Camps International - Peru Report – 04/07/19 to 04/08/19
Written by Henry James
We arrived in Cusco after around 50 or so hours of travelling. After driving to our hostel, we went out for an evening meal and were given the chance to look around the square before returning to the hostel for our first chance to sleep properly in over 2 days. Bright and early the next morning, we left for Camp Moray only slightly jet-lagged and struggling with the altitude – most of us acclimatised within a few days. Camp Moray had great views of the surrounding valleys and mountains. We were welcomed into the community by the locals performing a song and dance around us; we all sat rather awkwardly in the middle and smiled a lot. It seemed the polite thing to do! We were given a tour around the area to introduce us to our first supervisors and to tell us what work we would be doing for the local community.
Camp Moray had four areas for us to work in to help the community; building the foundations of a new community centre; constructing some new toilets; making new guinea pig (a staple meat source in Peru) shelters, and re-plastering the walls of local houses with clay to better insulate them. The first day, site 1 for me, and I spent the morning moving rocks up to the community centre site and breaking them up to make sure they fit. Myself and a friend spent over half an hour smacking the same rock with a sledgehammer hardly making a dent in it, only for the Peruvian ‘maestro’ to break it in one hit... not my proudest moment. Workday 2 was spent throwing clay at walls, smoothing it out, but even more importantly playing with a cute, ginger kitten we nicknamed PVA – after the glue that appeared to be on his forehead. Apparently he was homeless and had wandered into the construction site one day... we later rechristened him to ‘Rolo’ to fit in with a candy theme we started with the animals we met – site 2 already hat a pet named Bubble-gum who everyone promptly fell in love with.
Workday 3 at Moray introduced us to a new dog nicknamed Bon-Bon due to the clumps of mud stuck to his legs looking like chocolate bon-bons – who could’ve guessed that a group of 25 teenagers would love sweets so much?! I was back at site 1, and we spent the morning placing the rocks we had previously broken into the trenches to make the community centre foundations; it felt like Jenga, and Tetris just without music but all the competitiveness – some of us started a contest to see who could create the best fitting and most solid foundation. During the afternoon, we spent some more time moving tools, gravel and concrete powder up a hill and then mixing it to spread across the foundations. After we’d finished, the local women put on a craft fair and we had our first encounter with Peruvian weave work as we saw many bracelets, scarves, necklaces and jumpers, but no ponchos just yet.
This was our last day of work at Moray as the next day we went on a 10km hike through the surrounding area to gauge our readiness for a 5-day Machu Picchu trek. It was good fun to walk along the side of the hills and look out into the valleys, nearby archaeological sites and neighbouring mountains and towns. It only took us the morning and we were all deemed ready for the challenge and were given the afternoon off to pack as were leaving for Cusco the next morning. After many games of tetherball, poker and slam and a welcome dinner of Fajitas, we went to bed and woke up early for our return to the city. We returned to the hostel and were given time to pack our bags for the hike, essentials only! An afternoon off allowed us to visit Cusco independently. After looking around local shops we found a supermarket and stocked up on snacks for the trek – namely Peruvian versions of Nature Valley and Cadbury bars – as I said, we took only the essentials. An early night was then in order, ready for our 3 am start the next morning.
The Trek to Machu Picchu
We were driven to the bottom of the Peruvian mountains to begin the trek. We passed through some stunning scenery; incredible mountains, flowing rivers and we observed lots of Llamas and Alpacas. Partway through the morning we came to the Seven Snakes – also known as the ‘gringo killers’ – a series of steep meanders up the mountain that became extremely tough, surprisingly quickly. Collapsing at the end of the snakes, we were given a break and a chance to take in the view before being told that we still had more to climb. After reaching the top later that afternoon, we began our descent from around 4500 feet to around only 2000 feet. We had now started to leave the mountain passes behind us and were re-entering scrublands as we climbed down the mountain. Soon we came into sight of the rainforest and were stunned how quickly the scenery could change. As we reached our first camp, we could see the dense trees of the rainforest but could still make out the snowy peak of the mountain we had just climbed, all whilst still being surrounded by rocky, valley walls covered in vines – two very different biome extremes and quite a unique experience.
We entered the Amazon rainforest properly the following day. As we further descended, we quickly noticed how much warmer it had become due to the Amazonian humidity. The struggle changed abruptly from altitude sickness to heat exhaustion. Lunchtime saw us take an extended break as we had reached a rest point with a football pitch, and we took to the field in two teams with our Peruvian expedition leaders joining in who, much to the amusement of the teachers and a few spectators, completely showed us all up...these South Americans know their soccer.
That afternoon, we had our first and only experience with rain – who would have guessed that it would happen in the rainforest? It poured down in sheets while we were walking to our camp and then gave us a little reprieve to shower and get rid of the dirt. The on/off rain lulled me into a false sense of security, and I blithely left my tent open before heading off on our “Peruvian Coffee Experience”. A moment of panic that all would be washed away, fortunately, came to nothing, and I returned to find that only a dirty pair of socks had been given a wash “au naturel”. I considered myself jammy, to say the least.
The next day, we continued our climb through the rainforest climbing up around 700m higher. Near the top was a shop with a swing just above it. There we spent a few nerve-racking minutes swinging ourselves over the edge of a hill looking out into the valley and clouds below us - not for the faint-hearted, but great fun nevertheless. Descending down the other side of the mountain, we came across Incan ruins and caught our first glimpse of Machu Picchu itself on the opposite mountains and far in the distance. We set up our new camp, and with feet aching and legs burning from the long, humid climb, we went to bed.
Our penultimate day of the trek began with a view of Machu Picchu in the sunrise and another big breakfast. We continued our descent into the valley and followed along a river. Crossing over a slightly wobbly and rather concerning wooden bridge, and after following along a lot of train tracks and meeting many new hikers we reached the foot of the Machu Picchu mountain. Our final camp for the trek was not home for long as we went early to bed and were up again at 4 am to break camp and start the final climb to Machu Picchu so we would arrive at sunrise. After doing so, and near collapsing at the top we had finally reached the Incan ruins and were stunned. This was definitely my proudest moment. The views were amazing and it was so satisfying to finally arrive after our 5 days of hard walking and work. We sat down at the summit and were told all about the ruins, their construction, what life was like and why they had abandoned the city – the Incans didn’t want the Spanish to find it and completely burned the city down and abandoned it to find a new home in the Amazon rainforest. We spent some time touring around the ruins and seeing the temples and houses as well as taking hundreds of photos. On exiting, we got our passports marked with the unique Machu Picchu stamp, and took a bus back down to the bottom of the mountain, before taking a train across Peru.
Sacred Valley Camp
After the train and another bus ride, we enjoyed 2 days resting in the Sacred Valley, where we played a lot of volleyball and finally had a chance to properly wash our clothes and kit. On the morning of the third day, we repacked our kit and began the 9-hour drive to Camp Titicaca.
Camp Titicaca sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca and has a perfect view across to the Bolivian shores. Staying in dorms at this camp, we were welcomed with a similar dance to the one at Moray, except this time, as old-hands and now fully immersed in Peruvian life, we joined in at their invitation. Needless to say, Strictly Come Dancing will not be in touch any time soon… Camp Titicaca primarily work in the nearby school and orphanage and we were doing similar work to what we did at Moray – building new toilets; digging trenches for water drainage as well as a new field for planting and growing crops that the school could use. We also spent a lot of time sanding down planks of wood for new school benches. We spent 3 more days working at Titicaca, interspersed with a lot of volleyball matches against some of the other groups also doing the same trip. On one day, we moved along the beach on a litter pick and climbed a small cliff at the side of the beach to get a better view across the bay and the lake we were in. The sun was shining and the water was crystal clear – we could have been in the Mediterranean.
Our final day at Titicaca saw us visit one of the many floating reed villages across Lake Titicaca. After being given a talk about the construction and maintenance of the islands, we could walk and look around. We climbed a tower and looked across the lake and down at the island and were given the chance to buy the local products such as more necklaces, ponchos, jumpers, and blankets. We also tried some of the edible reeds with mixed results; personally, I thought it was disgusting but others loved it. We returned to Camp Titicaca for lunch and packed our bags for an early start to leave the next day – we were heading for Colca Canyon.
Another 9-hour drive took us to Camp Colca through vastly different scenery – rocky mountains and winding cliff face varied to flat scrublands and deserts which was not at all expected! I expected Peru to be primarily a mountain range but there were more jungle and scrublands than snowy peaks. On the way, we stopped off at hot springs and spent an hour or so sitting in a pool of hot, sulphurous water which was a weird experience. Later arriving in Camp Colca, situated in a local village, we were promptly welcomed by the locals with a handshake from the mayor and a lot of ribbon adornments. At dinner, we were told we all looked like strong people (which pleased all of us but was clearly hopeful flattery) and we found out what work needed to be done -concreting a bathroom floor, digging out a new trench, moving an actual ton of gravel, tearing down a wall and re-gravelling a road.
Over the three workdays, I did all of the jobs, but one particular job sticks in the mind. The trench required a lot of cement bags to be moved, so our leader sent a group of us to get on with it. We took a wheelbarrow but were told we could only safely put two bags in at a time. Instead of waiting for the wheelbarrow to return, we embarked on an ill-advised weight training session, carrying sacks of concrete powder on one shoulder. Apparently, we looked impressive but also extremely stupid. Our shoulders later told us we had definitely been more stupid than impressive.
After 3 days of work, the fourth sent us on another hike, this time through Colca Canyon and back to see the condors. One flew over us as we were taking a group photo and I’m sure its wingspan matched my height. That night we were given a massive Peruvian buffet, full of many different foods that we gorged ourselves on. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had: beef and onion stew with rice, a yellow sauce with mushrooms and chips and a top-quality rice pudding for dessert. This topped off a fun afternoon at another craft fair where we could try on some traditional Peruvian clothes and after dinner, we had a dance session that started with all of us learning to salsa and ended with 5 of us teaching the camp leaders the Cha-Cha slide...
Whilst we stayed at Camp Colca, we took part in the Peruvian National Day celebration parade that the village threw to celebrate their democratic government. We all dressed up in the ponchos we bought in Cusco and picked up the Peruvian and English flags they had helped us make and walked through the town square as part of the parade. As well as us, there were children from the local school, members of the farmers and workers groups, the local women, members of the Peruvian military and the village and regional government representatives. It was a fun and unexpected addition to our itinerary, and I will remember it for a long time to come.
The next day we started our journey home. After leaving the Colca region, we went to the town of Arequipa, which is known as the ‘rich’ town of Peru. I spent the afternoon walking around and shopping; interestingly it reminded me quite a bit of the area around Norwich Cathedral Close. From Arequipa, we flew to Lima and checked into a hotel at 2 am for the first warm shower since Titicaca. Bliss! Our journey home was another gruelling 55 hours of delays and airport boredom, but we arrived home in Norwich dishevelled, grubby (and probably a bit smelly) exhausted but exhilarated and full of tales to tell.
Overall, Peru was a wonderful trip which I wouldn’t hesitate to do again – the Camps International crew were extremely friendly, the locals were always happy to help us and welcome us into their lives and communities, and the whole trip was an amazing experience if a little tiring. I loved the camaraderie of the whole group, the laughs and the hard work.