Tuesday, September 24

Peru, Day Nine: Lima and Home

Since we were now on a free timetable we decided to go for an early flight back to Lima to spend the day there before catching our international flight home.

Most of our time was spent in Plaza de Armas and with not much of a plan to go by. We walked around the vicinity reaching Miguel Grau Square for a walk in the park and outside view of the various galleries and museums there.

To be frank we were pretty spent from the intensity of the previous eight days and it was a struggle to want to do anything except chill out in cafes and restaurants. Eventually we decided to draw a line under the whole thing and head back to the airport where we caught our flight home, knackered but satisfied by such a ram packed trip to Peru.

Monday, September 23

Peru, Day Eight: And Back We Go

It became clear this morning that we didn't have many options once we left Cabanaconde two nights ago. For instance: what do you do when you have to hike 3-4 hours to catch a 9:15am bus? The answer, as hateful as it is, is to begin said hike before sunrise.

Still, at least we got to see the effect of the rising sun on the canyon. This was almost a straight ascent back up to Cabanaconde, some 1km higher. It was super tough but we made it with a little time to spare, after which we took the much less gruelling seven hour bus ride back to Arequipa.

This was essentially the end of our planned holiday - everything from this point was to be much less structured and much more easy going. As such we enjoyed our final hours in the city visiting the cathedral, having a final supper and walking up to the Yanahuara for the view of the city and imposing volcano.

There's nothing like a three day hike you make you appreciate the quieter things, and if I did have spare time in Peru I would have loved to have spent it here.

Sunday, September 22

Peru, Day Seven: Hiking to Sangalle, The Oasis

The plan was pretty simple - to leave Llahuar and hike to Sangalle. But it seems that a second day of hiking affects the way you experience things: even after counting the ad hoc stop in Malata it was six hours of hard walking, most of which was wondering how long was left to go. More objectively though the trek did head up rather than the constant down we had yesterday.

And so the views also weren't as great, and of course it rained - although thankfully just as we arrived into Sangalle.

In hindsight however, although the day wasn't as "enjoyable" as the last, it did serve to add to the whole experience - hiking in these conditions is hard, and there are no guarantees of any kind of return. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing when you realise that effort doesn't have to go rewarded to have value.

Saturday, September 21

Peru, Day Six: Colca and the Trek to Llahuar

Although we had already experienced a Peruvian trek earlier this week (on the Inca Trail), the fact that we knew it was a) for a single day and b) well trodden convinced us to try something a bit more... involved later in the trip. And so that's why we had ended up here, in the Colca Canyon, hoping to stay out in the wilderness for three days and two nights.

Before the trekking proper however, we had some of the tourist trail to clear up. We made two stops on the way to Cabanaconde - first in Maca, a small village (and to be honest I'm not actually sure why we stopped here, but it was quaint) and the second at the Mirador Cruz del Cóndor where we were lucky enough to see some fantastic birds in flight.

Cabanaconde is another small village that serves as the starting point for most of the more popular Colca circuits. This choice enabled us to keep things flexible until we arrived, but after talking to a very helpful tourist guide we finally decided on what was known as the "second hardest" loop (the hardest being doing the same loop but in reverse). Needless to say, we felt pretty fit and confident at that point.

The hike was great. The views didn't disappoint, and the journey itself was quite special, both physically and mentally. For me the experience was already much better than what we walked on the Inca trail and apart from being able to say "we did it" our first day in Colca alone would have made a perfect substitute for anyone's trekking needs in Peru.

Four hours and 10km later, and we were in the natural hot pools of Llahuar Lodge, waiting for both dinner and electricity to be served. It was bliss, and came close to the feeling I got on islands like Koh Rong or Ile Aux Nattes.

That said, there were differences. After a few games of Coup the lodge pretty much took an early night and was dead by 9:30pm. This felt a bit anti-climatic until I realised the biggest difference between a trek like this and the islands - this trip is demands a whole lot of hard, hard work: and by virtue of being in the middle of nowhere there was much more to come.

Friday, September 20

Peru, Day Five: Arequipa

Well rested, we woke up mid morning to explore Arequipa.

The plaza and cathedral were as pretty as a picture, while some of us broke off to visit the Ice Maiden exhibition covering the found remains of the human sacrifice that used to be practised by the Inca. Our whole time there was overshadowed by the imposing volcanoes - it was unreal, almost like a real life photoshop job.

Jummah was with some bros I had been in contact with for half a year. As far as I knew there were only two real mosques in Peru - one in Lima and the other in Cusco - so finding a place to offer Jummah in Arequipa was pretty fortunate, especially given how our tight scheduling depended on it having been available. And as always Jummah proved to be a great chance to get in some cultural exchange, very much including the home cooked daal they served for lunch.

In fact, we only really spent as much time as we did in Arequipa for my prayer requirements - as soon as I was done we were once again in a taxi, this time heading to Chivay. This was a relatively short drive so we still had the evening, which I spent visiting the planetarium, where I was introduced to the southern hemisphere view of stars and planets - including a view of Saturn and its rings.

Given the nature of the trip so far, it was an odd and out of place digression and so thoroughly recommended.

Thursday, September 19

Peru, Day Four: Lake Titicaca

The main (and perhaps only) reason to visit Puno is to tour the adjacent Lake Titicaca, known to be the highest nautical lake in the world. We booked ourselves on a typical day trip on Titicaca, the first highlight being a stop at the Uros floating islands.

Inhabited by the indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia, the culture porn was of a decent enough quality, with families singing and dancing for us as we were told how the Uros people lived.

We then carried on to the (real) island of Taquille for more local culture and a grilled fish lunch.

The whole thing was a bit of a tourist trail, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.

As soon as we left the boat we loaded straight onto a van for another long drive, this time to Arequipa. On balance Puno wasn't unmissable, and certainly a dubious pick given the hours spent on the road getting to and from there - but hey, at least we got to witness a wide array of stars on the way.

Wednesday, September 18

Peru, Day Three: The Road to Puno

In what might be seen as the biggest fail of any of my recent trips, today we set out for Puno.

After an early (albeit pretty) taxi ride lasting a whopping seven hours we arrived in a bit of a ghost town, with nothing much to do - at least for today.

As such, after walking around a bit we decided to call it a day and catch up on some well deserved rest.

Tuesday, September 17

Peru, Day Two: The Inca Trail

As cliched, uneconomical, faddy and shallow as it sounds, the whole point of our trip to Peru came down to today: our visit to Machu Picchu.

And yet, despite being so popular and accessible, finding out how the Inca Trail worked was an exercise in advanced Internet searching and message board trawling. Perhaps visitors to Peru just can't communicate their experiences well, or maybe the tourist industry there isn't as well developed. Most likely though is that the landscape and rules change so frequently that every year is a new experience for all involved. Not helping was us choosing perhaps the most niche of experiences when it came to The Inca Trail: The compressed, one day, km104 hike and Machu Picchu visit. But first, a bit of a primer.

The main locations in the area are Cusco (for the airport), Ollantaytambo (for the start of the traditional 4 day Inca Trail Hike) and Aguas Calientes (for Machu Picchu). Cusco and Ollantaytambo are connected by rail and road, and choosing between those largely depends on whether you want to visit anything on the way. Ollantaytambo and AC are also connected by rail - with a special and fancy (read: expensive) novelty train shipping pilgrims to the latter where they can proceed to the MP site (via a less fancy and novel bus service). It is therefore possible to see MP without any hiking, and indeed in a single day, by taking a train(s) from Cusco or Tambo, to AC, then a bus to the MP site. Indeed, this is what the vast majority of visitors do.

For the adventurous, you can skip the MP train and essentially walk to MP from Ollantaytambo. This walk takes four days and three nights, through some pretty and pretty tough terrain at (for most of us) a high altitude, temples and vistas, and retraces the route that the Inca used to take themselves. This is the Inca Trail, and is what most see as the most authentic/instagrammable way to experience MP.

A relatively new option available is the km104 hike, and it's essentially a mix of the two. You take the same MP train as the others from Tambo, but around half way to AC the train stops (there is no platform or station), drops you off, and you walk the rest of way. The hike isn't quite a full subset of the Inca Trail, but does join up with it after a while. This option is pitched as a two day programme: one day to complete the walk to MP, but without visiting it (you'd spend the night in AC), with the second day reserved to visit MP. This is already a new and therefore niche choice, but we opted for an even more tailored option - to hike to MP and visit the site in the same day, leaving us to return to Cusco the same night. Although requiring an early start and late finish, its for certain the most time efficient way of experiencing MP and the Inca Trail. In fact the only real downside is the cost, as even though it's around a third of the distance, its still over half the price of the full Inca Trail.

The 4:30am start was expected yet no less unwelcome. Also expected was the overpacking - both due to inexperience and my usual overcaution - and by the end of the 10km the pack was feeling pretty heavy. I would like to say that the views were worth the journey, but no - there were a few ruins to visit on the way, but make no mistake: this is a hike one walks for the challenge, the social aspects, and to experience what the Inca used to go through with far fewer resources. In those terms it was a tough, fun and rewarding hike, and confirmed our choice of limiting it to the one day - without knowing about our ability at high altitudes it was a bit of a gamble, but fortunately we didn't suffer from any real debilitating effects.

On the other hand, Machu Picchu had plenty of visuals to offer. One of the benefits of either hike is that you enter the site via the original Sun Gate, which provides a wonderfully classic view as you peak and turn a corner. It really does feel like a pilgrimage as it appears in view and thankfully the weather was totally on our side.

We made the site by 2pm which gave us more time than we required to explore the site proper. In many ways the visit was interesting enough, but it was certainly enhanced by having to hike there, and the whole day just made more sense than each component would have on its own. Between the short term exertion getting there and our lifelong plan to visit, it's safe to say the whole thing was pretty cathartic.

The only thing left for today was then to head back to Cusco - taking the bus to AC, the train to Tambo and then a van to Cusco. After the 18 hours of activity, exhaustion was inevitable... and I expect to sleep soundly tonight.

Monday, September 16

Peru, Day One: The Sacred Valley

After a what turned out to be not that bad a night, we finally landed in Cusco at 7am, our driver waiting for us at the arrival gate. After a well deserved breakfast in the main square, we headed to our first stop in the Sacred Valley: Pisac. Although we may have lingered there for slightly longer than we should have, the hilltop temple ruin was our first taste of Incan culture and so we never got bored.

As per usual we were on a tight schedule; in fact we had only really budgeted today for the Sacred Valley. Eventually we had to adjust our itinerary, nixing Chinchero for Maras and Moray, each peculiar and vital in their own way.

Moray was a quick visit - the salt mines themselves aren't really accessible beyond a balcony overlooking the area. Contrast that with Moray, where we were really able to get up close and personal. Both were equally vital to visit though.

Ollantaytambo was our stay for the night, and although we had initially aimed to check out the fortress and terraces we were pretty much spent by the time we reached the town. Between dinner and what we knew would be another early start the next day, we decided to call it a night.

Sunday, September 15

Peru, Day Zero: Slumming It in Lima

I won't bore you with another diatribe on my current relationship with travel. And yet here I am, less than four days after returning from what was a pretty epic (read: packed) trip, embarking on yet another. Peru has always been on the list though - it was probably the first on that list - and even though I'd be the first to admit that going now is probably a result of a collective midlife crisis its nice to finally go for something in that has been so long in the making.

Flying West means a long day already, but due to the somewhat irritating scheduling in Lima (where it's impossible to catch any domestic flight if landing direct from London) a 5am flight tomorrow promises a rough night ahead with what will be a first for me: slumming it overnight on the airport floor.

Tuesday, September 10

North Pakistan, Day Fourteen: Islamabad To The End

The biggest issue we faced today was the holiday. It was Muharram, so almost everything was closed. I'd even go as far as to say we became pretty desperate for things to do. In fact, I'd go further and even suggest that, respective to the rest of the trip, the last three days had pretty much stalled.

Our first attempt at visiting an attraction was the Pakistan Railway Museum. The museum itself was closed, but the station itself had plenty of colonial delights to offer us. It was actually quite enjoyable even though most of it was restricted for us. Perhaps just as interesting were the slums we drove through on the way; the first indication I saw of the poverty here in Islamabad.

We then went on to the Shakarparian Friendship Garden, where visiting leaders and dignitaries would be asked to plant trees. There were actually some big hitters named here, including various past leaders of the USA, China and Iran.

Next up was the Pakistan Monument. This was exactly what was said on the tin, although I have to admit the monument itself was pretty impressive - and informative if like me visitors take the time to interpret all the murals present.

We then visited Saidpur, which was esoteric itself even before you visit the Hindu temples at the end of the village.

Our next stop was our hotel to kill a couple of hours before heading off to Faisal Masjid to offer Asr prayer in congregation. This was another significant memory brought back, and considering it wasn't exactly a new mosque 20 years ago it was doubly impressive to see just how timeless its design still is.

Dinner was then at Monal on the Margalla Hills, which offered both decent food and excellent views of the capital. We managed to stay there for sunset so got Islamabad both during the day and night.

By the end of our meal we had all gone into clock watching mode as we counted down the hours to our late flight back home. Our driver took us to Rawalpindi for tea and pakoras, which in my eyes was definitely a bonus as I had never visited the much older adjoining city before (and in fact never realised how accessible it was from Islamabad).

And that was all we had left for our trip of North Pakistan. We did a lot; more than enough, and in some ways we had even done too much on a trip that might have better been served with repeated return visits. Then again, we do still have most of the west of the region to cover, so maybe these are lessons we can forward with us after all.

Monday, September 9

North Pakistan, Day Thirteen: Civilisation

We began the day with a visit to the Patriyata Chair Lift. This was a decent enough time pass, with the chairlift itself being more of an attraction than the park at the top. Unfortunately the second cable car leg was closed, and I suspect that might have been where the real views were offered. Ultimately though, I feel that we should have stuck with Neelum Valley.

We were now in Muree proper, and spent some time in Mall Road for shopping and ice cream. It was again nice to be back in the hustle and bustle of a tourist attraction, although I suppose we didn't spend enough time there to get bored. After that it was on to Islamabad, eating corn on the cob en route.

The rest of the day played out like a Islamabad checklist: we spent some time in Lake View Park, and had a quick drive by tour of all the various administrative buildings that you might recognise from the usual news channels and the like.

After checking into our final hotel of the trip, we went for well deserved chapli kebabs at Habibi's, after which we treated ourselves to a quick drive around Islamabad.

Sunday, September 8

North Pakistan, Day Twelve: Not in Kansas Anymore

Abbottobad was the final location on this leg of backtracking. It was there that we turned east toward Muree. The original plan was to visit the Neelum Valley, but given the current climate that was thought to be too risky.

This was an area near Islamabad that we had also visited all those years ago. Back then it was an exotic trip to the mountains - now it looks like a commercial suburb that the City Folk go to for a couple of hours' jaunt. If that sounds like a complaint, it's not - after ten or so days of road travel and sparseness it was comforting to be back on familiar ground.

We visited the Samundar Katha Lake, a man made lake-cum-park that was a bit of a bust even if you discount the single road lane bottlenecks going up and down to the site.

Back in Muree town, St Matthew's Church was closed, and many other sights were just overly bust due to the Muharram long weekend. Even when we popped out after checking in at around 8pm the place was still busy.

Saturday, September 7

North Pakistan, Day Eleven: Back to Backtracking

Today we continued with our backtracking, visiting many places we had already passed before, but of course this time in reverse order.

So we again saw Babusar Top, Naran (where we stopped for a pretty excellent lunch at the Mountain Top Restaurant), Kaghan (but sadly with no chapli kebab this time) and finally settling in at Bisian near Balakot for the night.

Friday, September 6

North Pakistan, Day Ten: The Long Road Back

A 4:30am start was required for us to take on the Skardu Road.

That said, any fears I had of becoming bored of the driving here vanished as we were treated to yet another winding, albeit very unfinished, mountain road. We stopped for breakfast at around 8:40am - or rather we decided to have breakfast while we were stopped by a temporarily closed road.

We stopped for a break at a PTDC hotel, this one with a stunning example of how obnoxious badly planned commode toilets can be. I didn't fit, and so I requested my preference of the squatting type.

Back on the road, and things still were not uneventful. Lots of roadworks, waterfall stops, valley-traversing-trolleys and even a landslide, all before noon. All that, and accompanied by some stunning views of Nanga Parbat.

Jummah was offered at the same mosque in Juglot that we visited what now seems like months ago. After that, it was more backtracking, and we finally reached Chillas at a decent hour where we had a night's stay.

Thursday, September 5

North Pakistan, Day Nine: Forth and Back

To start what could only be described as a day of time pass, we visited the Amburiq Mosque, said to be the first of Shigar.

We then travelled West on to Skardu for what was supposed to be a brief ATM stop but turned out to take over an hour. Still, we got to see the Old Market at least.

After a brief diversion to see a dried up lake and some sand dunes (and eat a bag load of Apricots), we continued to Kachura Lake.

The best thing about the lake? The fish lunch. Trout? Herring? I didn't care. It was great.

Interestingly I noticed a lot of polite yet very public instruction for women to wear and respect the hijab. I've yet to see any kind of similar material in Karachi. And it's probably going to get me into trouble to say it but the girls did appear a little more discreet this far north.

On the way back from the lake we stopped off at the Shangrila Resort where we paid 500 rupees each to wander its grounds. Needless to say this was a waste of both time and money. A late evening tea was had at the Skardu PTDC overlooking the Indus River. We took the opportunity to visit an exhibition on the K2 and the impressive services provided to those who wish to challenge the mountain. The sense of national pride was palpable.

We then headed back to Shigar, which was a little irritating as a big chunk of our journey tomorrow will be to retread most of the road that we drive today as we finally start making our way back in the direction of Islamabad.

Wednesday, September 4

North Pakistan, Day Eight: The Palace

Like Hunza, Shigar is also a "dead end" on our itinerary, a location from which we plan to turn back from. So we spent today travelling east for the last time, along what now seemed like a less exciting mountain road to Khaplu. I admit, I'm probably becoming desensitised to the mountains.

We reached Khaplu by 1pm, immediately noticing the Tibetan roots in the people here. The main point of interest here as the palace, one of the more impressive I've seen this trip. Unfortunately another sight, the Chaqchan Mosque, was closed due to a Majlis, so we had to make do only with photos of the exterior.

After lunch we headed back to Shigar, stopping off at Manthokha Waterfall for sunset.

It was quite the inefficient day, but in the same way easier than the most recent. We also returned back to our accommodation quite late, which among other things gave us a chance to finally see the stars... as well as the horrific aftermath of a car accident.

Tuesday, September 3

North Pakistan, Day Seven: The Great Plains

Another early start, this time continuing along the Astore Valley Road in the direction of Skardu. After a wrong turn (which honestly didn't actually bother us since any road offers unique views) we were back on track and reached the Deosai Plains by noon.

I guess as all great plains would, it seemed endless.

We spent what felt like many many hours crossing the plain into the Skardu Valley Road which matched, if not beat the Astore equivalent for sights.

We hit Skardu at 1630, which is when I realised that we weren't actually staying there - no, we continued on a little further to Shigar, where we found the fort we were going to stay in.

Yes, that's right. A friggin' fort.

Monday, September 2

North Pakistan, Day Six: Backtracking

After a touch of morning souvenir shopping we continued with the backtracking that had begun yesterday.

Even though it hadn't been long, and we hadn't really stayed much in these places, it was almost poignant passing back through the Nagar Valley and seeing Gilgit and so on. We eventually stopped for a Chup Sharo lunch we had taken away from Hunza at a little stop near Jaglot (the first one), before turning into The Astore Valley Road.

What a road. This was the quintessential narrow and winding valley road and offered us sights I thought I could only see in films. It was quite the road in other ways too; slow going, we finally reached Astore itself by 4pm.

We carried on to Rama for more vast views, arriving at our hotel for 5pm.

That was enough for today, and even not having any wifi, phones, or hot water didn't bother us... much.