Travelling Hopefully

25 September

I decided, since I was facing a 5am check in, not to try to drive down to Heathrow at 2am in the morning. Last I heard it's not safe to dream and drive. So I drove down last night, dropped the car off at Purple Parking, and used the Heathrow Hoppa bus to get to my hotel for the night, Easyhotel. It was an interesting place, functional, clean, and pod-like. I had a beer in my room and then went to bed at 8pm. I fell asleep about two hours later, interrupted by some alarm at midnight. At 4am I got up, had a small breakfast, and shared a minicab to Terminal 5.

Check in bag was only 19.6 kg (against the limit of 23kg). Carry ons were being strictly monitored, so I'm glad I went for backpack and small bag rather than my larger carry on. Flight to Madrid, and then from Madrid to Lima, were both unremarkable. I was with Iberia, my least favourite airline. The flight from Madrid to Lima took nearly 12 hours and we did not have our own entertainment screens. I managed to finish three books on my Kindle in between spilling beer on my trousers.

I was a bit worried about getting through Peru customs. Seems you are only allowed to bring in one camera (and two memory cards) tax free. And bags were x-rayed. But nothing was said. Whew! There were a number of sniffer dogs around but I don't think they were there to spot extra cameras.

I met up with most of my fellow travellers (13 of us, plus the guide) and guide and we were taken to our hotel. My room tonight is about five times as large as my pod last night. Although I am very tired I did make it to the bar for the welcome drink-a Pisco sour! As one of my fellow travellers said, 'It's not unpleasant.' 

26 September

Well, as the song goes, things can only get better.

After an okay night's sleep, I had an early breakfast and actually found myself watering down coffee. Never have I encountered coffee so strong before! Breakfast was fruit, various breads, cereal, and the aforementioned dark stuff which, if drunk neat, would probably have added inches to my height.

We left at 7am and headed to a coastal reserve called Villa Marches. The sky was grey, as is expected at this time of year around the coast. It's currently spring in Peru, and the cold Humboldt current gives rise to a grey mist which lasts much of spring. But it wasn't too cold, nor windy. I was quite comfortable in my travel trousers and shirt.

At the reserve we admired a Harris hawk and shivered at the number of Black vultures. A police officer escorted us and in a remained 'to keep us safe' said our local guide. Our van parked at an area of coast which was adjacent to marsh land. I decided to have the Canon 7D with 400mm lens around my neck and the Canon 5Diii with 24-105mm lens at my side. 

The rest of the group concentrated on the marsh birds. Since I wanted to be able to do some bird stalking (even with a 400mm lens you can still end up speck of bird) I went to the beach. I was stunned by the beauty of Peruvian pelicans doing synchronised flying over the waves--moved me to tears. Whilst continuing to photograph, of course. I also stalked a group of Whimbrel (what is the group name for Whimbrel? A whimsy of Whimbrel?) who obligingly took umbrage and flew down to the seashore. Much better for photos. There were also a number of riders exercising horses along the surf. 

When the group came to the seashore I went back to the marsh land so I could stalk birds without disturbing bird watchers. Two American oystercatchers eyed me, and more whimsies of Whimbrel.

Our guide took us along the marsh to do some bird spotting in the reeds. We had to pick our way along a bush lined bank, cross over a log, then up to the path on the other side. We saw some lovely small birds, and headed back. I crossed the log successfully, but then made a misstep along the bank. At first it was only my boots which sunk into the marsh. Then, suddenly, I was down in the green water to my waist. It wasn't even a Sophie's choice moment, all I could do was to hold up the camera in my hand as I plunged. I don't think I actually hit bottom, and the underwater branches were shifting underfoot as some helping hands reached down to haul me out. 'Are you okay?' I was asked, to which I replied truthfully, 'I'm okay, but I'm not sure about the camera!'

I hurried to the van where I dried off Canon 5Diii and lens. The lens has water inside so I'm pretty sure it's a goner. There was some water in the various 5Diii compartments, but not too far down. The camera is supposed to be water resistant, but I think that means the odd spot of rain, not plunged into a marsh in Peru. I took all battery and cards and for the rest of the day held the camera in my lap with all compartments open. I plan to give it a couple of days before trying it out--the worst thing you can do, I understand, is to run an electrical current through whist water might still be inside. Another annoyance is that I usually, when abroad, turn off my iPhone and stick it in my luggage. But I happened to still have it in a trouser pocket, and it looks dead. My compact camera was in its case when we plunged under, and the case saved it. Good case, very good case.

Fortunately all our luggage was in the van, so the others spent another 20 minutes birding whilst I got changed. We drove on to a small fishing village, Pucusana, where we climbed into small wooden boats for a trip around the coast. The engine was a rather rusty job in the middle of the boat, which the captain controlled with a long piece of string. We did put on life vests, but I reflected that the set up would probably not pass UK health and safety standards.

It was a great trip. We saw a number of seabirds, including a few Humboldt penguins, and Southern sea lions. And the gorgeous Inca tern, fantastic bird.

We had a late lunch at a cafe (nice local caught fish) then headed down the coast to Paracas, our stop for the night. We have two nights here, so I've done my washing (amazing how much green water came out of my trousers) and I hope two nights will be enough for it all to dry. 

The countryside is desert, and the towns look nearly as hostile to life. Lots of half finished buildings, and wild dogs. We saw horses pulling ploughs and donkeys pulling carts. Plus very large sheds in which chickens are raised for slaughter. I shall avoid eating chicken this holiday. 

After dinner we went through the bird list as supplied by the travel company. Quite a few already seen! 

27 September

Still not touching the camera. The longer I leave it to dry out, the better hopes I have that the electronics won't frizz. But this is a wildlife holiday and so I would normally expect to be using the Canon 7D at any rate.

There was an option to go birdwatching on the beach adjacent to the hotel at 6am. I got up at 6am, but to work on photos. I took over 1000 yesterday! And then problem two emerged. Although I have a rather new MacBook Air, for some reason the hard drive is nearly filled. I've tried to find out what it is, but the only report I can pull up says it's 'other.' Not photos, or videos, or music, or software. So I have only around 30GB of hard drive to play with, and the other day I filled a 32GB camera card. This is going to be interesting. I find my keep rate for wildlife photos is around 5%, so when I move unwanted files to the trash I will be able to clear space. But it means I need to keep on top of the photo processing. I don't think I'll have time to work out what has crowded into the 250Gb hard drive until I get home.

I had decided not to take the flight over the Nazca lines. The tour company did their best to discourage you, as does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as there have been a number of 'plane crashes. Only two out of our group of 13 went. The rest of us went birding.

Amazing what you can find in the most unpromising locales. Our first stop was near Ica Airport (which no longer carries out the flights). In the scrub we found a number of hummingbirds. The group was particularly excited when we spotted the Black-necked  woodpecker. Our guide has never seen it here before and has only a 50% hit rate for the whole tour. I was particularly excited by the parrotlets. Anything parrotish gets me excited.

We went on and, with their permission, went birding through the grounds of a rather lovely hotel. We saw flycatchers, more hummingbirds, and the hotels pet macaw. The macaw's handlers were trying to convince him to fly down from a tree, and he was giving them the same look my parrot gives me when she too has flown somewhere high and doesn't want to come down. There were llamas and chickens wandering around the area. Then we heard flock of a Scarlet fronted conures. Now I was even more excited. They hid quite well in the trees, and I got a just about acceptable one. We also saw another of this rare woodpecker, trying to get water out of a pipe. 

For lunch we drove to Huacachina Lake. Amazing sand dunes towered over the town, and the hotel at which we had lunch. The food, by the way, is very good. Rice is a constant feature, fish and chicken the usual options. I've been enjoying a raw, pickled fish which is a common starter. And lots of asparagus, which is grown in this area.

We dropped back to our hotel, had half an hour's breather, and then headed out to the Paracas Nature Reserve. The desert runs down to the ocean. We stood at the shoreline admiring the birds and trying to breathe in the stiff wind. The van grumbled over the trace of road to take us to another viewpoint. Then back over the sandy, dusty landscape for dinner.

28 September

We packed up and headed out from the lovely hotel which few of us had had time to explore. We went down to the bay, where we boarded a speed boat to go to visit the Ballestas Islands. Already in the harbour we saw lots of birds, many settled on the fishing boats. The first excitement was a great sighting of Bottlenose dolphins. The viewings were better than the photographs reveal. They came up close to the boats and also engaged in some flipper flapping.

Along the way we admired the candelabra, a sketch in the sand similar to the Nazca lines. After viewing some birds nearby, we headed across the water to the islands. It was a bit wet and windy, and I diligently protected both Canon 7D and my compact camera. 

At one island, the most amazing experience. A large colony of Southern sea lions covered the beach. And a large number were in the water. As our boat came up they raised themselves up in the water to have a good look at us. And they followed the boat, diving in and out of the bow waves. 

Further on we came to the Ballestas Islands proper. Stacks of rock formations, filled with sea lions and birds. We saw some of the Peruvian boobies doing their mating rituals. Young Inca terns were near to parents. We saw three Humboldt penguins, bringing my life list of penguins seen in the wild to six. You can never see enough penguins.

The sun came out as we returned to the port. We drove off to try to find some other bird species in a section of scrub desert. Our guide was astounded by the number of shanty houses which were now in the area. I was surprised that, although these houses seemed to be made of woven straw, some still sported satellite dishes. Our van tried to find the road which used to exist, but in the end we got out and walked.

It was very hot in the sun. We saw some birds, but mostly species already seen. We climbed up one sand bank to find ourselves looking down at a small farm. The farmers come over to shake hands and talk to us. The wife offered to take us to see her cow. We declined. 

Lunch was at a restaurant overlooking the bay. Afterwards I went on a badge hunt (I collect sew on badges). To my joy I found some at one of the small stalls. 

Then it was into the van for the long drive back to Lima. We had a couple of comfort breaks, and reached the hotel 6.30pm. I declined to have dinner. I feel stuffed despite my attempts not to eat all my lunches etc. Instead I went on-line in my room to work out why my MacBook's hard drive was so full. Some searches led me to an application called 'Daisy Disk', which finally let me analyse what this mysterious 'other' was which had taken up over 200GB of my hard drive. This turned out to be previous saved versions of this website on the software system! I was unable to delete the previous saved versions, so I copied the application and this file over to my back up hard drive. I deleted the programme, which got rid of the backups and has given me glorious amounts of hard drive. I've reloaded it back on to my laptop, and the passwords seemed to have come back over again. 

I tried out the 5Diii. It fired up, but there must have been damage to the lens contacts. It won't communicate with any lens. I will be guarding my 7D very closely now!

29 September

An early rise to get to our flight to Puerto Maldonado. I had packed things carefully for our trip into the rainforest. There is a limit to the amount of luggage you can take, so I concentrated on getting clothes sorted. Essentials such as camera stuff and Mac would be in my backpack.

Despite Lima traffic we made it to the airport in good time. Jose, our guide, had tried to check us all in on line the night before. This had not worked for several of us first time, so on the trip in the van one of the other guides finished doing this on his smart phone. 

All okay getting bags in, through security, and then on to the ‘plane. My seat mates for the first leg of the journey, to Cusco, were German speaking, an Austrian and a northern German. I understood the latter better than the former, but we all had some nice conversation in German. I also worked on my photos from yesterday. So many sea lions!

At Puerto Maldonado we crossed the tarmac at the small airport terminal. Our luggage was loaded on to the top of a bus and we were taken the short distance to the offices of Rainforest Expeditions—the company whose services and premises we’ll be using in the rainforest. There I filled a small duffle bag (as provided by the company) with the clothes I was taking up the river. I left behind my suitcase and other stuff, including the non-functioning camera and lens. We were assured that the storage is very secure.

A bus took us to the embarkation point for the covered motorized canoes. Our lunch was on board—a variation on Chinese fried rice, wrapped up in a banana leaf.

Our stop for the night, Posada Amazones, was less than an hour up river. During the trip we saw our first macaws. Hurrah! 

The lodge has ceilings and walls, but as much as possible is open to the forest, including the four wall of bedrooms. I had a room with three beds, two single and a double. There was a bathroom with shower, and gas lamps were lit to light the walkways. We have candles to use in our rooms, and whatever torches or headlamps which we brought with us.

We took a walk to a lookout tower. The canopy tower was a small metal and wooden affair which was interesting to climb. We stayed until sunset, seeing very few birds but a lovely sunset. I would have liked to use my landscape lens to take some photos, but there was hardly room to stand never mind change camera lenses.

We were walking in near dark to return to the lodge. All very sweaty work. The humidity level can hit 98%, we were told. I’ve experienced dry heat, but this is something else. And we were advised to wear long trousers and long sleeved shirts to combat biting insects. 

The beds do have mosquito nets, which I have decided are an excellent invention. After dinner I took shelter under the net, stripped off most of my clothing (sorry for that image that brings to mind) and, yes, worked on more photos!

30 September

We had to get up a 4am, 4.30am breakfast, 5.15am on to the boat. A short time later we got off the boat to walk to an oxbow lake. Well, walking to the lake was the idea. In a clearing suddenly a variety of birds began to make appearances. Well, far off appearances. The type of far off which means you need a powerful scope to see them. Our guides had two. The birders were enraptured. After an hour of this I got bored. So I headed off down the path to the lake. A termite highway caught my attention—the insects had actually worn a path across the ground. Macro lens finally had an outing.

At the lake, when the rest of the party arrived, we boarded a paddleboat and glided down along the reed beds. We had hoped for a good sighting of the river otters, but all we got was a far distant glimpse of heads. But it was nice to travel across water without the sound of an engine. The breeze kept us cool despite the lack of overhead shelter.

On the walk back there were further birding stops, particularly for ant birds. A colony of leafcutter ants were busy at work, and I would have loved to have had time to photograph them properly. 

Then into the boats for the very long trek upriver. We travelled for around seven hours, with a couple of stops at stations where we had to sign a register (and which had toilets, which were acceptable once you chased the insects off the seats). 

I did have one concern filling out the register. We were asked for ‘Occupation’. I have the tendency NOT to tell people what I do for a living when on holiday. I don’t really want to spend my leisure time listening to the story of someone’s third divorce or arguing about the non-existence of God. So I wrote down ‘Part tine lecturer’ which is not entirely a lie. But if I’d put down ‘priest’ then the rest of the party would have known.

It was okay when the boats were moving. The wind kept us cooler. But when we halted it was not only the heat but also the bugs which got at us. Particularly the sandflies, little bitey things which surround you and draw blood. Despite Craghoppers proud boasting, one still got me through my insect repellent shirt. 

More bird life. Macaws (hurrah! The others are getting used to my infatuation) and kingfishers. We also had some very excellent spottings of Capybara. One set were wallowing in the mud and a Cowbird hopped from one to the other to pick off insects. We also saw a deer, which is supposedly a rare thing to see.

The river is low, as this is the end of the dry season. A couple of times our guides had to use poles to push us over shallow areas, and once the man at the back of the boat got out to push. We saw people on another boat get out and all push. We also came across small gold mining operations, all legal, although the bash up of rusty metal implements makes one wonder.

Some of the charm of travelling up a river was beginning to wear off by the time we reached the lodge. There were mercifully very few steps up from the bank and a short walk to the buildings. We had to leave boots at the entrance. Again, like the previous lodge, there are gas lights along the walkways and candles in the rooms. The toilet/shower rooms are at the end of the bedrooms. To show that you are using the facilities, a wooden sign stating ‘Occupied’ is hooked across the entranceway in front of the curtains. As with other places in Peru, we are requested not to throw toilet paper into the toilet bowl. Instead you are to throw used toilet paper into a bin. It is hard to remember.

Many of us went to the showers. The men seemed to decide that they would wander to and fro wearing nothing more than a towel around their waists. Much spotting of the bare chested Great Britain.

We had dinner (buffet style) and beers (many of us). Afterwards one of the researchers gave us a presentation about the work which they do here. The macaws have been studied here for years, as the claylick attracts a large number of species. About twenty years ago a number of Scarlet macaw chicks were raised by the researchers, and these ‘chicos’ sometimes still return to the lodge. We were asked not to feed them, and to make sure any sweets in our rooms are tucked away. It seems the macaws will end up in a room trying to steal sweets. I immediately wondered where I could buy sweets…

1 October 

I went to bed early, as the plan was to get up at 4am to go to the viewpoint for the claylick. But, Jose said, if it were raining we would not go. So when the thunderstorm woke me at 2am I plunged into bitter disappointment. At 4am I turned off the alarm and prepared to go back to sleep.

4.20am Jose knocked on our walls to wake us up. The rain had stopped, and we were going. So we quickly gathered our things and headed out. 

The claylick viewpoint is only a quick boat ride along the river. We trod carefully through the dark (under the jungle canopy, when it’s night it gets really dark). Into the canoes, and out across the semi-darkness. At the other end we picked our way along a wet path to the bare look out point. No, no blind, just an area at the edge of the island where we unfolded stools (taken from the lodge) and took our seats.

The macaws and other parrots began to gather, noisily. I took photos of them in trees and flying past, although the light was very poor in the overcast conditions. It was one of those times when the experience comes first, the photography far second. It was wonderful to see and to hear so many parrots in one place.

A number did make their way down to the claylick. However, something scared them off and a rainbow of colours flew up river. We packed up headed back for our 7.30am breakfast.

The rain came back, thick and heavy. So no further excursions were planned for the morning. I worked hard to catch up on photos. The keen birders found plenty of birds to watch from shelter and there were regular excited noises from the group. At one point an interesting smell emerged, like something was slowly rotting. I hope it wasn’t me.

The rain cleared, so after lunch we went for a walk in the nearby forest. Jose split us into two groups, and off we went. It was very dark in amongst the trees in the overcast conditions. I soon gave up trying to photograph anything. We saw some bird life and also came across the nest of an armadillo. After a tricky set of wet steps we came to several lookout points.

The last part of the walk was in the dark. We heard frogs begin their evening chorus, and found one small frog on a plant near the lodge. Some of us did our best to photograph him using flash. Our guides assured us that this would not disturb nor harm the frog.

After dinner Jose told us the exciting news. We were going to visit a different claylick the next morning. This one was a 45 minute boat trip away, smaller, with fewer species of parrots, but we would be much closer to the claylick. I went to bed at 10pm and slept very poorly due to overexcitement.

2 October

Another 4am rise. We had breakfast before setting out, again taking small folding stools from the lodge. After the 45 minute boat trip we climbed out onto an island covered with willow trees. And muddy paths. At one end we set ourselves up across the water from the claylick. Our guides offered hot drinks, instant coffee or tea. 

These parrots took much longer to gather. By 8am I was beginning to wonder if they would be no shows. Then the macaws appeared, flying into trees and carrying on long conversations. Blue and gold, scarlet, and green and red, along with some dusky headed parrots. Conures flew overhead but didn’t seem to want to land. We had to contend with bees, which seemed to be very interested in our bags.

Something frightened the macaws and they flew away. Jose suggested that we move back from the open bank and sit behind the bushes. I found a spot which would still give me good views of parts of the bank. A small sparrow came to where we had been sitting to pick up the crumbs left from our snacks.

The macaws came and went several times. Once they were frightened off by a heron flying across the river. I was certain they would never come down to the claylicks. In fact, I began to find myself getting anxious anytime one of my fellow travellers coughed or stepped on a branch. 

Then the macaws made their move. A few, then a few more, then a rainbow cascade clinging to the cliffs to eat clay. Others were in the bushes above, eyeing the plunge. My camera started making its own distinctive noise. Then I started to cry. Oh, well, I’ve only wanted to see this for around 30 years. I wiped my eyes, blew my nose, and got back to photography.

Jose moved out of the bush cover. He started letting us move forward, starting with me. I found a spot behind two trees. But now that they were busy the macaws ignored us.

Then something startled them and off they flew. We stayed for a bit longer. One family of Blue and gold macaws were lovely to watch. The parents preened each other affectionately and the youngster occasionally batted nearest one with his wing and exhibited begging behaviour.

We packed up. I found a bit of scrub cover for a quick pee. So I was one of the last to pack up, which is just as well because I found a camera hanging by a strap from a tree. It turned out that this was Jose’s, so he was very pleased!

Once on the canoe we took our time for the return journey. Various birds were spotted, as we as family groups of capybara. Then the rains came. I placed bag cover over camera backpack and the camera with large lens went into a stuff sack. I don’t plan to lose more than one camera on this trip! Somehow the boat roof kept the rain off us, which I found amazing.

Fortunately the rain had stopped by the time we reached the landing area for the lodge. Wellingtons squelched in even more mud as we made our return in time for lunch. I had placed the camera memory card with the macaw photos into my shirt pocket, right near my heart. I think this is the most important card I’ve ever taken carefully back to base.

Some peccaries came to visit the lodge whilst I was, unfortunately, otherwise engaged in the loo. We smelled their rather distinctive, musky scent quite a bit whilst heading back along the river. Those who had been at the lodge for 7.30am breakfast told us that some of the ‘chicos’ had joined them. The macaws had stolen packets of butter and had also snuck into one person’s room. They had a youngster with them who still had his baby down feathers. 

We had a break until 3.30pm. In the same groups as yesterday we headed out for another walk in the nearby forest. The sun came out for perhaps a couple of minutes. We saw a few birds, interesting fungi, and admired the roots of the tall trees. We also had some great sightings of monkeys. I was amazed how quickly the Spider monkeys could move through the trees.

It was just getting dark when we returned. I managed to get to the showers without having to wait. Problem is, everything is just slightly damp from the moist atmosphere, so even clean clothes don’t feel really clean. 

I’ve done most of my packing. We head back down river early tomorrow to catch our flight to Cusco. Our bags have to be left outside our rooms this evening, only carry ons with us in the morning.

3 October

So, another 4am rise. The sky was beautiful as we headed down the river, and the jungle echoed with the Howler monkeys' call to morning prayer. The emphasis was on getting back to the base, as we had a 2pm flight to catch. We had two comfort stops, and a few very brief looks at interesting birds. We passed a clay lick with smaller parrots, but unfortunately didn’t stop. I snapped some not so great photos in a hurry. 

We made good time, and by mid morning we were back at the packing station. I pulled everything out of the duffle bag and threw it into the main case, deciding to do a better sort when I was in a hotel room.

We arrived at the airport at 11am and checked in. Then Jose decided to take us down the road for a bit of birding! I was totally unprepared for this. My hat was in the check in bag, along with my sun cream. One of my fellow travellers insisted that I borrow her hat.

Trying to get some lunch was a challenge. There was one small restaurant at the airport, and the tables were full. We were able to get in after about half an hour. My ham and cheese sandwich consisted of slightly stale white bread, a slice of processed ham, and a slice of processed cheese. You could tell that the place has no competition.

The ‘plane was 45 minutes late. So we had to rearrange our afternoon plans. Instead of an archeological site and a city walk we would only have the latter, and we would instead visit the site our last morning in Cusco.

Except I didn’t do the walk. When I turned my Mac on in my hotel room the fans ran like mad and the screen went black. I wondered if I’d been mistaken to use the computer in that humid rainforest and perhaps now I was paying the price. So instead of going on the walk I got onto the internet with my iPad to look up possible solutions. In the end the solution was easy, I reset the Mac’s SMC and all was well.

When I met the others for dinner we compared high altitude symptoms. We all felt a bit dizzy. Cusco is at 11,200 feet, so we are breathless going up stairs! Following the advice of our local guide we all abstained from alcohol with dinner. He said that tomorrow we might see 'the bearded mountaineer.' I made everyone laugh when I said, 'Oh, I like the sound of that, a bearded mountaineer. I'm single, after all!' I then found out that Jose meant a type of hummingbird...

4 October

A lie in this morning—didn’t have to get up until 5am! We headed out at 6.30am. 

Our first destination was a group of trees up the road from Cusco. There we went looking for a number of birds, and it appears we were quite successful. I enjoyed being in countryside which reminds me a bit of Southern California. For the first time in years I felt a pang of homesickness for where I grew up rather than where I live now.

Our next stop was to the Inca ruins of Saqsayhuaman. Our local guide told us about the site and the Inca culture. We also admired a herd of alpacas which were grazing around the site. A large party of schoolchildren ensured that the experience was not a quiet one.

We alternated birding and visiting archeological sites for the rest of the day. For birds we stopped at a couple of lakes and a small village. The latter had a number of pigs tethered on open ground. A lot of mud bricks were drying in the sun, ready to be used to build new homes. On the archeological side, we visited Tambomachay and Pukapukara. The last one we visited was my favourite, Pisac, high up in the mountains. The wind was fierce and the views were stunning. At all these sites there were people trying to sell us various handicrafts. And we, indeed, saw the Bearded Mountaineer. Lovely little bird.

Lunch was an outdoor picnic near a scenic spot. Tables and stools were pulled out of our bus and set up in the sun. We had cold roast chicken (oh, dear!), pickled vegetables, Peruvian olives (larger and a bit more bitter than what I’ve had before), and bananas. In the afternoon I thought to myself, ‘Shouldn’t have had that beer at lunch.’ Then I remembered that I had NOT had a beer at lunch. Others agreed that the sensation was the same for them, that slightly sleepy, slightly headachy feel of having had alcohol at lunch. But otherwise no one seems to be really suffering from altitude sickness.

We were back at our hotel at 6pm. Although I feel well, I also feel like I’ve eaten far too much. So I told Jose that I wouldn’t be joining the group for dinner. After dumping stuff into my room, I wandered down to the local square. I took some night shots with my compact camera, and also bought a few small presents at the gift stores. Another early start tomorrow morning—we’re leaving at 6am. 

5 October

So, up at 4.30am. Never known a holiday for so many early starts. Again we compared symptoms at breakfast. It felt like we’d all had just one too many glasses of wine the night before. Not really a hangover, but the same slightly jaded, woozy feeling. 

So we set out from Cusco. The local guides joined us and gave us maps and information about Cock of the Rock Lodge, our destination for the next three nights. We were heading into the Andes, and over the mountains to the Manu cloudforest below. The drive, if done without breaks, would take about 8 hours. We would have a few birding breaks, plus pit stops—mostly side of the road but we would visit a café in one town for a coffee and a ‘real toilet’, as Jose put it.

We were a bit perturbed to see our luggage loaded on top of the bus. Jose assured us that a waterproof cover would be put into place. The inside of the small bus had no racks for luggage, so we were all rather squeezed in with our rucksacks etc. 

The road soon changed from tarmac to gravel. And what a drive. I can honestly say it has been the most extraordinary and somewhat alarming drive in my life. 

We started in the very dry conditions of the mountains around Cusco. As we climbed in elevation we passed many small villages. Many of the inhabitants wore what I would think of as traditional Peruvian outfits. Dogs would run out from the small farms to chase our bus (we managed not to hit any). Pigs, cows, and donkeys were grazing near each other. Sometimes they would be together on the road, being herded by their owners. 

I took a lot of photos with my small camera through the van window. The landscape photographer in me wanted very much to get out and do some proper photography, but never mind.

Our coffee break was quite interesting. This ‘real toilet’ had no seat, nor did it flush. There was a large container of water next to the toilet, and you filled a bucket with said water and dumped it into the loo to make it flush. The coffee was actually ‘coffee essence’, which is what all of the hotels have had. You put only a small bit into your cup, and then dilute it with water. This is something you learn to do quite quickly here in Peru.

As we headed over the mountain pass both the weather and the scenery changed. We were now in rain, and in the cloud forest. Our boxed lunches (a rather large meal, including fruit and a chocolate) were eaten in the bus on our laps. A dog came up to wait for scraps, which I gave him but no one else did.

The road became increasingly hairy. I was sitting on the seats nearest the plunge, and at times there seemed very little road between me and the cliff. When we were finally and fully in cloud at least I couldn’t see the drop.

Our bus bumped and sometimes scraped its way over gravel, rocks, and through streams. At one point we actually drove under a waterfall. Yes, a waterfall hits the road and you drive right through the water. I tried not to worry about my luggage on the top of the bus.

We ground to a halt at 4.40pm. The road is subject to landslides, and a section is closed for repairs during working hours. We were told that we could go through at 5pm. So we managed to see some interesting woodpeckers, I found a bend in the road to relieve the bladder, and at 5.20pm we were finally allowed through.

By now we were heading into darkness. And, of course, there was traffic coming the other way. Twice we had to reverse a fair distance, in the dark, on this narrow road, to find a passing place so a truck could go by. I assured my group, ‘They say you spend heaven with the people you died with. Well, I’m happy to say that I’d be glad to spend eternity with all of you.’ This made everyone laugh. 

We reached the lodge at around 6.30pm. We have been shown to our cabins, which have windows and a loo and shower. And candlelight! The sounds around me are wonderful. Crickets, a rushing stream, frogs, nothing else. I’m looking forward to seeing what the place looks like in the daylight. 

6 October

Got up at 4.30am. At 6am we met in the lodge’s main room and immediately admired the many hummingbirds in the gardens. We wandered around the grounds, and a brief way down the hill to the nearby stream, until breakfast, 7.30am, spotting various species of birds in the early dawn light.

After breakfast we climbed into the bus and headed uphill. The morning was bright and sunny, and we stopped at two lookout points to admire the views. And looked for various birds, of course. I saw a brown flash at one point and shouted ‘Bird!’ The bus came to a halt and I was asked where it had flown to. ‘To that green tree,’ I responded, and quite rightly was thoroughly ribbed for it.

The greatest excitement was a troop of Woolly monkeys. They crashed through the tree tops just beyond us, leaping from branch to branch, sometimes missing. Several stopped to eat berries, seemingly unconcerned about our presence. 

The lodge management agreed to put on the generator for an hour over lunch so we could use their electric to charge up batteries. There were not enough of the points on the extenders for all of us, particularly as the voltage converters for our UK plugs take up a lot of room. There were semi-dignified debates around the plugs, as we tried to accommodate everyone’s chargers.

More lovely birds around the lodge. Then we drove up to the blind for the Cock of the Lodge lec. The males of these bright red birds show off—lec—twice a day, early morning and mid afternoon. We had good clear sightings of the birds, but sadly the light was very dim as the clouds had come in. The performance was worth seeing, as the birds bobbed up and down and occasionally drove one another away. Six males were in attendance, but we didn’t see any females.

The day continued to get greyer and greyer during the afternoon. We stopped to view a Nightjar, then headed back to the lodge. I brought my computer over to the main room and tried to work on photos. I gained an interested audience who wanted to see some of the photos I’ve taken this far, so I obliged.

When the generator came on before dinner there was a repeat of the debates over charging points for various batteries. I know we should be grateful to have any electricity at all in such a remote site, but all our stuff seems to demand regular feeding.

Over dinner we discussed the possibility of visiting a restaurant which serves guinea pig. One of our local guides said that guinea pig is delicious. We shall see.

7 October

When the alarm went off at 4.30am I’m afraid I reset it for 5pm. Breakfast, which was pancakes with maple syrup, was at 5.15am. At 6am we headed down the road. 

Dawn had been bright and beautiful. This did not last. As we headed into the lowlands clouds came in. So, another dull day looking for small birds in poor light…

Some adventure on the road, however. We came to a fast flowing stream with quite a gully. There was a risk of grounding the bus. So people gathered together bits of wood and the driver made a platform for the wheels. We watched the bus travel over with some trepidation. I was particularly worried because I’d left my camera equipment on the bus. But it got over.

I did have the excitement of seeing a Military macaw fly past. Later we found three Blue headed parrots, a parent feeding two chicks high in a tree. The others were looking for something small so I had the scope to myself to watch the parrots. 

We were back for lunch. As ever there was plenty of activity just outside the main room. The staff had put bananas out on a feeder, and a squirrel helped himself. He spread his tail over his head to keep off the rain, like a kind of built in umbrella. Other birds came, as well as more hummingbirds. I alternated taking photos with trying to catch up on processing photos. And I also admired the beauty of streams of clouds swirling over the nearby hills.

Some of the group went off for a walk at 4pm. I decided not to look for small birds in low light and rain, so I stayed for more work on the computer. Then I headed back to the cabin to pack whilst I still had natural light. 

8 October

Up at 4.30am. Again. Lit two candles to do a final room check. Then, as instructed, my main bag was left just inside the cabin door for the guides to fetch up to the bus. Breakfast was an omelette with ham on top. And powdered coffee with evaporated milk. I want so much to have a real coffee again…

At 6am we were off. The section of road which is closed during the day allows people through before 9am. We made it through in good time, and then stopped to do some birding. In the drizzle. I came along, keeping camera and lens well protected. In the end we were rewarded by the sighting of several Quetzals. I managed to photograph one in the rain. 

The weather continued to get worse. Jose spoke to the managers of a biological study station and we were allowed to use their toilets and they even made us some coffee. By the time we’d finished the rain was coming down quite heavily. I made the mistake of trying to hurry up some steps—at high altitude. Oops. There is very little room in the bus, which meant that all our wet stuff was hanging around us.

Lunch was a box lunch, eaten inside the bus. Then, as we came over the mountains, the weather began to improve. Streaks of sunshine and patches of dryness.

We stopped in one village because Jose had spotted a woman in traditional costume and he knew a number of us wanted photographs. She was happy to oblige for a small donation. Next thing we knew other villagers had come up. One enterprising woman brought with her a number of handicrafts which we proceeded to buy off her. A number of us ended up with rather fetching Mohican like knitted hats, some belt things, and some stone carvings. 

We had one more stop for the toilet, and took photos of campaign slogans. We arrived at our Cusco hotel at 5pm. I worked on this blog, took a shower, and packed for tomorrow. We’re only allowed a small bag on the train to Machu Picchu.

Dinner was at a restaurant specializing in Peruvian food. Two of us had, yes indeed, roast Guinea pig. We were brought out one carcass to inspect, then the sliced up version without the head. I tried to eat it with fork and knife but it was impossible. The meat stuck quite closely to the bones. It tasted a bit like strongly flavoured chicken, and there was very little of it. 

I finally told people what I do for a living. Some had guessed, others not. One told me he thought I was either a minister or a sex therapist! Hmm.

9 October

I decided to get up at 5am and have breakfast before returning to my room to work on photos. As we didn’t have to leave until 6.50am this meant that others had a later breakfast and then worried because I hadn’t turned up. My fellow Guinea pig eater was a bit unwell, so I had a knock on my door from Jose worried that I too was unwell. Bless.

Our bus took us to the train station, where we boarded our train to Machu Picchu. Well, to the town of Aguas Calientes which is where most people stay for their visit. The morning was bright and sunny, and the views from the train were excellent—so long as you had a good seat. For the first 90 minutes the carriage was only half full, so we were able to move around quite freely. However at the next stop the carriage filled, so I had to return to my aisle seat with the half window view. My seat companion gave me his seat, and later on another in our group offered me hers with the idea that I could get a good photo of the Torrent ducks which inhabit the river which you can see from the train. Well, trying to get a focus on a duck from a small window on a moving train is quite a challenge!

We reached the town of Aguas Calientes around 11am. We made our way to our hotel, the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. We left our bags behind, and I left my laptop in their safe. 

Then up to Machu Picchu by a rather hair-raising bus journey, following switchbacks up the steep sides and avoiding buses coming back the other way. We had a buffet lunch near the entrance, and at 1.30pm we went in.

We had a local guide who took us to the standard lookout over the ruins. In the distance, rather dramatically, rain could be seen to fall over the mountains. I got out waterproofs and put away main camera. As we went into the main sections of the ruins we had splattering of raindrops, and quite dramatic thunder and lightning. I took photos with my small camera as it’s easier to quickly tuck away again.

The local guide explained various areas to us. In between the birders looking for new species. I finally declared, ‘Tomorrow, when I come back to Machu Picchu, I’m going to have a bird free day. They can do a tap dance and play in an orchestra, but I’m still going to ignore all birds.’

The rain passed over and we finished the three hour tour in sunshine. The ruins were pretty clear of other people by the time we left. 

After catching the bus back down we went to our hotel. Lovely setting—separate buildings in beautiful grounds. Quite a bit of outdoor stairs to negotiate. 

I dumped my stuff, took a shower, and noted that I’d picked up a number of bug bites in Machu Picchu. In fact, they are worse than anything I picked up in the rainforest. I treated the bites and headed down into the town. There is a large market selling all sorts of things for tourists. I browsed and bought a few presents for people.

The hotel’s restaurant in between two of the train tracks. So whilst you are eating trains are going right past the windows. There is no safety barrier so you just to be careful crossing the track to get to the restaurant.

10 October

I was the only one in the group who wanted to go back to Machu Picchu for a second time. Some friends have asked for a photograph to be taken from the Sun Gate. So I got up at 4.30am, and by 5pm (skipping breakfast) I was getting lost on the way to the bus station. It was raining, but I tried to think positive thoughts. 

There was already a queue for the buses. But there were plenty of buses showing up. By 6.10am I was entering the site, hiding my tripod in a stuff sack. (I’d read that tripods were not permitted at Machu Picchu, due to possible damage from metal tips. My tripod legs end in rubber tips.) I also had a walking pole. The regulations state that only the elderly and the infirm are permitted walking poles, but I was allowed through without a second glance. Hmm, not so sure I like that.

Within 20 minutes of starting the path to the Sun Gate clouds rolled in. The fog never obscured the path, but at various times nothing could be seen of the ruins nor the nearby mountains. I continued to climb, deciding that if there were some clearing the swirls of mist might make for a dramatic photo.

It was tiring going. Stone steps alternated with stretches of stones. Remember that Machu Picchu is at an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet, so the oxygen is thin which doesn’t help. But I kept going, and at 7.30am I was near the Sun Gate. I positioned myself a bit below the Sun Gate, as this allowed me to take photos of the fog on the nearby mountains. 

The fog came and went. It was magical. I met a young man from Birmingham as I waited for photo opportunities, and we had a good chat. Then I headed up the Sun Gate, where a half dozen people were having fun trying to summon the sun. They had a gold coloured llama out and were doing little dances and chants (all in jest, of course). The valley finally cleared, and we busied ourselves with photography.

It was around this time that a site guard came up to me. I swallowed hard, wondering whether he’d tell me I had to pack away the tripod. But he seemed merely intrigued by my set up. So I let him fiddle with the lens and look at my various filters. Then I handed him my business card. He saw the images on the reverse, including one of a wedding. ‘You married?’ he inquired. ‘No,’ I replied, pointing at my empty ring finger. ‘Me not either,’ he told me. ‘Marry me?’

I never anticipated encountering a marriage proposal at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. I tried to let him down gently, and he seemed to take it well. Perhaps he proposes to all the women who take photographs with tripods at the Sun Gate.

As the clouds cleared the light on the ruins became very harsh—that mid day light which all photographers dread. Then it all went grey and overcast. So I packed up and headed back down the path. 

The site was heaving when I got down. I decided not to try to go into the main part of the ruins again due to the sheer number of people. We had a better time of it yesterday afternoon, when there was hardly anyone else there. And, to be honest, my legs were very rubbery.

Bus back to town. I did a little more shopping in the market, then headed to the hotel for lunch. I desperately wanted a shower, but this was not an option.

After a very nice lunch we caught our train back to the outskirts of Cusco. We had the carriages with the observation windows, and were served drinks and snacks at our seats. There were some stunning views of the mountains and glaciers. Later on in the journey we were entertained by a man wearing the traditional costume of a local annual celebration. This was followed by a fashion show, demonstrating various items made of alpaca which could be purchased.

Finally at 7.10pm we were at the station. It was raining hard, so we hurried to our waiting bus. At the hotel I went to my room and finally had that shower. I’ve now packed ready for the trip home tomorrow. 

11 October

That last day of holiday feeling.

We actually didn't leave the hotel until 8am, but I still got up at 5am for breakfast. I met a young couple who were about to start the Inca trail. I wished them luck and warned them about bugs.

We had a short walking tour through Cusco, ending up at Qorikancha. Inside the convent are remains of an Inca temple. Our guide explained what we were viewing, and we all admired the stonework.

Then off to the local airport for the domestic flight to Lima. Lack of seats, poor loo facilities… Never mind, our 'plane took off only 20 minutes' late. At Lima we went to a harbour section of the city to have a fish lunch. I liked the fish, but not the sauces which had been dumped on top. 

Then to Lima airport to check in to our international flights. I had LAN for the return flight to Madrid. So much better than the way out, with a personal entertainment screen to keep me occupied. Plus I worked on photos. And I even managed to get some sleep. I'd took the woman at the check in desk that I'd like an aisle seat because I drink a lot of water when flying which means I use the loo a lot. Well, my seat was actually next to a loo.

Changed to another flight in Madrid. By 7pm I had my luggage and was at Purple Parking, and by 9pm I was home and unpacking. And making arrangements to deal with non-functional iPhone and camera/lens.

A great time in Peru. I shall try not to let the marsh incident undermine it all.

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