On the inca trail

In the high Andes Mike Cowling fulfils a 30-year ambition.

In a list of bizarre activities this would certainly be in my top ten. The pitch black night rolled by outside as we travelled on a luxury coach heading for Arequipa. Shortly after drinks and a meal were served, thoughts turned to a snooze. No such luck, we were cajoled into playing bingo. I didn't win the prize, a free trip on the bus, but I did perfect my Spanish numbers.

We were a few days into a three-week trip around the highlights of Peru that had started with a twelve-hour flight to Lima. I have never had a board held up for me on arrival but here I was glad to see the driver's beaming face as we entered the chaotic arrivals hall at Jorge Chavez airport holding up my name, even though I was first names only, Mr Michael Anthony.

Some of our fellow travellers had spent hours in front of a computer putting thir trips together. I handed that over to a specialist company and we had absolutely no worries.

Our first day trip was down to Pachacamac, the largest coastal, pre- Spanish city in Peru, to see Inca ruins. The October weather in Lima, despite being close to the equator, is generally cloudy. Go a few miles south and warm sunshine requires the first use of sun block. The ruins, on a dry and dusty site, juxtaposed with a nearby shanty town, are a working archaeological site.

Our holiday was arranged to take us to a different highlight every three or four days and the next was a flight over the world famous Nazca lines. Arriving in Ica we were collected by a friendly face (I was becoming used to the "Mr Michael Anthony" board) and taken to a desert oasis, Huacachina, where local tourists make up the majority enjoying the water or taking to the dunes in loud dune buggies.

All flights over the Nazca lines take off from the local airport and you pay a departure tax. Soon we were taxiing along the runway in a tired-looking four-seat Cessna.

What I presumed to be "clearance for take off" crackled over the radio and Fernando, our senior pilot, opened the throttle. We had a 35 minute flight looking down on the lines and I was impressed with their shape and design. The constant turning of the small plane had its effect and one of the passengers reached for a handy paper bag. I have flown quite often in small planes and always felt grateful when returning to earth.

Another coach trip, a seven-hour journey, took us along the coast south and then inland to the marvellous city of Arequipa and an increase in altitude to nearly 8,000 feet. I have to admit that I had been worried about altitude sickness before leaving, yet Arequipa didn't seem too bad.

The fine Spanish city stands surrounded by mountains and the El Misti volcano and is an easy place to walk around given that you're at altitude. A must visit is the Convent of Santa Catalina, a city within a city. The site, opened in 1970 after 400 years of isolation, is a complete miniature walled town that housed 450 nuns and female servants. Allow a couple of hours to wander around.

Arequipa is a good starting point for a visit to the Colca Valley where Andean condors soar on thermals at Colca Canyon. The trip overnights at Chivay and it is here that you will get your first brush with altitude. At 3,800 metres (12,470 ft) above sea level the air is thin and I had a problem resting at night, with a feeling of breathlessness.

Feeling better by morning, we were off to drive the Colca Valley to view the wonderful agricultural methods of the Incas. We bounced along the dusty valley road through market towns, stopping to take pictures in the clear light, and onto the condor viewpoint. One or two appeared, to the delight of the substantial crowd.

Moving on to Puno, still at altitude, you are on the edge of Lake Titcaca, another highlight. The lake is more of an inland sea and is shared between Peru and Bolivia. There are many varieties of trips and we chose a visit to the floating reed islands and a visit to Taquille Island, some two and half hours' boat journey away over the choppy windswept water.

The folks living on the reed islands were very welcoming and following an explanation on their existence we were invited to see their handicrafts and to buy. It was a pleasant enough, if somewhat typical, tourist experience.

Taquille Island was a contrast. After the energy-sapping walk to the top of the island our guide explained three rules on the island that all follow. "Don't be lazy", "Don't steal" and "Don't lie". There are no mules on the island so everything has to be carried up from the harbour to the village. No one is exempt, old women, children and the men folk all carry huge back- breaking loads. It was tiring just watching them. I struggled with one bottle of water, never mind six cases tied to the shoulders.

Another coach trip and we were in Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital, said to have been founded in the 12th century. This is a good place to spend a few days and from here an overnight trip to Machu Picchu is recommended.

The city can be "done" on foot and the cathedral is a must. There is a charge to get in and you won't be allowed to film or photograph the wonders inside – you can always buy a postcard on exit. There are several relaxing squares to pass the time of day in as long as you can avoid the persistent shoeshine boys.

Outside the city Inca ruins abound. On a day trip our passionate guide took us to Sacsayhuaman, a sun temple high above the city where the Inca architects and stonemasons have left some of their finest work. Near the ruins is a White Christ with arms outstretched over the city, a mark of thanks from Palestinian refugees in the Second World War.

Back in the city and a meander along some of the pedestrian only streets near the cathedral will show you more Inca building work as you side-step the street peddlers. Just a pleasant "No thanks" is enough to deter them.

A 4.15am departure took us to the world famous Machu Picchu via an early train ahead of the the hordes eager to see the preserved Inca city high in the mountains.

The train arrives at Aguas Calientes, a tourist town nestling below the site, in time for you to catch a mini bus and be through the welcome centre by 9am. We were met by Jacqueline, our knowledgeable guide, who spent two and half hours explaining the various theories behind the ruined city and its founding and eventual re-discovery by American, Hiram Bingham. She left us full of admiration for the Incas and advised us to walk to the Sun Gate and view to city from high up.

We reached our destination, past meandering llamas that act as mobile lawn mowers, bathed in sweat and a pleasurable glow of satisfaction. We had waited 30 years for this moment after first mooting a trip to Peru in the late 1970s, and there we were, looking down on a wonder of the world. The crowds go home at lunch time and during the afternoon it is far easier to get around the site.

Aguas Calientes is twinned with Haworth and there are similarities – tourists, winding steep streets and more shops than you can throw a stick at. The main difference is traffic, banned in the Peruvian twin.

Back to Cuzco for a rest day saw us preparing for three days in the jungle. Touching down at Puerto Maldonado airport was like being in a sauna with no likelihood of a cooling plunge pool. Within minutes we were off on a rolling mini bus to a jungle location next to the Tambapata river. Transferring to a motorised dugout canoe we spent 45 minutes on the dark, muddy water, before arriving at Posada Amazonas for a three-day, luxury in the jungle stay. A three-sided bedroom opened out onto a jungle that was never quiet and we slept under mosquito nets. Guided hikes and river trips start very early to witness the jungle and water courses "wake up".

It was with a heavy heart that we returned to Lima, swapping the sound of Howler monkeys in the jungle for the howl of downtown traffic, and the end of the trip. Peru is very different. The sights and sounds take some getting used to. The people are friendly and all our hotel staff and guides couldn't do enough for us. Take your time getting to altitude and there take things at an easy pace. Drink plenty of fluids, coca tea is useful, and eat lightly.

For me the best experience was looking down on Machu Picchu bathed in glorious afternoon sun. And, if I ever play bingo again it just won't be the same.

Getting there

Mike and his wife travelled through The Real Peru, based in Leeds, 0113 216 1440 or www.therealperu.co.uk who offer a variety of tailor made trips to Peru. They used a licensed tour guide at Machu Picchu: Jacqueline Collantes Penaloza, contact jackeline-fe@hotmail.com

Tips: Take your debit card and withdraw currency from ATMs. US dollars are accepted alongside the local Nuevo Sole, which is around four to 1.

Vaccinations necessary particularly for the jungle trip. Try to learn some basic Spanish. Drink bottled water only.Be aware of personal security especially in busy places.Toilet paper is placed in adjacent bins, not the loo.

YP MAG 24/12/10