Friday 31 August 1984

PERU August 1984: Puno, Arequipa & leaving Peru

27-31 August 1984:  Puno, Arequipa & Lima

We woke to find the overnight bus to Puno stuck in a river and we were soon the only passengers left onboard.  It was just starting to get light and it was apparent that we were going nowhere in a hurry.  The river was only two feet deep but it was absolutely freezing - no great surprise as we were at an altitude of over 3500m and it was mainly melt water.  With no alternative we got our bags off the roof and waded to the far bank.  Here we dried off and joined a few of the other passengers who had not walked off completely.  After half an hour or so a truck crossed the river and we all piled into the back.  It took us to Puno where we left our bags at the Tourist Office and made for the jetty where we hired a boat to take us onto Lake Titicaca.  Most tourists go out to see the Indians that live on floating Reed Islands and it took a while to convince our seemingly dim boatman that we had no interest in this at all but instead wanted to head out into deeper water to look for Short-winged Grebe.  Reluctantly he agreed (Mike rarely losing his rag and threatening to withhold payment until we saw the grebes helped despite there being no common language) and things were fine until we spotted a grebe and insisted he slowed the boat right down so we could watch it.  It then became apparent that we had a fairly large hole in the bow that was only kept above the water line when he was motoring along.  His desire to only visit the islands was now clear!  We got back to shore with limited bailing, paid him off and then spent the rest of the day pottering around the edge of the lake, getting a bus ticket for the next stage of our journey and eating.

open water of Lake Titicaca, not the best place to be in a holed boat!
Reed islands on Lake Titicaca
We were getting the evening Arequipa bus, but only taking it half way as we wanted to visit the high altitude (4000m+) salt lakes at La Salinas.  Our driver assured us that he knew where we wanted to get off and it felt as if no sooner had I dozed off than we were pulling over in the middle of nowhere at about 1 am.  This we were assured was our stop although a strong wind and freezing temperature were hardly welcoming and came as quite a shock after the warmth of the bus.  I’m not sure what I was expecting but it was only when the bus had left that we spotted a large warehouse opposite us.  On investigation it had a partly open door, so we could at least get out of the biting wind, but was virtually empty – a few empty salt sacks that we used a supplementary bedding – and almost as cold inside as out.

We were up at dawn to take stock of our surroundings.  We’d been in the main building, a couple of huts nearby appeared to be deserted and there was no one else around.  The hope of there being a café where we could get a hot drink was soon dashed but the lake was visible not too far away and fortunately wasn’t dry as it is sometimes so we headed off towards it.  Some ponds on the way were completely frozen but the lake was too saline and an impressive number of flamingos were evident round the edge.  We spent several hours birding the area, which was superb, the highlights being an amazing 5000+ Wilson’s Phalaropes, 1500+ flamingos (2/3 Puna, 1/3 Chilean and 4 Andean), 15 Andean Avocets and 10 Puna Plovers.  Our plan was to get back on the road and get a lift much of the way to Arequipa (60 kms away) where we wanted to stop in lower, more vegetated habitat.  We sensibly had some food with us in case we couldn’t get any at La Salinas (as proved to be the case) but assumed we would find a stream relatively easily there and so didn’t take that much water.  This wasn’t very well thought out as the whole area was incredibly arid, it was after all a salt lake!  Our plan on getting a lift was also flawed as most vehicles travelled the route overnight while anything leaving Puno in the morning would be passing in the afternoon.  We decided to start walking, in the hope of finding a stream, seeing some different birds or flagging down a vehicle.

La Salinas salt deposits and a distant volcano
We had feared that the lake might be dry but that was clearly not the case
some of the nearer pools were frozen ...

but they still held Andean Avocets
a very stocky bird suited to surviving at high altitude
distant flamingos over La Salinas
even more distant flamingos at the far end of the lake
flamingos at La Salinas
never quite as approachable as one might wish
Puna Ground-Tyrant
leaving La Salinas, Mike bringing up the rear
looking back down the road to Arequipa, no vehicles, no water and few birds ...
road to Arequipa, still no vehicles, water or birds but at least the volcano El Misti was getting closer
After about 20 kms, with no streams or vehicles and few birds, we overtook an old lorry parked-up collecting wood.  A km or so later it caught us up and we were told it would eventually be going to Arequipa so we climbed on top.  500m or so later it stopped for more wood and slow progress ensued for what seemed like most of the afternoon, although was perhaps just an hour or so.  During this period Mike flagged down a tourist bus – the only other vehicle seen all day - but for some reason that I can’t now remember Nick and I decided to stick with the wood-cutters.  We’d had enough after a couple more stops with the road starting to drop off the plateau by way of some zig-zags and the wood pile we were sitting on getting ever bigger and more uncomfortable.  We’d probably done about 8 kms in over two hours but at least we hadn’t been carrying our bags!  We then walked another 5 km or so until dusk, had another water ration and slept out in the lee of El Misti.

El Misti from our camp site
Nick crashed out, I was too cold to stay still
We awoke to a beautiful morning but we clearly hadn’t dropped much in altitude as the remaining water in my bottle had frozen and I felt as if I had.  We packed up camp and continued birding 10 kms down the road to Arequipa seeing White-throated and Straight-billed Earthcreepers, Creamy-breasted Canasteros and Black-hooded Sierra-Finches.  We then got a lift into town the last 8 kms on the back of a quarry lorry and ended up covered in chalk dust.  In Arequipa there was no sign of Mike so we bought bus tickets back to Lima for that evening.  While waiting at the bus station a couple of shifty locals tried a pincer movement on us with one distracting Nick from one side while the other sidled up towards his bag from the other.  Fortunately we’d found a corner from where there ploy was obvious and they soon slipped off.

El Misti dominating Arequipa main square
We arrived back in Lima the next day ahead of our flight back home the following morning.  Mike had by then gone back to Paracas where he was spending another couple of days before flying home three days later than us.  We returned to the airport, checked in and our flight was on time but Peru had one last card to play.  Hurtling down the runway for take-off there was an almighty bang from the rear of the plane and the pilot slammed on the brakes stopping us just before the runways end.  We were taken back to the terminal and disembarked.  At this stage I thought it was a puncture that could be repaired but after a couple of hours we were told to collect our luggage and taken to a posh hotel in town where we’d be staying until a replacement plane could be found.  This was expected to take three days! 

Our flight was headline news in the paper the next morning with the rear engine (it was a DC10) having failed on take-off.  A few seconds later and we might not have stopped in time.  The three days in Lima were pretty boring.  We had exit stamps in our passports and so were reluctant to even leave the hotel after our encounters with Lima police at the start of our trip.  We’d also used all our local money and didn’t want to change any more so bird listed were restricted to the five species we could see from our window.  The only good news was that when sorting out the holiday insurance Nick had paid a pound extra each for £20/day travel delay cover.

Less fortunate was Mike, who’d not got his own insurance thinking the same deal that Nick got would do for him despite the dates not overlapping.  On his last day, which was co-incidentally our last, but two days after the insurance expired, he was robbed while getting a taxi to the airport.  He’d put his shoulder bag with valuables down on the pavement while manoeuvring his rucksack into the taxi and a bag-snatcher ran off with it.  Luckily his passport, cash and plane tickets were in a pouch around his neck but he lost his binoculars and camera.

It was mostly a very enjoyable trip and Peru is a country I remember with fondness, but was quite stressful at times – more so than a budget trip usually is!  I saw about 520 species of which just over 300 were new, although a few inevitable misidentifications have come to light as the literature has improved.  Many thanks to Barry, Mike and particularly Nick for excellent company throughout.

[blogged November 2012]

Sunday 26 August 1984

PERU August 1984: Urubamba Valley & Cuzco

21-26 August 1984: Urubamba Valley & Cuzco

Mike, Nick and I were in Ollantaytambo’s main square soon after dawn and after about an hour hitched a lift on the top of a soft drinks lorry bound for Quillabamba.  While we’d been waiting the village idiot threw a spear at a pig which was unfortunate enough to wander into range and soon legged it off squealing with a flesh wound  I doubt the pig’s owner would have been any more impressed than we were.  The lorry struggled up the mountain road to Abra Malaga (4315m) where we got off a couple of hours later.  Our attempts at buying some bottles of drink from the driver were unsuccessful, and had him climbing up onto the back to check we’d not helped ourselves to his cargo, tempting as it had been sitting on full crates of it.  We birded the area around the pass and crossed a nearby ridge to climb down into some brilliant scattered stands of polylepis where I saw Andean Tapaculo, 6 Stripe-headed Antpittas, Tawny Tit-Spinetails, a superb Stout-billed Cinclodes and 3 Giant Conebills.  We then set off fairly steadily down the road to Canchillo (3260m), hoping we might get a lift but there was virtually no traffic and we ended up walking the whole way (18 km) arrived just as it was getting dark.  There was a small café there which had been a two roomed hut in a previous life and we were fed, fortunately not Guinea Pig of which several were running around, and put up for the night. 

the road to Abra Malaga
Abra Malaga
looking back from Abra Malaga
Abra Malaga
Mount Veronica
we climbed down into a nearby valley to reach decent habitat ...

Polylepis woodland

Streak-throated Canastero
red-tone degradation not completely corrected for
Tit-like Dacnis
Giant Conebill playing hide and seek
another polylepis specialist
Tawny Tit-Spinetail
Stripe-headed Antpitta
one of six seen at Abra Malaga, this one was very approachable
one of the most memorable birds of the trip, it was brilliant!
walking down to Canchillo
The next morning we had a look around Canchillo which was on the forest edge.  We then continued birding down the road towards San Luis (2740m), 20 kms away.  We were in  superb forest all the way and were happy to spend most of the rest of the day walking it.  Birds seen included Shining Sunbeam (they were as good as the name suggests), Puna Thistletail, Rufous Antpitta (brilliant) and Crowned Chat-Tyrant (something I’d very much hoped to see).  San Luis was a truck stop restaurant which served adequate food and after some persuading allowed us to sleep on the floor in a shady corner.  Considering we’d seen very little traffic on the road it was surprisingly noisy at night.

Canchillo, early morning before we left for San Luis
White-browed Conebill
not quite as impressive as Giant but still a very smart bird
We spent all of the 23rd August birding around San Luis.  The area further down the road was mainly cleared and we concentrated on an excellent trail behind the Restaurant (Nick Gardner’s Antpitta trail) and the forest edge back up the road.  On the Antpitta trail, as the light was beginning to go, a fantastic Undulated Antpitta appeared and gave us excellent views.  It was larger than any antpitta I’d seen before and certainly one of the birds of the trip for me.  Earlier we’d seen Rufous-headed Pigmy-Tyrant and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and frustratingly I saw an unidentified male fruiteater in flight.  Another night on the restaurant floor celebrating what was proving to be the most enjoyable part of the trip (no police encounters for a few days now!).

San Luis
looking further down the valley from San Luis
Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager
Rufous-breasted Chat Tyrant
they were common between Canchillo and San Luis
sunset at San Luis
The plan for 24th was to start walking back up the road and after a couple of hours try our luck at hitching back to Ollantaytambo and Cuzco.  This worked pretty much to plan with a pair of Grey-breasted Mountain-Toucans seen just above San Luis a real bonus (and my only new bird of the day, no. 288).  I also saw 2 more Rufous Antpittas, one in flight an done really well in vegetation by the road.  A pickup came by and we flagged it down and were kindly given a lift back to Cuzco where we arrived after dark.  The journey took ages and at times was quite uncomfortable – freezing over the pass and at times quite wet –although the scenery was spectacular when not hanging on for dear life!  Early on we dived into our rucksacks to put on all available clothes but even so I ended up getting a chill and felt pretty rough for a few days after.  Back in Cuzco we gain took advantage of Barry and Margot’s hospitality at Casa Blanca.

Grey-breasted Mountain Toucan
a firm favourite
We had a day trip to Huarcapay Lakes on 25th where Bearded Mountaineer could be found.  We were not disappointed and had excellent views of two of this very impressive hummer.  Slender-billed Miner and Yellow-winged Blackbird were also new there but I wasn’t feeling my best and don’t remember much else about the day, or a final day around Cuzco which produced little, although White-browed Chat-Tyrants were always nice to see.  We said goodbye to Barry and Margot and caught the overnight bus to Puno.  We’d been rather put off the overnight train as it had a reputation for pickpockets greatly reducing the odds of making the journey with one’s luggage intact.  What we didn’t know was that our bus driver didn’t know the difference between a road and a river as just before dawn the following morning, and 20 kms short of Puno, we went the wrong way at a ford and got well and truly stuck.  By the time we awoke and realised what was going on (loud talking, people on the roof, watery view from my window) all the other passengers had gone.

end of the line for our bus to Puno