Monastery of San Francisco and Museo y Catacumbas de San Francisco de Lima (catacombs—no photos allowed). For lunch, I went to Alfresco Seafood Restaurant where I had authentic Peruvian ceviche and excellent causa. The service at the restaurant was extremely slow, but I quickly realised that’s the norm in Peru... especially since dining in Peru is a social occasion and not one to be rushed. In the evening, we visited Parque de la Reserva (gorgeous fountain/light/laser/music show) and then had a phenomenal dinner at Caplina; one of the restaurants where we experienced very prompt service.

We boarded a Star Peru flight from Lima to Puerto Maldonado. Although professional, the flight crew on Star Peru weren't very warm or friendly but that didn't impact the AMAZING views. I’ve seen many gorgeous views through aeroplane windows, but seeing the Andes was truly remarkable! The Himalayas are at about 7000-8000m above sea level and the highest Peruvian Peak (Huascaran Sur) is at 6768m above sea level. Although I hope to someday see the Himalayan Ranges, for now i was rather happy to have been privileged to see the Andes.

I can’t praise the EcoAmazonia Lodges enough and they far exceeded my expectations. First, we all went to the common area (with couches and billiard and ping-pong table) where we met the owner and received our instructions and advice on how to stay safe.

We were then given our keys and went to check out our accommodations or ‘jungalows’. As you can see in the photos, the rooms are very well equipped, clean and authentic to the surroundings. But what you can’t see in the photos is the temperature nor feel the humidity!! When we left Toronto, they were experiencing a heatwave in Southwestern Ontario, which had the humidex at 42. The ‘jungalow’ felt like 52 degrees celsius with not a hint of a breeze of any sort. It was so humid in the room that it made me very sleepy (we had been up since 5am too!) and so I laid down to just close my eyes for a minute... and promptly fell into the deepest sleep! What woke me up was the puddle of sweat in my eardrum (yes it was THAT hot!) and when I glanced at my watch I saw that it was 3:33pm!! I leapt out of bed, simultaneously rousing my room-mate from her 'nap' before bolting to the meeting area. We were both a bit flustered that we’d overslept and possibly missed the afternoon jungle hike, but thankfully the group was still there and we were good to go!

Our guide, Elmer, a walking-talking encyclopedia of the flora & fauna of the Peruvian jungle, was excellent! I had a strong suspicion that Elmer had a sixth sense when it came to wildlife because he spotted monkeys far off into the distance and way before any of us saw them. In fact, we only saw them because he had pointed them out to us!

Back at our ‘jungalow’, dinner was simple but delicious. At about 5-5.30pm, the hydro turned on so that we could recharge our devices and then it was lights out - as in literally - at 10:00pm.

(On that note: if you have the type of lifestyle/career which requires you to be “plugged in” at all times, Peru might not be the best destination for you. Many hotels have free Wi-Fi, and there are hotspots all over the place, but whether you can actually connect - and stay connected - is another whole story. I'm an avid Facebook and Instagram user but I was fully prepared to be offline on a daily basis (or for several days) and it was actually quite refreshing!)

Howler monkeys woke me up one morning at 4am - it was a very eerie and sounded like there were thousands of them off in the jungle. During our stay at EcoAmazonia, we saw tarantulas, went to the Caiman Pond (once at night with just the moonlight overhead in search of caiman), to the lake to see some views from the observation platform (don't forget your binoculars!) and not only saw but learnt all about fire ants, leaf-cutter ants, and one type of ant that was used in place of sutures! We also learned about various trees including the Iron Trees, Elephant Trees, Telephone-Of-The- Jungle Trees and Justice Tree.

The highlight for me though was when we went to Monkey Island and saw three varieties of monkeys up close - I even had a spider monkey sit on my shoulders! As a former vegan and someone who cares for all animals, to have a wild animal in its natural environment choose to come sit on me - and drape his/her arm across my face - was truly one of the best moments of my life!

After the jungle stay, we headed to Cusco and although I’m not much of a “city girl” - I have to admit I loved it. The city is so vibrant and just begging to be photographed with its many festivities, celebrations, costumes, great food, art, history, nightlife and two great markets.

Next on our itinerary was Ollantaytambo (I happened to be walking behind a woman with her little girl of about three or four that kept repeating over and over “Oh-yun-tie-tum-bow”... so that’s how I learned how to pronounce the name of this town!). We visited Awana Kancha to learn about alpacas and llamas (and how to tell one from the other). We learned how their wool was dyed and we did a little souvenir shopping. Prices for authentic alpaca products are high but if you buy from the vendors here, you're guaranteed to get the real deal and not something that’s part alpaca and part cotton.

I have to be honest and admit that Machu Picchu, as lovely as it was, wasn’t the most impressive site for me. That honour would have to go to the Pisac Ruins, the Sacred Valley and drive to Puno - much more “WOW” as far as I was concerned. Machu Picchu was incredible and I’m still pinching myself when I look through the photos I took there, but the sheer vastness and as-far-as-your-eyes-can-see majestic beauty of The Sacred Valley and Pisac truly took my breath away.

Next day, we walked from our hotel in Ollantaytambo to the train station (10-15 minute walk) where we boarded the train to the town of Aguas Calientes (more commonly known as Machu Picchu Pueblo). Travelling on PeruRail was excellent - we sat in faux-leather seats, with a small table and at-seat-service of beverages and snacks. I almost felt like I was on the Peruvian equivalent of the Rocky Mountaineer because of the panoramic views and the windows that went all the way up to the ceiling.

The train took us to Machu Picchu Pueblo, then we boarded a motorcoach which zig-zagged along hair-pin roads. Visiting Machu Picchu - one of the Wonders of the World - was something I’d wanted to do since grade school but never thought it would come to be. Even as I had my photo taken, with the incredible view of Machu Picchu behind me, I felt like I was dreaming.

We headed back to Cusco for a couple of days of leisure, shopping, and sightseeing. I visited Qorikancha (Coricancha Monastery) and the Santo Domingo Convent, which was beautiful.

There are plenty of dining options in Cusco and definitely something for all. The restaurants that our wonderful guide, Fabio, recommended to us were fantastic. I’m a foodie and have high standards but I can honestly say that I enjoyed every single meal I had in Peru. Plus some of the restaurants we had dinner at included local performers, so that's always nice.

On day nine we boarded what Tucan refers to as their “Overland Vehicles” but I’m calling them “Tucan Tanks”. The 18-tonne Mercedes Benz was divided into two levels - the bottom is used for luggage & camping equipment (you could likely fit another vehicle down there too!) and the top level offers enough seating for a small village, plus a tiny library at the back and two card-tables in the front.

Lunch was a simple road-side picnic but with views like something from Hollywood!!

Sitting up front in the cab of the “tank”with our driver, Martin (a very interesting Dutchman) and Tucan Rep, Tony, was great - as long you could get yourself through “the shute”. The cab had 180-degree panoramic views of the amazing scenery and I knew at that moment that no one would ever see that exact view again. It's one of the things that I love most about adventure travel, no two people will ever have the same experience. Ever.

Martin and the Tucan Tank took us to Puno, a busy town of about 120,000 people, all of whom seemed to be out on the streets when we arrived. In comparison to Cusco and Lima, Puno felt very chaotic. We had a nice dinner (I tried quinoa ice cream for the first time) and entertainment that included audience participation.

Day ten of our trip was a 10 out of 10 from me! It was an early start but as soon as we saw the tuk-tuks parked out front of our hotel, we knew we were in for a fun day. The tuk-tuks transferred us to the pier where we boarded the boats for the ride across Lake Titicaca to visit the Uros Islanders. And then it was on to Taquile Island for a rigorous climb up to an alfresco lunch of quinoa soup, fresh trout and veggies.

The boat was very comfortable - you could sit indoors where it was warm, or outside at the back of the boat, or even up top on the roof! I chose to sit outside because the air was fresh and crisp and the sun was shining. The floating reed islands of the Uros people was very interesting and the people so friendly and welcoming. We even had the opportunity to dress in the bright colours worn by the local ladies.... we were sure a colourful bunch!

We also experienced the reed boats (I actually even rowed one for a bit – very hard work!) and visited the school there (a rare privilege), where the children sang to us in four different languages. The lake itself is massive! I knew that it was the world’s highest navigable lake but I didn’t realise it was so vast! I kept looking for whales and dolphins and then gave myself a shake with a reminder that I was on a lake and not an ocean!

Avianca flew us back to Lima where we had some free time to explore before heading to the airport. I visited the JFK Park (aka Cat Park) and promptly got myself lost - which is actually one of my favourite things to do. It’s a great way to learn more about an area you’re new to, as long as you have comfy shoes on and don’t wander into any dangerous parts of town. After a few hours of being lost, I found my way back to the Santa Cruz Hotel (where our bags were waiting for us). Rather befittingly, we had our group farewell dinner at Caplina, which is the same restaurant.where our trip started.

Group travel, especially small group travel with like-minded people, is a great way to experience a new destination. More importantly, having knowledgeable guides is crucial. At the out-set of this trip, I was a bit wary because I wasn’t familiar with Tucan Travel. During the trip, I learned that they’ve actually been in the business for many years (from 1987 to be exact) and if I was asked to rate Tucan Travel between 1 to 10, I’d give them a 9. Everything ran like clockwork, all the guides were excellent, there were no hiccups or delays, everything was well organised and if anyone had any small issues, they were handled quickly and professionally. The reason I give them 9 and not 10 out of 10 is because I would have liked to have known ahead of time how much to set aside for all the great drivers and guides we had taking care of us.

We were told to budget about USD$30 a day for meals but it would be good to know ahead of time how much we should budget for gratuities. Although there were ATM’s in major cities, as I bank with TD, some of the ATM’s in Cusco didn’t recognise my debit card and only the ATM at Scotiabank accepted it. There was also a service fee of 15 soles (about CAD$7) per transaction but as I could only withdraw 400 soles at a time, I paid a lot in transaction fees.

Peru is a fantastic destination for the adventure traveller. If you like your adventures to include 5-star accommodation, that can be arranged but I appreciated the experience I had with Tucan on this trip – it was more authentic and I truly felt like I was in South America.

This was my first time travelling with only a backpack and staying in three-star accommodations, but all the hotels were well located, clean and with beds that gave me a better night's sleep than I have at home! And I never felt unsafe. For me, being a foodie, amateur photographer and lover of nature, Peru’s got everything I could want or need.

Story by: Elizabeth Lakic, Canada

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