Touching on Peru, Bolivia & Chile
In my backpacker days, I'd been known to turn up at the airport with just a wad of travellers cheques (yes, that old!), a can do attitude and a change of smalls. But as I grew older and travelling became more of a privilege and a passion, I began to understand that travel demands a bit of respect - and a well-planned itinerary! So with bags packed, Spanish translation app loaded, and a couple of days travel later - we arrived in Cuzco, Peru!
It's a beautiful city built on the foundations of the Inca Palaces - and also my first introduction to the breathlessness and surrealness that accompanies living at high altitude... my respect for mountain climbers is now enormous. With narrow, cobbled streets, wooden balconies and some very cool shops & restaurants surrounding its beautiful square, Cuzco was a real treat. It's also a great place to tempt the taste buds with something different – alpaca, quinoa, ceviche or if you fancy, guinea pig, which comes complete with paws and teeth. Wash it down with a pisco sour cocktail and all is right with the world. Here's a rather surprising fact I learnt - Peru boasts around 4,000 varieties of potato! Who knew!
Sacred Valley in Peru’s Andean highlands provided us with a very clear cold night, and a wonderful hour spent planet spotting. To have finally seen the rings of Saturn was amazing.
Next day was a massive tick off the bucket list with Machu Picchu. Beautiful, majestic, magical... it is, as has often been written, far and away one of the high points of world tourism! To have lived in the clouds and woken to such natural beauty evoked a world well and truly passed, but the sense of space and time left a lasting impression.
At the foot of the mountain is the great little town of Aguas Calientes; a strange cross between a relaxed backpacker stop & an old fashioned gold rush town. It provides an excellent place to dust off the bargaining skills – but just exactly how many alpaca beanies does a girl need? I would have liked to blame the coca tea but was disturbed to establish that it wasn’t at all.
Peru is the third largest country in South America and currently more than half is covered by jungle and rainforest, with the largest and most famous of all, the Amazon, located in the northeast. The diverse flipside are the dry, barren landscapes that reminded me of the Mackenzie Basin before the irrigators, and the incredible soaring, jagged mountains.
In centuries past, the native people had a hard time with the Spanish conquerors and their love of gold, who tore down existing temples only to rebuild Catholic churches on the ruins. The church still remains strong with 85 -90% of the country being Catholic and the mythical gold city of El Dorado staying hidden from light fingers.
Due to festival celebrations closing access to us, we had to approach one of the world’s highest cities, La Paz (Bolivia), by an alternative route. It seemed like hours that we drove through the dusty, dark, ugly, deserted mud brick wasteland that was the ‘burbs before we popped over the hilltop and gazed down at the mecca below us. A city laid out before you at night is always pretty special, but La Paz was exciting right from the get go! The steep narrow hairpin bends as we zigzagged our way slowly down the mountain face made me appreciate a good driver like never before and a quick stop at the foot to check the (smoking) brakes was deemed absolutely essential. I found this city beautiful in an unexpected way -especially as there was not a blade of grass or natural green to be seen. No room for ponies or cows in this world, but it does have the most amazing aerial cable car transit system. Opened in 2014, the city is crisscrossed currently by three lines with five more to come, with each line capable of moving 6,000 people per hour... brilliant, clean and from the tourist point of view, pretty damn cool!!
When you're on the back doorstep of some of the world’s best (read dangerous) mountain biking roads, and ski fields that have shut (read global warming), La Paz offers up a city that from its bowl-like location gazes on the surrounding, striking views with the commonplace attitude you can only get from seeing something this remarkable very day.
The Bolivian/Chilean border crossing we chose is only to be suggested if you truly enjoy stark landscape and looking behind the tourist façade at unusual and deserted villages. As La Paz was in the grip of a strike, the border had days worth of affected truckers lined up to cross, but we whizzed by before slowly making our way through the stunning Atacama Desert to arrive in our departure city of Santiago.
Weaving its magic, Santiago hums with things to do and see. We decided to start the day with a touch of the grape as let's be honest, Chilean wine is excellent and its estates marvellous... so it would have been a shame to leave without partaking just a little.
The colourful houses, astonishing centuries old funiculars and amazing street artist graffiti in the seaside town of Valparaiso is highly recommended to any itinerary.
Santiago itself is a city that doesn’t disappoint. Climb Saint Lucia hill for a panoramic view of the city, evening drinks in Bellavista; the colourful bohemian district and, of course, lunch at Mercado Central is fantastic.
Having barely scratched the surface of these fantastic countries and when you have so little time to spend travelling each year, I definitely believe a well-constructed itinerary is one of the best things you can spend your money on.