Peru is one of the most wonderful but frustrating countries in the world to visit. Bookings and meetings can be made and confirmed by email or phone but there is always some reason, usually totally nebulous, that provides the ‘Peru Factor’ in any visit to this wonderful land of the Inca and the Alpaca.
Our trip on to the altiplano started with a major dose of the Peru Factor (PF). Departure from Cuzco had been carefully planned for 7am with our transport arriving in good time to meet us and the satellite phone being delivered to the hotel at 6.30. However it was not to be - we eventually left at midday sans phone, thanks to the phone’s owner having got too drunk the night before, but at least with two serviceable Toyota Hilux and two very competent and carefully selected drivers. This meant that our first visit planned for midday was a trifle late and after driving for nearly five hours we arrived at our destination late in the afternoon. The last two hours were on a spectacular track high into the mountains and all the time we looked at the state of the track and thought about our inevitable return in the dark.
However our arrival was greeted with much relief by our hosts who were well accustomed to Peruvian time and immediately offered to put us up for the night. We looked around at the potential accommodation, in the family mud huts, and decided that a lack of any sign of civilised comforts at 4,600 metres was not really an option that we could accept, particularly on our first night on the altiplano, where the two days acclimatisation in Cusco was already proving not really to have been enough.
The sun was going down over the surrounding mountain peaks, all of which were covered in snow, and even as we stepped out of our comfortable pickups we made a rush to our suitcases for the thermals and alpaca clothing we had brought along. Already the icy winds were building up and as the sun dipped spectacularly over the surrounding snow-capped mountains and ceased to provide any heat we started to appreciate the vast contrasts alpacas have to suffer every day in their native environment. Within minutes it was well below freezing with a high wind chill factor thrown in and the two hours we spent going through some outstanding animals flew past frustratingly quickly. Having completed our business in the dark the breeder decided to close the proceedings with a speech extolling the pleasure they had in hosting our visit etc etc etc. The etcs went on forever – another great Peruvian feature – and eventually I chose a short pause for breath to break in with a speech of my own which lasted all of two minutes. Another minute - either hypothermia or frost bite would have put paid to the rest of our trip.
The next day, after an interesting journey home in the dark we rose from our $4 a night luxury hotel and looked up at the surrounding peaks which were covered in a fresh covering of snow and appreciated how lucky we had been in getting down before the weather broke. Departure was timed for 7.30 but we had reckoned without the PF – the chef had overslept and our breakfast was about an hour late. Not to worry, it meant that various phone calls, from a land line, could be made and eventually we turned up at our next RV and things took on a better turn – the man with the satellite phone was waiting for us (he had travelled 60 miles by bus to deliver it!), as was our next host on his motorbike ready to take us to see his animals. He lead us for about a mile to his property where we spent the next few hours going through all the animals he had gathered in for our selection.
The time passed quickly and soon we were on our way to the next destination and another wonderful hotel. Here we were informed that our booking of single rooms was to be slightly modified into a combination of beds in rooms but at least we had hot water. While some of the party went sightseeing we set off to our next meeting at 5pm – fortunately just round the corner from our hotel. After much banging on vast steel security doors we were told by a security guard that there was a bullfight and fiesta in town and that was where everyone had gone. Not perturbed we set off to meet our people at the stadium. We eventually met up with them – well greased with Chicha (the local beer) or Pisco Sour and arranged to re-schedule our meeting for 7am the next day.
Because of the festivities of the bullfight the town was buzzing and so we decided to book a table for dinner in the local restaurant. At 8 pm we returned to take up our booking, we sat down and after a few moments we asked for the menu and some beer. There was no food, we were told, they had thought we were just booking our seats and the table to sit on – in an empty restaurant! As the booking was made by a fluent Spanish speaker it could only be the PF again. Still one hour later we had enjoyed an excellent meal of trout specially cooked for us by the staff.
Returning to the hotel we aimed for an early night – for some of us it was shattered at 11pm by a knocking on the door asking for the guests’ passport number for their records. A lack of Spanish was not a problem in expressing what the night porter could do with his records.
The next morning saw our abortive meeting from the previous day take place prior to a rush to depart earlier than we had planned. As always it was rush to wait as the PF crept in again but eventually we managed to squeeze all the extra passengers into the truck and set off for our next amazing drive through the altiplano. We were the guests of one of the most prestigious breeders in Peru and they took us up to Macusani where we booked into the local hostelry – a hostelry famous throughout the alpaca world for its simple and very basic accommodation. (One loo for all the guests and a concrete basin in the corridor should you wish to wash – at 4°C who needs to wash?). After a full day inspecting stock we returned to the hostelry where, having investigated the nightlife of Macusani, once again we opted for an early night. Although most got to sleep very sharply it was not to be for long. At 1.30 a lorry drove into the neighbouring square and started to blow his horn, not once but frequently over about 30 minutes until he achieved his desired result, or until someone came out and shot him. None of us gave a damn which was the cause of his eventual silence
The morning saw a somewhat dishevelled bunch of happy campers rise from their flea ridden and rather uncomfortable blanket covered sleeping racks – for two of our number the overpowering smell of paraffin with which the floors had been treated had proved a headache catalyst too many. At this sort of altitude one does not need the extra stimulation of paraffin to bring out the hammers in the head. Fresh air and an excellent breakfast from our hosts soon cured any problems.
As always the day was spent in the most spectacular of settings viewing stock. At one stage we had stripped down to shirt sleeves and typically in two minutes we saw the change in climate from baking hot to freezing cold with snow falling all around us. Our hosts then provided us with lunch, of deep fried alpaca, and we were later told indirectly how much they appreciated our readiness to be their guests. Apparently we were the first overseas customers who had readily accepted their delicious food; the Americans had even turned up with their own chef and their own food - an insult to their excellent hospitality which had not been forgotten. However by now we were installed in their guest suites, not much different in standard to our hostel but lacking even the shared flush loo. A hole in the floor overlooking the river provided the necessary baòos and this unfortunately was not the moment to have to overdose on Immodium.
The next day saw us on a very early start with the promise of breakfast at 8 after we had done another selection. Our hosts however were so keen to show us stock that it just kept on coming. We all started to wilt at about 10 am and still no sign of anything in the form of sustenance or even coffee. At 11 am they announced that we had seen all that was coming forward and wearily we raced back to the canteen for eggs, rice and chilli sauce – a delicious combination of flavours not seen in your average Little Chef. After brunch we set off for our next destination which involved yet another totally different type of scenery, both natural and man-made, but over a variety of different standards of road.
They are building, with Brazil’s help, the Transamazonia Highway, which will eventually link Brazil with the west coast. Peruvian road building however is different to what we are used to in the West. After miles of lurching around on the dirt road you suddenly find yourself on glorious flat tarmac for about five miles before just as suddenly finding yourself lurching back on the rough without any warning. Then you arrive at the point where they are currently working and you are invited to divert off the road on to the surrounding countryside – occasionally there is a track for you to follow but often you just select the best route you can find until you have driven for 3 or 4 miles and you climb back on to the original road.
The other PF to consider, particularly when driving at night, is the unseen hazard of diversions unmarked – particularly around bridges where there are no signs to signify that there is a pile of dark coloured material followed by a gaping hole in the road. Also, although there are dozens of seemingly useless concrete signs available for electioneering purposes or for the promotion of the local beer – there are hardly ever any signs depicting the route to your destination. Thus it was that we, rather later than planned, eventually found our way to the comforts of Malkini, an adventure holiday resort and alpaca breeding centre in some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere on the altiplano. We arrived in the dark and were welcomed by a huge log fire, real hot water, luxury bedrooms and fantastic food. I can understand why the International Judging School decided to use this venue for the bulk of its course. It was fun to see familiar names from the UK and from around the world in the visitors book and propped up above the fireplace a familiar postcard of an alpaca, drawn by Val Fullerlove.
Reluctantly the next day after many hours going through their stock we departed from this luxury and comfort to return to Ayaviri, a friendly little town which is very much a centre of the alpaca breeding district. This was to be our last day together before returning to our homes and we went back to that wonderful restaurant where previously we had only managed to book table and chairs. This time food was available without any hassle and so we ordered the dish of the day, the easiest way to get your food on the table in a reasonable time. The first dish of the celebratory meal appeared – semolina soup with some meat and other stuff in it. Our second course was an excellent form of stew which made up for it but the piéce de resistance was the pud – warm jelly with bits of apple in it. So this final meal together proved to be just as memorable as some of the other experiences that had made our journey in the altiplano both interesting and enjoyable.
The Peruvian Factor is not for the impatient or hyper-critical. It can irritate and frustrate to a level previously unknown – however when taken with a sense of humour and an awareness of its existence it can provide that element of the ridiculous that will lead to after dinner conversation and memories to recall with warmth and enjoyment. Peru, particularly outside of the main tourist areas is not for the faint hearted but the further away the visitor can get from those tourist areas the more warmth and friendliness will be met and certainly the hardships and hiccoughs of the journey will be more than compensated for by the experience.