On the Avianca flight from San José in Costa Rica to Lima I watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It was in English, un-subtitled, but heavily overdubbed for profanity, of which – as you probably know – there is mucho. Choice phrases I noted down included ‘Shut the fudge up you gosh darned freaking witch!’ and ‘Judas Priest! You mother-fudging cook!’ to which the reply came: ‘There’ll be no more cooks in this house, Mister!’ They’d found jobbing voice actors that threw themselves whole-heartedly into the task and although they didn’t quite manage to de-Latin their American accents, they made up for it with the scale of their chutzpah and verve. Totally ruined the film, of course; the overall impression was that of watching a particularly hardcore episode of the Dukes of Hazzard.
It occurred to me that I might need those plucky voiceover artists for the final leg of our Big Trip: as I write, there are only 19 days till we turn the key in our Highgate abode and we’re all feeling a strange mixture of sad, angry, excited and fed up (sangry and Fed-Exed?) about the prospect. And – it’s got to be said – occasionally the adults are feeling a bit bloody sweary. What we’re all most definitely OVAH is vigorous wall-to-wall sight-seeing. Frack that. No, the ‘bin and win’ philosophy that served me so well* when it came to essay-writing at college is in need of a glorious revival in Peru. The minute we got here we whipped out the list and out of seven excursions, we immediately canned four and heavily curtailed a fifth. You know you’re doing too much when you’re tempted to sit out an entire country.
But even if we’re not bringing our A-Game to Peru, it’s clear from the off that Peru’s going to get right up in our faces anyway. Peru is immediately extremely Peruvian. You don’t need to look very far for le vrai de vrai. We checked into Hotel B in Lima way past bedtime to find two llamas sitting on the couch in reception. These would be two of about ten that got mauled within our first 24 hours in the country (and these were the only ones that didn’t care, being made of wool). Hotel B is one of the coolest places I’ve ever stayed, something that became painfully clear when we barrelled into the restaurant in our manky shorts and flip flops, into a Condé Nast spread of Lima’s glitterati having tense chats about social media over complex salads. You know me, I’m never knowingly underdressed – it makes me overcompensate. As a result, I’d necked three Pisco sours and a crunchy guinea pig by midnight.
Next was a minibus ride to Cusco with our guide Christo, a very twinkly, smiley man who was clearly expecting to apply some Guiding Greatness to our packed itinerary. We had a wee stop (not a small one, an actual wee-wee one) at a little local restaurant on the way and came across llamas numbers 3 and 4, plus an adorable little guinea pig palace, filled with optimistic fur balls, jaunting around as though they absolutely weren’t going to end up fried on a stick the next day. The boys loved it.
We dashed through Cusco, noting that it was a) beautiful and b) packed with tourists. Another half hour out the other side and we were in the Valle Sagrado, so named because of the beloved Sagrado river that runs through it. It brought such fertility and promise to the soil that the ancient Incas believed it must be part of a divine plan, an earthly mirror image of the Milky Way that runs so clearly through the sky above these parts.
Never mind all that. We rock up to our hotel and discover llamas 5 and 6 are actually fellow guests. The cute white one runs free range around the hotel lawns (which slope into the absurdly fast-flowing, hot chocolate-coloured waters of the Rio Sagrado itself) but the brown one is tethered, which means he has NO CHOICE but to pose for endless selfies. Which leads me neatly onto our first excursion, to the Cochahuasi Sanctuary (for Unfortunate Andean Animals), a delightful theme park of llamas (7, 8, 9, 10 & 11**) plus vincuñas, guanacos (so last season), condors (amazing), pumas, monkeys, spectacled bears, a Peruvian hairless dog (in a sweater – it’s chilly out of the sun) and one quite hacked-off-looking toucan with a busted bonce.
Bianca the Llama was the big hit. She literally stood there and let us all grope and fondle her for a good ten minutes. Christo said she was just very friendly, but I’m not so sure – up close, she looked like she might have had that brain transplant thing that they did those folks in Get Out:
The boys gave Peruvian wildlife a solid thumbs up and were nicely buttered up to inflict the maximum amount of pester damage when we visited Pisac market for some light browsing. While Jamie and Alice got a haggling masterclass from Trader Vic himself (Adam), John found a stash of some stallholder’s kids’ toys behind a stall and busied himself with a bit of ‘enforced sharing’.
Day Two was meant to be a bike ride, a picnic and then a couple of sites of archaeological interest. However there was a fair bit of groaning and crying even leaving the hotel (and that was just me). It was as hot as a mother-fudging witch’s kitchen and as much as I like a bike ride, I also like NOT bike-riding quite a lot too. Thank goodness nobody listened to this lazy cook, though, because it was one of the nicest things we’ve done on the trip yet. We wound through the valley listening to riotous parrots in the trees and marvelling at the vivid greens against the clay road and the blue sky.
Here we are crossing an iron bridge. If you notice at the end, Nanny Em and JJ have stopped their bikes and are filming a donkey for some reason.
HERE’S WHY (overdubbed by the Three Billboards foley artists):
Judas Priest! We stopped for a picnic in a tent, it pissed it down and the boys were delighted because lots of tiny frogs appeared. Then it was home in the van through the beautiful Valle Sagrado as the skies cleared.
The weather here is actually pretty full-on. We’re at high altitude but near the Equator so when the sun’s out your face pan-fries like a skirt steak. But when it disappears, you wish you had the Uniqlo puffa jackets that you panic-bought in Japan four months ago and then sent home at great expense thinking you wouldn’t need them. This said, the next morning was meant to involve stand-up paddle boarding on a nearby lake. A cold lake. I patiently explained to our guide Christo that there wasn’t a gosh-darned freaking chance I’d be doing that in this lifetime or maybe even the next and I think he took it quite well.
Instead we just went and had a look at said lake and all agreed it was lovely but could we go and do something else instead, maybe go back to the hotel and have a little lie down and a biscuit? We compromised and did the second part of the plan, visiting these ancient stone terraces that look like alien crop circles. The Incans were mad keen agriculturalists and rolled all these rocks down the mountain into formation circa 1100-1400 to create a kind of ‘seed nursery’ where they could develop new plants. Peru currently enjoys over 5,000 different types of potato, which suggests to me those ancient Incans ought to have got out more.
We finished Day Two with a nice long hike uphill to the picnic spot just before the heavens opened, on schedule, at 2pm. If you look very closely at the last picture you can just make out Nanny Em and Adam doing their altitude training carrying John and Ed on their shoulders: <Greg Wallace Voice> Holidays don’t get TOUGHER than THIS.***
It’s fair to say we’re mentally and physically fudged but Peru is turning out to be a HUMDINGER of a destination. The body may be weary but the next day we’re headed to Ollantaytambo, the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti in the mid 15th century and one of the best preserved Inca heritage sites in Peru. We hike up to what was the town storage depot, a grand repository for drying spuds and sweetcorn, if ever I saw one.
Across the other side of the valley is Temple Hill with the remains of a religious complex begun by Pachacuti (well, his minions) but rudely interrupted when the Spanish invaded. Massive boulders cut precisely to shape, including convex and concave joins for extra strength prove that the Incas were nifty with a stone axe as well as completely obsessed with tubers.
In between the two sites lies the pretty and atmospheric town itself. We visited a traditional Incan-style compound, overrun with guinea pigs, just like it would’ve been in ye olden days. The furry nuggets birth around six babies every two months like a non-stop protein machine before being selected for the old two-handed goodbye and turned into a kind of rodent cake pop. We didn’t dwell on that bit.
It now doubles up as a knitted-goods store, filled with some tasteful ponchos for the girls and the kind of headgear that’s squarely aimed at the year-off crowd. And Adam.
Finally, we walked the start of the Inca Trail (if you carry on for 12 hours you’re at Macchu Pichu) to an organic farm and café near the railway station for a traditional Peruvian pachamanca feast.
You heat up rocks in a pit over a wood fire, scoop out the ashes when they’re 600 degrees-ish, drape over some meat and spuds, cover with more hot rocks, bunches of herbs, wet cloths and then a massive pile of gritty soil. John – the Global Gravel King – was beside himself about this last bit. He’s going to have to be watched carefully for the next little while so he doesn’t try and bury his chicken nuggets.
Half an hour later and it’s time for the big reveal:
It was truly a most delicious spread, so much so that the unthinkable happened and the boys cleared their plates. It’s only taken me 12 years to work out how to get kids to finish what’s put in front of them and now I’ve got to start construction on a gosh darned pachamanca kitchen as soon as I get home. No flaming way, José: there’ll be no more freaking mother-fudging hot rock cooks in this house, Mister.
*In the end I went for the simplicity of ‘do one, ditch one’. I mean, EIGHT ESSAYS A TERM? What did they think I went there for?
**Llamas 12, 13, 14, 15 & 16 are in our suitcases. The Peruvian Merch Industry has moved it’s AGM to Vegas this year in celebration.
***Listen, I know holidays ‘come tougher than this’. I am pretending to be Greg Wallace from Masterchef. The last time I made this lame-ass joke I got a few comments to the effect of ‘what about Syria’ and I just want to make it absolutely clear that I’m aware that holidaying in Syria has its issues at this current time (although there are probably quite a few good deals to be had).****
****YES THIS IS ALSO A JOKE (before I get arrested and jailed).