My Peru Highlights A-Z

A is for Arequipa and artisanal alpaca hats

Arequipa was the first town I properly arrived in, having crossed the overland border between Arica in Chile and Tacna in Peru. The old city is full of character, beautiful cobbled streets, it nestles below three volcanoes, and the food has a style all of its own. I especially liked Rocoto Relleno, a large stuffed red chili, with a solid spicy kick. The monastery of Santa Catalina is an eye-opening revelation into how nuns from wealthy Spanish families lived – no vow of poverty here and only the first Vatican council changed their lifestyle into one more of community living.

An alpaca hat with ear flaps and tassels is the must-have item for overnight stays in Colca Canyon or the Inca Trail. There’s a moment on every trek when the baseball caps and wide brimmed straw trilby hats vanish and out come all the alpaca hats we’ve been cajoled into purchasing from the wizened knitting ladies in every market, tourist stop, or café. You can try to resist, but the cold nights in Puno or Cusco mean the alpaca hat will get you in the end! Mine’s reversible, just sayin’! 😉

B is for the Ballestas Islands
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In the footsteps of the Incas – part 2

Click here to read Part 1  

Day 3 – Pacamayo to Machu Picchu (21km)

I’ve spent most of the night shifting from side to side seeking comfort from the hard gravelly surface for which my rollmat has been no match. Marco’s wake up call with hot tea at 4.45am comes as a blessed relief. After the heavy rains overnight, everything is cold and damp, but at least it’s not raining now.

Guide Manny is keen to make an earlier than usual start today. Normally this is a 15km day to the campsite at Wiñay Wayna, where groups overnight before walking the final 5km up to the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu at dawn to catch the sunrise. However recent heavy rains mean than some of the camping sites, including the one we’ve been allocated, are no longer in good condition, and the current weather patterns are bringing heavy cloud and rain at Machu Picchu most early mornings. Chances of that romantic sunrise over Machu Picchu are slim. Instead the guides reckon our best chance of sun will be mid-late afternoon, and if we make good time, we could get our first glimpse of Machu Picchu today. That’s enough of an incentive for us, and after yet another hearty Benedicto-blessed breakfast of veggie omelette and plantain, we’re all packed up and on the trail by 6am.

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In the footsteps of the Incas – part 1

In the footsteps of the Incas – part 1

It has been a lifetime dream to walk in the footsteps of the Incas along steep valley sides and over the rocky mountain passes and reach Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. It’s impossible to capture the ongoing breathless wonder of the four day adventure with the awesome guides, porters & fellow hikers in my Peru Treks Inka Trail family,  or that feeling of your first glimpse of this incredible citadel in the clouds, but here goes…

Day 1: Piscacucho to Wayllabamba, 12km

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Top 10 tips for visiting Rapa Nui (Easter Island) 

Iorana! Here we go with Choco’s top tips for visiting Rapa Nui. I don’t need to list the best archaeological sites to see – there’s plenty of info out there on that – but my personal thoughts on making the most of your trip.  Tip Zero, obviously, is GO! It’s the most unique place, with a fascinating fusion of ancient and modern, RapaNui, Polynesian & Latin American cultures, set in an equally awe inspiring landscape. 

1. Push the boat right out, and give it at least a whole week, or more! I was there 8 days and it still didn’t feel long enough. It’s the most remote inhabited island in the world, you’ve probably paid a fair bit just to get there, so why not take enough time to really enjoy it. English travel groups notoriously try to squeeze it all into a three-day tour package – yes, you can see all the highlights, but you’ll probably be so busy racing from site to site, there’ll be almost no time to just let Rapa Nui soak into your skin.

2. Make yourself independent with a copy of James Grant-Peterken’s excellent A Companion to Easter Island – especially if you are, like me, more inclined to independent discovery than being bussed around on a tour. I found it an invaluable friend, from history to best times of day to visit the busier sites to walks and restaurant recommendations. James lives on the island, he knows what he’s talking about. My now very dog eared copy was boughtbefore travelling, but there’s a kindle edition now, andgift shops on the island sell it.

3. Get ready to spend (and save) money – Easter Island’s isolation means it’s not cheap but it IS DEFINITELY worth saving for! It’s US$60/CLP54,000 just to enter the national park, food and accommodation are not cheap. I saved by staying in a hostal with guest kitchen, then bought eggs, cheese, yoghurt, bread and fruit for breakfasts and packed lunch. There are some good smaller cafes offering menu del día options for less than £10, including good fresh fish dishes. And for a cheap filler, no-one quite makes a queso-atún empanada quite like Tía Berta – Rapa Nui’s best pasty is filling and cheap, oozing with cheese, onions and juicy fresh tuna. Delicious!

4. Get some wheels. It’s really worth hiring a car, a scooter, a quad bike etc, and avoid the crowds by visiting the best sites in the early morning and late afternoon when the light will show off their better features, as well as taking you to the beach, or for some great walks. Its particularly worth making sure your visit to Rano Raraku is early morning (go after the sunrise at Tongariki maybe), before the tour buses arrive. You can hire a pedal bike, but three separate people I met did that for one day, then traded up to a scooter! If hiring an vehicle it’s definitely worth shopping around as prices can vary, and deals can be struck.

5. Eat the raw fish, drink the pisco! Easter Island has some truly great restaurants, specialising in fish and seafood (I particularly liked Te Moana and Haka Honu, both in the harbour area). I have never tasted such fresh, delicious raw tuna and sea bass in my life, and here it comes in vast portions, often plentiful enough for two to share with an additional side dish. There are plenty of variations of marination and the Moai sunset bar at Tahai also does some good spin in a pisco sour with a great view of the Moai to round off your day.

6. Go crater crawling.
If visiting the volcano at Ranu Kau and Orongo, it’s really worth the 1-2 hour walk around the crater edge to the far side of Kari Kari (ie. opposite direction from Orongo). The spectacular view of the crater, with the precariously perched village, the sheer cliffs and the jagged motus poking out of the bluest sea, is really not something you want to miss.

7. See the sun rise at Tongariki
. On Easter Island, it ain’t much of a hardship to get up before dawn because in order to synchronise office hours with Santiago, island time runs just two hours behind Chile mainland time. At the time I was there the sunrise was about 8.15 – with the skies turning peachy pink and orange a little before that. The shimmering shards of golden light behind the 15 giant moai is truly a sight to behold.

8. For the best sense of just how isolated the island is, and a breathtaking 360 view of the whole island and its craters and crags, take a morning to climb Mount Terevaka. It’s a relatively easy walk (just wear a hat and take water!), mostly on grassy track, about 1.5-2 hours up and a bit less to get down again, so up to 4 hours total. There is nothing but nothing but sparkling blue ocean all around. So. Much. Ocean. 

9. Bring, beg, borrow or buy a snorkel and mask
, so you can check out the underwater life, especially the array of interesting fish and giant turtles. A family of the latter almost daily hangs out amongst the boats in the harbour, catching the fish heads and scraps from the fisherpeople. Just check out my Chilean friend Christian’s one minute video and you’ll see what I mean. At Ovahe and Anakena beaches the areas by the rocks are where the interesting fish lurk.

10. See a show!
I went to see Kari Kari, the most established professional group on the island, conveniently with its own venue just across the road from my hostel Inaki Uhi. Tickets there were CLP15,000 (around £19 at the time of travel). It was packed with great, and quite revealing traditional costumes and accompanied by ukuleles, drums, conch shells and heartily sung harmonies, the whole show was full of life, sexy & cheesily cheeky, all around entertaining and just put a smile on my face and the sunshine into my heart.

I could go on with recommendations! I haven’t even mentioned the two lovely beaches at Anakena and Ovahe, for example!  Or Terangi, a great guide who works for Rapanui tours. If you’ve been to Easter Island, I’d love to know what you think, and please add your own highlights in the comments section! If you’re thinking of going there, and want to know more, get in touch!

Crazy Competition

I crunch across the black lava gravelly rock up to the tiny reed-roofed hut at Te Pito Kura, the “navel of the universe”, where the largest moai statue ever to have left the quarry at Rano Raraku is to be found. This moai, known as Paro, measures 10 metres and weighs in at over 70 tonnes, even without its “pukao” or topknot which adds another 2 metres and 10 tonnes. It was also the last one seen standing back in 1838, but was sadly later toppled too, and lies broken to this day exactly where it fell. 

At the hut, a young woman is dozing with her head on her arms. She looks at me sleepily and asks where I’m from.

“London”, I say. She immediately perks up and looks at me with a spark of belligerence.

“London! Have you ever been to the British Museum?”

I have. And I admit to knowing that one of the moai from Easter Island is on display there, having been taken back to the UK by the crew of HMS Topaze in 1868.

“Why don’t you just give it back? It doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to us. You people, you robbed us of our very important moai.” Sheepishly, I tell her agree – for sure, when I’m back in London I will go and look at it with different eyes now I really understand the significance of this particular statue.

You see, the one in the British Museum isn’t just any old moai. It was taken from the village of Orongo, home of the extraordinary Tangata Manu or birdman competition which, after the sculpting period had come to an end, sought to establish each year the chief of chiefs and ruler of the island for that year until the next competition.

To get to Orongo, you have to first climb up the volcano, Ranu Kao. You can drive, but I choose to go by foot, as did the bird man competitors, past the cave at Ana Kai Tangata, where they would gather and eat beforehand. At first the footpath wends a pleasant uphill route through eucalyptus, cyprus, acacia & Tahitian miro trees, but then I emerge into open grass and scrubland under searingly hot sun for the final part of the climb.

But wow! The view is worth it! The crater at Ranu Kao sits right on the sea cliff edge, with razor sharp edges. Inside the crater glorious clumps of reeds float on the crater lake, with flowering shrubs in an unexpectedly luscious tangle of biodiversity around the edges. This is the place that, in the year I was born, Rapamycin was discovered in the fertile soil samples, now reproduced and used as an immuno-suppressant drug to prevent rejection after organ transplants, and increasingly being tested as part of cancer treatment regimes. For a while, it was also thought to have anti-ageing effects. Having told everyone I’m traveling now because, well, life is too short not to, I just about restrain the inclination to throw myself in headlong just in case it’s true.

The village of Orongo is perched precariously right on the rim next to the sea. A whole village of long low Rapanui houses built of volcanic stone huddle together, their tiny entrances at crawl-in height.

 Here the clans would wait for the first sign of the manutara, or sooty tern, which used to migrate to the rocky islets or motus off shore to breed every September. At the first sign the competition would begin…. Selected competitors from each tribe would scale down the stupidly sheer cliff edges, then swim across to the largest and furthest of the three tiny motus lying about 2km offshore, on long thin rafts made of bound reeds. A few days later I take a trip out to the motus in a boat, bumping across waves easily big enough to give surfers a thrill, to where gannets and frigate birds still wheel around in the sky, but the manutara no longer breed, having now largely decamped to another remote rocky islet, Sala y Gomez, 400km away. Looking back ashore, I can’t quite believe that anyone would be so crazy as to climb down such dangerous cliffs, never mind try to live for even a day on those jagged rocks.

Once the birdman competitors made it to the largest and farthest island, Motu Nui, they would live in the caves for days, possibly even weeks, until someone found the first egg laid by the manutara. They would grab it and shout their name, and that of their tribe, across the water back to Orongo. According to the boatmen, there would be a whole chain of men in the water who, in Chinese whisper style, would relay the message from Motu Nui back across the 2km to the shore, so that the victorious chief could prepare for its arrival. The winning competitor would then place the egg in a pouch around his forehead and swim back to Rapa Nui, to present the egg intact to his chief, who would then become the king and spiritual leader of the island for the year. The competitor meanwhile would go into one of the houses with a “virgin” to ensure the continuation of prestigious lineage of the strongest competitors! I’m now slightly squirming in the boat at all this, as I’m now also acting as translator for my American and German co-travellers and having to relay this onwards. Raiding a bird’s nest, especially one that tends to only lay a solitary egg each year, fills me with horror, and as for the virgin part… I can’t even. It’s a struggle to temper the admiration I feel looking at those dangerous cliffs, those rampant horse-galloping turquoise breakers, and that rugged inhospitable lava rock motu terrain, with a deep revulsion at the facts of this crazy competition. 

Anyway, back to the HMS Topaze. The moai they took was found half buried in one of the houses at Orongo, it is the moai from their most important ceremonial village, taken onboard as a trophy to be given to Queen Victoria. On its back there are carvings of birdmen and fertility symbols. It’s known colloquially as the “stolen friend” although its name, Hoa Hakananai’a actually means “wave-breaker”. As I walked past the crumbled platform on which this moai possibly once proudly stood, I couldn’t help but think the statue ought to be restored majestically to its rightful and original home, even if it is then subjected to the erosive effects of the sea-cliffs, instead of standing alone in sanitised display in a building in London.

PS. A few years ago, apparently Red Bull asked if they could re-stage a birdman competition, but due to dangerous erosion of the crater edge and cliffs, which has now erased the first part of the birdmen track, they were denied permission. Not to be deterred from holding wild and spectacular sport on Easter Island, they then staged a World Cliff Diving event there instead. Meanwhile, my former colleague from the Fairtrade Foundation, Toby used to entertain us with his exploits in the very different but still zany Worthing Birdman competition– it seems that while the Rapanui birdmen are long gone now, the spirit of crazy competition is still well and truly alive.

Moais and mysteries

Iorana! I’ve arrived on Rapanui, or Easter Island.

“Everywhere is the wind of heaven; round and above all are sea and boundless sky, infinite space and a great silence.” (Katherine Routledge)


The seed of my long held desire to come to Easter Island was sown when I was 18 or 19 and somehow, in a college class about languages of France, my utterly delightful and eccentric lecturer, Dr Veronica du Feu, managed to turn the conversation to a comparison to Rapa Nui, then in danger of extinction with only around 2000 native speakers. Over the next couple of years, however much I enjoyed linguistics class she was teaching (she also taught psycho linguistics and phonetics), it was her unrelenting enthusiasm and passion for Rapa Nui that I remember her for. Her ‘magnum opus’ Rapanui, A descriptive grammar was finally published in 1996.

Arguably the most remote inhabited island in the world (Tristan da Cunha also makes this claim), Easter Island or Rapa Nui was formed by three volcanic eruptions – the volcanoes are long dormant but today give it its triangular shape, its ragged, black volcanic rock base and terrain pimpled with small cones.

However, it is the famous moai (statues, and ‘big heads’) that most people come to see. Who built them and why? Why so many? Why so massive? And why, when explorers reached the island in the mid 1800s, had they been toppled?

Ahu Ahurangi

Having arrived from New Zealand, I was immediately struck by the similarities between Rapa Nui and Maori – in both the word for ‘sea’ is moana, for food ‘kai’ and for people ‘tangata’. Unlike Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that the early settlers came from South America, it’s clear now that they must have originated from the same group of Polynesian islands as the Maori.

Arriving here in boats some time around 700 to 900AD, they would’ve found a richly palm forested island but with no mammals, and no fruits or vegetables as there were no bees to pollinate them. They would’ve had to live on whatever plants they brought, the animals they introduced and fishing. Resources must have been scarce. Settling in villages, usually next to a suitable bay, with caves created by lava tubes for extra shelter, boat shaped houses with tiny entrances were constructed to protect them at night or from rain, but it was otherwise an outdoor life. Typically, the houses were for the rich, the caves for the poor.

The carving of statues to honour your ancestors, so that their spirit continues to protect the tribe is known throughout Polynesia. Here on Easter Island that practice seemed to reach epic proportions as different tribes sought to show off their relative power, amidst increasingly constrained resources. When a chief died, statues were commissioned from the volcanic quarry at Rano Raraku, where hard basalt rock provided the tools, and softer compacted ash-volcanic rock the materials. The statues were then transported over land, probably upright, which is why the legend (and some people’s grandparents today!) says they walked, and many of them toppled and broke along the way – toppled moai are dotted all around the island. Arriving at the villages, the statues were erected on ceremonial ‘ahu’ or great stone platforms, with the tomb of the dead chief below. The final touches were added on-site, sometimes coral eyes and a red rock topknot representing hair (not a hat!), separately carved and transported from a completely different quarry at Puna Pau. Statues always faced into the village, to look over the people, and not out to sea, as some artists depicted. The whole process probably took a year to complete and carbon dating shows the statues becoming increasingly large and elaborate, with neck, stomach and back tattoos added to the designs.

A sense of scale – can you see me?!

It must’ve required huge amounts of human effort, the artists and carvers, people to transport and erect the statues. According to my Rapanui guide, resentment between the rich and poor of the island started to create conflict between tribes. Meanwhile, wood cut down for fire and transportation, and rats and sheep trampling on seedlings and eating the palm seeds started to delude the island, creating even more pressure for resources.

When the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen arrived in 1770, his reports say many of the moai were standing, but just four years later Captain James Cook’s expedition noted that quite a number had toppled. 1838 was the last time a visitor reported one standing. So, what happened? There were no significant earthquakes or tsunamis that can explain. Many believe that inter-tribal conflict saw them pushed over, most probably fuelled by the dwindling resources for survival. This theory is backed up by the fact that they are nearly all face down, suggesting a deliberate desecration. Or maybe the islanders just got frustrated that their ancestors were no longer providing for them. 

Hundreds of unfinished statues, including one of 21m, are still lying half carved in the rock, or standing but buried up to their necks around the quarry at Rano Raraku, as Thor Heyerdahl’s experimental excavation of one (now filled in again to protect from the harsh elements) proved. Maybe, in a struggle for survival the tribes just ran out of resources to pay the artists and transport, and other priorities took over. 

Ranu Raraku, statues buried up to their necks
Can you imagine how big these might have been?

In 1862 the island was raided by Peru for slaves, over 1500 of fittest people were taken and only a handful returned, also bringing foreign diseases which further decimated the population. The island was in a dire situation. In 1888 chief Atamu Tekena signed a document agreeing to its annexation by Chile. Just as I discovered in the Maori Treaty of Waitangi, the translation into RapaNui leaves quite a bit to be desired in helping islanders understand what they were actually signing up to. The Rapanui were only given full Chilean citizenship in 1966.
However, 150 years later, the infamous moai have given this island a whole new lease of life. Life has changed here considerably in just a few decades – my guide told me his own grandmother grew up in a cave. Since the 1970s, an increasing number of moai have been restored upright to their platforms, with great examples at Tahai near the town Hanga Rao, at Tongariki on the south east coat (some of the largest here) and Anakena on the north coast (not as large but more ornate and better preserved). They are now bringing around 90-100,000 tourists to this island every year, to see the moai, to surf in the gloriously turquoise breakers, and dive in waters that are abundant with fish and turtles and some of the clearest anywhere in the world.

Anakena, where the ruling families lived. Moai here are more ornate. Note the long ears, denoting wealth!

For an island with a population of just 7-8000 residents, the tourist boom is certainly providing employment, reducing its historic isolation, and supporting the continuation of the Rapanui culture. But it must also be creating new resource pressures to provide fuel, clean water and sewage for so many people. Despite the wind, I’ve seen no turbines here, and few solar panels in evidence – all electricity is diesel generated from imported oil. A government subsidy scheme for renewable energy could be a decent investment into longer term sustainability. It may even require some cap on the number of visitors, which is growing exponentially year on year.

Can people learn from the lessons of the past, and steward this island’s natural resources more carefully for future generation? I really hope so because this island, named after the day of Resurrection, with its toppled, buried and re-erected moai, and fascinating cultural story, is a jewel that deserves to keep shining in the Pacific blue skies for all eternity.

Sunset at Ahu Vai Uri, Tahai

(PS. Apologies for this blog’s poor image quality – wifi on Easter Island is slow & limited  so all pics are rather compressed and still took hours to load!)

Hiking the Heaphy Track (or how I popped my tramping cherry!)

It’s 9.30 on a Sunday morning, and after an hour’s drive north west of Takaka (up through Collingwood, then along the Aorere valley), we’ve passed the last sign of civilisation, the quaint Langford store at Bainham, crunched another 16km up the gravel road crossing creeks with creaking little wooden bridges and the sandflies are already biting at Brown Hut. This marks the start of a 4-day hike across the Kahurangi National Park to Kohaihai & Karamea on the West coast. This is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks – the Heaphy Track.
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It’s just a hill, get over it…

To get to my sister’s home town in Golden Bay, you have to climb over Takaka Hill. And when you reach there, people routinely talk about “going over the hill” in the same way others would talk about going overseas, as in “oh, I don’t think I’ll be going over the hill this week/month/any time before Easter”! To be fair, although it only takes just under an hour in good weather, the journey between Motueka and Takaka in Golden Bay is pretty spectacular, not unlike the hairpin-heavy mountain passes leading to Alpine ski resorts, and features as one of the world’s most exciting and dangerous roads to drive.

But the journey is totally worth it, the scenery all around is spectacular, the weather its own Mediterranean microclimate and the atmosphere is as laid back as a Greek olive grove in the late afternoon sun. Takaka itself is like entering into a hippy time warp, where shopkeepers are open to bartering, swapping and “lay-by” purchase-in-instalment arrangements, hand-painted signs and murals everywhere you look (even the corrugated iron walls of the Freshchoice supermarket sport a mural) whilst barefoot travellers laze around, playing music and making art and jewellery.
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Wonderful birds of NZ

I have seen so many wonderful birds in New Zealand in my first few days here: Australasian harriers, kingfishers, three different species of shearwater, storm petrels walking on the water, a couple of blue penguins out at sea,  and yesterday my first fantail. I haven’t managed to capture all of them on camera (harriers and kingfisher seen whilst driving!) but here are a few of those that I have. 

Fluttering shearwater
Storm petrel, or JC bird’ walking on water!
Pukeko (purple swamp hen) & chick
Hmm. Is this a young dunnock? If not, then what?
Spur-winged plover
Australasian black backed gull
Pied shag roosting
Australasian gannet
Blue penguin
Pied shag
Pied oystercatcher
Pied oystercatchers
Variable oystercatcher
Red billed gull
Myna bird