Blog Archives: Peru


Become an Amazon Scientist in Peru

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Seven hours by boat from Puerto Maldonado, located deep in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, is the Tambopata Research Centre, the most remote lodge in the Amazon. Because there is such a small human presence in this area, sightings of monkeys, macaws and other large species, such as jaguars, are more frequent, making this the perfect base for studying the huge number of species that call the jungle home. The Tambopata Research Centre is owned by a Peruvian ecotourism company that has been in operation since 1989.

 

Macaws and parrots - Mike Ritters, Peruvian AmazonIn 2015, Rainforest Expeditions launched Wired Amazon at the Tambopata Research Centre and Refugio Amazonas. Wired Amazon is an initiative that aims to engage visitors on a new level and provide an experience that can’t be found anywhere else. Working together with Zooniverse.org, Wired Amazon is a collection of citizen science projects that invite citizen scientists from all around the world to help the lodge researchers identify flora and fauna and from the comfort of their computer at home.

Canopy tower Peruvian AmazonThere are currently two excellent projects that citizen scientists can participate in via Zooniverse. The first is Aerobotany, in which volunteers examine high-resolution aerial images of the Amazon rainforest and record observations of flowering crowns, leafless crowns and other distinct tree crowns.

 

squirrel-monkey. Peru AmazonThe second project is the AmazonCam Tambopata, in which over 100 remote cameras have been set up to monitor the Amazon forest area surrounding the Tambopata Research Centre. Citizen Scientists are able to view the videos from these cameras and identify and study the populations of large mammals like jaguars, spider monkeys, tapir and peccaries.

 

When you visit the Tambopata Research Centre or Refugio Amazonas, you are invited to take part in other Wired Amazon citizen science projects. One of the most popular projects is “Discover a New Species.” As part of this activity, insects are drawn to a light trap at night and you are given the opportunity to collect them. Species can also be collected when you participate in collection walks with scientists. Later, the species are analysed for their appearance, life stage, sex, sexual reproduction and other characteristics. If the specimen is thought to be a new species, it is submitted to the International Barcode of Life (IBoL), an initiative that is currently building a DNA barcode library of all the living organisms on earth. If IBoL finds that one of the submitted specimens is a new species, you are given the opportunity to name that species.

 

Butterflies; Moths - Thomas Marrent, PeruOn average, Wired Amazon discovers one new species a month. In 2016, eight new species were identified, some by guests. Discover a New Species is one of the most popular Wired Amazon projects because of the excitement to contribute your name to science. However, other projects have yielded incredible findings as well, including rare images of a short-eared jungle dog carrying her pups, a jaguarondi with cubs and a dwarf porcupine – something that was not known to be present around Tambopata.

 

Tambopata River, Peru AmazonThe Tambopata Research Centre was built using low-impact native architecture and materials that help to enhance the jungle experience without compromising the integrity of the research centre as an eco-lodge. All bedrooms open out to the surrounding rainforests and include eco-friendly toiletries, a hammock, electricity, hot showers, mosquito netting and WiFi. So when you aren’t participating in Wired Amazon projects, there are all the necessary comforts to relax and enjoy the diverse jungle ecosystem.

 

Tambopata Research CentreFor those who want to truly immerse themselves in the jungle and be a part of something greater than just tourism, a stay at the Tambopata Research Centre or Refugio Amazonas is the way to go. With access to the Amazon Wired projects, macaw clay licks, a 30-metre canopy tower, five distinct habitats and more, Wired Amazon aims to educate travellers and properly introduce them to the wonders of the jungle.

The quiet side of the Sacred Valley

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‘Oh I’m sorry, we’ve come on a busy day’ said my guide Carlos cheekily, entering the Pumamarca Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley. Walking amongst the hill top ruins with their tall perfectly formed walls, symmetrical windows and commanding position at the fork of the valley, I noticed one other person.

Having visited the Sacred Valley 10 years ago, the feeling I remember was of being whisked along with other tourists going to all the must-see sites. This time I did things differently, I still went to many of the highlights in the valley but just timed my visits well to avoid the busy times, had a private guide giving the flexibility to stop when wanted and travelled at times on foot and by bike.

We spent three hours walking an Inca trail along terraced farm land, through native forest stunted in growth from the altitude, dripping with lichen and bromeliads and offering jaw dropping views. During this time, the only company, apart from my guide, was a tumbling glacial stream dancing over boulders as the path wove higher up the valley. A curious cow and a fleeting glimpse of a grey tailed Andean deer were seen but we didn’t pass any people for the entire time. It is incredible to think we were less than 20 miles from a more familiar Inca trail that leads to world renowned Inca ruins, where restrictions are in place to limit the number of daily walkers to 500.

My visit to the Inca site of Moray, with its decreasing concentric stone circles carpeted with grass, was by mountain bike, a slow way to travel but giving more time to admire the surroundings. Moray is a sight that is still unclear as to its purpose, the most common theory being it was an Inca cultivation sight with each terrace having its own micro climate. Cycling on a dirt track with no roads, cars or buildings for as far as the eye could see made me feel privileged to have this scenery all to myself. Rural life stretched out around like a tapestry woven with every shade of green. To say it was relaxing would not be completely truthful, every slight incline in the path was a reminder of the altitude as I puffed for much needed oxygen, but with a back-up vehicle on call I could go as little or far as I wanted.

Close to Moray I had the experience to meet with a Shaman and have a traditional ceremony giving offerings to Pachamama – Mother Earth. I was slightly sceptical as to whether it would feel staged and set up for tourists but in fact it was a special moment in a busy trip. I sat in the sun surrounded by 5,000 metre mountains as the Shaman chanted in Quechuan, an indigenous language of the Andes, to all four corners of the earth and gave offerings of coca leaves and flowers. A musician played traditional instruments of bells and various pipes and flutes during the ceremony. Many people in Peru still make regular offerings to Pachamama to ask for blessings for new homes, health for loved ones, or success in business. The experience made me stop, look around and appreciate where I was and to think about family at home.

My new memories of the Sacred Valley and Peru are now about the beauty of the scenery, the space and serenity, the variety and richness of experiences and the warmth of the people, a contrast to my previous trip. By stepping a short distance from the well-worn path it is easy to find your own piece of Andean life. I feel privileged to have had so much of the place to myself.

Pre-Inca Civilisations with Hugh Thomson

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Kuelap, Fortress Chachapoyya civilization

In a most engaging talk by Hugh Thomson last night, I learned so much about Peru and in particular its ancient civilisations. More than I have from any guidebook. That is the beauty and benefit of knowledge, of real insight. But more than just that, of real expertise clearly and concisely explained. Of a picture beautifully painted and importantly, well framed.

Hugh’s enthusiasm for his subject was palpable as he told us that there are more pyramids in Peru than in Egypt. That Peruvian history has so many layers that archaeologists and historians are still unpeeling some of the mysteries of Peru. Yes he introduced us to the familiar and iconic Machu Picchu but it was the way that he used an image of the Inca citadel shrouded in mist as a metaphor of all that remains hidden, of what we do not know, of what we are yet to discover. This, he said, is the charm of Peru, the allure that draws you back.

Hugh paid homage to Hiram Bingham but did so not just out of deference but also reference – to frame his work and expeditions in the region. The sites that he uncovered in and around Machu Picchu made us see the main site in a different light, from different angles. It also made me appreciate how much more there is in the environs of Machu Picchu but importantly what little we do know. As Hugh said, the key is not discovering something new – no mean feat in itself – but rather working out what it was used for and what it represented. Such are the beguiling mysteries of Peru.

But it was the pre-Inca civilisations of the north that really fired my imagination. It was here that civilisations came and went not because of dynastic rivalries but rather because of the weather. He left us with powerful images of drug-fuelled shamans blowing sea shells as they battled with the demons of the weather. Perhaps the most striking images were of the Moche masks and some of their jewellery – they were much better jewellers than the later Incas. “You won’t see an exhibition of Peruvian art or archaeology in London (unlike pre-Columbian Mexico) – you have to go and see it in situ,” Hugh finished. It was too much for most in the audience, they were already buying their tickets.

Join Hugh Thomson on our group tour to Peru, in search of pre-Inca civilisations, departing in June 2018. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Tree Planting in Peru

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Tree planting target
Steppes Travel are the proud owners of a miniature rain forest in the Peruvian Andes, consisting of 2,000 native trees. The charity ECOAN planted some 76,000 native trees throughout the Peruvian Andes in 2016, with an ambitious goal to plant 100,000 trees during the coming season. This collaborative effort, with a number of native villages will help restore an endangered habitat in the high Andes of Peru. The first weekend of planting in early December saw hundreds of people from the local community joining together armed with picks and shovels to help plant 52,100 trees.

 

A Peru holiday with a difference: Discovering Northern Peru

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Having experienced the classic southern route of Peru, the “Gringo Trail” if you will, I was interested to experience the much, lesser visited north. For the first time in my life I feel like I’m one of the privileged few to have experienced a really special place before it booms. I’ve spent the last few days doing brilliant things like visiting 4500 year old Moche pyramids, hiking to cliff side Chachapoya tombs and looking around world class museums, and not once have I seen even one other tourist. It’s been one private viewing after another, which couldn’t be more different from the south of the country, where hundreds of people flock to the top sights daily on their routine Peru holiday.

Being in the back of beyond, I didn’t expect the museums to be much cop, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed museums as much as I have on this trip. The Royal Tombs of Sipan Museum is an absolute treasure trove – it’s full of incredibly well preserved artifacts found in the Sipan Tombs; burial places of some of the most important people in the ancient Moche culture. Having seen the actual tombs earlier in the day, it was fantastic to see their even more incredible contents. I can’t even begin to imagine the excitement of the archaeologists upon discovering all that ancient history, piece by piece; the intricacy of these artifacts is mind blowing, as is their state of preservation. I bounced around the museum like a child in a sweet shop, wanting to look at, and wishing I could touch, everything. The mysteries of this culture and their beliefs are so enthralling it’s almost frustrating, as so little is known, but it’s so, so exciting to examine the things they valued enough to put into graves and ponder over their meanings and importance. For instance, owl necklaces seemed to be on every neck, but no one knows why.

The most accurate word I can find to describe the scenery around Chachapoyas is enchanting. If we’d stopped everywhere I wanted to take pictures of something beautiful, interesting or sweet, we’d still be miles from here. Instead, I hiked for two hours to the Revash painted tombs built into the cliff face. This was hard going but hugely rewarding. After that I visited a couple of family run lodges, each with just a few rooms and delightful owners. I spotted, and managed to photograph, a big sword-billed hummingbird that sounded like a lawnmower at one of these. Then, another outstanding museum, containing over 200 mummies found in another cliff side Chachapoya tomb about a 10 hour walk from the museum.

I spent the next day visiting Kuelap – a remote mountain ridge-top citadel – just as impressive as Machu Picchu, if not more. It has the same ethereal, atmospheric quality as some of the overgrown temples in Cambodia’s Angkor complex. Again – my guide and I had the place entirely to ourselves, with the exception of two dogs and a puppy who followed us around, and the few llamas employed to mow the lawn.  In the afternoon we squeezed in a hike to see the amazing karajia, statues on a cliff face housing bodies. Walking around a corner and looking up to see them perched on the cliff face, as they have been for hundreds of years, was an incredible thrill.

There’s so much more to see in the north that I’ve not had time for on this trip, so I will certainly be coming back. Hopefully as soon as possible!

I’ve now come down to Huaraz, in Central Peru, to sample some of the stunning hikes in the Cordilleras Negra and Blanca. Then onto the south and into the Amazon. This is set to be a Peru holiday of epic proportions and one I can’t wait to start offering to our clients.

Get in touch with us for more information on a holiday to Peru, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Why should you travel to Peru with us?

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A note from our Peruvian partners on why you should travel to Peru with Steppes Travel

Whisper it quietly but beyond Machu Picchu lies another Peru. One that our Peruvian ground agent love to discover and share.

Yes Machu Picchu is worth flying across the globe to see. Yes Machu Picchu really is a wonder of the world. But what many forget is that Peru is so much more than just Machu Picchu. In the same way that England is more than Buckingham Palace, San Francisco is more than a bridge and Wales is more than the Millennium Stadium.

What really excites us, what we spend our free time doing, is finding new places to visit and finding new ways to get to the places that everyone visits.   And to do this you need to get off the bus. We use self-powered travel, to get to the heart of rural Peru, a Peru beyond the crowds, beyond the car parks, a Peru beyond Machu Picchu. Yet you do not have to go on a big trip to get there. The real Peru begins right on our doorstep, closer than you think. And all it requires to get there is a little effort and a little knowledge.

Twenty minutes walking or ten minutes biking from the crowds of buses visiting the main Cusco ruins,  lie Inca sites few from Cusco, let alone tourists, have ever explored. An Inca prison and rounded colonial bread kilns that we discovered long ago whilst out mountain biking. A hand-built Inca canal, which appeared to be just another small stream until running a new trail we were forced to wade across. Only there, stood in the stream as the cool water lapped our ankles was the Inca stonework revealed.

Moray and Maras are just another two sights on a long list, unless you get out of the bus and link them by foot, horse or bike. If you dare to do so, you will meet locals working their fields, tending their sheep, or shading under a tree with a glass of chicha. Even Pisac ruins- visited by hundreds of tourist each day, has secrets to offer if you just walk away from the bus. Ten minutes past the end of the tourist circuit, lives a whole community of people.

So yes, come to Peru to see Machu Picchu. But think carefully about what kind of Peru you want to see. Is it the same Peru that most companies will show you? Where you pull up in a bus with hundreds of others? Where the only locals you meet are the ones selling souvenirs? Or is it rural Peru, real Peru, a Peru beyond Machu Picchu – where you need a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of effort?

We will provide the knowledge if you provide the effort.

P.S. I am writing just half an hour outside Cusco. Hills fill the horizon; wind rustles through the ruins where an Inca was born; a kestrel glares from a post above; and a pair of oxen have just run into the garden chased by a man from whose wooden plough they have escaped. That to me is Peru.
Get in touch with us for more information on a holiday to Peru, call us 01285 880980 or email inspire@steppestravel.com.

Steppes Big 5 reasons to visit the Sacred Valley before heading to Machu Picchu

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Inca Women Peru

The Incan citadel of Machu Picchu is a place that draws people from all over the world. It is a truly spectacular sight deep within the Andes Mountains that has fascinated many since its discovery by Hiram Bingham in 1911.

Although photographs have daubed many international travel magazines and much has been written, nothing can fully prepare you for just how spectacular, awe inspiring and mythical this place really is. It is not surprising that when presented with the opportunity to return I was delighted and eager to marvel this great wonder once again. On this trip I spent some days within the Sacred Valley before reaching Machu Picchu. What I discovered in doing so was an absolute treat and highlighted just how much a visit to the area can offer.

1. Inca Sites

Although Machu Picchu remained undiscovered for centuries after the fall of the Incan Empire, many sites were discovered much earlier. Since Spanish colonisation many of these sites have been damaged but nonetheless remain sites of huge historical interest.

Travelling through the Sacred Valley it soon became apparent that there are Inca sites everywhere. With the benefit of a good guide I realised that the valley is in fact one massive outdoor museum, covered with archaeological places that each help to form an understanding of the workings of this intriguing empire.

One such place I visited was Moray, an Incan agricultural laboratory that was likely used to cultivate resistant and hearty varieties of plants high in the Andes. It straddles the mountainside and has been restored to reveal a fascinating side to Incan farming. Another extraordinary place I discovered is the small village of Maras. High in the Andes where natural sources of salt seem impossible, the area was cultivated by the Incas to form salt ponds from a natural spring. Using skilled techniques farmers continue to cultivate the area to extract salt to this day. Other fascinating sites include Qoricancha, Saqsayhuaman, Qenqo, Tambomachay, Pukapukara, Chinchero and many more, all in their own way providing an important insight into the life and culture of the Incas.

2. Location

The Sacred Valley stretches for approximately 60 kilometres and encompasses areas of fertile farmland and colonial villages scattered alongside the Urubamba River. It is this expanse of land between Cusco and Machu Picchu that formed the heart of the once magnificent Incan Empire.

Machu Picchu actually sits at a relatively modest altitude of 2430 meters above sea level, by contrast Cusco sits at 3400. Thus the huge appeal of a stay within the Sacred Valley immediately becomes both obvious and appealing; the chance to acclimatise. Many visitors will arrive into Cusco and head to a city hotel, whereas a relatively short drive into the Sacred Valley enables you to rest at a more modest altitude and unwind in beautiful surroundings.

3. Superb Hotels & Spas

Within the valley I discovered several delightful properties dotted across this vast mountainous floor. Owing to the idyllic surroundings nearly every room of each hotel can boast spectacular uninterrupted views. Anyone in search of total rest and relaxation will instantly feel rewarded by a stay here, an excellent area to unwind and switch off.  A vast range of treatments are on offer at many resorts providing the perfect opportunity to spoil yourself. Additionally I found the quality of the hotel restaurants to be of a high standard, so many taking huge pride in offering the very best in Peruvian and international cuisine.

4. Adventure

For those who would prefer a more adventurous stay there are a wide range of activities to enjoy here. I had the opportunity to whitewater raft, horse ride, trek along the many Inca trails and zip wire. I opted this time for a biking tour. Quite simply a fantastic experience, the trips are great for all levels of fitness and can be organised with minimal uphill cycling. Cycle across the many pathways, meandering through the valley taking in the stunning scenery.

5. Markets

One of the biggest draws to Peru and to the Sacred Valley in particular is the wonderful display of handcrafted clothing, jewellery and ceramics on offer at several of the village markets. The most renowned of these is the market within the village of Pisac. Here I found the cobbled streets are lined with artisan creations that are often extremely colourful and superbly made. Well worth leaving some space in your luggage for.

The big draw to this beautiful part of Peru will always remain Machu Picchu but to spend a day or two in the valley itself is fun, relaxing and incredibly rewarding.

Get in touch to learn more about our Peru holidays. Email inspire@steppestravel.com or call us on 01285 601 753.

Sacred Valley

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Sacred Valley Peru

“Traffic,” points out my guide.

A stocky woman with a dusty bowler hat and pig tails urges her flock of sheep off the road with a short length of rope. Road cleared, she stands to the side, adjusts her Keqpe Rina – the colourful wrap women wear around their shoulders to carry wool, snacks and even babies – and flashes us a twinkling smile.

I am in the Sacred Valley, so named after the Willkamayu River, which means the sacred river in Quechua, the still spokenlingua franca of the Inca Empire. The valley was appreciated by the Incas due to its special geographical and climatic qualities and was one of the empire’s main points for the extraction of natural wealth, as well as one of the most important areas for maize production. It encompasses the heartland of the Inca Empire and thus is steeped in history. Whilst the sites are impressive it is the tradition of everyday life that so caught my imagination.

Hemmed in by soaring 4,000 metre peaks, the valley is flat and bountiful, supporting over two hundred different types of potatoes. Moving out of the valley precise Inca terracing defines the hillside and then eventually gives way to a more pastoral way of life. An oxen plods along the road accompanied by a young boy carrying a wooden yoke. Further along two young girls, faces reddened by the altitude and elements, marshal their small flock of sheep.

“It is Saturday so no school, but the children still have responsibilities,” commented my guide.

It is a simple but hard existence at altitude, even in a valley that is sacred.

The brilliance of the local embroidery emblazoned with yellows, reds and pinks stands out against the dazzling blue of the sky. The crisp mountain air heightens the contrast. Colour, I am informed, is indicative of a woman’s marital status: if it is more colourful then she is single. If that is so, there are a lot of very flirtatious old women.

In contrast to the bright local garb of the women, the mud-brick adobe houses exude the rich warmth of terracotta. Although some are adorned with political graffiti promoting the dubious virtues of one candidate over another, they have not been polluted by the creaking of corrugated iron. Terracotta roof tiles lend a further rustic charm.

A team of men are working on the roof of one house. They are not employees but rather a group of mates come together to help out a friend. A touching example of ayni a Quechua word which can be best translated as reciprocity.

The houses are full of good luck symbols and symbolism. A Latin cross provides protection. A pitcher with an alcoholic drink made from maize bequeaths a plentiful supply. Two clay bulls, which decorate every roofs and represent the duality of day and light, bestow luck upon the household. Ladders leaning outside walls are not evidence of slack workmanship but more a symbol of progression, to do more.

Even the small towns have not lost their innocence. Women carry bundles of grass home; fodder for their guinea pigs. In a small courtyard a baker flips loaves of bread in a large fire oven. People come in to buy bread. The baker doesn’t stop to serve anyone but merely nods or grunts a greeting allowing them to pay and take what bread they need and importantly him to continue his work. Warming and reaffirming scenes.

A local woman chatters to me in Quechua. She has just bought her meal of potatoes, spinach and fava beans. All smiles, teeth and hand movements she tells me that although she doesn’t know what I eat in my country, what she has here is alright. She is not wrong.

The air might be thinner given the altitude but such scenes are invigorating, the oxygen of travel.

Exploring Manu Biosphere

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“The girls must be picky,” was Andy’s typically understated and laconic description of a rufuos-crested coquette- a tiny bird, not dissimilar to a humming bird, with the most flamboyant crest in a flaming red.

The coquette is so indicative of the bizarre beauty of Nature – sometimes there is no explaining Nature’s multi-faceted talent for the extraordinary – and there is certainly no shortage of the unexpected in the rainforests of Manu Bio Sphere in south-east Peru. The researchers and volunteers have the formidable task of trying to ascertain just how exceptional the diversity is and Andy Whitworth is the scientific coordinator.

My journey had begun a few days earlier, climbing out of the Sacred Valley, leaving behind steep hillsides defined by precise Inca terracing for a more pastoral way of life. Trees and shrubs give way to alpine grassland. There are few inhabitants and no agricultural plots. We approach the top of the 3,650 metre pass and are confronted by a billowing white cloud bank that tells us in no uncertain terms that we are about to head down the perhumid eastern slope of the Andes.

It is a remarkable ecological transition from dusty and dry to dripping and wet in a mere several hundred metres. A normal day sees no sun as thick clouds bathe the slopes and an intermittent drizzle keeps the vegetation soaked in an enveloping Dickensian mist.

As we descend along a series of interminable switchbacks negotiating steeply plunging slopes, trees are cloaked in the thick wrappings of lichens, mosses, ferns and orchids. The cloud forest is a world unto itself, mysterious and intriguing, but almost unapproachable. As we walk along the road it is literally at our fingertips but entering it is not for the faint-hearted – it is a vertical landscape and one wrong foot would plunge you down the hillside into the spray of the streams and river trying to reach the plains in their turbulent haste.

I see capuchin monkeys and an aguti but birds are the real attraction – tanagers, hummingbirds and oropendolas – with the undisputed prize being the cock-of-the-rock. I am stunned by its iridescent flame orange plumage, it makes for a dazzling visual spectacle. The males gather in loose aggregations, known as leks, noisy hubs of activity as the males whine and call, bob up and down and fly from perch to perch.

We leave behind the confines of the canyon and enter a swampy plain where the soil is poor – millennia of rains having washed out all the fertility. The profusion of coca fields are a sad reflection that no other crop brings in a decent return. Half a kilo sells for about 8 Sol (approximately US$3). The unlikely proprietor of the farm that I stop alongside is Cesar, a charming, smiling 96 year old.

We arrive at Atalaya, a cluster of corrugated iron and the end of the road. It has that frontier feel to it, reminiscent of a Conradian trading post. I watch a nervous husband with two young daughters, wife and baby and wheelbarrow full of their worldly goods, pole slowly upriver. We head downstream enjoying the river to ourselves, the only traffic being the overhead flight of macaws, jays and parakeets.

Arriving at the Manu Learning Centre, I am taken for a walk around their bio-garden. Ronnie, one of the guides, explains with evident pride not just the success of this garden but the 50 gardens that they have been asked to set up in local communities by the Indians. I am shown around the medicinal garden and the bewildering array of uses of many of the plants: quinine is obvious, the cat’s claw prevents cancer, a palm tree used to treat rheumatism, red ginger is used for toothache, barbasco used as a repellent (and also for fishing by the locals – it suffocates the fish and they die). The astonishing thing is that scientists understand about 1% of the properties of the forest.

Outside in the forest itself, my learning continues. I discover a palm that walks, a fig tree that strangles and a fire ant which lives in a holly tree protecting it from mosses and lichens. I adore the most ancient of gardeners of the tropical forest and watch a colony of leaf-cutter ants slice off portions of a leaf and then patiently carry the leaf bits in a procession back to their underground nests.

The canopy is equally as stunning as the floor and I am lucky enough to be taken to climb a Capirona tree (which incidentally is not just a tree for climbing but one which sheds its bark several times a year to avoid being overtaken by parasites). The views are invigorating as I look out over mile upon mile of tree-tops broken only by the glittering coils of the Madre de Dios River in the distance. It was thrilling watching the profusion of butterflies, being eye to eye with birds and contemplating the life of a monkey.

Early the next morning, an explosion of colour erupts as a large group of Blue headed and Chestnut fronted Macaws take to the air from the clay lick. The skies are not just alive with darting colour but constant sounds: the radio squawk of parakeets, the chatter of macaws, the guttural grunt of the prehistoric hoatzin.

With the notable exception of birds, I have not seen that much wildlife – the jungle is heard but unseen. However that has in no way diminished my experience having learned a huge amount about the symbiotic relationship of the forest, the need for balance, but above all about some of the smaller fauna. That is the joy of Manu Learning Centre and the unbridled enthusiasm of the team.

I came wanting to see Jaguar, the largest cat in the Americas which derives its name from the Indian word yaguar, meaning ‘he who kills at one leap’. Whilst I did not see one, my understanding of the rainforest has taken a big leap forward and I am all the richer for it.

Get in touch with us for more information if you would like to explore Manu with Charlie Hamilton-James, photojournalist and television presenter, on an exclusive rainforest photography tour in 2015.

The 5 Must-Dos of Peru

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In a country proffering so much to travellers (varietous sceneries, wildlife, archaeology, architecture, history and gastronomy are just the standards you can expect) knowing where to start planning your first trip to Peru can seem an impossible task. So, to give you a hand, I’ve compile the list below of 5 unmissable Peruvian experiences.

1. See the Andean Condors in Colca Canyon.

First, spend the night star gazing from a natural hot spring bath or the candlelit patio of your casita at one of Colca Canyon’s fabulous lodges. Then, make the trip to viewpoint Cruz del Condor to see these magnificent birds soaring just a few feet over your head before a backdrop of impressive canyon and mountains. Patience and a fast shutter speed will get you some incredible photographs.

2. Do a homestay on Isla Taquile in Lake Titicaca.

The peaceful tranquillity of this protected island in the middle of Lake Titicaca is something you will always remember. These lovely, shy people will cook delicious trout from the lake for you in their simple homes, or you can DIY and camp under the stars. Exploring the little island searching for humming birds and watching the inhabitants go about their lives is a true privilege.

3. Hike to Machu Picchu (of course).

It is simply impossible to be underwhelmed by Machu Picchu. No matter if you’ve seen a thousand photographs of the place before you see it in real life- you will be astounded by the place. The feeling inspired by the view over the site from the top of the hill is truly indescribable; a sheer exhilarating joie de vivre. I love it when you get that honoured feeling;
“I am so lucky to be here”.

4. Spend a few days exploring Cusco.

Cusco is my favourite city in Peru. Aside from being the gateway to some of the country’s most exciting destinations, it’s a city full of fun, activity, tradition, history and beauty. There is so much to see and do here, as well as just walking around independently and taking it all in. Cusco by night is great fun, with a cornucopia of restaurants and bars in which to indulge.

5. Do an adventure sport/activity in the Sacred Valley.

Surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, the Sacred Valley of the Incas is the perfect place to go for adventure. Be it a gentle hike, enjoying the sounds, sights and smells, or a white water raft or downhill mountain bike; it depends on your preferred level of action. End an ambling, thoroughly enjoyable hike with a delicious meal at one of the gorgeous little market villages dotted around the valley.

With all this and so many more discovered and undiscovered delights awaiting you in Peru, what’s stopping you?!

Tree climbing in the Peruvian Jungle

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“You just put your foot in the strap and stand up,” was Andy’s typically laconic description. “It’s quite straightforward really.”

I looked at him quizzically, McEnroe-esque thoughts running through my mind. What on earth could be straightforward about climbing thirty-five metres up a tree in the middle of the jungle in darkest Peru?

Paddington reference notwithstanding, we were in the rainforest in Peru, in Manu Biosphere Reserve, a remarkable area of rainforest in which Andy is the Scientific Coordinator at the Manu Learning Centre. We had just trekked for an hour and a half through the sauna-like humidity under the canopy, the only respite being the occasional pause for Andy to point something out.

“This is a pygmy forest gecko. This is an adult. When fully grown it will only be an inch and a half.” How he noticed the tiny reptile on the forest floor I will never know.

“Monkey comb,” he said drawing our attention to the bizarrely formed seed pod of an acacia.

“King toad. Highly poisonous,” he said casually picking it up.

“Here we are,” he finally announced. A sigh of relief that was all too
premature.

“This is the tree we’re going to climb. A Capirona. It’s a hardwood that sheds its bark several times a year to prevent parasites and strangler figs from overwhelming it; without parasites the tree stands a much better chance of growing tall, reaching the canopy and the all-important sunlight.”

It certainly reached the canopy alright. I gulped as I stared up to the sky as the Capirona towered straight above me.

I turned around to protest to Andy. Did I really need to climb the tree? Yes he had to retrieve his cameras but surely I would just get in the way. I opened my mouth to object only to find a harness thrust in my hands and before I know it I was all roped up.

What Andy had described as straightforward manifested in the spastic and uncoordinated jerks of my body. I simply could not get the hang of how to lever yourself up the rope. It was frustrating and embarrassing as again and again I would jerk helplessly with no visible increase in height. Another ungainly lurch up and yet again I remained in exactly the same position. I kicked out in exasperation and it clicked.

To say that I had mastered it would be an exaggeration and unkind to Andy’s seemingly effortless progress up above me. But I had worked it out and with each step, strain and haul I was going higher. Unfortunately so too were my pulse rate and body temperature. If I felt as though I had sweated lots walking under the canopy, it was nothing compared to now. Sweat was pouring off me.

“Not good for your sex life,” Andy called down to me referring to the constricting harness as opposed to the amount of sweat I was producing.

“My wife would be happy,” I muttered distractedly to myself.

I looked down to see how far I had come. I looked up to see how much further I had to go. No, really, I can’t still have that far too climb. I wished that I had not eaten so much for breakfast. It is hard work hauling yourself up thirty odd metres of tree when you are a little over your fighting weight.

And then amazingly, against all the odds I am at the top. It is breath-taking both literally and metaphorically. I just sit back in my harness and gaze out over the canopy. The views are invigorating as I look out over mile upon mile of tree-tops broken only by the glittering coils of the Madre de Dios River in the distance. Bizarrely all I want to do is laugh. Is it physical exhaustion or ecstasy? Possibly a combination of the two?

I could have stayed up there for hours watching butterflies, being eye to eye with birds, contemplating the life of a monkey but given the effort that it had taken me to get to the top it would not be long before the sweat bees got scent of my arrival.

And when they did they swarmed about me, getting in my eyes, finding their way into my ears, intruding into every orifice. There was only one thing to do and that was to beat a hasty retreat. Thankfully going down was easier than going up.

Simply put, it is exhilarating, uplifting to be so high in the canopy. And yes it is well worth the effort.

One of the great journeys in the world

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There are many deserving candidates for this title from the Karakoram Highway to the Appendice Orientale in Eritrea, from more well-known routes such as Pacific Highway No 1 in the US to the Ocean Road in Australia. I would like to introduce a pretender to this crown: Sacred Valley to Manu Biosphere.

In a day you will lose some three thousand metres in altitude, meet the most wonderful people, experience dramatic climatic and environmental changes, see some extraordinary birds and if lucky wildlife. I know of nowhere else like it.

It begins in the charmed Sacred Valley, invaluable to the Incas and entrancing to anyone who visits today. Dusty bowler hats, pig tails, Keqpe Rina – the colourful wrap women wear around their shoulders to carry wool, snacks and even babies – are de rigueur.

As you climb out of the magical valley of some 3,000 metres, you leave behind steep hillsides defined by precise Inca terracing for a more pastoral way of life. Trees and shrubs give way to alpine grassland. There are few inhabitants and no agricultural plots. The air is crisp, the sky a dazzling blue, the oxygen getting thinner.

You arrive at a 3,650 metre pass and are confronted by a billowing white cloud bank that tells you, in no uncertain terms, that you are in for change. You head down the perhumid eastern slope of the Andes.

It is a remarkable ecological transition from dusty and dry to dripping and wet in a mere several hundred metres. A normal day sees no sun as thick clouds bathe the slopes and an intermittent drizzle keeps the vegetation soaked in an enveloping Dickensian mist.

As you descend along a series of interminable switchbacks negotiating steeply plunging slopes, trees are cloaked in the thick wrappings of lichens, mosses, ferns and orchids. The cloud forest is a world unto itself, mysterious and intriguing, but almost unapproachable. As you drive along the road, the forest is literally at your fingertips but entering it is not for the faint-hearted – it is a vertical landscape and one wrong foot would plunge you down the hillside into the spray of the streams and river trying to reach the plains in their turbulent haste.

You may well see capuchin monkeys but birds are the real attraction – tanagers, hummingbirds and oropendolas – with the undisputed prize being the cock-of-the-rock. Its iridescent flame orange plumage makes for a dazzling visual spectacle. The males gather in loose aggregations, known as leks, noisy hubs of activity as the males whine and call, bob up and down and fly from perch to perch.

You leave behind the confines of the canyon and enter a swampy plain where the soil is poor – millennia of rains having washed out all the fertility. There are clusters of small holdings, genial people trying to make ends meet. Their clothing is less exotic.

From here you descend a little further into the jungle a riot of vegetation, akin to Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. Everything is heard yet unseen. Your imagination is restless as to what lies within. You arrive at Atalaya, a cluster of corrugated iron: the end of the road. The only traffic being the overhead flight of macaws, jays and parakeets, and a nervous husband with two young daughters, wife and baby and wheelbarrow full of their worldly goods, preparing to pole themselves slowly upriver in a dugout.

No they are not dressed in tribal costume. That is another, albeit very different journey further downriver, and for another time. For now this sates my appetite and I feel lays claim to one of the great road journeys of the world.

Isla Taquile, in Lake Titicaca

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Yesterday I went to what I consider hands down the most peaceful, idyllic and beautiful place I have ever been to.

Isla Taquile, in Lake Titicaca is a UNESCO world heritage site for obvious reasons. You couldn’t allow anything to spoil this- it’s just too perfect. It’s a privilege to watch the shy inhabitants of the island in symbolic traditional dress going about their daily lives. The three rules of the island are “don’t steal, don’t lie and don’t be lazy”. The latter of these is evident when you see an old lady walking up a steep path spinning yarn as she walks, or small boys walking along together chatting and knitting simultaneously.

The ladies on the island weave and the men knit. You may have heard of an island of knitting men; this is it! They make beautiful tapestries, accessories and items of clothing out of wool. Peru is fascinating for its textiles, as they are used not simply as decoration, but for more meaningful purposes of communication and recording. We can arrange tours that focus on the textiles of Peru, which sounds fascinating; after learning bits and pieces on this trip, I’d love to come back and find out more one day.

The view from the beautiful stone path which winds its way around the island is simply breathtaking. Looking down over the island you have the pretty terraced farm land, growing vegetables and flowers, among which you must keep your eyes peeled for the gorgeous giant hummingbird (I saw three!). Looking across the water you can see the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca – its snow capped mountain range with clouds hovering above, moving forwards from the rainforest behind.

I had the most wonderful guide, a young man called Blady, who was so knowledgeable on the island and the people; I never asked a question he couldn’t answer. We went for a delicious lunch of bread and salsa, traditional vegetable soup and melt-in-your-mouth trout from the lake, in a beautiful silent restaurant on the hillside, before going for a walk from one pier to the next. We wiled away a thoroughly enjoyable hour taking photographs (he’d point out the best views and spot birds for me) and teaching each other Spanish and English idioms. The peaceful silence of the island is something I’ll never forget.

I snoozed and sunbathed on the boat journey back, thoroughly satisfied with a truly lovely day.

N.B. Top tip – due to being so near the equator and the reflections from the water, the sun will destroy you before you’ve got time to say “I’ll just put on some sun cream” so apply before you leave the boat and reapply all the way around. I am the embarrassed bearer of a seriously pink forehead!

For further information on Sarah’s journey through Peru, visiting Lake Titicaca for yourself or for advice on any part of a holiday to Peru contact the team on 01285 880 980.

The White City of Arequipa, Peru

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Ladies – if you’re ever feeling a little bit low and in need of an ego boost, go for a little stroll around Arequipa! I’ve had enough lovely compliments from polite, smiling, friendly people to last me a lifetime!

And of course, that is not by any stretch of the imagination all that Arequipa has to offer. What a beautiful city! Wandering around the gorgeous cobbled streets, surrounded by pretty and varied architecture, overshadowed by breathtaking snow capped volcanoes is an absolute delight.

On the way in from the airport I stopped at a viewpoint on a hillside outside the city to see the famous volcanoes – Chachani, Misti and Pichu Pichu (pictured), with Arequipa below in the valley, alongside the famous terraced farmland with a big river running through the middle.

There I was given some maca root sweets; they taste like toffee and are chockablock with vitamins, minerals and pretty much every essential “good for you” ingredient you can think of. They’re supposed to make you strong and healthy. I tried a couple of other fruits straight from the tree, one of which was in a pod, like runner beans but bigger, and inside looked a little like blobs of cotton with a smooth black seed inside each of them – really tasty!

Peru has a fascinating agricultural history. It has so many microclimates, due to the altitude, that it holds the title of the country with the greatest number of endemic plants in the world, plants that will refuse to grow anywhere else. They also grow a stunningly huge variety of the fruit and vegetables we all know and eat in the UK; and I’m told the tastiest ones are grown here!

Arequipa’s old town is the perfect place to spend a couple of days acclimatising to the altitude before moving onto higher places. At 2,000 feet above sea level it’s a nice midway point before heading up to Colca, Puno or Cusco. There’s a very attractive central plaza with a fountain and hundreds of pigeons in a garden in the centre. It’s supposed to be good luck to bring your baby to this plaza and take a photo there.

Alongside the square is a grand cathedral built from the porous white volcanic rock which has given Arequipa its name “The White City”. Among the cobbled backstreets spreading from here are lots of treasures to find; markets, places to buy incredibly soft alpaca wool products, churches, restaurants and incredible views of the volcanoes. Not to be missed- try some of the local ice cream; vanilla, coconut and cinnamon flavour- delicious or “rico” which is Spanish slang meaning “yummy”!

The jewel in Arequipa’s crown in my opinion is the Santa Catalina monastery. Totally closed until 1960, it’s a beautifully restored walled
village within a village. It is such a incredibly peaceful place to wander and explore. Take a guide and they’ll answer any number of questions and tell you all about the genuinely fascinating history of the place. There’s a roof you can get to which gives you a spectacular view of the city with the mountains behind – my highlight.

After spending a couple of days here it’s onwards and upwards to higher parts of Peru!

For advice designing your own holiday to Peru please contact our Peru specialists on 01285 600 134.

Ancient Civilisations of Northern Peru

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During my recent trip to Northern Peru to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, I followed in the footsteps of the fascinating Moche. As one of the pre-Incan civilisations, they were socially, politically and culturally very developed and it is believed it as these traits that enabled the Incas to thrive in Southern Peru for nearly 100 years.

Many Pre-Incan sites remain near Trujillo. Amongst others, I visited Huaca del Sol y de la Luna (Temples of the sun and Moon) built by the Moche and the archaeological site of Chan Chan, an incredible sprawling town covering nearly 20 km2. I was most intrigued by Museo de Cao, home to the mummified remains of ‘Senora de Cao’. Her tattooed body buried with numerous ceremonial artefacts, leading you to wonder what important role she played in Moche history.

I was privileged to meet with the leading Peruvian archaeologist Dr Walter Alva, who unearthed the tomb of the ‘Lord of Sipan’. Untouched by thieves, the tomb is one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the world, containing the mummified remains of a Moche warrior and leader. The majority of the finds are now housed in The Tumbes Reales Museum of Sipan and is a truly fascinating exhibition.

Off the beaten track, visiting the archaeological site of San Jose de Moro is a real adventure. This is one of the most important cemetery sites ever discovered, containing ritual burials from numerous Mochica civilisations. The excavations have given archaeologists an incredible insight into the beliefs, artwork, traditions and governmental structure of these ancient societies.

I spent only a fraction of my time in Peru exploring these archaeological sites, however they give a fascinating insight into the incredible history of Peru. For anyone with a keen interest in archaeology I cannot recommend Northern Peru enough.

Paddington Bear’s cousins caught on camera

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When Paddington Bear famously arrived on a cold and rainy day at the famous London train station which gave him his name, he’d travelled from the cloud forests of deepest, darkest, Peru.

In fact, Paddington Bear is a Spectacled Bear, the only South American species of bear. These bears are some of the most elusive animals in this part of the world so it is always a great moment when they are caught on camera, even more so when it is out in the open and with the family. The attached photos of Paddington Bear’s cousins were taken in Ecuador near the Cayambe Coca Reserve not too far from Quito.