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Visit Ethiopia – Gondar and the Simien Mountains

Ethiopia is a country that is blessed with many amazing places to visit, whether you are interested in wildlife, history, landscapes, or archaeology.

We enjoyed a two week tour of Northern Ethiopia, starting in Addis Ababa, then travelling to Barhidar, Gondar, the Simien Mountains, Lalibela, Axum and Gheralta. During this trip, we managed to visit no less than four UNESCO sites. The area around the city of Gondar alone had two.

Ethiopia Gondar

We had travelled to Gondar from Barhidar. We stayed at the Jantekel Hotel, a couple of kilometres from the main attractions. It’s a modern hotel with the most delightful staff.

Ethiopia Gondar City

The city of Gondar was Ethiopia’s capital between 1632 and 1855. Prior to this the country’s leaders had moved throughout the country. It was King Fasil – Fasilides – who decided to settle and he chose Gondar.

There are a couple of legends connected with the reason that Fasilides chose Gondar as his capital. According to one story, Fasilides was out hunting one day when divine intervention led him to encounter a buffalo which showed him the way to the site. Another cited a prophecy which foretold that that the capital of Ethiopia would be a location that began with the letter ‘G’. Whether these are true, Fasilides was content enough with Gondar to establish his government there.

Fasilides was emperor of Ethiopia from 1632 until 1667. He was of the Solomonic dynasty and claimed to have descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (Fasilides was also responsible for the building of the Cathedral Church of St Mary of Zion at Axum, which is reputed to contain the Ark of the Covenant.) He built several castles, palaces and churches as well as a long wall, effectively turning it into a fortified city.

We explored many of the remarkable sites at Gondar. We suggest getting a guide who can show you the main sights and explain the history. It’s also worth considering finding transportation because the main sites are a few kilometres apart. We had arranged a guide who could pick us up from our hotel and take us to each location. We recommend a full day sightseeing – it was fascinating and hugely enjoyable.

The Fasil Ghebbi

The Fasil Ghebbi is the Royal Enclosure of the complex built by Fasilides.  It comprises a number of buildings that were constructed over the years, the most important of which include Fasilides’ castle, Iyasu I’s palace, Emperor Dawit’s Hall, Emperor Bakaffa’s castle and banqueting hall, Empress Mentewab’s castle, an archive, a library and a number of churches. The word ‘ghebbi’ means ‘enclosure’ so the site is surrounded by an extensive wall. It is possible to explore all these structures that have survived the centuries and there are no restrictions about entering the buildings.

What’s interesting about the construction of these castles is that they look very European, with some Arabic and Indian influences as well.

Fasilides Castle

Fasilides’ castle (which is sometimes referred to as the Egg Castle due to its domes) is the most impressive of all the structures. It has huge towers with crenelated walls which give it the appearance of a European mediaeval castle. High up in the castle was Fasilides’ prayer room. The view from the watchtower afforded views all around Gondar. It’s even possible to see Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, on a clear day.

Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides’ castle
Fasilides Castle Gondar

The royal library was built by Emperor Yohannes, Fasilides’ successor.

Ethiopia Gondar royal library

Emperor Iyasu’s palace was apparently the most refined and sumptuous of the buildings with gilded decorations and plush furniture. Iyasu, who ruled from 1682 to 1706, was known as The Great and was the son of Emperor Yohannes I. Although Iyasu led a number of military campaigns he was also known as an emperor who wanted to reconcile religious differences amongst his people, holding councils to discuss and resolve ecumenical matters.

Gondar Iyasu’s Palace
Ethiopia Gondar Iyasu’s Palace

This gateway was accidentally bombed by the British. We were told that they didn’t mean to, they were helping Ethiopia defend itself from the second Italian invasion (1935-37).

The buildings are largely ruins – very few of the ceilings in the buildings remain, most are destroyed.

Ethiopia Gondar

Dawit’s Hall, named for the Emperor Dawit who ruled from 1716 to 1721, was also known as the House of Song, was a place for entertainment and feasting. Unfortunately the feasting came to an end when Dawit met his demise – he was poisoned.

Dawits Hall Gondar

His successor was the Emperor Bakaffa, Dawit’s half-brother, who ruled from 1721 to 1730 (and who married Mentewab, who became a highly influential empress) Bakaffa’s Castle had a huge banqueting hall.

Bakaffa Castle Gondar

The amazing Zamani project has mapped out 3D models of the main buildings as well as a panoramic view of the site.

Fasilides Baths

A little way out of the city are the Fasilides Baths, a compound thought to be constructed around the same time as the Royal Enclosure. The baths comprise the pool itself, a central tower, and a bridge to the tower which is used when the baths are filled with water.

Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides Baths
Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides Baths

The walls of the baths have slowly been taken over by the local trees.

Ethiopia Gondar Fasilides Baths

Fasilides baths are considered sacred and are filled just once each year, on the 19th of January, when Ethiopians celebrate Epiphany in a festival known as Timkat. Timkat translates as ‘baptism’ and the festival represents Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist on the River Jordan. It is celebrated across Ethiopia.

Mentewab-Qwesqwam Palace

Mentewab was Empress of Ethiopia from 1722 to 1730. She married Emperor Bakaffa (a son of Iyasu I), becoming his second wife. The first wife died in mysterious circumstances on the day of the wedding banquet, which does seem somewhat suspicious.

After the Emperor’s death, Mentewab was crowned as co-ruler of Ethiopia while her son, Iyasu II, was still a child, and she continued her reign after his murder and when her grandson Iyoas I came to power. She had enormous political influence.

She commissioned several buildings within the Royal Enclosure as well as a church dedicated to St Mary at Qwesqwam, a few kilometres from Gondar. Mentewab also built herself a rather splendid palace next to it, and this became her primary residence and was used as a retreat, away from the Royal Enclosure.

Ethiopia Gondar Mentewab

It had an impressive banqueting hall. Mentewab took a lover after Bakaffa died (her husband’s nephew, known as Iyasu the Kept, who was also a grandson of Fasilides) and was exiled because of it. We were told of a legend whereby she invited nobles to visit her palace, then locked them in and wouldn’t allow them out, even to pee. They were eventually released when they correctly answered a riddle. She didn’t have to take any more flak from them after that.

Ethiopia Gondar Mentewab Banquet Hall

The church and castle were destroyed in a fire in 1888 by Sundanese Mahdists during the sacking of Gondar. Restoration of the church started in the mid-20th century by the Italian occupiers and was completed by Emperor Haile Selassie. The remains of Empress Mentewab, Iyasu II, and Iyoas I, were interred in a glass toppedglass-topped coffin inside the church.

Mentewab church

There is also a small treasury at the site where it’s possible to view a centuries-old bible.

Ethiopian Bible

Debre Berhan Selassie Church and Monastery

This is one of the most important of the Ethiopian Orthodox churches. It was built by in the 17th century and its name means ‘Trinity and Mountain of Light.’

Ethiopia Gondar Debre Berhan Selassie Church

Men and women are allowed to enter, albeit through different doors, and shoes must be removed. Women who are menstruating or have had sex the night before are asked not to enter the church. It’s also requested that conservative clothes and a headscarf are worn.

While the exterior of the church isn’t particularly dramatic or compelling its interior is covered with vivid frescoes depicting tales from the bible.

Debre Berhan Selassie Church
Debre Berhan Selassie Church

The remarkable ceiling is covered with row upon row of cherubs looking down upon visitors and worshippers. The figures are painted in a style typical of the Ethiopian churches – known as the Gondarine style.

Ethiopia Gondar Debre Berhan Selassie Church

The Simien Mountains

After exploring Gondar’s amazing castles and churches it was time to take a long, bumpy drive to the Simien Mountains. This area is a national park and another UNESCO world heritage site. We drove to The Simien Lodge, via the small town of Debark, situated at an altitude of 3260 meters. The Simien Lodge is the only lodge in the central area of the park. It offered comfortable accommodation in our own private huts.

Our only criticism of the place was that meals had to be taken as a buffet (there is no choice to eat anywhere else), which wasn’t a problem per se, but all the food was international – there were no Ethiopian options, which was disappointing. It was also quite pricey but that is understandable as the food has to be brought in from the nearest town.

The lodge also claims to have the highest bar in Africa, so we made sure to enjoy post-exploration beers in the evenings.

Monkey Magic

On our first day we enjoyed hiking in the area. The landscapes are spectacularly beautiful. Walking through fields scented with wild thyme we encountered groups of gelada monkeys, which are also known as gelada baboons, bleeding-heart baboons, or lion monkeys. They are found only in the Ethiopian highlands. They look like baboons but are monkeys and are characterised by their long, shaggy golden coats, which look like lions’ manes, and a heart-shaped patch of pink bare skin on their chests.

Ethiopia gelada monkeys

The gelada spend much of their time foraging for grass or herbs in the grasslands but sleep on the ledges of nearby cliffs at night, in order to avoid predators such as servals and leopards as well as domestic dogs.

Ethiopia simien mountain gelada

They have a complex society and the different groups move together as troupe through the day.

We met researchers who were monitoring the monkeys andobserving their behaviour. They had spent some time recording the social dynamics between the groups as well as monitoring diseases.

Unlike baboons, the gelada have a very gentle nature (at least with human visitors – we did see some play-fighting and chasing each other!). They are quite relaxed about people walking among them. Obviously we had to treat them with respect and keep a reasonable distance, but it was an absolute joy to be able to get so close to these wonderful creatures.

Ethiopia gelada monkey

The baby monkeys were having such a fun time in the trees!

Ethiopia Simien mountains

Viewing Spectacular Views

The following day we visited Chenek to see the Kurbet Metaya viewpoint, a wonderful vista overlooking the mountains. The viewpoint is actually a gap in the cliffs revealing views of the mountain faces and a beautiful valley.

Ethiopia Simien Mountains

We continued to explore more of the area. As ever, it’s always worth looking out for other travellers pointing at something in the distance. In this case it was a rare and endangered Walia Ibex, found only in these mountains. It was actually quite some distance away at the foot of a cliff – this was the camera’s best possible zoom picture!

Walia Ibex

Then we returned to Gondar for one more night at the Jantekel hotel before we caught our flight to Lalibela. The hotel served traditional Ethiopian meals in enormous portions! This is injera, a bread made from teff flour, filled with doro wat, a spicy chicken stew. Injera doesn’t look particularly appetising but it tastes great. It’s fermented and has a lovely sour flavour.

Ethiopian Traditional Bread Injera

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Hiking In El Chaltén, Patagonia

When travelling in Argentinian Patagonia, Los Glaciares National Park is an essential place to visit. While El Calafate is the focal town, with its stunningly beautiful lake and spectacular glaciers, such as the Perito Moreno glacier, nearby, the small town of El Chaltén is also well worth a visit. The main activity in the area is walking and enjoying the great outdoors, so whether you’re a manic mountaineer, a high-spirited hiker, a rapturous rambler or simply savour a serious stroll, El Chaltén has gorgeous scenery and walks available for all abilities. Here’s a guide to some gentle hiking in El Chaltén.

Getting To El Chaltén

El Chaltén is located around 220km north of El Calafate and it’s a three to four hour bus ride from there. Buses run several times a day from the bus station. It’s worth booking a ticket in advance, especially during busy seasons. The buses are large and comfortable. The journey is exceptionally pretty as it takes you through beautifully picturesque scenery.

When you arrive, the bus will actually stop at the tourist centre just outside the town so that you can get an orientation talk (available in English and Spanish and there’s no charge for this) and pick up a hiking map. Then it’s back onto the bus for about 2 minutes to cross the Fitz Roy river before arriving at the bus station where you disembark.

The town itself is small and very easy to get around on foot. There are plenty of accommodation options as well as a variety of restaurants and cafés to suit all budgets and, just up the road from the bus station, a craft beer emporium that offers a range of interesting beer – perfect for a post-hike tipple. There are also some outdoor equipment shops just in case you spontaneously decide to go climbing and have forgotten to bring your gear.

View of El Chalten

We stayed at the charming Hosteria Lago Viedma which is run by two lovely ladies. The home-cooked breakfast was the best we had in Argentina: freshly baked bread, eggs cooked to order and lovely home-made biscuits/cakes. They had loads of hiking advice and also kindly rearranged our bus tickets for us when it was clear that the weather wasn’t going to be on our side on the final day and we had a long wait before our bus was due to leave.

Hiking in El Chaltén – A Couple of Hikes

Hiking in El Chaltén ranges from short and easy walks to some that are more challenging, and the map gives an indication of distance and difficulty. Not only do the B&Bs offer good hiking advice, they can often offer a packed lunch if you are planning to go out hiking all day. Empanadas (like pasties) are perfect – easy to carry, they will happily hold their shape inside your backpack and they taste delicious.

empanada

Beware the weather. It can be very changeable, indeed part of some hikes may be closed on particularly windy days. We recommend wearing layers of clothes as the wind can be really chilly but you warm up quickly if you’re on an energetic hike, so may want to discard layers as you go.

The information booklet at the visitor’s centre gives lots of information about all the hikes, including distance, time to reach the end and difficulty level.

You need to be a really experienced climber to climb the iconic Mount Fitz Roy but don’t panic – there are loads of amazing hikes, with varying levels of difficulty, even for the casual walker. There are lakes, waterfalls, spectacular views of mountain peaks and lots of other hikers to chat with along the way. The walks have signposts for the hike itself as well as viewing points and the trails are well maintained.

Laguna Torre hike is an easy-moderate hike where you can get fantastic views of the area, including a view of Mount Fitz Roy.

Hiking in El Chalten

Hiking in El Chalten

Sendero del Fitz Roy hike is a little more challenging. The starting point is at the north of the town; just walk along the main road until you see the sign.

Hiking in El Chaltén

The first part of the hike climbs uphill then is relatively flat for several kilometres. It has lovely views of the mountains, lakes and glaciers all the way along. The very last section has a steep ascent and is not advisable if the weather, particularly the wind, is unfavourable. It’s around 10km each way and there are some alternative routes for the trip back so that you can see additional landscapes.

One of the loveliest things about walking in the area is that the water is absolutely pure. If you feel thirsty you can simply fill your water bottle directly from any of the streams and rivers that flow in abundance through the landscape. Cold, fresh, delicious water straight from the glacier/ground is a real treat.

Sendero del Fitz Roy hike

There is also plenty of wildlife to see – condors circling the sky or a common snipe.

Hiking in El Chaltén

After a 20km hike, food and beer is always welcome.

Eating and Drinking in El Chalten

There isn’t a huge amount to do in town after hiking in El Chaltén but there are a number of bars and restaurants offering decent food and there are a couple of places to have a pint – or three – of craft beer.

We enjoyed traditional Patagonian fare at El Muro, located on Avenida San Martin. It’s quite difficult to be vegetarian in Argentina as meat forms a large part of the diet. Indeed, we ate so much meat during our time there, we started craving salads. It’s also worth noting that many restaurants provide bread with your meal free of charge and we found that the food was so filling we just didn’t need to order any additional carbs. Patagonia is rightly famous for its lamb. Slow cooked over an open fire, it just melts in the mouth.

Essential Equipment for Hiking in El Chaltén

Where the serious climber will already have a special kit, there are a few items that, as enthusiastic casual walkers, we find to be indispensable. Walking shoes/hiking boots are an essential when walking in the area. We tend to wear our walking shoes on the flight so that we don’t have to pack them into our luggage, taking up valuable space.

The weather can be extremely changeable in El Chaltén. Make sure to carry waterproofs when walking. Ponchos are really useful because you can chuck them on quickly and they provide good coverage. They can also easily fit over your backpack, which helps prevent that getting wet, and will squish to a small size to minimise packing. You can also use them as a grond sheet or to shelter from the sun, so they are really versatile.

We always try to avoid single-use plastics in order to be as environmentally-friendly as we can, but this can sometimes be difficult when travelling, especially if the water quality in the area you are visiting isn’t suitable to drink and we need to buy bottled water. Fortunately the tap water in Patagonia is totally safe to drink, so we took collapsible water bottles and filled them at our hosteria each day before setting out. Then we topped up the water from any of the streams that we walked by.

We also recommend those all-important layers for hiking. You can easily add or discard layers depending on how energetic you are feeling and how windy the weather is.

If you are traveling in the area and enjoy walking it is definitely worth considering spending a couple of days hiking in El Chaltén, Patagonia – the landscapes are wonderful and there are walks suitable for all abilities.

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Sacred Valley Highlights to Explore in Peru

The Sacred Valley of the Incas describes the 100 km corridor between the Andean city of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire, and the remarkable citadel of Machu Picchu. While Machu Picchu is undeniably the main attraction, there are so many other sites to visit. Here is a guide to some of the other Sacred Valley highlights to explore while you are visiting the area.

Sacred valley highlights

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Getting to the Sacred Valley

Most people fly into Cusco. Flights are available from all over Peru, notably its capital Lima, but also from other regions. We flew in from Puerto Maldonado having visited the Peruvian jungle some days previously. One thing to note is that Cusco is at an altitude of 3400m and if you are flying in from sea level, it is definitely worth spending a couple of relaxing days in the city and surrounds to acclimatise to the altitude.

An alternative route is to catch a bus up to the Andes. It takes around 22 hours from Lima. There are a few advantages to using the bus: it is cheaper, you can enjoy the mountain scenery and also it means that you climb up to the altitude at a more leisurely pace than flying in, which means that you can adjust more slowly.

Sacred Valley Highlights

Cusco

Cusco is the main city in the region and the most popular location to use as a base for exploring the Sacred Valley. The city was occupied by the Killke people from roughly 900CE until the arrival of the Inca in the 13th century.

It was to become the capital of the Inca Empire meaning that Cusco was, in its time, the most important city in South America. Cusco grew from a small village to a vast city thanks to Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, who expanded the Inca Empire to cover a huge area of the South American continent. It is believed that Machu Picchu itself was constructed as an estate for Pachacuti.

Cusco’s Centro Historico is a UNESCO world heritage site and, like much of the Sacred Valley, sees colonial architecture blend alongside Inca ruins in a fusion of cultures and history. The main square is located right at the heart of the city centre. There are various shops and restaurants lining the perimeter of the square and it is frequently used for bands, who play concerts, and dance troupes. It’s a lively place where locals and tourists intermingle.

The city’s cathedral located in the north-east corner.

Another church that is of particular interest is the Church of Santo Domingo. It was built directly on top of the most important Inca temple of the region, Coricancha, and hence encapsulates the blending of indigenous and colonial cultures over the centuries.

Sacred Valley Sites On The Outskirts of Cusco

There are a number of fascinating Inca sites located very close to Cusco. In fact, they are so close you could even walk to some of them if you were feeling energetic. Some are further out (up to 8km), so we recommend either booking a half-day tour with a local company, which would include a visit to all the sites, or getting a taxi, a bus or colectivo (a van/minibus that runs a particular route on no particular schedule – you usually go when the vehicle is full). You can buy a ticket that covers entry to Sacsayhuaman, Q’enqo and Tambomachay as well as the fortress of Pucapucara.

Sacsayhuaman

Sacsayhuaman is a dramatic citadel initially established by the Killke and significantly expanded by the Inca, located on a hillside overlooking Cusco.

Sacsayhuaman Sacred Valley

The construction is remarkable, notably the enormous stones that form the terrace wall which is adjacent to the plaza. The tallest parts of the wall reach over 6m in height and the huge stones are apparently packed so tightly that it’s impossible to slip even a single sheet of paper between them.

If you’re lucky you might even get an impromptu concert from a visiting band.

Sacsayhuaman

There’s a lovely view of Cusco from the site as well.

Tambomachay

This fascinating site, located near a number of springs, is comprised of canals and aqueducts that run through the rock terraces and flow into three waterfalls. The purpose of the site isn’t really known but it is thought that it may have been a sort of spa resort for the Incas or possibly a religious site.

Tambomachay Sacred Valley

There is a legend that the water has particular qualities that may help those that are follically challenged. Yes, the water is purported to cure baldness! Further along the site, Colin was encouraged to wash his head under the water but, sadly, we can only report that the water’s reputed magical powers did not prevent further balding, nor produce any additional tresses. So it goes…

Q’enqo

This is an archaeological site thought to be a holy place or huacas. Huacas used existing rocks as a site for religious ceremonies. It is thought that sacrifices may have taken place here.

The name Q’enqo is thought to derive from the Inca word for ‘labyrinth’ possibly on account of the winding passages carved into the rock. These include several features such as altars. It’s possible to wiggle inside and explore the carved rock within.

Further Along the Sacred Valley – A Day Trip

Depending on how much time you have, you can explore the Sacred Valley at your leisure. There are various transport options for travelling to the main towns in the region. There are taxis (most expensive), buses and colectivo (cheapest) available in the major towns. If you are short on time there are a number of companies that can offer day trips to the sites across the Sacred Valley. Many will offer a pickup from your hotel. These are usually full day tours and will often start early in the morning.

There are many sites to see in a day, so some tours may prioritise some sites or activities over others. For example, some may take you to Pisac’s market but not its Inca ruins. It’s worth shopping around to decide which towns and activities are of most interest to you.

Pisac

Sacred valley highlights

This town nestled in the Sacred Valley is famous for its market, the largest in the region. Officially it was a Sunday market but it is so popular that it runs pretty much every day. It is a bit touristy but if you are after souvenirs – and you like shopping – it is worth a visit. Arrive as early as possible to avoid the crowds.

Pisac also has some splendid Inca ruins if you don’t want to haggle for souvenirs but check whether a visit to this site is included in the tour as some prioritise the market.

Chinchero

This is a charming village which has a lot of history and offers another blend of Inca and colonial architecture.

Túpac Yupanqui (the son of Pachacuti) who was the emperor of the Incas between 1471 and 1493, built a grand palace in this area. (Curiously, some academics believe that it was the Incas, led by Yupanqui, who discovered the Galapagos Islands. Although there is no evidence for this, it does reflect the vastness of the Inca empire in its heyday.) The terraces were used for agricultural purposes.

The walls with multi-angular and trapezoidal stones perfectly illustrate the complexity and sophistication of the Inca construction techniques.

Chinchero was destroyed by rebel Manco Inca, who set it alight in 1540 in order not to leave any resources for the Spanish conquistadors, as he retreated from their unwavering advance.

When the Spanish finally settled in this town they built the Church of Our Lady of Monserrat on the remains of Yupanqui’s grand residence. It uses some of the Inca palace walls for its foundations and very much reflects the way that the cultures have integrated over the centuries.

Chinchero

The church contains some of the best religious art in the region.

Also a centre for textiles, you may see the local women weaving colourful cloth in the streets of Chinchero. It’s very much a community working together as a co-operative.

Chinchero textile weavers

Ollantaytambo

The furthest town from Cusco on this day trip, located about 60 km away (and around 2/3 of the way to Machu Picchu as the crow flies), Ollantaytambo was established by Inca emperor Pachacuti and served as his royal residence.

Sacred valley highlights

Ollantaytambo’s ruins are extremely well preserved and reflect the agricultural practices of the Incas in this area, notably the quality of the construction due to their prestigious status. The terraces are very well constructed, with high walls, and they scale the tall mountain. This has a practical effect which ensures that the Inca could grow many types of crops which flourished under the different micro-climates on the terraces.

Sacred Valley Highlights

Storehouses for food can also be seen.

Sacred valley highlights

Ollantaytambo was the last bastion of the rebel Manco Inca Yupanqui who led the resistance against the Spanish conquistadors. After Cusco had fallen Manco Inca successfully blocked a Spanish expedition and defended Ollantaytambo, but was unable to hold his position. He eventually retreated into the jungle of Vilcabamba and became the leader of the Neo-Inca state.

There are a number of other interesting sites to visit. These include the salt pans of the Salinas de Maras and the concentric terraces at Moray, thought to be a location where the Inca experimented with growing particular crops. If you’re feeling active, whitewater rafting on the Urubamba River is a popular activity.

Essential Drinks to Try in the Sacred Valley

Peru is deservedly cited as having one of the world’s most interesting cuisines with all sorts of delicious delicacies to taste all over the country. But we also enjoyed some typically Peruvian drinks whilst visiting the Sacred Valley.

Chicha

If you see a flagpole outside a local house, this represents a chicha place where you can try a glass of corn beer. You are welcome to come in and buy some for a modest price.

Chicha is brewed from maize and fermented in earthenware vats. It’s usually made by the women of the family and can provide a good income for the household.

Chicha made in a very similar way to standard beer but it uses maize/corn instead of barley. It is a very special drink that had a huge cultural importance to the Inca people. It’s not very alcoholic – about 3-5% – but it is very refreshing and tasty too.

Chicha de jora is made from yellow maize and chicha morada from purple corn, with fruit such as pineapple or strawberry added with spices such as cinnamon or cloves to add flavour. Both types of beer have a glorious colour.

Coca Tea

At altitude you really notice the thinner air and the lack of oxygen. You may not feel it initially but climbing a seemingly innocuous flight of stairs, even a single storey, can leave you puffing and panting and wondering whether you need to be working out more. Some people have more serious reactions which include headaches, nausea, tiredness and dizziness. There is no knowing whether you are likely to suffer from altitude sickness, and fitness isn’t a factor – it seems as though either you are or you aren’t susceptible. If you do feel poorly, stop and rest.  Make sure you are well hydrated. Avoid consuming alcohol and smoking.

One local remedy that is reputed to help with mild symptoms is coca tea. It won’t cure altitude sickness but apparently helps alleviate the headaches. (It’s not recommended for those with high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes.) And as acute mountain sickness can be fatal – if symptoms get worse, seek medical advice immediately.

Our hotel had free coca tea available all the time and this is the case with most accommodation in the city. A nice cup of hot tea after a morning or afternoon’s sightseeing was always welcome. The tea is brewed from the leaves of the coca plant, which the Incas considered to be sacred. It’s not tannic and has a pleasing flavour, a mild, refreshing taste that is a bit like green tea.

You can buy coca tea bags in Peru to bring home. They last ages and can still be enjoyed at altitudes much closer to sea level.

Just brew them as you would any cup of tea: teabag in a cup, add boiling water, steep to the strength you like, sit back, put your feet up and quaff.

Although often considered to be the gateway to Machu Picchu, Cusco and the Sacred Valley have so much to offer the visitor. It is definitely worth spending time in this area, not only to acclimatise to the altitude, but also to explore and discover more of the region’s fascinating history and culture.

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