Heather MilesCloud forests and other wonders of Peru

Escaping from Sydney a few days before New Year’s Eve, a motley group of friends and family headed to South America for a month of adventuring. First Peru and Machu Picchu, then cycling in Cuba for 2 weeks, followed by 10 days sailing the Galapagos. A triple bucket-list trip!

Bromeliads perched on a tree trunk, a feature of the cloud forests at Machu Picchu

Bromeliads perched on a tree trunk, a feature of the cloud forests at Machu Picchu

 

After a night in Lima with plenty of Pisco sours (pisco, sugar, lime and egg white), we headed to Cusco, the staging ground for Machu Picchu.

Cusco at 3400 metres above sea level – while equatorial in latitude, average annual temperature is 10 to 11ºC and rainfall is between 600 to 880 mm per year.

Cusco at 3400 metres above sea level – while equatorial in latitude, average annual temperature is 10 to 11ºC and rainfall is between 600 to 880 mm per year.

Cusco’s contradictions

At 3,400 metres above sea level, no sane person goes beyond Cusco without altitude (or is it attitude) adjustment, unless they like being dizzy, getting headaches and feeling sick. With acclimatisation time on our hands, we explored Cusco, ably led by our fantastic guide, Darwin Mendoza.

Cusco is fascinating place of stark contradictions – old Spanish wealth, religion and power and pre-Inca (prior to 1300) and Inca culture and buildings.

Beautiful gardens at the Converto de Santo Domingo Del Cusco, built on the foundations of Quirkancha (The Temple of the Sun), the most important temple in the Inca world.

Beautiful gardens at the Converto de Santo Domingo Del Cusco, built on the foundations of Quirkancha (The Temple of the Sun), the most important temple in the Inca world.

A medieval-style cloister garden built for reflection in the Museo Arzobispal. Spectacular cultural festivals – a common feature in Cusco.

A medieval-style cloister garden built for reflection in the Museo Arzobispal.

Spectacular cultural festivals – a common feature in Cusco.

Spectacular cultural festivals – a common feature in Cusco.

 

Poverty runs rife and tourism’s gone mad. Hill people come to the city to try to capture some of the tourism dollars and everywhere people grapple to make a living, educate their children, and conserve their heritage. Perhaps conserve is too passive a word – it’s more like reclaim their heritage.

People come from surrounding mountain districts to capitalise on the wealth of Cusco

People come from surrounding mountain districts to capitalise on the wealth of Cusco

 

A visit to Sacsayhuaman, the historic capital of the Inca, was our first taste of the Inca might. Built on a hill, overlooking Cusco, Sacsayhuaman was first occupied in 900, then taken over by the Inca til the 1500s, then partly demolished by the Spanish who used the stones to build Cusco.

Extraordinarily tight stonework of Sacsayhuaman

Extraordinarily tight stonework of Sacsayhuaman

Stones and grasses at Sacsayhuaman against the mountain backdrop

Stones and grasses at Sacsayhuaman against the mountain backdrop

 

Groves of Polylepis, a gnarled tree with flaky red bark, have been established. An intensely slow growing tree (0.1mm per year), it survives in the cool mists and thin air of high altitudes. Previously covering much of the Andes, only small fragments remain. The trees are used for wood and medicine, including assisting in childbirth.

Groves of flaky red barked queñual (Polylepis racemosa), threatened due to habitat loss in the Andes

Groves of flaky red barked queñual (Polylepis racemosa), threatened due to habitat loss in the Andes

Cristo Blanco is a large statue seen across Cusco at 8 metres - a gift from Arabic Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco after World War II.

Cristo Blanco is a large statue seen across Cusco at 8 metres – a gift from Arabic Palestinians who sought refuge in Cusco after World War II.

 

The market gave us a taste of daily life in Cusco with its fruit and vegetable stalls (2,900 varieties of potatoes – husband was in heaven!), cheese, corn, bread (all of which we had for lunch), pigs’ heads (ahh, no thanks), guinea pig (hmm – brother-in-law was game).


ABOVE: Market sights, tastes and smells. Over 2,900 varieties of potatoes, fresh produce, cheeses, beans, grains and lentils (the price of quinoa has gone up in Peru as much is now being exported), protein of various sort…,

Chinchero, the Sacred Valley of the Incas

Off to Machu Picchu – via Chinchero, the Sacred Valley of the Incas with weaving and dyeing lessons on the way. The textiles are exquisite, made with llama wool and natural dyes. We had a wonderful demo of the whole process, from spinning to weaving to dyeing by our beautiful hostess.

ABOVE: Beautiful hand spun and woven textiles made with natural dyes. I came home with stunningly warm and vibrant scarves and wall hanging (or baby carrier pm the right).

 

Shutting my eyes was the best way to deal with the hair-raising set of steep winding roads which took us Sal Natural y Ecologica (salt pans). Set in a deep valley, the salt pans have been producing for thousands (probably millions) of years. What a sight, though the salt eliminates all but the toughest plants.

Sal Natural y Ecologica (salt pans) fed by natural streams. Nothing much grows in this hostile environment.

Sal Natural y Ecologica (salt pans) fed by natural streams. Nothing much grows in this hostile environment.

Ollyantantambo and the unfinished fortress

Granaries high up in the mountains stored the community’s grain at an unfinished fortress at Ollyantantambo – good thighs required. Lucky I’d been doing yoga.

Granaries up high at the unfinished fortress at Ollyantantambo stored the grain

Granaries up high at the unfinished fortress at Ollyantantambo stored the grain

 

Stunning and delicate cloud forest plants abound. Cloud forests are tropical forests covered in mists for much of the time, which filters light and adds humidity.

Mosses and lichens at Ollyantambo

Mosses and lichens at Ollyantambo

And a few imports as well – Dahlia (native to Mexico) growing on the rocks

And a few imports as well – Dahlia (native to Mexico) growing on the rocks

The miracle of where plants establish…

The miracle of where plants establish…

Machu Picchu at last!

After an overnight sleep, a train, a long queue to get a bus ticket, and then the bus (up the hill with another set of hairy hairpin bends), we were there. Among the bromeliads – cliff faces covered.

Bromeliads on the rock walls below Machu Picchu

Bromeliads on the rock walls below Machu Picchu

 

We were lucky – not many crowds in January, and plenty of time to wander the ruins, explore the rocks and paths and see the plants. Macho Picchu touched me spiritually – the connection with Mother Earth, the reverence of the massive boulders, discovering civilisations past. There was the grandeur of the old buildings and the fascinating of the vegetation.

Terraces of Machu Picchu, which used to be vegetable gardens

Terraces of Machu Picchu, which used to be vegetable gardens

Achupalla, a stunning bromeliad, Puya weberbaueri at Machu Picchu

Achupalla, a stunning bromeliad, Puya weberbaueri at Machu Picchu

Vermillion coloured begonias (Begonia veitchii) pop up all over the walls and slopes

Vermillion coloured begonias (Begonia veitchii) pop up all over the walls and slopes

 

An extraordinary mini-trek along the path to the Inca Bridge showed the full diversity and density of the cloud forest plants…

Museo Rafael Larco Herrera at Lima

Then back to Cusco and a flight to Lima. With a few hours to spare, we visited Museo Rafael Larco Herrera. Founded in 1925, it houses a remarkable collection of artefacts dating back 3000 years, including gold and silver jewellery, pots and erotica and surrounded by lush plantings.

Path to the Inca Bridge

Path to the Inca Bridge

 

Garden at Museo Rafael Larco Herrera, Lima

 

Darwin Mendoza, our guide, gave us access into the world of Peru, both past and present. He was a master of knowledge (places and plants), gracious, accommodating and fun. He helped us make sense of the “why’ of Peru as well as the ‘what’. If we ever considered doing a longer trek in Peru, I’d be asking for Darwin.

Next, off to Cuba, for 2 weeks cycling and (oh well) being on a bus.

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Heather Miles

About Heather Miles

Corporate consultant, passionate gardener, loves Australian natives and their design potential. Honorary Secretary of the Australian Plant Society NSW . Gets her hands dirty in a native garden in the Hunter Valley and an old fashioned flower garden in Sydney. Fascinated by the similarities between organisations and plant communities.

4 thoughts on “Cloud forests and other wonders of Peru

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your journey, and your observations Heather. It brought back fabulous memories of our visit with ALC tours a couple of years ago.

    • Heather Miles on said:

      Thanks Kim. It was a wonderful trip, particularly with ‘plant’ eyes!

  2. helen on said:

    What an inspiring post, Heather! Made me want to go there!

  3. Heather Miles on said:

    Thanks Helen. It’s definitely worth it – I’d even consider the 4 or 14 day walk next time – apparently all sorts of glorious sights along the route. Having a guide who was interested in ecology and plants was also a bonus.

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