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Surprising Peru

While our expectations of Central and South America have generally been confounded in every way, Peru was particularly surprising. It started with our first long bus journey through the country, where for a pittance we were ushered aboard an incredibly plush coach, fitted out with WiFi, plug sockets and reclining chairs so huge my feet couldn’t touch the floor. The luxury was incongruous when streets lined with rubbish – and over-run with dusty or muddy dogs, depending on the weather – passed us outside, jarringly set to a soundtrack of 80s disco or the unfortunately ubiquitous loud, violent film. As we sailed through vast desert and gaped at the huge, sculpted sand dunes that lined roads blasted through rock, stewards would bring us hot dinners, precariously pouring soft drinks from strange angles as the driver took on road bends or passing vehicles at great speed. I would learn later that this luxury came at a cost: three of such journeys in there’d be a 100% record on dodgy bellies following our free feed; nonetheless, the coaches themselves made the vast journeys all the more palatable in other ways.

Our first stop would be in the coastal town of Trujillo. While nice enough there was nothing hugely exciting about our arrival – that was until we asked our taxi driver to take us to our hostel, the wonderfully named Hostal Wanka. As has become a habit with us, our driver knew nothing of it so proceeded to yell “Wanka? Si, WANKA!!” across the station forecourt. Things were looking up.

From here we’d explore the pre-Incan Moche ruins dotted around and inside the town. While simple in their design, the carefully crafted structures were covered in intricate decoration and found to be full of ceremonial pots, jugs and jewellery. From the dusty plains of Trujillo we then found ourselves in sparkling Lima, a world away from clay-carved ruins and full of busy highways, cosmopolitan neighbourhoods and all the American brands you could hope to avoid. While on the surface Lima seemed polished and impossibly refined, there were corners of alternative culture and grit to be found, especially in the Barranco district where fantastic ceviche canteens rubbed shoulders with homemade T-shirt shops, miscellany-filled pubs and some very excellent pisco sours.

Our longest bus journey yet – 24 hours, which stretched to 27 – took us all the way to Cusco. We didn’t hang around, instead booking our passes for Machu Picchu and heading straight for Ollantaytambo, a town set in the valley of the giant mountains that lead the way to the site itself. From here we’d catch our first train, the well-appointed Inca Rail that was quickly (and maturely) renamed by me as the Machu Picchu-Chu. On board we were served warming muña tea as we passed through dramatic landscapes full of towering mountains and fast-flowing rapids, stopping alongside fields full of llamas and brightly dressed locals as trains passed the other way. At Agua Calientes we prepared for the next day’s trip to Machu Picchu then hid from the rain in a surprisingly authentic Parisian boulangerie, run by a French man also fluent in Spanish, English and Glaswegian.

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Paris in Peru

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By 5 the next morning we were waiting for the first bus to the national park, suitably British in our eagerness to be the first there. And we were – as the gates opened we were third and fourth in and treated to the sight of a cloud-shrouded Machu Picchu awakening to the light without another person in view. Unable to hike (it being February, when the trail is closed) we nevertheless treated our legs to an excoriating work-out tackling Machu Picchu mountain, a 2-hour climb up a haphazardly steep staircase. At the top we were rewarded with the sight of… nothing much at all, the site being shrouded in very specifically placed cloud. Luckily the mist would pass, allowing as a short view of Machu Picchu in miniature before the steady climb down.

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The great Machu Piccu

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Suitably awed by the Incas and their perseverance in building something so huge and beautiful on land so high we returned to Cusco, though not before sampling unexpectedly good coffee and cake at Cafe Mayu in Ollantaytambo’s station. From Cusco we travelled to Puno, a fairly uninspiring and shambolic town with the redeeming feature of providing a gateway to Lake Titicaca.

The lake would be our final surprise in Peru, and a wonderful one at that. On a whim we took a small boat to the Uros Islands, a man-made archipelago of reed islands inhabited by indigenous people who live off the water, its fish, and the boats that bring tourists keen to learn more. We were greeted by a handful of families all dressed in traditionally colourful dress, the women displaying long braids tied with fantastically bright pom poms. As we quietly baked in the scorching heat, we learnt about the islands, their reed houses and the solar panels that brought more modern capabilities, then browsed the stalls of handmade throws, mobiles and bracelets before trundling home – this time having learnt to duck the water balloons lobbed from the entranceway to the islands by laughing locals.

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#hairgoals Isla de los Uros, Lake Titicaca

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The following day we booked a tour to Amantani Island, passing the Uros once again on our journey east. After a slow and stuffy boat ride we were greeted on the pier by a handful of women bedecked in traditional long skirts and head-coverings. Smiling Mathilde would be our host so we, along with fellow travellers Sol and David, followed her up steep paths to her home, where we were greeted with stunning views across the lake, a garden full of flowers and a small pen of sheep eyeing us suspiciously.

Later Mathilde’s son Roger would take us to the great hills at the summit of the island, Pachamama and Pachatati. On the way we passed the ordered system of ‘parceles’, an allotment-like system used by all the villages on the island as a way of cultivating the right number of different crops. At the top we would take in the vast, still water of Lake Titicaca that spread as far as the eye could see. Later, as we sat down to dinner with the family, they would explain the self-sufficient nature of life there, and describe how each house and its surrounding land would be passed through the family, ensuring traditions were kept and foreign business avoided. Exhausted from our day and the altitude, we were in bed by 8, to be woken at dawn by the rising sun and the sounds of hungry sheep and braying donkeys.

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Lake Titicaca

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Breakfast was once again with the family – warm quinoa pancakes, fresh muña tea, boiled eggs and bread. We said our sad goodbyes and promised to spread the word before Mathilde walked us down to the pier and waved off our trundling boat. The following day we’d be on yet another bus, heading for Bolivia. It would have a lot to live up to in comparison.

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Amantani breakfast

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Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

If we’d been asked what we thought the Galapagos Islands were like before we arrived, we might have mentioned Attenborough picking his way across exta-terrestrial terrain to shoot the breeze with Lonesome George, Darwin desperately trying to stop his crew from eating all the delicious turtules, or expensive cruises full of retirees in khaki cargo pants and fanny packs. For us it seemed unlikely we’d make it that far, what with our dwindling savings and time.

We knew the only way we could do it would be by ourselves, and had been lucky to find flights from Quito for $300 less than we’d seen elsewhere. Some trawling through travel blogs had given us a rough itinerary, and for once, we booked everything we could in advance so we had an idea of what we were going to do. But nothing could have prepared us for what it was actually like.

We set down in Baltra and after a short boat ride were soon driving through hot, flat desert towards Santa Cruz, the biggest island on the archipelago. By the time we arrived, a thick sea haar had rolled in but, undeterred, we set out for the famous Darwin Station. It wasn’t long until we were in amongst the wildlife: sun-baked sea iguanas that chose to sleep anywhere they pleased, trees full of pelicans, radioactive red crabs scuttling across black lava rock. At the station we met the great, giant tortoises, as well as startling gold land iguanas, fatter and far more regal than their sea-faring cousins.

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Golden land iguana, Galapagos

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Determined to make the most of our time we set daily alarms to be up around dawn. The following morning we headed out or a days’ kayaking, packing breakfast and the ever-necessary sun block. With rough directions we made it across the busy boat thoroughfare and the worst of the waves, and were soon tying our kayak to the nearest pier. It was here we encountered our first animal intervention – a large, slumbering sea lion that blocked us from climbing the steps out of the water. In due respect to the native residents we scrabbled up the rocks instead, tiny red crabs disappearing into holes around our feet.

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Gate keeper

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We took the short path away from the pier and emerged at Playa de Los Perros, a stretch of rocky beach and black lava outcrop. There were no other people in sight, but as we set down for our basic breakfast (bread, cream cheese, water) we were soon being eye-balled by great male sea iguanas as they ambled towards the shore. Once fed we took the path back to the pier and dug out the snorkels, following snaking lines of fish along the waters’ edge and encountering our first lazy green turtles, chewing on sea grass a few feet away.

On our way back we took a detour into a small inlet, paddling alongside busy iguanas crossing the water, and a solitary blue-footed boobie sitting on the surface. Soon the tell-tale splashes around us revealed two young sea lions, apparently keen to show off their best Eskimo rolls. Tackling the stretch across to the main pier proved trickier this time around, but properly soaked and seriously sun-baked, we pulled ourselves ashore.

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Boobie

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The following day brought an early-morning dive, our group heading out to a crop of smaller islands on an impressive sailing boat. There wasn’t time to hang about  – the choppy sea and strong currents meant we had to descend as soon as we were in the water – but once submerged, the setting was altogether calmer. Minutes in, we saw what we’d come for: two huge hammerhead sharks an arms’ length from us. Later, the current would pick up and sling-shot us across the water; while I tried to remain roughly horizontal, Chris decided it was the optimum time to make the waggley-antennae sign for “lobster”. Needless to say, while travelling at 100 miles an hour upside-down underwater, I didn’t see it.

A 2 hour, bumpy boat ride took us across to Isabella island the following day. Once properly orientated we went to the local snorkelling spot, an inlet surrounded on one side by mangroves, and a working pier on the other. After picking our way past the obligatory iguanas and sea lions, we jumped in. At first swimming around great groups of flailing tourists, we soon found dark corners filled with fish, and a solitary ray. Aware of excitement across the bay, we set off at speed, stopping in our tracks and spluttering a gargled “look!” when two tiny Galapagos penguins dove past us at great pace.

Next we hired two old mountain bikes and made for the Wall of Tears, a monument-cum-torture instrument built by prisoners in the late 1940s. En route we were required to slow down for haphazardly stationed giant tortoises, enjoying the foliage along the path. As we turned back towards home we stopped at various signposted lakes and beaches, emerging from amongst the mangroves to spot blue-footed boobies, fluorescent pink flamingos, and a breeding centre filled with tortoises ranging from tiny to tremendous.

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Thursday.

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Our final day on Isabella was spent heading out to Las Tintoreras, a volcanic island a short boat ride away. From there we could spot grey herons shielding young chicks from the spray, erratically tufted baby penguins and imperious pelicans dotted along the shore. Further in there were piles upon piles of baby sea iguanas basking on the rocks, as well as a sharp-eyed lava heron desperately seeking the magically camouflaged octopus below it. Later we made for the best snorkelling spots, swimming alongside great green turtles and giant parrot fish. Alone with just our guide, we spotted something to our left: a huge alpha male sea lion swimming directly beneath us, its face turned up to contemplate us as it passed.

Coming to the end of our trip, we took another bumpy boat to San Cristobal, an island famed for its preponderance of sea lions. Pavements, park benches, car parks and fountains were all fair game and our time there was accompanied by a symphony of barks, sneezes and grunts from our flippered friends. From here we set out for Kickers Rock, a well-known dive spot set into a natural slice between two rocks in the middle of the ocean. Once again the current was fierce, forcing us to grip on to the sea floor to keep from shooting backwards. Though visibility was poor, our second dive would bring an awesome sight: a wall of fish, more than 15ft tall, that would shift and glisten and envelop us to the point where, for a second, we couldn’t see our fellow divers any more.

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Yesterday's dive site – Kicker's Rock

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Back on dry land we took a taxi to Loberia Beach, aptly named for its popularity with ‘lobo marinos’, the ever-present sea lions. In a small rock pool four babies played; keeping our distance, we sat a few feet away, though close enough for the bravest to have a sniff at our toes. As the day progressed the larger females returned from the sea. This being mating season, they were on the warpath – quickly discovered as one particularly grumpy female charged straight at me as I innocently sat on the beach.

Finally back where we started, we waved a sad goodbye as our plane headed back to the mainland. The following days would be spent on day-long buses travelling through busy urban centres – a stark contrast to the beauty and stunning diversity of the Galapagos, and much the worse for the lack of sea lions promenading down the motorway.

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Baby sea lions, Loberia Beach

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