Always expect the unexpected
“Always expect the unexpected” is a mantra I have always lived my life by. But when two unexpecteds happen in one month you begin to wonder if this is wise. The first was a diagnosis, out of the blue, of breast cancer and the second was an email entitled “Congratulations Winner of Peru Holiday Competition with Lima Floral, Journey Latin America & Crees.” Me? Must be a joke? An incredulous phone call confirmed I had really won. Thank God the message had come through and not gone to Spam or Junk Mail or I might still be kicking myself as I had to respond within two weeks.
My husband could not understand why I was so excited with the operation looming the following week but it was exactly the sort of positive focus I needed and five weeks later, having been told I did not need chemotherapy, I rang JLA and booked our trip. By this time I was beyond excited!
Peru was recently named as one of the “must-do” destinations because it is now safe, there is huge scenic and cultural variety, it’s still not on the mass tourism trail, the food is fantastic and BA have started direct flights. I had only had a brief business stopover there 25 years ago so it was certainly one of my "must-dos".
Our prize had a specified itinerary that gave us a brilliant introduction to the country. There were a lot of early morning departures, and I mean early morning like 5am-early-morning, but it just meant we went to bed early. I took my 15-year-old daughter as the prize was a trip for two and lo and behold my 20-year-old son studying Physics at Edinburgh decided he needed a break if I was happy to pay for him! My other son and my husband remained in England; one to study for his A-levels, the other to supervise said study!
We landed in Lima, stayed the night and flew out to Cusco but even the drive to and from the airport gave us a flavour of the world’s driest capital: from the up-market commercial area of Miraflores to views of the Pacific and the Peruvian’s love of dogs! As you fly to Cusco the plane banks to allow views of the Andes. The Andes define Peru’s weather, they contain the highest tropical peaks in the world and multiple mountains over 5,000m. This blocks the wet weather from the Amazon and, combined with the cold currents from the Pacific, keeps the coast parched.
Cusco must be one of the loveliest cities I have ever visited: it sprawls up the surrounding hills but the colonial centre is a Unesco world heritage site and is simply stunning. The streets are still cobbled; despite earthquakes the centre has reassuringly remained almost untouched. The cathedral and church interiors are literally bathed with gold and silver and the statues are draped with brocade and flowers. It feels really Latino and the devotion is palpable. The pictures of the festival of Corpus Christi in June depict a religious fervour that helps define Peru. It is a meeting point of the Catholic Church, the Spanish conquistadors and the Inca traditions and you get the feeling that Peruvians have huge pride in the melting pot of history that shapes the country today.
Peru is colourful - there is no holding back on the bright button. Pisaq market epitomises it; it’s one of the most vibrant markets you’ll ever come across with ladies adorned in typical dress, pulling reluctant lambs and alpacas. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, teas - you name it, it’s there. Interesting fact: 5,000 types of potatoes can be found in Peru and many of them are on sale in Pisaq. The San Pedro market in Cusco is equally amazing - it’s a sensory overload of smells, colour, and noise. It sees families sitting at long communal tables to feast on chicken soup next to a whole row of the best-looking juice bars.
We were blown away by the food everywhere in Peru but particularly in Cusco where we spent ages working out which restaurants we should go to. We checked out Green’s Organic restaurant just round the corner from our hotel and then in the evenings we worked through Marcelo Batata, Cicciolina, which was amazing, Pacha Papa for Jack’s guinea pig, and Chicha. We are huge foodies and nothing disappointed.
If you are coming to Peru it’s really worth reading a bit about the Inca culture beforehand as it’s hard to understand quite how the chronology fits in with the Aztecs (who were mainly in Mexico and Central America from the 14th-16th centuries) and the Mayan civilization (also Mexico and Central America), which is believed to have stretched from 2,000 BC to the 1600s, let alone with what was happening in the rest of the world. The Inca civilization arose in the highlands of Peru sometime in the early 13th century and the last Inca stronghold was conquered by the Spanish in 1572. Cusco was the capital.
The interest lies in what they achieved with very little, compared to the Europeans and Chinese at the same time. Machu Picchu was built with no metal tools and they did not have any wheels to transport things. Yet they built one of the best road networks over hostile terrain anywhere in the world. They perfected the art of stone cutting and their agriculture was very sophisticated. Our trip to the Sacred Valley was very enlightening on many of these aspects and prepared us to some extent for Machu Picchu.
I say prepared us somewhat because it must be one of the most photographed places in the world. Part of me had not wanted to jump on the bandwagon just to be able to tick off another world heritage sight but winning the competition gave me no option but to go. The train journey from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes was great fun, the Vistadome train allows you to see the spectacular gorge you travel down. It must be the only train to feature a play and a fashion show! A bus then takes you up a zigzag hill to the ruins.
The first thing that hits you is that all the photos seem to just show the ruins but there are the most wonderful mountains all around and glimpses of the Andes beyond as the clouds part. Second, you can marvel at its isolation and the fact that the Inca’s managed to hide it from the Spanish and that it lay in ruins until an American historian and explorer, Hiram Bingham found it in July 1911. The stonework is phenomenal and the effort to lift the blocks on top of one another let alone to get them to fit like a glove is incredible. Of course, Hagia Sophia, Chartres Cathedral and Eton College were all either built before or during the construction of Machu Picchu but they all lack its location.
It is far more extensive than the postcards show and my children climbed Machu Picchu Mountain the following day to look down upon the whole area. They said this was a gruelling climb, probably because they went at breakneck speed, but totally worth it. You have to book tickets in advance. I took the easier option and visited the excellent Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Bailon and a butterfly farm and pottered around yet more markets in Aguas Calientes.
The third leg of our wonderful trip was to the Crees Foundation and The Manu Learning Centre in the heart of the Manu Biosphere reserve. The aim of the Crees Foundation is to support a sustainable Amazon through better understanding of the value of the rainforest; to further research into the biodiversity of the area and to promote greater awareness of the fragile environment surrounding the people who live there. One of the most productive aspects of their work is to encourage women particularly to grow their own fruit and vegetables so they can be self-sufficient and earn an income with any surplus. Most of the supplies of fresh food have to be transported from Cusco so it is important to reduce the reliance on this.
The MLC is situated next to the beautiful Alto Madre de Dios river (what a wonderful name) which we would have loved to be part of our daily commute. It is so peaceful and you feel liberated being cut off from the rest of the world. We visited the macaw clay lick to watch the birds get essential minerals from the rocks and to socialize. We had a hilarious trip out on a pontoon in a lake to see the Hoatzin or stink bird. It’s a revelation to scientists because it has dinosaur-like claws when the young hatch and may well be the missing link between birds and mammals. Our craft got marooned on an island much to the consternation of the 15-strong Chinese party waiting on the banks to go out before it got dark! Back on shore we made friends with the cutest, rescued capybara ever, still a quarter of its eventual size, which would make it the size of a small Shetland pony.
So long as you are not squeamish about a few cockroaches in your bedroom and having to walk to the shower block, the jungle experience offered by MLC is wonderful. Just getting back was an adventure with the road blocked by a fresh landslide that we helped clear. The lady at the entrance to the cloud forest weaves some of the most beautiful runners I saw anywhere. I am now the proud owner of one!
Peru was a revelation, I have travelled and lived all over the world and my husband and I are currently obsessed with trying to explore as much of India as possible but I have told him that we now need to alternate India with Peru as there is so much I still want to do and see. First on my list is Lima, then floating on the reed islands of Lake Titicaca, Arequipa, a return to Cusco, trekking the Cordillera Blanca and then heading up to the northern beaches for some R and R!
What an amazing trip: Thank you Journey Latin America, Lima Floral and Crees Foundation. It was the best recuperation I could have wished for. We all loved our time there and have many happy memories. We are also so pleased we took it in April, the weather was great and not too hot and the crowds in Cusco and especially Machu Picchu were really very unobtrusive.
By Caroline Lane.
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