La Raya to Puno

There was a shifty little shuffle at La Raya when the Cusco entertainment switched to the train going back to Cusco and the Puno brigade arrived to entertain us in the afternoon.

The train manager told me at La Raya that we had another four hours of the altiplano befor the scenery would change again. During this time we would see wild alpaca and llama.

imageOnce I had woken from my slumber I made for the bar and had another chilcano and was joined by the Australian lady from Geelong. Apparently this is not the first time travelling without husband and she is a hiker. Already been away a month and when her travelling partner returns shortly she will remain in the Amazon jungle, not returning home until the end of February.

Our conversation was somewhat interrupted by the music from Puno and we couldn’t escape. So another chilcano it was.

And so the passengers passed the remaining hours with polite conversation, looking out of the window and getting some air at the observation carriage. As we entered Puno the sun was setting, throwing a glow on the mountains the other side of Lake Titicaca. The train arrived bang on time at 6.30pm to the madness that is Puno during this festival.

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My new favourite hotel chain Tierra Viva also came up trumps in terms of service. I    had sporadic internet access as we passed through towns along the way and received a message from Cusco saying that I had left a pouch with medicines in the room. I am not taking medication but always carry some standards as a precaution. Having asked them to dispose of the bag I wondered if they could  check with sister hotel in Puno if they had received my message about arranging a taxi. These conversations went on during the day as the internet was a available and finally I had confirmation that somebody would be there to meet me.  It was a good job as roads were blocked and the streets full of bands and dancers. Made it to the hotel, only to be told that the taxi was complimentary.

Cusco to La Raya

We left Wanchaq station promptly at 8am and settled into our assigned seats with menus staring us in the face. Lunch was to be served at 1pm and but now a variety of breakfasts were offered.

We slowly wended our way out of Cusco through the urban sprawl, the train’s whistle blasting continually because of traffic and pedestrians. Next came the arable landscape with smallholdings caring for a variety of livestock.

imageWith breakfast over we were usshered into the bar area for a welome chilcano before the cabaret started.!  A small group and a single dancer assailed us with some typical music from Cusco. Now, we noticeably start to climb as our destination is La Raya, the highest we will reach and the highest point at 4319 mtrs that I have reached on this journey. We are now way above the tree line in the altiplano.

imageAt la Raya we were allowed 15 minutes off the train where artesanal sellers lay in wait. Where did they come from ? I asked one of the staff. Apparently their main stalls were hidden only 100  yards away on the Cusco to Puno road and coaches stop there all the time. I didn’t feel so bad about not buying.

Back on the train, table laid and pre-ordered cocktail, waiting. Lunch was a variety of breads, green salad with some fresh orange and grapefruit. Next up was boeuf bougignon and a glass of merlot. By the time the chocolate pudding had arrived I was asleep.

 

 

The Andean Explorer

The tail end of my journey was always focussed towards attending the Festival of the Virgin of Candelaria in Puno. It was difficukt to plan as there is little detail to be found on the internet regarding timing which can fluctuate by a few days each year. Once I had tied down some likely dates, I had to consider how to get there. This is when I discovered the Andean Explorer. However, as it only runs on Wednesdays and Saturdays timing became critical as others had told me not to spend too many days in Puno.

So the plan was to arrive in Puno on Saturday evening, visit the stadium on Sunday where the various carnival groups compete, and watch them parade throug the streets. The event lasts two weeks and is the biggest music and dance festival in Peru and one of the biggest in South America.

The Andean Explorer is run by PeruRail and owned by the Belmond group. It was early in the morning when I arrived to check in and then board the train to get a first glimpse of what the next ten hours had in stall.

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imageWith only thirty two passengers it was inevitable we would pass some time together. It was an an interesting mix. An Australian couple who were due to be a foursome but whose respective spouses pulled out so they travelled anyway. The General Manager of the Belmond Monasterio Hotel…lots of arse licking going on. A family from Guildford with daughters of 10 and 13 who had taken the kids out of school and were travelling for nine months. Two awful Essex ladies in hiking gear who did nothing but complain about the cost and hog the rear viewing platform. Finally a charming gay couple, one a photographer from NY now living in BA with his partner an Argentine diplomat.

 

The end of a great day

After the Belmond I walked back up the hill to Plaza San Blas where the religious festival continued into the night. It was here while I was waiting to be picked up from the quad-biking that himself made an appearance before the 1pm mass. I snapped a quick video of poor quality which you can see HERE but look out for the bellringer at the end

Opposite the door of the church is a restaurant called PachaPapa which is recommended. It has an outdoor courtyard in which sits a woodburning oven.

I chose a whole trout cooked in the outdoor oven with mashed potato, a Peruvian standard. It was great, then home for an early night as taxi arrives at 7am. What a day!

 

Belmond Monasterio Hotel

A few of the large monastery buildings in Cusco have been changed into hotels but none with as much elan as the Belmond. Firstly it is ideally located halfway between the Plaza San Blas and the main square, Plaza des Armas. Secondly it is a site of architectural interest and finally, it comes with the luxury for which the the Belmomd group is known.

Belmond is the rebadged name of the Orient Express group famous for itsbluxury hotels, trains, and restaurants. The hotel is listedbas a sire of major architectural interest in Peru, akin to a Grade 1 listed building in the UK.

As one expects in these places the service was excellent as I was invited to take a seat next to the log fire. Soon my Pisco sour arrived and I sat back to enjoy as I started to feel the beneficial effects of my massage.

imageAfter my drink in the bar I wandered into the cloistered courtyard to see the reason why this is of architectural importance.

 

 

A church and a massage

Our final quad bike stop before heading back to base was a church. There was no sign of life here and it was a relatively new structure but the location was perfect to pick out the Andes in the background.

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After the bikes had been put to bed we clambered into out non seatbelted taxi for the drive back to Cusco. Driver and guide in the front and three of us in the back. Whether it was the higher altitude, the sun, or the adrenaline lag, the two Aussies were soon fast asleep. I wanted to but couldn’t get comfortable enough to follow them.

Instead of being taken back to my hotel we were deposited at the Plaza des Armas. My back was aching, my arms were sore from the quad biking, and I had to contemplate the uphill struggle to my hotel.

When I arrived in Cusco I was a bit under the weather and felt that it was all too touristy, which of course it is supposed to be. Every doorway  around the Plaza and to my hotel stands someday persuading you to enter a craft shop, a restaurant or have a massage. I guess every time I walked back from the Plaza to my hotel I would be approached 10-20 times for a massage. In another place one might consider this to be rather dodgy with the looks of the masseuse more important than her massaging skills. That morning I had met an older guy and his wife from Hawaii and he told me that they were excellent masseuses which he had visited the day before.

So I decided to go for it. The young masseuse led me through a bazaar and into the massage rooms. She didn’t speak English so boss lady came in to negotiate. She pushing me to the high end with special coca cream, me setting a lower price. In the end I settled for a discounted Swedish full body deep tissue massage which would take an hour and fifteen minutes. It was a great, if painful massage, which cost £11!!

 

Salt mines of Maras

Our quad bike leader took us down some steep and rutted terrain and we passed sheep and cattle being hered up the narrow tracks as the video will later testify. We then went totally off piste and scorched through upon fields until we arrived at a precipice where brakes and neural were quickly applied.

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We then walked down a narrow on a cliff until the sakt mines far below us came into view. The scale is difficult to imagine. In the photo you can see the patchwork if the pits below, a road runs down the side of the mountain opposite, and the snow capped Andes can be see further back.

Salt has been mined here since pre Incan times. Water runs through the rocks and becomes very salty. It is collected in a vast series of evaporating pits where the salt is then mined. Here is an amzing blog pic by Misha Zavoico of the pits closer up.

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Inca ruins of Moray

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At 3500mtrs and 50kms from Cusco is the site of Moray which was our first stop on the quad bikes. This amazing structure is breathtaking and again I am sure the photos will not do the place justice.

Apparently, it is believed that this may have been an Incan agricultural research station. Its irrigation system and differing levels provided microclimates where different conditions for growing crops could be tested.

Quad-biking in the Sacred Valley

I was hardly going to go trekking at altitude, after only being here for a day, but I did want to venture into the Sacred Valley and see some of the key sights.

Rather than take a whole day bus tour I opted for quad-biking in the area. I have previous with quad bikes both ending with minor injuries so I was going to try to take it easy. I was picked up for the 1.25 hour, hairy, drive out of Cusco, without a seatbelt, and joined by two Aussie students. This was good news as it meant we had the guide just for the three of us.

DCIM100GOPROKitted up and having had an explanation about the working of the quad we were off, led by the guide on a motorbike. The bike came in handy later.

The two lads went off keeping up with the leader but I was more timid. Like at skiing, the fast ones wait for the slow to catch up at junctions and then set off again.This was not just tracking along roads but a lot of the time on rutted paths and across open Andean fields.DCIM100GOPRO

The weather was good to us and the sites we visited and the scenery was spectacular.

My quad bike experience, however, didn’t go without a hitch. I got perched on a bank and and nearly tipped it over on top of me. The next problem was that the gung ho’s were so far in front that I didn’t see them turn off. This is where the motor bike came in handy as after several minutes the leader came tearing up from behind and told me to turn around. Finally, I hit a rut on one of the paths and shot off the trail, luckily at a place without a drop. However the bank was steep and I couldn’t get back on track so had to wait for motor bike man to return to look for me. Any way it was all OK in the end and a marvellous experience.

Unfortunately as I near the end if my trip I have run out of memory on the ipad so the videos I have will be posted on my return.

One of the best days

You will have to wait for the details for today as too much to download and too little time. Suffice to say it was a great day. Packed a lot in.

  • drive out to the Sacred Valley
  • quad bike riding
  • massage
  • cocktail at the Belmond Monasterio Hotel
  • Dinner at Pachapapa on the San Blas plaza where they are still venerating

In the meantime here are more uniforms and a llama.

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