Deepest, darkest Peru: From Iquitos to Lake Titikaka

We arrived in Iquitos via the Amazon River on a 12-hour-long boat ride. It wasn’t the most glamorous way to travel, but breakfast and lunch were provided and the seats were comfortable enough on the Flipper speed boat.

Arriving in Iquitos was, however, a bit of a shock. We’d been in the Amazon, been living the simple life in the jungle and the wild hustle and bustle of the Amazon port city was a little overwhelming, especially at the city’s famous market, Belen Market.

A labyrinth of small cobbled streets lined with tables filled with every kind of fish you can imagine, every type of fruit and vegetable and almost everything else you could possibly need to live. Getting lost between the gator meat and the barbecued grub snacks is a real possibility, so we chatted to locals selling their wares and battled with the heat and the smell of the narrow passageways.

The people in Iquitos seem to have very little, and live by the Amazon River in what looks like a slum. Many of the tourists in the town seem to be there to try to the Ayhuaska – a hallucinogenic drug ceremony – and so the two seem to co-exist fairly contently, although for us it was a kind of mis-match when we saw the city’s real inhabitants.

Arriving in Lima the next day couldn’t have felt more different from the hot swelter of Iquitos. The plush city is cool, calm and collected, the roads clean, the people wealthy and the cost expensive. The coastal city was nothing like we expected, and after eating tamales on the street in Iquitos for one sole, we were shocked that we couldn’t find street food in Lima for anything less than 10 soles.

We caught a local bus, which set us back 1.40 soles (which is like 25p), and that was probably the most character we saw in Lima. After that we were surrounded by rich areas with fine eateries, shops and bars. We felt a little out of place as long term budget backpackers. The cheapest food we could find was in the supermarkets – although we did treat ourselves to a delicious fresh cerviche – it was incredible.

We tried the famous Pisco Sour cocktail, after spending an hour scouring the streets looking for a reasonably priced version., in our hostel. The House Project hostel had a cool bar and courtyard, and the Pisco Sour was amazing. We cn’t really compare it with cocktails before, but can definitely compare it to those since, and it wins hands down (and it was made by a 19 year old).

We flew from Lima to Cusco – despite there being no wifi – the flight was fine. However, when we arrived in Cusco, after taking the crazy local bus in the rain, I started to feel short of breath. The altitude in the town is over 3,200 m and it really affected me. I felt like my heart was beating out of my chest and there was nothing I could do to stop it. For the day and night we had in Cusco I could barely function, I had a headache was unable to walk far. It was also freezing, so that didn’t help.

We took the train the next morning from Poroy (a taxi ride away from Cusco) to Machupicchu, well actually Aguas Calientes. We had a hostel booked there and spent the afternoon exploring the small city and trying out the hot springs. The small pools overlook some of the most beautiful green mountainous landscape I’ve ever seen – and while the springs looked a little dirty they were fine, they just have stones at the bottom which gives that cloudy effect.

We got an early night after a cheap 12 soles three-course meal, ready for our 3am start the next morning to Machupicchu. We tried to make sunrise but the buses didn’t leave until 5.30 and the park didn’t open until 6, and it was so cloudy that for the first hour that you couldn’t see anything anyway. We knew that these ancient ruins were below us, but we could barely see it.

We explored the city ruins – it’s huge! You could spend all day there, but be warned there is no food. You can bring your own even though it says you can’t – just don’t let the wardens see you eat it. We booked to climb Machupicchu Mountain at 9am and thought it would be about half-an-hour to the top – it was actually an hour and half and was very steep and scary. The stones were uneven, which made it difficult to climb, and it was raining so they were slippery, with a sheer drop throughout.

We finally made it to the top and there was no view – just cloud. Still we felt like we had achieved something, then came getting down. Stephen struggles with heights and so clung on for dear life.

Exhausted, we headed back to Aguas Calientes to digest what we had just experienced. The city is incredible and to think it wasn’t discovered until 1911 is crazy. Still – we could see why you wouldn’t want to live there now. It’s cold, high and hard to navigate – although god knows how much gold that American stole when he got there. Apparently, most of its inhabitants died of diseases and so never came down to reveal it’s existence until he revealed it to the world. Crazy.

We arrived back in Cusco on the same Peru Rail we took from Poroy, which is a little overpriced but the only option if you have limited time, and the altitude sickness kicked in again, this time it was even worse than before. We relaxed the next few days in our lovely hostel, Apu Wasi, where we had a private room with clean towels and plenty of coca tea for the altitude sickness. I think we acclimatized after the second day, but then the colds kicked in. The hostel was lovely but unless you were in bed it was freezing cold and it rained the first night – it was like English cold rain, but it was heavier – and we got drenched. That can’t have helped our little colds.

We had a chicken soup with the locals for five soles at San Pedro market – that’s like £1 – in attempt to relieve the symptoms the next day. Bargain!

We left Cusco with our colds still going strong, as we boarded our Bolivia Hop bus for Puno and Copacobana. The bus was an overnight one to Puno, where you can find the world’s highest navigable lake, Lake Titikaka. From here we visited the native community on the Floating Islands, a community that created islands from roots to escape from slavery on the main land, and that now literally float on the lake.

Today you feel like you are there solely to buy things from them, and their lives aren’t real. We were able to sit in one of the tiny houses with one of the inhabitants of the island, it had lots of blankets and a little TV – they have solar power on the island for that. Every island has a president, and there are 120 presidents on all of the floating islands, who meet regularly for meetings.

We avoided buying anything and were back on the bus ready to reach the border to Bolivia. You literally cross by walking across through an archway. Here we were stamped, it’s free for us, but if you are American you have to pay $160 and have evidence of your vaccinations etc!

We arrived at the beach town of Copacobana where we picked up lunch and got on another boat to Isla Del Sol, a pretty natural island on Lake Titikaka. We couldn’t believe we were still on the lake, it’s huge!

Saying goodbye to Peru was a little sad – but we were ready for Bolivia, although it’s even colder here and we are so unprepared, except for my Alpaca scarf, which Stephen managed to get for me by swapping some of our unwanted clothes with the vendor! Budget travellers winning for once!

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