Machu Picchu and More 2018

Well, folks, it’s been a day since I’ve shared adventures here. I still have yet to fine-tune that work-life balance, especially since my default mode is to DO ALL THE THINGS! Nevertheless, without further ado, here are some of my adventures in Peru last year!!

The main bucket list item for this trip was Machu Picchu, but since we were in the country, my three traveling companions and I decided to stuff the week with many other wonderful explorations.

We started the trip off “light” and landed in Lima, the capital of Peru, since our flight connection took us there anyway. Why not? The car ride from LIM to our hotel in Miraflores was active, to say the least. A metropolitan area of cars, lights, and Friday nights. Two lanes become a blurry four strips of mashed craziness, freak-outs were rampant as every car drove within inches of each other and miraculously didn’t collide, and then all of a sudden, the road opens up into a highway lining the ocean. Signs for tsunami evacuations decorate the mountain on one side, and squads of surfers (novices to experts) dot the ocean side. Powerful waves and the wonderful sounds that come with them crash against the shore, and you can see a few stars even in the cloudy, city-lit sky.

After sleeping off the first travel grit of the flight and a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we hopped into the van and began an eye-opening journey through the city. Sidenote: Our very good, savvy friend arranged tours, guides, and drivers for almost every part of this trip. It’s pretty much the only way we know how to cram a bunch of experiences into an otherwise restricted vacation period. And budget, budget, budget BEFORE you leave!

We passed El Parque del Amor (Park of Love) located along the ocean and sporting a giant kissing statue, people walking their dogs, and little spots here and there that explain the area’s namesake. Given the packed plan for the day, we didn’t get a chance to walk through, but I imagine if you’re ever in the area and want to hang out, this would be a nice place to do it.

We touched down first in the Barranco (“Incline”) area. Bohemian culture thrives in this ramp-full part of the city. Be careful in your explorations among the colorful, gritty street art that mingles with the exotic petals and climbing leaves of brilliant flowers. It’s a fantastic place to explore and photograph, but inclines and cobblestones do not make for safe, carefree traipsing. Despite this otherwise practical warning, you might want to hold your breath as you cross the “Bridge of Sighs” and make a wish. You’ll also remember how important breathing is.

Central Lima has beautiful cathedrals and architecture to gape at. We witnessed the changing of the guard at the Municipal palace and marched through the grand spaces of el Cathedral de San Francisco and St. Jude. We wondered at the strange air and precisely arranged bones pf people long gone in the catacombs under the Franciscan church and discovered that nuns make the most delicious churros.

We explored an old train station that was converted into a beautiful library and cultural museum. Rooms of words written by authors, poets, and people of the city line these halls, and stained glass ceilings rule all.

If you’re looking for scrumptious food in Peru, Lima is where it’s at. Being a city right by the water makes for fresh seafood and a variety of flavors. And if you’d like, spend the evening at el Circuito Magico del Agua, a magical park of colorful dancing fountains, music, fun, and a bit of relaxed silliness. At the end of your city tour, try the Pisco sour. It’s rather refreshing.

The next day, we flew to Cusco, a huge change of atmosphere, literally. The city rises over 3,400 meters (11,000 feet) above sea level, and that night, I’m pretty sure I almost died from lack of oxygen. I plowed through it, good people, thanks to the distraction of my wonderful traveling friends, plain white rice, water, and a hotel prepared with an oxygen tank. A good cry whilst curled up on the bed works wonders too.

A word to the valiant: if you can, give yourself a day or so to acclimate to the altitude. Drink plenty of water, eat good meals, and go extremely slow through your hikes and ancient ruins visits. I did 2 of these 3 things, and I still turned green at the end of the first day. Motion sickness pills (Dramamine or Gravol, its equivalent), altitude sickness medication (Soroche pills), and anything coca, from chewing on leaves to drinking infused tea, were my best friends. And despite feeling better after that first night, I had a perpetual headache, subtle body aches, and bloating all week. I don’t want to discourage anyone because this trip was still amazing and out of this world, but the Andes are no joke.

On to the amazing-ness of the trip! The first day (in which I foolishly did not acclimate), we visited Saqsaywaman (pronounced almost like “sexy woman”), a citadel in northern Cusco surrounded by rolling green grass. The boulders of many citadels and structures are cut carefully so that they fit together without mortar. The nerd in me was impressed. Also, did I mention that there are llamas and alpacas everywhere? If you don’t know the difference, llamas have longer, pointier ears, and they spit.

We began an early second day riding through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, vast lands of architectural steps, burial grounds, villages, and miles of blue skies. We ate lunch at el Restaurante Paqharina, a fantastic spot located in Urubamba, and stopped in a metals and gemstone factory where we learned about the many minerals and precious gems mined in Peru. There were amulets crafted from silver and various stones shaped into the Inca Calendar or Pachamama (“Mother Earth”). I purchased a lapis lazuli hewn into an egg shape. It is a beautiful, blue stone that represents “knowledge”. How very Ravenclaw.

At about 2,800 meters above sea level in Ollantaytambo, we climbed 400 steps, practice for our next few stops, I suppose. Maybe it was the numbness of my pre-existing, oxygen-deprived condition, but these weren’t so bad. Also, our guide was wonderfully educational and humorously distracting as we lumbered up and up and up. From the top, we looked upon Viracocha (“Creator of the Universe”), a face carved into the side of the mountain, and the town it watches over. We saw unfinished carvings in the rock because the Incas had to flee when Spanish invaders arrived. Through a system of rolling logs and rope, dedicated citizens dragged tons and tons of stone from miles away to build this place. 15 people are required to move 1 ton of granite. Guess who’s not signing up for that.

Ollantaytambo is a colorful town with an artisanal marketplace and little spots to sit, have a drink, and rest your weary bones from the travels of the day. We did just that as we people-watched and waited for our train on the Inca Rail to arrive and take us to Aguas Calientes, the town we would rest in before heading to Machu Picchu. The Inca Rail has an old-school, “Murder on the Orient Express” feel with its wooden tables and golden lighting. They served snacks and beverages on this hour-and-a-half train ride through the night. I opted for Inca tea, a good alternative to coca tea and pretty tasty.

Aguas Calientes is the in-between town to stop in for the Machu Picchu-bound traveler. This little place is full of tourists, cafes, shops, and narrow paths. It has a quaint town square and hot springs, should you need to refresh yourself. We didn’t make the hot springs since we were hungry and tired, so our downtime was spent chilling in town.

We dedicated a full day to Machu Picchu, the reason for this entire trip. We went through the first time with our pleasant tour guide, cheered with lunch and wine, and then went through again to hang out. That’s right, folks. WE HUNG OUT IN MACHU PICCHU! (“Old Mountain”). Like an experience right out of National Geographic, we explored the stone steps, temples, and dwellings within this 500 year old place. Machu Picchu’s original name is lost in history, but its architectural legacy tells so many stories. And would you believe that a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham discovered it?

Grassy terraces, irrigation channels, and expertly placed ritual rooms and stone structures marking the Solstices and Inca calendar rise in the middle of protective mountains. In one of these mountains, you can see the silhouette of an Incan face looking up at the sky. Also, Machu Picchu’s altitude is much lower than Cusco’s, a lovely, brief reprieve from my pounding headaches.

On our last full day in Cusco, we visited a textile and art store where they showed us how they extracted natural dyes from a wide assortment of roots, plants, and bugs and created beautiful colors in the fabrics. An alpaca bone was essential to weaving different designs in the bold tapestries.

Instead of a windy, crack of dawn van ride to the Rainbow mountain, we went to Moray and saw concentric terraces like huge ripples of water that might have been mistaken for alien influence at one point in life.

We traveled to Maras Salineras (“salt flats”) where the colorful salt pools contain about 84 minerals. I never knew sodium could be so beautiful.

We saw Tipon (“bubbling”) where the Incas built some advanced irrigation for its time. Thirteen steps for thirteen Incan kings. There’s a theory that the water originated from glaciers 4000 years ago. There’s another story that Mayapuma (“Inca Wolf”) would hit his tail, and the rains would come. Badass doggy.

We enjoyed hot drinks and desserts in a cozy café overlooking the main square of downtown Cusco… as we do. It’s a strange thing to be among the ancient ruins of civilizations long gone in one moment and then sipping cocoa and finding peace a different way in the next.

We left Cusco and spent our last vacation day in Lima. Sleeping in, eating when we wanted, and dining our last dinner by the sea at La Rosa Nautica. As per tradition, we picked our next big adventure out of a hat. The bucket list is long, folks.

Peru was a whirlwind trip and literally made my head spin, but all the oxygen deprivation, motion sickness, and altitude sickness was so worth it.