Irishman getting a taste of the high life in Peru and Bolivia
Peru and Bolivia are colourful, fascinating places but you'd certainly want a head for heights, writes former Co Tyrone school principal Enda Cullen
I HAVE never liked guinea pigs, ever since a pair escaped for a weekend and made themselves very much at home in my London classroom. In Peru guinea pig is a staple of the local diet.
Fortunately Lima has some superb restaurants offering alternatives, with tastes for everything from Incan dishes to African and European food catered for. For me the star of Peru's culinary scene was ceviche, raw fish marinated in lime juice.
Lima is a city very much on the up. For many years it was only a necessary stopping off point before visiting Machu Picchu – but that's all changing.
The downtown area highlights much of Peru's history. The Presidential Palace, with the pomp of its noontime changing of the guard, is a must. Nearby is Lima Cathedral, which holds the remains of Pizarro, the Spanish conqueror of Peru.
The catacombs of the nearby monastery of San Francisco are extremely well preserved and the bones of the wealthy dead are on open view. Walking around the centre of Lima I noticed a lot of ornate cedar balconies that our excellent guide, Augustin, informed me were built by the Spanish and due to the exceedingly dry climate had weathered the centuries.
Knowing that I had an interest in the Irish in Lima, our guide brought me to the church of St Peter where Sligo native Ambrose O'Higgins, a former viceroy of Peru, is interred. It was his son, Bernardo, who led Chile to independence from Spain.
One of the lesser-known but hugely influential Irish people in Peru was Cork man Michael Grace. He made a huge fortune by shipping Peruvian guano (seagull manure), to Europe.
Our flight south east over the Andes from Lima to Cusco was delayed, as Cusco is 3,399 metres above sea level and subject to sudden weather variations. We had been warned about altitude sickness and this was starkly brought home to us when we arrived at our hotel to see an unfortunate woman, with an oxygen mask, being stretchered to an ambulance.
Cusco is the ancient capital of the Inca empire. The centre of the city houses many buildings relating to the Spanish occupation. Perched in the main square is Paddy's Irish Pub which boats of being the highest Irish owned pub in the world.
The square is lined with superb restaurants, including Limo and Cicciolina, where outstanding food is complemented with great service.
Many people use Cusco as the gateway to Machu Picchu but the city itself has much to commend it, not least its 15th century Inca ruins. I really liked Cristo Blanco, a miniature Christ the Redeemer statue, (8 metres tall), that was a gift from Arabic Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco after the Second World War.
We drove through the scenic Sacred Valley to Pisac, a citadel town with a great craft market. There we had a buffet lunch where I was disgusted by chicken in cheese and discovered that the meat that I found nice was in fact alpaca.
From there we travelled through remarkable Inca terraced valleys to the fortified village of Ollantayambo and a starting point for the four-day, three-night hike on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.
One of the new Seven Wonders of the World and a Unesco World Heritage site, one wonders how the Incas managed to construct Machu Picchu with its more than 200 structures 2,430m above sea level in the middle of a tropical forest.
It was built in 1450 and abandoned 100 years later when the Spanish conquered the Incas, lying undiscovered thereafter until 1911. Only 2,500 people are allowed to enter each day in order to preserve the site so it's best to book well in advance. It almost always rains at Machu Picchu too so waterproof gear is a must.
The following day saw us back in Cusco airport on a flight to La Paz in Bolivia – the world's highest metropolis at 3,650 m above sea level.
I had no real expectations of Bolivia, my only knowledge of it being that it was where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid went on the run.
The view of La Paz, after exiting the airport, is amazing. The city is almost vertical with differences in temperature from the bottom to the top of 12C. It is best viewed in the spectacular Mi Teleferico cable car, system. From the cable car you can view the multitudes of minibuses and the inevitable traffic jams.
The lower part of La Paz contains the seat of government and the commercial areas. With skulls, coca leaves and religious ornaments adorning its the stalls, the Witches Market is a vibrant and eclectic place that reflects the religious and superstitious nature of the people here.
Near the Palacio Quemado we came across military celebrations for the 10-year anniversary of President Evo Morales, who is attempting to change the constitution in order to stand for another five-year term.
Our next stop was the Valley of the Moon; an area where erosion has worn away clay to leave hundreds of tall spires. It was eerily haunting and the Andean piper on top of an outcrop added to the atmosphere.
Early the following morning we were on a coach driving through snow to Lake Titicaca which straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia. Another 'world's highest', Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water on Earth.
To reach the lake we had to pass through El Alto a shanty town of red brick houses, many with unglazed windows. As we bounced over potholes the number of Caterpillar tractors lined up for hire was only surpassed by the packs of wild dogs. Our guide showed us the many effigies lynched to lampposts that are designed to deter thieves.
Cruising across the lake, one could have been forgiven for thinking that it was an ocean such is its magnitude. We stopped in the small market town of Copacabana with its cholitas, women in colourful native garb wearing bowler hat-style headwear. The Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana is a 16th-century shrine brings pilgrims from all over Bolivia and Peru.
We lunched on lake trout on the beautiful Sun Island and then sailed back to our coach for the trip through the wild plateau of the Altiplano to the busy streets of La Paz, from where we flew to the main Bolivian airport at Santa Cruz for the next stage of our journey.
I had read scare stories of scams and robberies in Bolivia but found the people friendly and proud of their country. I'll leave the last word to the immigration officer who stamped my passport on exit: “I like the Irish!”
:: KLM, (www.klm.com) fly daily from Dublin to Lima, changing in Amsterdam (From £650).
:: Tour operators Archers offer £3,210 approx. per person sharing for 14 nights without flights. Good hotels and breakfast provided. A guided tour is helpful for those who have not been to Peru or Bolivia (www.archersdirect.co.uk)
:: Other useful sites: www.peru.travel; www.bolivia.travel; www.nhs.uk for advice on vaccinations.