Peru

andean explorer: train journey from cusco to puno

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When it comes to getting around within a country, our favourite mode of transport would be train: there is just so much leg room and freedom to move around while also having the opportunity to stare out of the windows at the passing scenery. Reading and playing card games are also easy possibilities to pass the time.

That is how we got to Puno from Cusco when we were in Peru. We went on the Andean Explorer which took about 12 hours. The seating carriages were also the dining carriage and the configuration was 4-seater tables and 2-seater tables. There was lunch and afternoon tea served. Towards the rear of the train was the lounge carriage with a bar and entertainment was provided throughout the journey.

The seating / dining carriage
The seating / dining carriage
Le (Mrs Wise Monkey) selected to join the dancing
Le (Mrs Wise Monkey) selected to join the dancing
Musicians and dancer
Musicians and dancer

The last carriage was an observation carriage with expansive viewing windows and no glass at the very back, perfect for photographing the ever-changing scenery. The train passes through so many different glorious backdrops and vegetation; through mountainous areas, farms, and in one section, right over a market set up on the tracks. The train journey was an experience we will never forget and were so glad to have experienced!

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The altitude for Cusco is approximately 3400 metres above sea level while Puno is about 3900 metres above sea level. On the train, the highest point that it stops at is La Raya which is almost 4400 metres above sea level. It certainly did feel harder to breathe as we walked around the markets at La Raya station.

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At higher altitude, there is a decreased oxygen pressure – it is not related to someone’s fitness ability. A few pointers/tips that we found useful to avoid altitude sickness:

  • Take it slow – over exertion is probably the easiest way to succumb to altitude sickness.
  • Coca leaves and coca tea –  what the locals use to help with this. Its quite readily available so enquire about it.
  • Make sure that several hours after arriving at high altitudes, to relax. We spent the rest of the afternoon lying in bed and watching TV. There is always the temptation to hit the ground running and head out straight away to explore but it wasn’t worth the risk. This goes hand in hand with avoiding over-exertion. Allow the body to acclimatise.
  • One last tip from a friend who had been to Peru : don’t let our head go below our heart e.g. if we were to pick something up from the ground, we were best to bend out knees and lower our entire body, keeping our head and neck straight as opposed to bending over as we normally would and letting our head drop forward  and then quickly standing up again. We took this tip and all others on board  because we were not risking altitude sickness and risking it spoiling our time in Peru.
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sailing the highest navigable lake

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Reading up on altitude sickness and how it randomly can strike someone freaked us out a little before we went. We spent hours researching and reading up on everything we could about altitude sickness – it wasn’t going to ruin such a huge chunk of this Peruvian adventure. So we understood that there is less oxygen at higher altitude and symptoms of altitude sickness included light headedness, lack of appetite, nausea, drowsiness and shortness of breath on exertion. One friend gave the advice: “Don’t let your head dip below your heart”. Others were telling us just to take it slow. So we heeded their advice when we landed in Cusco (approximately 3,400 m.a.s.l). There would be NO exertion whatsoever. So walking to the carousel to pick up our luggage, we were probably taking one step every second. Maybe we were being extreme but we were not jeopardising our health being frantic unnecessarily. We did have a few people at the airport and approach us and ask whether we needed a doctor, which we thought was very amusing.

Our transfer guide instructed us to relax in our rooms for at least 2-4 hours before actively exploring the city and to also dose up on coca leaves or coca tea. Little did we know that coca leaves derive cocaine. Thank goodness we didn’t bring back the delicious teas and lollies! But they certainly worked a treat for suppressing any symptoms of altitude sickness. Now to explain some of the symptoms, let us give an example. There was one day where we walked up 10 steps (or so maybe) and when we got to the top, we were so out of breath that when we talked, the words came out as if we were spluttering from crying. It was the weirdest sensation ever. It took twice as long to get a sentence out because we were catching our breaths….

The highest altitude we reached was at La Raya on the train from Cusco to Puno where it was about 4,300 m.a.s.l. And getting off the train and back on the train was exhausting, not to mention the temperatures at this height was windy and freezing.

Women of Uros welcoming us
Women of Uros welcoming us

And Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world at approximately 3,800 m.a.s.l. and we were able to sail on it! Well, more like speed boat to Taquile Island and Uros. Uros are the floating islands – the islands built on totora reeds. This is our biggest highlight in Peru! The population is about 1000 people and there are homes and schools and about 5-6 families per “island”. We saw their homes and how they lived and even got a trip between the islands on a reed boat. To our surprise, we heard that some of them had satellite TV hooked up to their reed homes.

Visiting the Uros Islands is one of our favourite all-time travel experiences. This was a very cool way to finish our time in Peru. The Peruvian people are so warm and welcoming and we are blessed to have had the opportunity to visit this country.

eating cuy (a.k.a guinea pig)

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Guinea Pig anyone?
Guinea Pig anyone?

Apologies now if you owned a guinea pig growing up! In Peru though, particularly the Andes, fried guinea pigs are popular as are other meats such as alpacas. And we ate both during our stay in Cusco. Alpaca meat is so tender and is very low in fat and truly scrumptious. We ate alpaca skewers at Pacha Papa which we were told was a restaurant worth trying. But before trying the alpaca, we had tried a roast cuy at another restaurant. This restaurant had gorgeous Andean live music and the food was delicious but sadly, the cuy was not. Well at least we didn’t think so. We had hoped to order a full cuy but the restaurant had sold out for the night so we had a half cuy instead. So what did it taste like? Nothing like chicken, probably more gamey. It was stringy, there was very little meat and the skin, although appeared like crispy pork skin, turned out to be tough and rubbery! Now, all meats have a distinct smell, accompanied with the taste when inside the mouth, that usually differentiates it from other meats and the cuy was no different. The smell was actually quite strong and off-putting but only after it went into the mouth. We were glad we hadn’t got a full cuy! Peru also is well known for the different varieties of corn.

Purple Corn Pudding
Purple Corn Pudding

Purple corn pudding was this delicious dessert that was introduced to us in Sydney by a friend from Peru and so we were on the hunt in Peru for the authentic real deal. And goodness, the hunt was worth it!

But there was more to Cusco though than guinea pigs and alpacas. It was from here that we took a bus trip down to Ollantaytambo, where we stayed for one night before heading to Aguas Calientes, our base to the renowned Machu Picchu. So we cheated and didn’t do the Inca Trail – we had to sacrifice something to squeeze in the Amazon and it was this that had to give.  From Aguas Calientes, it’s a 20 minute bus ride up and then another maybe 10 minute walk to get to a point where we could view the ruins as we would see them in pictures except better, much better. The size and magnitude of what was before our eyes dwarfs what we have seen in pictures! We even had the low cloud sweeping across which gave the effect that we were in the heavens looking down.

The cloud about to blanket Machu Picchu
The clouds about to blanket Machu Picchu

happy anniversary (or not)

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Madre de Dios river
Madre de Dios river

So we celebrated our wedding anniversary in the Amazon this year and it reminded us of our vows: “for better or for worse”… it was no doubt that the “for worse” bit was significant here. We had read up on where we were staying: Ecoamazonia Lodge. There was no electricity except between 6-10pm, there was no hot water, there were no windows just fly screen, fresh drinking water was only available during certain parts of the day – we thought we would be prepared! But having never even camped in Australia,  you could say we had another thing coming!

After spending one day in Lima, we took a flight to Puerto Maldanado to begin our Amazon adventure. It was hot and humid as we took our 3 hours riverboat down the Madre de Dios river to our lodge. Now the state of this boat got us quite nervous! The weight of the boat needed to be distributed evenly on either side, it was narrow and looked ancient! Safety on board meant we had to strap on our life vests which we thought was slightly ironic because we were then told that the water was infested with caimans, piranhas and anacondas! Not sure how comforting it really was to be wearing a life vest – guess we wouldn’t die from drowning!

Now, no hot water, we could handle because it was so hot anyway, a cold shower was welcome! No electricity except between certain hours was manageable. Fresh drinking water being available during certain times was easily overcome by us filling all our spare bottles of water. The BIG issue was not having windows!

The pet trompetero
The pet trompetero

Throughout the night, we could hear everything. Every scratch, howl, growl, bump, squeak, flap… you name it, we heard it! Amazingly, all the noises seemed so close and right outside our window. Our first night in the Amazon was not restful at all! Not to mention that the room was pitch black so we couldn’t see a thing. The moonlight was what we were counting on but due to the dense forestry, it wasn’t until about 3am that the moon was in a convenient position for us to see anything! Anyway, before we knew it, the sun was up! We attributed this first sleepless night to jet-lag: it had to be! It could also have possibly been the lodge’s “pet” trompetero. If you ever hear a bird that sounds like a trumpet – that’s a trompetero.

Night number two was a little more restful EXCEPT that we found three big black bugs in our bathroom. The biggest was the size of a roma tomato – kicking ourselves now for not having taken a photo but panic was kind of ranking higher on our priority! It was then that we had discovered that there was a hole in our fly screen about 10cm long and about 5 cm high! Great! Just great! It was getting close to when the generator shuts off so we had to work fast. We raced to the front desk and asked someone to come and tape up that hole before it got dark which they did. So we did have a better night sleep albeit also hearing the ayahuasca ceremony going on. What probably did put us to sleep was hearing the soothing chant and song of the shaman performing the ceremony.

There's a monkey on your head
There’s a monkey on your head

Despite this experience though, we can still smile! It was a fabulous experience. We learnt about the medicinal properties of the flora of the Amazon. We saw monkeys up close. We cruised upriver in the middle of the night to spot caimans and drifted downstream admiring the night sky – we had never seen so many stars!