Friday, March 30, 2018

Peru: Machu Picchu

The day arrived. This is it. Machu Picchu!
It deserves all of the accolades, superlatives and must-see lists.
Everything I sit to type sounds cliche. Machu Picchu was awe-inspiring and looks just like the pictures. Seeing it in person is even better. Towering ruins above the valleys, llamas acting as natural lawnmowers. It's really fantastic.

As we walked up to the edge, the anticipation was electric. To see something that you have been anxiously dreaming and anticipating is a feeling that I can't describe.

Our experience was pretty standard, yet even the standard experience at Machu Picchu is spectacular.

We, along with a couple hundred other travelers, lined up in Aguas Calientes to take a bus to the entrance of Machu Picchu. After purchasing our tickets (and stamping our passports!) we walked in and the first view you get of the ruins is the picture above.

The day started out misty, moody and rainy. Normally, soggy days aren't my thing, but oh, that fog made it magical. The beginning of the year is rainy season in Peru so we brought waterproof hiking shoes, pants (lovingly called adventure pants) and jackets. It is amazing how not being soaked improved our experience. A poncho seriously wouldn't cut it.

view from the top of Huayna Picchu

The "Lost City of the Inca" was "discovered" in 1911 by the American explorer Hiram Bingham, although locals knew about its existence. I read Turn Right at Machu Picchu and I highly recommend it as trip research. It was fascinating to learn about how Bingham rediscovered the site.

When we visited we were able to explore the ruins however we wanted, respectfully of course. There are not really any signs explaining what you are seeing so get a guide book or a map at the entrance if you want to know what is happening.

We spent a few hours exploring the main ruins before hiking Huayna Picchu, the tall mountain towering in the back of all of the main pictures.

Huayna Picchu is limited to 400 hikers each day- tickets must be purchased well in advance to secure a spot.

The trek to the summit is pretty intense. You have to navigate steep, narrow steps that were carved into the mountain by the Incas.

The entire hike was foggy and rainy, but as we reached the summit the fog dissipated and we could see the entire valley. The switchbacks you see in the middle of the photo is the road that leads from Aguas Calientes to the entrance to Machu Picchu.

The descent is just as arduous as the ascent. If you can, bring a walking stick!

Wandering back through the ruins to the entrance, I was in awe. And exhausted. It was hard to walk out of the complex and turn your back on this view. If I could walk backwards I would have. This was a truly, truly magical day.

Traveled March 2016.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Peru Day 3: Chocolates, Hot Springs and the Road to Machu Picchu

If there is a chance that I can eat on a trip, I will find it. We spent the morning eating and learning about Peruvian chocolate and how it is made. We took a chocolate cooking class at the ChocoMuseo and took a cocoa bean and mashed it into chocolate molds filled with treasures.

The class was completely hands on and we are now practically pros. Actually, they gave us a bag of beans that I had no idea what to do with when I got home. But the class was so much fun. Highly recommended.

After packing up and a quick lunch we boarded the train to Machu Picchu!

The train ride is half the journey. We upgraded and took the nicer train that came with snacks and had class ceiling. The views through the valley were incredible and it was definitely worth the upgrade.

The train from the Sacred Valley deposits travels in the tourist town of Aguas Calientes. It's a crowded Plaza de Armas and main thoroughfare surrounded by shops and restaurants and hostels. Since we were only there for the night, we picked a cheap hotel that was close. 

Aguas Calientes, literally meaning hot waters, is named for hot thermal springs in town. The springs are funneled into a series of public baths. Honestly, the water is a little murky (public bath = public body broth). But, when in Rome. (hot tip: rent a towel at one of the many shops along the way).

We had dinner at a restaurant along Avenida Pachacutec while a soccer game was happening (goalasoooooooo!). Our wake up call was at 5 a.m. so we put in earplugs (because of said soccer game) and off to bed.

Peru Day 2: Sacred Valley

Day 2: Touring the Sacred Valley

The best way to get around the Sacred Valley is to hire a driver. While hiring a driver is a luxury that we choose not to afford in other countries, it is very affordable in Peru, especially split between two couples.

We started off in Moray, an agricultural site of concentric circles. The Inca, brilliant as they were, created varying environmental zones with their enormous circular terraces. Meaning, it was cooler at the bottom most central circle for cooler crops and warmer up higher up for crops that could withstand the heat.

 As far as I can remember, there is no entrance fee for Moray and you can walk down in the ruins which was pretty neat.

As we drove to our next adventure, our driver took us on an unexpected one. Willian knew that we wanted to have an authentic experience. He offered to take us to a friend who serves a drink called chicha. All we understood was the word for corn and figured, why not?

Well, I'll tell you why not.

While we expected a refreshing bevy, we actually got beige, room temperature fremented corn juice in a dirt hut with guinea pigs squeaking at our feet. It was quite the happening place, with many workers coming in for a midday chicha break. "For strength!" they said.

Chicha morada is a beverage made from purple corn. Popular and typically served cold, like a juice.
That version is delicious, ours was....well, not. But we drank it! Gotta save face. And have a good story to share.

Why guinea pigs, you ask? Cooked guinea pig, locally known as cuy, is a dish served in Peru. While we consider guinea pigs as pets for little kids, the Peruvians know better. Apparently cuy is a super healthy meat compared to red meat or pork. But I had a pretty hard time looking past that especially with them running around my feet.

After we got a really big Diet Coke we continued on to...

Salineras which are centuries-old terraced Inca salt pans. They are still used today and we saw someone tending to his salt plot.

Next up on our Sacred Valley tour was the town of Chinchero. Chinchero, birthplace of the rainbow or so they say, is a small yet important major Inca town in the Sacred Valley. It is one of the only towns in the Sacred Valley that has higher elevation than Cusco (more than 12,500 ft).

We started at Centro de Produccion Artesanias Andina where we learned about the weaving tradition and techniques of Chinchero. Add a couple of alpacas at the entrance and some cuy (guinea pig) in a cage and you have a bona fide tourist attraction. Yes, it was touristy but we were able to buy some beautiful blankets. While a bit more expensive than at the Chinchero market, the quality was much better.

That blanket is still on my couch and I get compliments on it all of the time! Sadly, we did not buy the hats. Missed opportunity. After stopping for a corn snack and exploring some ruins and the Chinchero market (better prices than the weaving co-op but the quality isn't as good), we headed out to Pisac. Only to find that the ruins closed early but we did get a chance to wander through the famed market (my review: it is a market just like any other).

It was only fitting to end our day with our Peruvian mascot, a cuy wearing a vest and bowtie leading an imaginary choir.

And buenos noches

Traveled March 2016.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018


Peru! I had been dreaming about visiting Peru and Machu Picchu. I mentioned to a friend that I would love to visit and then the next month we found cheap flights to Lima, and even better, we convinced our friends to join us! It was a fantastic trip.

We've never traveled with anyone else before on one of our big trips. I was nervous that someone would get sick of the other couple (mostly them getting sick of me...) but it was great! Traveling with another couple was super beneficial financially by splitting accommodations, taxi rides, etc. But the best part was making memories with great friends. We were so grateful to have Rex and Tania with us, and not just because they both speak Spanish. That was just an added benefit. :)

Our adventure began with the ridiculous notion that it was a good idea to spend the night in the airport. We arrived to Lima at midnight with our flight to Cusco leaving 6 hours later. So, a night in the airport it is. Travelers aren't allowed passed security until a few hours before your flight, so we had to lay in a hallway along with other sad travelers. It was ridiculous to think we would even get an ounce of sleep. After an incident where there was no record of us passing through security and our seats were subsequently given away, we eventually all made it to Cusco and the Sacred Valley.

Sacred Valley

Cusco sits in the Sacred Valley- a jump-off point for many travelers to visit Machu Picchu. While MP is the most popular and impressive, the Sacred Valley was worth a few days to explore. 

We based ourselves in Ollantaytambo, affectionately know as Olly. It has a really cool vibe that wasn't too touristy and the other sites in the Sacred Valley were easy to access. Our accommodations were in a small alleyway (one of the most charming parts of Olly is the labyrinth of alleyways) and we were served a delicious breakfast each morning. 

Olly is quite small and easy to get around by foot. At the center of town is Plaza de Armas which is surrounded by almost all of the restaurants and shops. Follow the road past a market and you will find the ruins of the Fortress of Ollantaytambo made up of massive terraces. Towering on the mountain, it is pretty hard to miss. 

 The massive blocks do not have any mortar- just intricately fit together. (Learned that from eavesdropping on a tour guide.) 

After a quick lunch, we went to bed to prepare for our day of touring the rest of the Sacred Valley.

Traveled March 2016.