A panorama of rolling sheep-cropped grasslands set against the backdrop of majestic, snow-capped, Mountains was the scene greeting us as we moved through the Sacred Valley of the Incas in the Peruvian Andes. A dramatic landscape made more poignant by the realisation that rural life had not changed much there for a very long time. Children happily walking to and from school on the other side of a deep valley, shepherds draped in brightly coloured scarves and the obligatory bowler hats, small villages or isolated farmhouses made of mud and straw bricks and of course amongst it all the ruins of the lost Inca civilisation.
We had just over a week in this elevated part of Peru where the air is thin and the dogs even thinner. Most of the time was spent wandering around the fascinating stone cities of the Incas and wondering how on earth they managed to put together such huge structures with flawless precision. The highlight of this portion of our adventure was visiting Machu Picchu where we spent two days meandering through the fantastically preserved city perched precariously on a south facing peak ringed with a spectacular range of jagged, forest-clad mountains. Here the sun could be very strong, punching through the thin, clear air; moments later an eerie scene would develop as swirling mist and cloud enveloped the site.
Between our exertions on the mountain tops we spent our time strolling around the extensive hotel grounds set amidst pristine cloud forest. Several themed trails had been created where a knowledgeable guide would point out the weird and wonderful flora and fauna of this unique habitat. Some 300 orchid species inhabit these damp and ever changeable slopes, some almost microscopic, others large and garish. Many of the smaller species depend upon mosquitos as pollinators, which gave me a whole new respect for these otherwise annoying critters. Everything has its place in nature.
In the areas closer to the hotel itself several hummingbird feeders had been set up and we spent much time sitting quietly watching these ever active gems zipping to and fro. If you remained still these multi-coloured jewels would come very close, almost touching distance. But to photograph them was an altogether more frustrating activity bringing forth a few curses as a perfect pose evaporated before I had time to press the shutter release. Photography also brought home how dark it can be under the forest canopy, even on an otherwise sunny day the dense foliage prevented strong light from penetrating to the lower levels.
Hummingbirds are beautiful, but we had an altogether larger prize in our sights; a bird that sparked my imagination on those cigarette cards all those years ago, the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. We booked a guide who instantly dampened our expectations by telling us that a party of South African birders had recently visited (and paid handsomely) especially to see this bird but had to leave disappointed. Undaunted we walked quietly through the forest stopping every few yards to scan the canopy for movement. We espied tanagers, more hummingbirds, brightly-coloured motmots and flycatchers, but not a hint of our quarry. We wanted to press on, but reluctantly had to make our way back. And then a movement away to our right, surely that was a large red bird? But it is surprising how even such colours simply merge into the multi-hued background. We stood stock still scarcely drawing breath and just as we were about to move on the bird decided to put us out of our misery and swooped across our path to perch brazenly in the open only a few yards ahead. And what a beauty, such vibrant orange-red plumage and that ridiculous crest! This male eyed us for a few seconds whilst I clumsily failed to get my camera sorted out, before once again taking wing and disappearing into the lush scrub. But we had seen it and despite being determinedly English with white knees and oversized hats we had a round of high-fives to celebrate.
Over the course of the next few days we actually caught sight of a couple more of these strange, out of place birds. On one occasion and with our eyes now firmly in, we watched a courting pair high in the branches just outside our casita. A wonderful way to conclude such a fantastic visit to dark and deepest Peru.
So ended our month long trip. We witnessed some spectacular scenery, met many interesting and friendly people and saw well over 200 species of fascinating birds. And we only just scratched the surface of this massive and diverse continent. I wonder what Brazil is like……….