Machu Picchu

The bus company Cruz Del Sur runs comfy buses with wide reclining seats around Peru, and we took one of these overnight north and up from Arequipa to Cusco. It was quite nice for a bus but still not enough space for my long legs; add in the windy, bumpy road (it felt like we were going over cobblestones half the time) and the 11-hour overnight didn’t exactly leave us fully rested. We felt better after a nice breakfast near the bus station though and from there we walked over to catch a combi to Ollantaytambo. The day’s travel ended after a further 2 hours whizzing along at breakneck speed over steep bends in a van full of locals.

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en route on the highlands above the Sacred Valley

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these are not combis, they are tuk-tuks; but Peru has some of the sharpest tuk-tuks in the world. Also, there’s alpaca graffiti.

Based on timing and Machu Picchu ticket availability, we had skipped through Cusco for now so that we could stay further into the Incan’s Sacred Valley and close to the famous site. From Ollantaytambo the ruins of the mountain refuge would be a short train ride and shuttle bus away. Now, visiting Machu Picchu by way of the Inca Trail (or other multiday hikes in) is one of those default activities on a globetrotter’s list: it’s the thing to do if you’re an adventurous backpacker especially considering the only other way in – by rail – is expensive. This default plan lasted until we read about it being rainy season during our visit. We quickly wimped out on the idea of camping in the wet jungle. Instead, we would splurge a few nights at a nice hotel recommended by our friends Kurt and Beth from our Egypt tour, and take the train to Machu Picchu with the other slackers.

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our porch at El Aubergue

This turned out to be a great call. The hotel – El Aubergue, right in Ollantaytambo’s train station – is one of the nicest, most comfortable, best bang-for-your-buck places we’ve stayed worldwide. The grounds and attached farm are beautiful, the staff is fantastic, and their restaurant serves amazing (and underpriced) food. We relaxed over the gardens on our balcony, sipped great coffee, lounged in the wood-heated sauna and high-fived each other over our decision while rain showers fell outside.

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one of many hummingbirds hangs out in the garden

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We had a spare day in Ollantaytambo before our Machu Picchu visit. I wasn’t feeling well that day so I stayed at the hotel (even happier that I had a comfortable place to hang out) while Elaine visited some of the local ruins of Incan storehouses. Despite being awash with waves of en route tourists – which now drive the formerly agrarian economy – the town and its people remain pretty adorable.

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Machu Picchu day! So as of six months ago Peru adjusted how visits to this crowded site would work. Instead of buying a ticket for the day, we had to pick a time slot (AM or PM) to enter and spend a brief allotted four hours. One can also add on the opportunity to hike one of the two peaks that flank the ruins: Machu Picchu (its title bequeathed to the lost nameless city) or Huayna Picchu. We made sure to pick a day where we could get the latter, and this imposed further time constraints on our ticket by requiring us to be part of the morning crowd and begin our hike between 10 and 11am. We would have to exit after climbing back down.

Okay, so I booked the earliest train I could (the second one at 6am, as the first was already full). Our wonderful hotel starts breakfast at 5 for folks like us so we had a great meal before boarding and rolling quite slowly down the valley for an hour and a half. We watched the low clouds and drizzle a bit apprehensively. The train dropped us off in Aguas Calientes, an ugly and overpriced end of the line where we needed to catch a bus up the final steep switchback road. We knew the ride would take about 25 minutes, but what we didn’t expect was having to wait a solid hour first in an incredibly slow line in order to purchase tickets for said bus. Our already short window of visiting Machu Picchu shrank substantially. Considering the investment of time and money to get here, the poor organization was really frustrating.

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tragically slow bus ticket line.

Gray clouds and drizzle remained overhead as we were hauled uphill. We did our best to let the time crunch anxiety slip away – nothing to be done about it now. The views into the valley helped, which despite the weather were breathtaking: sheer cliffs and steep slopes, with verdant vegetation clinging to any angle less than 90 degrees. Then off the bus, hire an overpriced guide (now required), through the gates, up a steep set of stairs to the high eastern guard house, and – ta da! – our first view of the Lost City of the Incans.

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this is actually a really fun ride on very steep one-lane switchbacks

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Finally here: one of those gems of our bejeweled planet that we’ve imagined since childhood. How did it measure up? Well… it’s not the biggest Incan site, nor the most impressive architecturally. A visit feels like a Disneyworld ride (wait, wait, wait… go! Now exit through the gift shop). And when compared to some civilizations far older, there is little artistic decor that has survived until today. Yet Machu Picchu – as with Petra, where we had been little more than a month ago – is blessed with a spectacular natural setting. Being perched high on a ridge among jungle-encrusted peaks is what really takes this place from interesting to completely awesome. Like similar sites with high expectations, we found ourselves most amazed when we got away from the most familiar vantages. For us this was a little later at the top of Huayna Picchu, clambering around the precipitously perched temples on top and gazing down at the city and the surrounding valleys.

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the peak in center background is Huayna Picchu, our hiking destination

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The Incans didn’t leave carvings, text, or paintings. (Their pottery and goldwork was top-notch but you don’t see that at Machu Picchu). What they did leave us to see is a superb demonstration of stonemasonry sans sophisticated metal tools. Yeah the Egyptians had that figured out a few thousand years earlier, but the Incans did it with style. Polygonal style, to be more precise, which fits huge irregularly-shaped blocks together aesthetically and perfectly without use of mortar. (We saw more impressive examples of this later on in Cusco.) It’s so weird and cool that it’s hard to believe what you’re seeing: this was all done by hand.

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Machu Picchu’s Temple of the Sun, which (like other similarly shaped Incan buildings) captures sunlight on key dates
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the central courtyard, looking from the temple side to the residential side

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a granite slab carved in profile to match the mountain behind

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So our abbreviated tour – cut from the normal 2.5 hours to 1.5, given our time constraints and bus ticket delays – was actually quite good, though we definitely wished for that hour back. Once we left our guide and started on the Huayna Picchu trail, we were finally able to relax: no more deadlines to hit. We huffed and puffed up increasingly steep stone stairways, gaining new respect for the Incan priest who did this on a daily basis before the conquistador Francisco Pizzaro did his conquering. The top, as mentioned, had wonderful views, especially as the clouds decided to break and show us some blue sky. The stone construction up there is hard to believe – not only building it, but having it stay put on such steep slopes under heavy rains.

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actually, it’s steeper than it looks.

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steeeeeep stairs

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Back down from Huayna Picchu and time to wrap up or visit. We headed out through the residential section of the complex where Incan nobility resided and along the southeastern terraces towards the exit.

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looking back up at the top of Huayna Picchu

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blue sky now as we headed out!

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Where’s Waldo? (aka Elaine. Look for the hat.)
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another view back up at Huayna Picchu

Ejected from the iconic ruin, we snagged some overpriced sandwiches and made our way back to Ollantaytambo by bus and train in time to try out the sauna and have a huge, delicious alpaca burger for dinner. Reflecting on our day, we agreed: yeah it could have been slightly better. But we had an amazing time, and we sure are fortunate to be able to have gone!

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Arequipa City and Colca Canyon

After exploring Lima, our second Peruvian destination was the Arequipa area to the south of the country. Unlike Lima, Arequipa sits at a decent elevation of 2300m with higher points not far away (volcanoes and the Andean Plateau). It’s possible to bus from Lima to Arequipa but this takes approximately 20 hours so we took a cheap flight instead with Peruvian Air on an ancient 737. We came here to see the preserved colonial old town and to hopefully spend a couple days in nearby Colca Canyon, one of the deepest in the world.

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Arequipa’s central plaza and cathedral
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on top of our hotel

We were immediately drawn into Arequipa’s charm. It’s a very clean, picturesque city with friendly people and excellent food and coffee. It didn’t take long for us to feel at home! We wandered around the old town with its uniquely white sillar volcanic stone construction, much of which remains intact and in use as shops and restaurants (along with churches and cathedrals, of course). It’s a touristy city, but as many of the tourists are Peruvian or from neighboring countries, it doesn’t feel that way; and the locals are definitely present in force to enjoy the sun and scenery on the main plaza.

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near our hotel in Arequipa

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a local man visiting the cathedral’s outdoor nativity scene

We were relaxing and people-watching in the plaza the day after arriving when a parade happened on through. We’re not sure what it was about – we heard perhaps the anniversary of a neighboring village – but whatever the occasion it brought in hundreds of dancers wearing elaborate traditional clothes. Trucks from local businesses handed – or threw – out to the crowds everything from ice cream to cucumbers. It was such a jubilant scene, with cheering children and adorable old ladies clutching free roses, that it was impossible not to smile and laugh along.

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We had our first pisco sours here in Arequipa – absolutely delicious. (If this doesn’t sound familiar, it’s a cocktail made with local pisco brandy and egg whites.) I also tucked into an alpaca steak which was very tender and flavorful. Several salads were consumed and these were awesome as well with very fresh greens, figs, asparagus, cheese etc. We had classy dinners in refined settings, $3 two-course lunches with more food than we could eat, and street food in the busy marketplace. It was all great!

Mercado San Camilo, from top left: fruit stands, tasty chickens, salsa ladies, maiz morado (purple corn), juice stands, and bags of coca leaves

Peruvian food departs from our past Latin America experiences in many ways. There’s little use of brown/black beans, with instead a myriad of preparations for potatoes (of which there are a zillion types). Choclo – a large-kernel type of corn with a texture like hominy – shows up in many dishes. Homemade rocoto chili and citrus salsa is ubiquitous. Soups of all sorts are a normal first course. And of course there is quinoa which goes into anything – soup, salad, beverage, you name it.

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papa rellena (stuffed potato) from the market

Arequipa is referred to as the capital of the alpaca wool trade. Whether or not this is true there certainly are a lot of goods here that run the full range of quality and price. We visited Mundo Alpaca which has a small zoo of the different sorts of alpacas, a demonstration of traditional weaving, and some very nice (and very expensive) clothing. We didn’t buy anything but we did feed and pet the alpacas. Later on, however, we found ourselves some really nice thick blankets of sheep and alpaca wool that we sprung for and shipped back home!

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The activity to do near Arequipa – aside from summiting 6000m peaks – is to visit Colca Canyon. It’s one of the deepest in the world and promises great scenery, trekking, and sightings of the threatened Andean condor (by one metric the world’s largest flying bird). Simple lodgings are located along the popular trail so it’s pretty easy to do a multi-day visit. We intended to do the trek on our own but when looking into transportation options we realized that a guided group trek was really quite cheap. It’s often more fun and interesting to go with a group, so we signed up for the 3am departure the next day!

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on the road from Arequipa to Colca

Reaching the canyon actually involves a 5.5hr drive up and over the Andean Plateau along windy roads. The sun rose as we went and gave us some great views of shrouded mountains and some wild endangered alpaca relatives called vicuñas. Like the yaks we saw in Nepal, alpacas and their kin like it where it’s high and cool: we hit 4800m in elevation (that’s 3 miles, and remember this is a plateau surrounded by mountains) before dropping back down to 3300m at the rim of Colca Canyon. 

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First stop was Mirador Cruz del Cóndor, a viewpoint for spotting the namesake birds. No condors for us. But we did get a good view of the canyon opening up from the eastward valley where we had driven past many pre-Incan terraces. Here (or at any point for that matter) we didn’t see the deepest parts of the canyon, but it’s still quite a sight. Then we were stuffed back in the van and shuttled to a brief breakfast stop which was rather paltry but included a deliciously thick hot apple and quinoa drink.

Next at our departure point we were split into groups. Many were only doing a 2-day / 1-night visit which seems pretty rushed: the standard circuit is less than 30km, so not a lot of distance, but much of that is either steep uphill or down. Add in elevation – the lowest point in our trek is as high as the rim of the Grand Canyon – and it takes a bit of effort. We were happy to be able to spread it out over 3 days and enjoy ourselves. The rest of our excellent group agreed.

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So down we went, 1100m to the river crossing below. Happily we spotted a couple condors as we went, soaring along on their distinctive black wings with white trim. Our first day brought us to the small settlement of San Juan de Chuccho for lunch at a humble little farm/hostel. They have the obligatory pen of guinea pigs (this is how you turn food scraps into meat in the Andes) along with more typical livestock plus a variety of fruit trees. They grow some really delicious avocado and figs down in the canyon!

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an Andean condor overhead

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After a lazy afternoon and early bedtime we awoke for a nice sunrise the next morning. We hiked up through a couple other villages (Cosñinhua and Malata) while learning about the uses for local plants from our guide James. Pictures are better than words:

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our group: Marco, Charlie, me, Niels, Elisa, Elaine

Our second afternoon and night was spent at a place called Sangalle, or more commonly, the “Oasis”. It’s a lush green patch next to the river where several lodgings have swimming pools fed by a nearby spring. It’s as lovely as it sounds! We enjoyed some sun, cold beers, and hanging out with our new friends. Unfortunately another early morning was in store for us – we needed to start hiking up out of the canyon at 4:15am in order to make our ride back.

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this spring-fed waterfall also feeds the swimming pools!

The pre-breakfast climb took a little over 3 hours. It wasn’t terrible, but generally I’m happier doing this sort of thing once I’ve eaten and had some coffee. (Elaine ended up beating me and most everyone else to the top, earning a praising “valiente!” from the local ladies selling snacks.)

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Once we had all reached the top, it was only a short walk through some cornfields to the village of Cabanaconde for breakfast. The village square also offered some excellent people-watching while we waited for our ride to pick us up. Yes, all the old Peruvian women really do dress like this – it’s adorable!

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Our trip back involved a few touristy-yet-interesting stops for knicknacks, alpaca viewing, and hot springs. We managed to stay awake long enough after returning to Arequipa to enjoy another nice meal with some pisco sours. Next destination: Cusco and Machu Picchu!

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on the high road back to Arequipa

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England, New England and… Peru?

Well, hello! It has been a minute. Here we are fat and happy from some relaxing time at home with friends and family. Our last post was about Jordan and from there we stayed with our friends Alex and An in London for 4 days, then making the hop across the pond to Maine to enjoy the holidays before jetting off again to Peru.

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Downtown London

I had never been to London and it welcomed me with open arms and… snow? Their first snowfall in 5 years, apparently. Just for me! London was cold and wet, just as I expected, but we were warmed by the hospitality of our friends and the flat beer that is actually magical when you step into one of the adorable old pubs.

We also got to see all the great stuff the English stole from the Greeks and Egyptians! So many times in Egypt and Greece there would be signs telling us what used to be there and that it is now in the British museum, so we got to see the stuff and put all those pieces in place. “We’ll just keep these here, where they’re safe,” the English say. I have to admit, they do a great job of protecting and displaying the artifacts, so while it’s a bit of a letdown sometimes when you’re in Greece and part of the Parthenon is missing, at least you know it will be well cared for in England.

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The actual Rosetta Stone, which looks nothing like the replica we saw in Egypt!

We also stopped by to see the crown jewels at the Tower of London and got a nice little tour of the grounds from one of the Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary, or if you don’t feel like saying that more than once in your life, Beefeater for short. Ah, the Brits! Did you know they keep ravens on the grounds? They are about 7 that are very healthy-looking and roam around during the day and have a coop at night. There is also (no joke) a Ravenmaster whose job it is to take care of the ravens. They are kept because of an old superstition “if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it”. They live 40+ years. I was particularly charmed by the ravens as my mom is an avid crow feeder, dutifully wrapping leftover french fries in napkins and smelling the car up just so she can feed the crows in Maine. So I was careful to document the royal crows’ lifestyle for her.

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A Yeomen Warder of… oh never mind, Beefeater giving us the Tower tour

The jewels, which you can’t take pictures of- has the world’s slowest moving walkway which you get on and it moves you past the lit up jewels. Pretty funny.

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To complete our London experience we also took a double-decker bus, stood in a telephone booth, went to a play, ate fish and chips, bought tea, saw the changing of the guard and went to a Christmas fair (where I won a giant donut). If I left out any quintessential British things I’d be surprised.

Big thank you to Alex and An for letting us take over their flat and stay with them!

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Alex and Gregor, cheers!
We had a lovely Christmas with family and were happily reunited with our cat and dog, which have been taken care of by both sets of our parents for the past 9 months. We were really happy to see them and we think they were happy to see us 😉 The cat showed his affection by repeatedly eating ribbon off presents and then barfing it up. We shared time between our families and ate extraordinarily well – thanks moms!
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Maybe, our dog, she is pretty well-behaved.
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Smjör, our innocent-looking cat. He is evil.
Then, Lima! We arrived to warm, sunny Lima and quickly found a cheap bus from the airport to the more touristy area of Miraflores. Paragliding is big here, there is a steep cliff to jump off.
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Ceviche and causa (a mashed potato terrine)

The bold gliders sailed over head while we walked along the nice path, breaking to eat at the excellent restaurants in town, especially the ceviche restaurants! We didn’t expect to really enjoy Lima all that much, but after a month of freezing in England and New England we were just happy to be outside in something other than a parka.

 

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view from the walkway along the cliff
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Our cute hotel in Miraflores
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We wandered around getting a feel for the culture and running errands, which turned out to be no small task. Getting a sim card involves 4 different counters, a passport, fingerprinting over your signature at least 6 times, and then going to the pharmacy to put value on it. No, you can’t add value at the actual store, silly!
Also, Peru seems to have some restrictions on online transactions, so to book some flights we had to do it the old-fashioned way of walking (like, on your feet) to the airline’s office and talking to an actual person (in Spanish) who books the tickets for you and prints them out. We did this twice.
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We had a nice day in the city center going to the Larco Museum which promised a lot of pottery. Gregor was happily surprised that most of the pottery was primarily sculpture which kept it interesting. The museum itself was also very beautiful and had a nice garden with mats so you could lounge and read if you so chose.

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The old town square. Obviously you can’t tell from the photo, but this has to be the world’s slowest horse.

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The Iglesia de la Merced (above) and a nun enjoying the nativity scene inside (below). Every church has a nativity scene and there is a lot going on in every one we saw! Most are complete with running water and functioning lights.

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Town center in Lima

We enjoyed Lima much more than we thought we would and are pretty excited to be traveling in a place where we know some of the language. It seems like a great country so far and we’re excited to do some more exploring!