Stepping back in time

Cayman Free Press’s Dean Gendall takes a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Peru with his wife Elisabeth, taking time out to walk in the footsteps of the ancient and mysterious Incas. As told to Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull.
 
Even though we had planned a two week trip, with two full days of traveling there and back we had a huge amount that we wanted to accomplish in our trip to Peru, a journey that my wife and I had been planning and looking forward to for many months. As lovers of the outdoors and with a healthy supply of camping gear, the chance to walk in the Andes Mountains and experience the magic of such a remote part of the world seemed like the ideal vacation for the two of us.
 
So we initially headed for www.gapadventures.com a website that lets you customise your trip, depending on what you want to do.
 
Walking the Inca Trail is probably the most popular choice for visitors to Peru. But you have to book this tour months in advance because there is only a limited number who are permitted to undertake the trail at any given time. Even so, that number at 500 people is pretty high (add tour guides and other helpers into the mix and you are looking around 3,000 people) and we were looking for a more personalised tour with just a few touring companions, so we opted for the Inca Discovery eight day tour, which would still see us tread in ancient footsteps and see unbelievably stunning and unique scenery.
 
Our journey began with our first flight to Miami, that hub that seems to connect half the world, including North with Central and South America. We then headed South to Lima, the capital of Peru, a six hour journey that was not too taxing, particularly as Peru is on the same time zone as the Cayman Islands.
 
A grey city
We had pre-organised a car pick up at the airport to take us to our hotel as we had heard that they do their best to hustle tourists and then rip you off. As we became more confident we took taxis to get around. The trick was to agree your taxi fee up front, not particularly easy as none of the taxi drivers appeared to speak English and we had only a smattering of Spanish between us, but we managed to get by.
 
Lima is an incredibly grey city. Situated as it is with the cold Pacific Ocean breezes and the warm Andes air currents breezing through, the sky is almost always heavy with cloud, although there is little rainfall. It’s dark and dingy, chaotic and very poor, yet we felt safe though we were always aware of our surroundings.
 
The three traditional staples of Peruvian cuisine are corn, potatoes and beans. Peru has 200 species of potatoes, 150 varieties of sweet potatoes, and 35 different corn varieties. Even so, as a vegetarian, eating was a bit of a nightmare because most of the restaurants seemed to want to cater to Western tourists and so the menus were heavy on meat and not much else, though we did manage to find a Hare Krishna vegetarian restaurant that did vegetarian pizzas, which became my staple for the short time we were Lima.
 
Absorbing the culture
After our short stay in Lima we headed to Cusco, which was a short one hour flight away and was the largest city and capital of the Inca Empire. It is advisable to start your tour here with a couple of days to get acclimatised as we were 3,400 metres above sea level, with altitude sickness well and truly kicking in at around 3,000 metres above sea level.
 
The city is alive with churches and museums. A must-see is the ancient cathedral in the city centre located at the Plaza de Armas. Built in 1560, it was finally finished in 1668 and is located over one of the most important temples in the Inca period dedicated to the God Wiracocha. Its Gothic and Baroque architecture is incredibly ornate and amazing to view. I took time to sketch some of the beautiful doorways with their intricate carving that could only have been produced by master craftsmen.
 
Interestingly, for all the history of a few hundred years ago, there appears very little in the way of ancient Inca relics. There are some located at the museums but it seems this ancient civilization exists more by word-of-mouth than by physical remains or recorded history.
 
The trek begins
The next day saw us meeting with our tour group who were going to join us on our trek through the Lares Valley in the Andes Mountains. We chose this trip because it promised to give us a real taste of life in the Andes, with treks through remote villages and farms and the chance to get close to the lives of the people in this isolated and demanding location.  We loved the idea of trekking with just eight people or so to a group, with a tour guide, a tent helper, a cook and two herdsmen for company.   

Most of our traveling companions were like us – in the mid twenties to mid thirties age group, professionals from countries such as Ireland, Canada and Japan looking for an adventurous holiday. 
 
We were all advised not to pack bags weighing more than eight kg per person as they would be carried for us. We could take up to 20 kg on our backs, just about the maximum you can comfortably lift while trekking. Despite the fact that our band of helpers was tiny, they managed to produce a superlative service, producing three course meals and magically setting up camp ahead of us without our even realising it. We were well looked after.
 
To aid us with our altitude sickness (to which every visitor succumbs at some point) the guide showed us how to chew on cocoa leaves, which left a numbing sensation in the mouth but which was actually very effective in staving off the horrible nausea and intense headache that the illness often produces. We found however that you do have to suffer those symptoms for about a day and once you’ve got through them you are fully acclimatised and don’t suffer the symptoms again.
 
The Andes Mountains are truly breathtaking in their serenity. It was easy for us to understand what an important role these majestic symbols of Mother Nature played in the ancient history of the region, with the Incas looked at as gods.
 
Our location meant that although we were comfortable trekking in long pants and light jackets in the daytime it was freezing at night and we both froze in many layers of clothing under thermal sleeping blankets.
 
A different way of life
Getting to know the locals and their way of life was a big part of our short trip. We get the chance to visit with a family who lived in a tiny house made from mud. Bearing gifts as is the tradition of rice, cooking oil, cocoa leaves and fruit, we were invited into their home. Their accommodation was very basic, with cow’s manure making up the stove area and lama meat curing from the ceiling. Even so the smell was actually not unbearable in this tiny dwelling, home to an extended family of a good many people.
 
Our next day saw us splinter from some members of our group and join up with new members, such is the flexibility of the tours that are available, and we were again able to visit with local people and appreciate their way of life, which interestingly produces less in terms of agriculture now than it did during the Inca times.
 
We desperately wanted to see Machu Picchu (the stunning ruined city of the Incas high up in the mountains and untainted by the invasion of the Spanish, which put an end to Inca rule in the 16th Century) and so took a bus tour high up to the start of the tour. It was a good deal bigger than we had expected and majestic and serene, despite the 800 or so visitors that day.
 
One interesting fact we learnt there – for a civilization whose wealth was based on gold, they only ever discovered one single gold coin in the location.
 
All in all we spent five days trekking and then spent a further four days in Puno and on Lake Titicaca for more breath taking scenery and another day in Cusco, where we again enjoyed visiting elaborate and ornate churches. From there it was another short hop back to Lima, an overnight in the capital city before heading back to Miami and then home. It was an incredible adventure.

steppingSM

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