Volunteering with Tinkuy Peru

I found Tinkuy Peru while searching the internet for a volunteer opportunity. One of the reasons I chose it was because it did not go through a third party volunteer organization, so avoiding the higher fees and the chance that my services wouldn’t be needed.  Accommodation was with the Peruvian family who run the school, and it had very good reviews from its volunteers over the years.  Tino and Mari are artisans. They both weave and paint, although Tino is primarily a weaver (he is recognised as a master weaver and has won the Peruvian Medal for his work), whilst Mari is first and foremost a painter.  Several years ago Tino was sponsored by National Geographic to teach Peruvian weaving to schools in the United States. It was on this trip that he had the idea of opening the school and since then he has focused most of his time and money on the school.  Tino and Mari do not have a lot of money, but they have big hearts and a strong feeling of social responsibility.

Tino and Mari making Pisco Sour

Tino and Mari making Pisco Sour

The school is in a poor part of a poor city.  Huancayo is in the central highlands of Peru and was badly affected by the Sendero Luminoso terrorist group. Even to this day the effects of those days are still felt. The parents of many of the children at the school were traumatized by seeing their own parents murdered, which has affected how they relate to their own children. Many people fled to the city, sometimes whole villages, under the threat of terrorism.

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The children come from very poor families, where it is usual to find large families with lots of children living in 1 or 2 rooms. The children are expected to work when they get home, as most families in this area on the edge of the city will have sheep, a cow, a pig and chickens, as well as a vegetable patch.  Most of the teenagers at the school will also work – the boys will usually work on a building site. This is the second school for the children.  They go to the government school in the morning or afternoon, and to Tinkuy Peru for the other half of the day, where they have lessons in English, Spanish and Maths, as well as homework help. The school consists of tiny mud brick classrooms and a good sized playground.  The latter is very important as the children don’t have much space to play at home. Children can attend from the first year of primary school through high school, although once children get to about 15 or 16 they usually stop coming as their parents expect them to work. Tino often goes to talk to families when children stop coming to find out what the problem is and try to persuade parents that their children need this tuition.  On the other hand some children will bring along kindergarten age siblings when there is nobody at home to look after them. The school doesn’t like this but it’s hard to send a 4 year old back to an empty house!

One day we found puppies living outside the school

One day we found puppies living outside the school

As it turned out, in the low season I was the only volunteer, so I had the volunteer apartment to myself and was very busy teaching the children and doing activities with them.  On my first day I was overwhelmed by the affection and welcome of the children.  There are 3 full time teachers and the children have a great relationship with them and love coming to school. It’s hard to believe of such kind and loving children, but they commonly don’t get much affection at all at home. The teachers are very kind and patient, and it is plain that the children feel very safe and cared for at the school. They mix together very well across the different ages and the school is like a big, happy family.  I was worried that the children would find it hard to get used to me being there for a month and then disappear. But they are used to volunteers coming and going. They learn to appreciate the time and effort of the volunteers coming from all over the world to work there, and derive a sense of their own value from the care and effort of the volunteers and the school.

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I did some fundraising for the school before leaving Australia and thanks to the generosity of friends, family and my hiking group, the school was very grateful to receive enough funds to do some much needed repairs to the toilet block and school grounds and buildings.  One of the first things to get fixed was the swings.

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Toilet block

Toilet block

My daily routine consisted of getting the bus to school in the morning, walking back home at lunchtime and back to school for the 3-6pm session. Peru has a 2 1/2 hour lunch break and makes up for it with a longer day. Most of the big shops open about 10 or 11 am and close about 9 or 10pm.  In between school times I was taking weaving lessons from Tino and managed to weave a 3 metre long table runner and a cushion cover.

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It wasn’t difficult teaching the children and, as one of them said, I taught them English and they taught me Spanish. The most difficult class for me was the young primary school age, as they were as excitable and restless as puppies.  However, I soon found my magic wand – stickers.  One day I remembered I had brought them and after each writing task I gave them a sticker. Within no time their heads were down and the classroom was silent. The quick ones would ask me to put the next task on the board and the slow ones refused my offer to go and have a break as they wanted to finish and earn their sticker! The older high school class was a good bunch, even though sometimes they could be too cool for school. My best class was the middle school age as they were the most keen to learn and still open and naive. One day I took them to a local museum run by an old man who had collected the most amazing carnival masks from all the villages and towns of the region. It was a fascinating history and cultural lesson, which this class just lapped up.

Museum of local regional carnival masks

Museum of local regional carnival masks

Previous volunteers, many of whom were university students, had painted the buildings and playground walls with beautiful murals and inspiring slogans.  I decided to try my hand at some little mosaic motifs on the concrete paths, thinking this would be easy. After lugging heavy ceramic bathroom tiles and concrete to school (they don’t have arts and crafts mosaic shops in Huancayo!), I started the first mosaic, a butterfly, with the primary school class. We first had to hammer the tiles into small pieces while covering them with a protective sheet. I learned by heart that day how to say, be careful, don’t touch, mind your fingers, that is dangerous and wait your turn. It was exhausting, but fun. Thankfully the other classes were much more helpful and my stress levels went down significantly.  The children all loved the mosaics and I was glad to leave them something to remember, as I grew very fond of them all and will miss them very much.

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Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca has always been a place I have dreamed of going to.  A vast sea in the mountains with islands and villages that is the birthplace of the Incas, it is a truly magical place.

Arriving in the dark and pouring rain in the distinctly unmagical city of Puno, which lies on the shores of the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, I was disappointed with the new level of dinginess that my cheap hostel offered. First of all the lock on my room broke, so I had to move to another room. I was given a heater for my room, but unfortunately when I came out of the shower the bedroom was rather smoky as the heater had blown. Wifi reception in my room was hopeless so I went down to the reception room, where the manager decided to get out his guitar and play some melancholy songs on the sofa next to me. I wasn’t quite sure what was the polite thing to do. Was it for my benefit, so should I pay attention and clap or sing, or was the strumming just something he liked to do and I should just get on with my emails?  I naturally inclined to the latter and thankfully the playing soon stopped.  It turned out the manager was from Cusco so was a mine of useful information.  He also booked my trip to Lake Titicaca for the next day and very kindly offered to walk down to the bus station and book my bus to Cusco while I was out all day.

The next morning a young American man staying in the hostel, about the same age as Jack, left with me early in the morning for the tour of the Lake. Poor chap was looking very sorry for himself and he explained that he had been up all night being sick as a result of some dodgy chicken at the Peruvian equivalent of KFC.

Our tour was on a boat and was to visit the Islas Des Uros and Isla Taquile.  The journey to our first stop, Islas Des Uros, took about 1 1/2 hours.  Once away from the view of the shoreline, the sea was simply vast and very clear and blue. As we sailed along some reed beds, lots of tiny ducks bobbed up and down amongst the reeds.

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The Uros islands are famous for being made of reeds and floating on the lake. There are 100s of islands as the Uros people keep making new ones, the reed islands lasting about 25 years. They have actually increased in number in recent times as they are a very lucrative tourist trap. For this reason I hadn’t intended to visit them, but I could only book a tour to Taquile if I also went to Uros.  Each island is tiny and houses approximately 4 family homes. The island itself is like a huge straw mattress or raft which is anchored in the lake.  Each family home is a tiny straw hut, and although basic in every sense of the word, they have solar panels and satellite dishes, which is one of the most mind-boggling aspects of this lifestyle apart from the whole concept of the reed islands. The huts are very simple, although there are one or two architectural features made from the reeds. The islanders get around by beautiful boats that are made in the traditional style and we were treated to a ride on one. So about 14 of us got into this boat, including some rather excitable Uruguayans and Argentinians. One older man, who fancied himself as Mario Testino, amongst other things, nearly capsized the boat several times when posing for selfies. Three tiny children astonished us with their sailing skills as they sailed in their own little dinghy, then moored it to our boat so they could come on board and sing to us for pennies. It was pointed out to us that the lake was very clear and only about 2 metres deep around the islands. Growing up on the lake and living on such tiny islands it must be a necessity to learn how to get around on the water as soon as you can walk.

Islas Des Uros

Islas Des Uros

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Despite the blatant exploitation (of the tourists rather than the islanders) and that it was obviously showtime (like reality TV, authenticity is not expected in front of an audience), I was nevertheless glad that I came.  I caught some sense of this very unusual and colourful life and was very happy to buy one of the women’s embroideries, which depicts the little ducks on the lake.

Taquile

Taquile

The island of Taquile, like much of Peru, is populated by eucalyptus trees, which provided a lovely homely smell in the heat. The people of Taquile live a unique traditional life and are renowned for their textiles. The men of the island are expert knitters, in particular of the special red hat that they wear, which indicates the age, dating and marital status of boys and men, depending on the design and way it is worn. The women make beautiful weavings, including a sash that is worn around the waist of their husbands. All the islanders wear the most beautiful and elegant traditional clothes that they make and they are a very quiet and dignified people (in other words the complete opposite to their Uros neighbours! ).  Nevertheless there were picturesque citizens posted at regular intervals along the tourist trail, waiting for a sol in exchange for a photo. This island was comparatively affluent with the best village housing I have seen so far and very nice restaurants for the tourists.  During lunch (very nice trout, which is popular in Peru) we were presented with a demonstration of the traditional clothing and its significance by an old man, translated from Aymara into Spanish and English by our guide. I wasn’t pleased to catch the guide’s subtle impatience and disrespect towards the local demonstrator, just as he had done in Uros. So different to our guide in Colca Canyon, who was a very humble and thoughtful person.

After a lovely walk to the other side of the island (less than an hour) and our waiting boat, I caught up with the young American, whose situation hadn’t improved. Whilst everyone else was busy buying textiles and taking photographs, he was getting to know all the public toilets on the island.  Back at the hostel I gave him some Gastrostop and Dioralite, as well as a bit of motherly advice about what he should eat and drink in the next 24 hours. He gratefully said I deserved some good karma, although secretly I enjoyed the chance to get my Mum kit on for a little while 😇

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soul trekking

In search of simplicity and happiness in nature

Source: soul trekking

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Huancavelica

Huancavelica is a region and town near Huancayo, in the Andes. I had originally planned to visit the town on the train that runs a couple of times a week. It is known locally as El Tren Macho, because “it runs when it wants to”.  However, it is a 5 hour journey each way and I was feeling a bit of travel burnout so decided against it. My host family decided to take me there on a drive one Sunday, not to the town, but in the region where there is some beautiful scenery.  The plan was to visit some hot springs and do some walking in the mountains.

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This road is part of the route directly from Huancayo to Cusco, which is a beautiful road through the Andes that passes through the town of Ayacucho, famous for its many churches and artisans, as well as once being the centre of the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso.  The only problem with this route to Cusco is that it is notorious for buses and cars driving off the mountain. There have been so many terrible accidents that most people take the much longer route via Lima. In any case the transport connections are not straightforward.  But for the traveler with strong nerves, it is a great way to explore the villages and towns in this part of the Andes.

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Tino did not tell his mother that we were going on this road as she always tries to deter him, ever since a cousin was in a bad accident on this road.  I was pretty nervous myself, but in the end this part at least did not seem too bad.  The views were amazing, and eventually we arrived at a small village that is a stop for El Tren Macho.  It was a very old village that had clearly had some significance in the heyday of the train, but was now very shabby and had an eery, decaying feel about it. There were several old men sitting on chairs outside their houses.  One of them got up to walk, so slowly that I thought he might be about to die.  There was an interesting old bridge with a tower which, like the village, would at one time have been very pretty.

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Near this village are the hot springs and we drove up a small dirt road to get to them. When we arrived it turned out that we were on the top of the mountain springs, which can be accessed from the top or the bottom. The top is like a large Elysian field, which eventually ends at a cliff that drops down to the river and more springs.  There were many families that had either walked up or taken a tuktuk to spend the day up here. There are little channels of water all over the green fields, which in some places had become petrified and white due to the calcification. Little bathing pools were dotted around, fed by the streams. We explored the area, trying to find a way down to the springs below, as all the pools at the top were occupied. But there was no way down the steep cliff face, over which flow all the mini streams.

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So in the end we walked back up to the source of the streams and sitting at the edge, next to some lambs that had been brought up to graze by one of the families, we soaked our feet in the warm water.  I reflected with Mari that I had noticed down the course of this stream and its pools that there was a family washing clothes further down, yet above them the family had eaten lunch and were washing dishes. Mari pointed out that we were above them and soaking our feet (and there was nobody above us so we were in the best spot)!

Afterwards we went back to the village for lunch. There was only one restaurant, by the river and fronting the main highway. It was a very basic little restaurant which looked as if it had not been cleaned or decorated for about 50 years. The food was okay, but the place obviously survived because it was the only place to eat for miles around.

As we ate, we could see people walking across the road by the restaurant with their donkeys and sheep. At one point a man and woman brought a very reluctant pig across the road. The man was leading it as the woman beat it with a stick when it pulled back and in the meantime the pig was squealing. Eventually they got the pig across the road and it started to squeal most horribly, but thankfully eventually stopped as it was quite disturbing. It sounded as if the poor thing thought it was going to die. As I chewed on my nearly cold chicken and rice, thinking about what a poor restaurant this was, there was a smell like burning hair. I looked towards the dark and dingy kitchen, wondering what on earth they were doing in there.  It was a very strong smell.  As we finished the meal (which amazingly cost the equivalent of $10 for 5 people), we came out of the restaurant onto the main road and saw the pig man outside his house next door, taking a blow torch to the skin of the dead pig. We were all stunned to realize that we had been hearing and smelling the slaughter of this pig while we were eating our lunch!  It seemed incredible that someone would do this in a public space and by the side of a main road, next to a restaurant.  I was so glad to get out of that place!

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After that experience I really needed some fresh air and as we drove back along the mountain road, Tino stopped so that we could go for a walk up a path on the mountainside. I was so pleased to do this as these paths always look so interesting and I often wish I could get out and explore. The path led up to a lovely hilltop that had great views of the valleys on both sides. Tino said that this was their family picnic spot that they had discovered by chance when they were on a drive to Huancavelica. They had Tino’s mother to thank for its discovery, as she had taken fright of the road journey, as it was not long after the cousin’s bus accident, and had insisted that they go no further. So they got out and had the picnic at this spot.  As we explored the hilltop Tino found the broken remains of a millstone as well as old stone walls that he thought were pre-Inca, i.e. the Huanca tribe. There were lots of beautiful wild flowers and herbs and it was clear that someone had been burning some of the plants to encourage them to grow fresh shoots. So they were probably coming up here to collect the herbs.

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Looking over into the next valley, I couldn’t help thinking how much it looked like Lord of the Rings country, except for the agricultural terraces. Not so long ago the path that we walked on up here would have been the main route along the valley. Now there was a highway and people could drive or travel by bus.  Time has stood still for so long in these places and the way of life has been unchanged for centuries. Only recently have things started to change. Although country life looks idyllic, it is actually very tough. The “Andean tractor” is actually an old fashioned plough pulled by oxen or donkeys. You see people young and old walking for miles with huge loads on their backs. Housing consists of a single room mud brick hut with a tin roof held down with rocks, with a large walled yard to contain the livestock.  Villagers are walking up the mountains to work in their fields at 5.00am. Tourists are encouraged to spend money in the villages where they can, to help in some way relieve the poverty.  In tourist areas, like the Sacred Valley near Machu Picchu and the Colca Canyon, you can see that the housing is better and the farmers drive cars and motorbikes. However, in regions like this that are not on the tourist trail, they don’t have access to the extra income provided by tourism.

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Chanchamayo jungle trip, Peru

My host family offers trips to local sights and our first weekend trip was to the jungle in Chanchamayo.  This is not one of the jungle areas by the Amazon that all the foreign tourists go to, and all the tourists here are Peruvian. In fact all the places we visited around Huancayo are way off the “Gringo Trail” and I was the only gringa around.  Some tourists feel insulted by being called a gringo.  It is never usually said to your face but you can hear the word as you pass by sometimes when people are talking about you. It would only bother me if I thought someone was being deliberately rude. Yesterday a little girl was curious about me and started chatting.  She asked if I was a gringa. I replied that, yes, I am a gringa. It made me laugh.

We traveled to Chanchamayo with Tino and Mari, their daughters Pilar and Angela,  and Tino’s sister, Heydi.  It was nice to be part of a family outing as I was missing my own family a great deal.  We drove through the Andes, which I always find a bit nerve-wracking, especially on the many steep bends.  There was one point where we got out of the car to walk down some steps at a very steep bend, while Tino drove on and picked us up at the bottom.  We did this just for the views, but apparently this is a point where buses will drop off all passengers in bad weather conditions so that if the bus goes over the cliff, only the driver will be killed! We were glad to enjoy the steps in good weather!

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We were also lucky to see some vicunas quite close up. Their wool is more fine and expensive than alpaca.  They are a protected species, only living wild and are only allowed to be shorn at special annual capture and shearing rituals by local villagers,  who have done this for centuries.  As a result they are very shy of people.

Vicuna

Vicuna

One of the last towns as we headed out of the high mountains and descended into the jungle was Tarma.  A pretty town that reminded me a little of Switzerland (although not quite so pristine and well-heeled!).

Tarma

Tarma

Once over the Andes we drove into a beautiful gorge, where we stopped to have a walk along an ancient road carved into the rock face.

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After a couple of hours driving through very high, bare mountains, the landscape gradually changed and became thickly forested and jungle-like.  By midday we were eating lunch in a hot and humid town where everyone was driving mopeds and little tuktuks for taxis.  It seemed like 5 minutes ago we were in Switzerland! Everywhere there was fruit, as the roads were lined with shops and stalls piled with bananas and other exotic jungle fruits.

We drove along the river through lots of small towns that were very busy and bustling.  By early evening we stopped at an indigenous village run by the Ashaninka tribe for tourists. Not really my cup of tea but I couldn’t really refuse! We had to put on a traditional sack dress (over our clothes, thankfully) as well as a headdress and beads. Most of the people there were schoolchildren and I know the student volunteers have done this kind of thing. I think that should be the age limit. We listened to an interesting story about the Ashaninka by an elder, in Spanish. Then we had to do a dance around a fire with the tribe. At the end of it my “partner” dragged me over to one of the many market stalls and offered me a traditional drink. It was very strong, so I declined a second shot (they should have given that out before the dancing.  I  might have been a bit more enthusiastic!).  Then I had to withstand the inducements to buy stuff. What tourists have to endure!! I did buy their coffee and chocolate,  as it is all grown and produced by the tribe.  Despite the tourist exploitation, I felt very privileged to be amongst these people, along with the Peruvian tourists, for whom it was also a learning experience.

We still had to get to our destination for the night and we were driving in the dark through many winding roads.  At one point the tarmac gave way to a dirt road with lots of potholes and another Peruvian tradition happened,  which is that as the vehicles have to slow down some local adults and children step in front of the cars with a shovel, ostensibly to provide the “service” of filling in the holes (which they don’t, for obvious reasons) and the drivers just lamely hand over their demands for money, because they want to get through and not have their car damaged. Further up the road there was a police checkpoint (a lot of these around, usually for drugs, sometimes for terrorists). It made me cross to think that people just turn a blind eye to this kind of thing. Still, not my problem.

Eventually we arrived at the jungle town and enjoyed a most delicious juice made from guanabana.  It is just white, like thick coconut juice,  and I think it is a kind of custard apple. The juices on offer saved the day, as otherwise the food was not at all good.

I had already heard the story of a young teenage boy who had run away from home and ended up as a slave of drug barons in the jungle, only managing to escape after several years.  It wouldn’t surprise me if this town had a few of those merchants around. It just had a bad feel.

We visited a few waterfalls in the mountains, which were full of Peruvian families and school groups relaxing in the water.  I was the only gringa and it was good to be enjoying Peru with Peruvians instead of with Germans, French and Americans (not that I don’t enjoy their company in a different way). At the waterfalls the locals had set up stalls of food, drinks, souvenirs and also brought their pets along (anaconda and monkeys).  Unfortunately the poor monkeys were tied to chairs, but they were very sweet.

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On the way back we had a delicious lunch at a tourist restaurant on the river. I had jungle venison and fried yucca which was delicious.  Tino had another jungle animal, which looks a bit like a hairy nosed wombat (we saw them in the little zoo we visited).  Also at the zoo we saw the coati, which is like a long-nosed racoon and lives in the jungle. This creature eats coffee fruit and its poo is collected by coffee makers, who use the beans to make very expensive coffee.  We visited the main jungle coffee factory and I was able to buy some of this special coffee for about a tenth of the price you would pay for it in the US. I also bought some regular coffee.

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Hairy nosed wombat type creature

Hairy nosed wombat type creature

The journey back home was through the twisting, winding roads in the pitch dark. I was very tired, but I couldn’t sleep. I was gripping the door handle very tightly as we went round the bends and praying a lot. Funnily enough when we got back into Huancayo and Tino hit a speed bump (placed at regular intervals on all the main roads – more effective than speed cameras) so we all bounced in the air, he really got it in the neck from his family and he was very apologetic.  I couldn’t have cared less. I had been more concerned at his speed around the bends!

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Huancayo

Huancayo is a city in the central Andean highlands.  It is not a tourist town, which in many ways is a relief.  It has a new shopping mall in the centre of town so it is possible to easily find useful items that are not made out of baby alpaca.  It has a couple of noteworthy markets.  The famous Sunday Market which covers several blocks in a main street, where I bought some beautifully carved gourds from an old lady who makes them (Huancayo is the main region for carved gourds) and a huge and chaotic daily market which spreads over many blocks and streets in the centre of town.

Carved gourds

Carved gourds

Daily market

Daily market

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Huancayo is set in a valley and surrounded by hills, but apart from the hill views it is a very plain and gritty city. It was one of the places badly affected by the Shining Path terrorists and because of the poverty in the region (significantly worsened by the years of living with terrorism) and because large amounts of people fled to the city from their villages for safety, Huancayo is growing rapidly.  It is growing so quickly that on the outskirts of town it is common to see cows being milked and grazing in the street, as well as pigs lazing about in the middle of the road and sheep and chickens all over the place.

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Huancayo is the main city in the Montaro Valley, which is famous for its pretty artisan towns and villages.  The region is home to weavers, gourd carvers, silversmiths and other traditional crafts.   In Huancayo is the very beautiful Parque de la Identitad Huanca, which depicts Andean folklore in its Gaudiesque design (apparently the architect of this park was a student of Gaudi).

Parque de la Identitad Huanca

Parque de la Identitad Huanca

Giant gourd

Giant gourd

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I am glad that I have come to work at the school and had the opportunity to live for a few weeks here. As it is not on the usual tourist route, it is a good place to get away from the crowds and get to know the locals. There are some great places to visit here – tomorrow I am going for a hike up the local glacier (although sadly this is melting like many of the Andean glaciers).

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El Tren

The Ferro Carril train from Lima to Huancayo is now the second highest train in the world after the Chinese built a train line in Tibet. I planned to take this train as by luck it goes to Huancayo, which is where I am volunteering in a school.  The bus would have been quicker and cheaper, but the opportunity to make an exciting train journey seemed too good to ignore.

This is no ordinary train.  First of all the only trains that run in Peru are for tourists and freight.  It only runs a few times a year and I was soon to find that, in typical Peruvian style, it is an event when this train runs.  It is the only train to run from the beautiful old station Desamparados.

Desamparados Station Lima

Desamparados Station Lima

As you can see from the picture, it is in a pedestrian zone so my taxi had to drop me off way down the street. As I struggled with my luggage a very serious looking armed policeman offered to carry it for me up to the queue outside the building. Alongside the queue was a lot of security, as always in Lima, as well as television cameras, photographers and families seeing people off.

As we entered the building there were a lot of dignitaries and railway officials and when we got through to the platform a brass band greeted us! It created a lovely festive feeling and I hoped the excitement would sustain us through vertigo and altitude sickness. The train was completely packed, mostly with tourists.

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After some seat swapping with a group of French men (Peru is full of French tourists) and some Czech girls, goodbyes had been said, and photos taken, the train eventually moved off and we waved to the band playing on the platform. Once we got out of Lima the scenery was beautiful and lush. Unlike the dreary desert landscape to the south of Lima, the country to the north is full of pretty little villages with lots of vegetation (eucalyptus trees) and beautiful bougainvillea everywhere. The train was very slow, taking a total of 13 hours to reach Huancayo.  A couple of times we could get off the train while they swapped the engine round.

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About midday we reached the village of Matacuna and were allowed 20 minutes to explore.  As we walked into the village square there was a young girls’ dancing troupe putting on a show, followed by a couple doing the Flamenco. What a treat! I have put the videos on YouTube here:

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As we continued with the journey the scenery became more dramatic and precipitous. As people were enthusiastically looking over this side and then that to take photos, I sometimes worried about the balance of the train along the very narrow route. However, my vertigo wasn’t that bad on the whole, thankfully.

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As we approached the top of the mountains a nurse came up and down the train offering oxygen. One little girl was sick several times, poor thing. The highest point is at Galena, 4,781 metres above sea level.

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In order to negotiate this terrain the railway line has lots of switches, so every so often we had an announcement to explain what the train was doing. The line has 58 bridges, 69 tunnels and 6 switchbacks. After Galera we started to descend. At the highest point of the journey it was very cold and bleak.  I was glad that I had an aisle seat and facing backwards, so that I didn’t see how precarious the train looked till we had passed.

Evening darkness arrived and there was no more to see except the lights of towns and villages we passed.  At this point it started to feel like a very long journey and I wondered if I would be able to go to bed fairly soon after I arrived at my host family.  Finally we arrived in Huancayo to another band and more dancing.  What a great welcome! I really felt like a VIP, even though I traveled in second class!

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Cusco

Cusco was the Inca capital and means “navel of the world”. It has several spellings such as Cuzco and Qosco. It was the place of famous confrontations between the Incas and the Conquistadors and the city’s architecture is built on top of Inca ruins. It is a beautiful city with interesting districts such as San Blas, which is a well known artisan colony and also popular with tourists, especially young backpackers.

Cusco had another heyday between the 1920s to 1950s, when the Peruvian photographer, Martin Chambi, took this photo of the city.

Martin Chambitious Cusco Plaza Des Armas

Martin Chambi
Cusco Plaza Des Armas

The square is a little different nowadays.

Cusco Plaza Des Armas

Cusco Plaza Des Armas

It is a beautiful city but very touristy.  Every shop in the centre of town is selling high end alpaca clothes, or tours, or Peruvian crafts.  All the restaurants and cafes are catering for tourists, who are here in big numbers.  Although that detracts somewhat from the overall feel, it well deserves it’s popularity as you can see and feel the history everywhere.  Inca walls are in all the old streets and there is a massive Inca fortress on a hill overlooking the town, Sacsayhuaman.

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Sacsayhuaman

Sacsayhuaman

Sacsayhuaman

Sacsayhuaman

Cusco is full of twisting narrow cobbled streets and lots of stairs. The streets are just as they are depicted in so many Peruvian paintings, and you will be lucky to avoid the many art students who approach tourists with a portfolio of paintings for sale. I bought a very nice one myself, as a cheeky young man came into the cafe and up to my table while I was eating,  to sell his paintings.

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The San Pedro market is a sight to see. I went there on my last day and was just amazed at the produce and the market restaurants that were packed with diners. I am probably over cautious, but I refrained from eating there to avoid the possibility of an upset stomach when I had a 23 hour bus ride to Lima ahead of me!

San Pedro market

San Pedro market

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I did a really good hike in the hills outside of Cusco with a group from the South American Explorers Club. The hills were covered in gum trees and we saw a grass fire on a neighboring hill – I felt quite at home! On the way back we flagged down a taxi back to Cusco and in typical Peruvian fashion 7 of us piled into the dilapidated station wagon with 3 in the boot and not a seatbelt between us.

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