The clients are so chilled at the Casa Grillo Tres Puntas Eco-hostel that I’m sure the vultures think they’re dead. Why else do they hang around here? Often spotted loitering on the gnarled tree roots lining the beach, I can only assume they are watching for a pulse. Which set me thinking: perhaps the Peruvian Ministry of Tourism might consider an image of these birds as a new rating system for their tourist facilities. Why not just do away with a star system altogether and have vultures instead? For example, a Five Vultures rating might indicate to the prospective holidaymaker that his chosen property offers nothing less than a near-comatose experience. Perfect, you might say, for that over-stressed executive. At the other end of the scale, a property with a One Vulture rating might provide a little more activity, maybe including such diversions as a game of darts, or a donkey ride, or perhaps even a self-service bar to waddle back and forth to. As I swing back and forth in my hammock here, half an eye on these scraggy necked creatures eyeing me from the beach, I can certainly attest to the fact that Casa Grillo would be right up there in the vulture ratings.
Leon, the owner of Casa Grillo, is originally from Barcelona. That he is a little eccentric is without doubt. He absolutely loves to construct things: if a hammer is striking a nail you can be sure Leon is on the end of it, the rim of his big straw hat fluttering with every blow. In between the cabanas, the thatched sun shades and the seaside bar that Leon has built, a second passion is revealed: a collection of the curious and the downright bizarre. But it’s all part of the charm of this place. Here’s a few examples:
We’ve just returned from three months in Europe, a land of snow and rain, a place where the only sure means of transport seems to be a boat. Coming back to northern Peru, where there is a drought and the temperature is in the 30s, is quite a shock to the system. In our absence the car has been parked amongst the trees and, whilst we had every faith in Leon taking care of it, it’s always a relief to find the wheels are attached to the axles, the windows are still keeping the birds and the spiders out and the door needs a key to open it. Even reinstating the vehicle’s temporary import documentation has been relatively painless, requiring only two trips to the customs post at the Peru/Ecuador border, which has also been quite a relief, considering the heat. For overlanders needing a place to leave their wheels in northern Peru I can recommend Casa Grillo. And the customs at the border were most helpful should you need to suspend your documentation.
You’d be really unlucky to be born a guinea pig in Peru. Guinea Pig, or cuy in South America, is considered a true delicacy. It’s the ratty teeth and crispy little body I struggle to get to grips with. So far, I’ve passed on the opportunity. However, there have been plenty of fans over the years. In Chavin de Huantar there is evidence to show cuy were cultivated in the Andes by 900 BC. Further down the valley though, in the small town of Huari, arguably they’ve upped the game where the consumption of furry, domesticated animals are concerned. Every year in October the people of Huari celebrate the Fiesta de los Gatos (the festival of the cats), when they serve up quantities of miche broaster, or roasted cat. Unlike the consumption of the cuy, no one is quite certain when or why this tradition began, but as each October approaches you can be sure any feline worth his whiskers is heading for the hills.
Often the road between Cusco and Tarma is so high you feel as if you’re orbiting the planet. During the four day drive we cross six passes ranging in altitude from between 4000 and 4850 metres. In fact, apart from descending to transit the major towns, most of the journey seems to be above 4000 metres. It’s inhuman to live up here – yet people do. And, to be honest, they seem very content. Why else would you tie multi-coloured ribbons to the ears of your livestock if you weren’t ecstatically happy.
Lake Choclococha sparkles in the sun at a mere 4700 metres of altitude. There’s a fish farm at Lake Choclococha. It never ceases to amaze me what the Peruvians get up to at high altitude. In Britain, if you kept fish at this height you’d be up before the judge on a charge of cruelty. And the Save The Trout Action Group would send a van load of skinheads to trash you’re filleting line. But not in Peru – high is mighty!
During the 80s and the 90s the city of Ayacucho was pretty much off-limits for tourists due to the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a Maoist revolutionary movement terrorising the region. Today, like most revolutionary groups that are past their sell-by-date, political and social upheaval has been set aside in favour of commercial interests, namely the trafficking of drugs. Gun battles between Sendero Luminoso members and the Peruvian armed forces occur from time to time. During mid-August three leading members of Sendero Luminoso were gunned down by the police in a town north of Ayacucho.
After so many peaks and valleys I’m as deaf as a post when we arrive in Tarma (3000 metres). We head straight for Hacienda La Florida, situated on the road from Tarma down to the Amazon Basin. On our arrival Marco, the owner of the hacienda, throws open the iron gates to let us in. As his instructions are muffled by my humming ears I follow his hand signals and park in the courtyard. There are no insects here, the sun shines every day and, most important of all, there is this marvellous collection of retired machines to feast your eyes on – Marco quite possibly lives in paradise. And I suspect he well knows it.
Times have not always been so peaceful, though. Hacienda La Florida was regularly visited by Sendero Luminoso terrorists, and they weren’t calling round for a spoon of sugar. The threat became so bad the family, for a while, had to abandon the property for Lima. Thankfully, all that is behind them. In the walled garden the hammocks sway in the breeze, a horse munches the grass and narrow irrigation channels weave between the greenery. I’m quite sure, very soon, I will be able to hear the birds.
Does the idea of rising at sparrow fart to shuffle aboard a busy train send a shudder down your spine? Yeah, I thought it might. That’s how most people make their way to Machu Picchu, though. But there is an alternative. It takes a little more time than the train, and perhaps a little more effort – but it’s infinitely worth it. From Quintalala campsite, in the hills above Cusco, we drive the road to the Sacred Valley, arriving at Ollantaytambo some two hours later.
After losing Cuzco to the Spanish at the battle of Sacsahuaman, Manco Inca led his troops to the fortifications at Ollantaytambo. It marked the beginning of the Inca retreat into the hills of Vilcabamba, and the closing stages of their reign. We arrive here by late afternoon and camp in a quiet car park just off the plaza. Ollantaytambo is definitely worth a beer or two in the plaza, just to absorb the sights.
Continuing from Ollantaytambo we crest the 4,300 metre Malaga Pass, immediately descending 3,000 metres to Santa Maria. From Santa Maria to Santa Theresa the twenty kilometre stretch of piste can get quite hairy as it rises a few hundred feet above the Urubamaba River. In most places it is single-track and minibuses and pick-up trucks hurtle round the blind bends. The indiscriminate use of throttle is usually marked by a small black cross (or several).
From Santa Theresa follow the piste to the Hidroelectrica MachuPicchu, where you’ll find Sr Escobar and his son are more than happy to watch over your car for a fee of 15 Solis a day. You might wonder where on earth you have come to. This is a working mine. There is a massive great hole that disappears into the mountain and a lot of hardy-looking miners clad in orange suits and hard hats. Persevere. I’ve never heard of an overlander ever loosing his vehicle down that big hole.
From here you proceed on foot along the railway line cutting through the sub-tropical forest. It’s a great walk and takes about three hours to Aguas Calientes.
From Aguas calientes a legion of buses convey the tourists up the switchback mountain piste at break-neck speed. I’ve seen Machu Picchu on the TV, in journals, on posters and the side of buses, but when you clap eyes on the place for real – WOW! – it really is something special.