Peru Adventure – Machu Picchu

Postcard photo
My personal postcard photo

Until you’re standing there, surveying the whole of the place, you can’t comprehend how big Machu Picchu is. That was the first thing that struck me. The place is huge, big enough to once have housed perhaps a thousand residents. It’s hard to imagine that when you realize where these ruins are. They sit at around 8000 feet in elevation and are surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River, which is about 1500 feet down from the ruins. The ancient city itself is impressive with nearly 200 buildings, but it’s the impossible surroundings that you miss in a postcard photo focused on the ruins that blew my mind.

After a while, Ray told us we had to leave Machu Picchu and re-enter it through the main gate. We would have our passports checked with our entry tickets and might need to store our backpacks if the guards deemed it necessary. Ray also told us that the main entrance had proper toilets, vending machines, and a snack bar. We were all on board for that, so we walked out to begin again. There was a small entry fee for the bathrooms, but that was of no concern. I would have willingly forked over $20 to sit on an actual toilet at that point. The faucets with running water were heavenly. I briefly considered stripping down to wash up and I might just have done it if the restroom hadn’t been packed with an international crowd that would have frowned upon my personal bird bath in the sink.

A good tour guide makes all the difference. Ray was the best!
A good tour guide makes all the difference. Ray was the best!

When we had finally cleaned up and had some snacks, it was time to re-enter. We would get a tour with Ray for about an hour and then have a couple of hours to tour Machu Picchu on our own before getting into the bus queue for the ride down to Aguas Calientes where we would catch the train back to Ollantaytambo. From there we’d be getting back in a van for the ride to our hotel in Cusco for the night.

The number of visitors inside the ruins was already growing. Machu Picchu accepts a limited number of tourists per day (I heard between 2500 and 4000) and, despite its large size and the 11 hours it is open each day, it can feel crowded and overwhelming. When Ray was giving us his tour, he would have to scramble to find a quieter spot to give us information so we could hear him. He was able to give us some info about the site before he turned us loose to tour on our own with some recommendations about what we should investigate.

Steve and I split off from our tour group with our traveling buddies, Andrew and Heather. The four of us set off to see the temple first. I managed to get myself separated from everyone else while trying to take a photo of Pichu inside a building. When I tried to get to where I thought the others were, I was told by a guard that I could not go that way. What the heck? Turns out that to mitigate congestion, visitors must follow arrow signs in a particular direction while inside the ruins. Really? Okay. When in Rome. I turned around and followed the crowd, slowly and surely moving in the approved direction where I might eventually find everyone else.

I was starving. It was close to 11 a.m. and I had been awake almost 8 hours already. We’d been given sack lunches at breakfast, so I dug into my bag and started gnawing on a cheese sandwich.

“You’re brave,” a Canadian tourist said to me.

“Why?” I asked.

“You can’t eat in here,” she replied. Then she told me she’d gotten reprimanded for such an infraction earlier. I’d simply been lucky and no guard had caught me eating.

Rocks imitating art imitating nature

Snap. Now I was hungry, without my companions, and feeling my blood sugar dip. Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk when he’s angry. I turn into something reminiscent of the Hulk when I need to eat. Things would get downright scary if I didn’t eat something quickly. I decided to be a rebel. It had to be done. I pretended to put my food away in front of the other tourists who had caught me nibbling, but I kept part of the sandwich in my hand. When I’d get beyond a guard, I’d sneak a bite in my mouth as surreptitiously as possible. As far as I was concerned, it was a matter of life or death this breaking the law. Damn it feels good to be a gangster.

Steve found me and together we pushed ahead to catch up to our friends. When we found them, we decided en masse that if I was going to meet my goal of being photobombed by a llama we would need to get over to where we had seen them grazing earlier. The problem was that they were nowhere near where we currently were. We had 45 minutes to make our move. We started heading in the direction we needed to go. Unfortunately, we got stuck behind a tour group of seniors. It was clear that most of them were struggling with the stairs and the altitude. They were moving very slowly, and it would have been exceedingly rude and ugly American to shove through their group. So we stayed behind them and waited for their tour guide to move them through the narrow room where they were all standing. We were trying to be good citizens and follow the prescribed pathways, but the prescribed pathways were clogged with people who were not in the particular hurry that we were. I was becoming anxious. Time was a-wasting, and llamas wait for no one.

Help! I'm lost in Machu Picchu and I can't find my llamas.
Help! I’m lost in Machu Picchu.

We tried several different paths to head in the direction we needed to go, but we kept going around in circles by following the arrow signs. Finally, the guys split off to try to get their bearings or perhaps get directions from someone (who’d have thought that possible?). Steve returned to tell the tale of how he’d found an English-speaking tour guide but felt bad for asking him the fastest way out of the ruins. I never imagined that during my time in Machu Picchu I would become so discombobulated and frustrated that I would be looking for the exit. Andrew and Steve had separately landed upon the same solution to our problem. We now had an exit strategy, so we began cruising in that direction.

We found the llamas where we had seen them, happily munching on grass along the agricultural terraces. Now to get close enough to get a photo with them without getting kicked out for going the wrong direction or treading where we should not tread. This was going to be a trickier task than we had originally anticipated. Apparently it was everyone’s Machu Picchu dream to hang with the llamas. I didn’t want a photo of the llamas in the crowd. Time was ticking away until we needed to be out the main gate and waiting in line for our bus to Aguas Calientes to meet the rest of our group for lunch and train tickets.

Close enough
Close enough

All I can say is that Pachamama must have been looking out for me because as we were standing there puzzling out how to make this llama photo work, the llamas began to move down the terraces toward us as if Pachamama’s divine hand were urging them toward me. This might work out yet. We had 15 minutes left to get this photo and be out of the gates. Steve started snapping shots as they came closer, hoping that one would turn out. I did my part by jockeying for position near the llamas but out of the way of the other tourists who would not get the heck out of my photo-op. I did not make this long journey to share my llama photo with strangers. In the end, we had several decent photos of the llamas by themselves and one passable photo of me and the baby llama in the background. We had to call it good because it was time to make like a baby and head out.

As for the rest of our day, it was long. It started with a bus ride down from Machu Picchu that nearly did me in. The cobblestone road from the ruins, as you can imagine given the location of Machu Picchu, is set into the side of a steep mountain above a river. The road is wide enough for one bus. Needless to say, there is more than one bus transporting the thousands of visitors each day. I think I left impressions in the seat in front of me with my fingernails. I’m not even sure a Valium could have made that ride pleasant. It was the last sweat I broke on the trip.

Worth 27 long hiking miles and three nights on the ground
Well worth 27 long, hiking miles and countless stairs and three nights sleeping on the ground

We had Coke and wood-fired pizza in a real restaurant while waiting for our train. Our group barely spoke because we at last had wifi and could contact our families. We were back in civilization and it felt good. I thoroughly enjoyed the train ride to Ollantaytambo and even our bus ride back to Cusco. I didn’t sleep like some of my fellow tourists because I am one of those travelers who hates to miss a thing. I simply watched Peru as she flew by. I hadn’t even left yet and I was already wondering when I would return.



Peru Adventure – Day Four on the Inca Trail

Pichu...because nothing says ancient ruins like a plush toy from China.
Nothing says “ancient ruins” like a cheap, plush toy from China. I will do anything for my sons.

The wake up call for the final day of the hike was 3:30 a.m. I eschew any wake up call that happens at an obnoxious time, for example, 3:30 a.m. But on this particular morning I flew out of my sleeping bag ready to hit the trail. It had been a long, life-changing hike, and I was ready for the big finale. I was also growing weary of my filthy hiking pants and sports bras, and I knew at the end of the day there was a hot shower waiting for me. It was somber that morning at breakfast. Maybe we were all just sleepy, but it seemed like there was something in the idea of this journey being over that made us all a bit more contemplative than we had been. We loaded up our gear for the day, and I dug to the bottom of my pack to bring to the top something I’d been waiting until Machu Picchu to break out. Before I left, the boys had given me a Pokémon plush to bring along, 1) because they wanted me to have something of them with me (as if any part of me is ever without them) and 2) because they wanted to see a photo of it at Machu Picchu. I was merely glad they wanted me to carry a plush instead of, say, a rock. Either way, today it would fulfill its destiny and Pichu would visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu with me. The boys would be thrilled.

As with every morning on the Inca Trail, we headed to the passport station to be checked onto the trail for the day. The reason for the early morning wake up call was so that we could get onto the trail and through the Sun Gate in time to watch the sun rise on the ruins. The passport station did not open for a while, so we stood there in a line in the dark with other hikers, headlamps on, waiting for daybreak. This only added to the novelty of the day and our growing anticipation.

The Monkey Stairs
The Monkey Stairs

Finally the passport station opened and we were on our way. The sun began rising so we could jettison our headlamps and enjoy the last of the scenery on this hike. We were slowly heading our way up to the Sun Gate. I stopped a lot on the way to the Sun Gate. Not because I was gasping for air or needed to lower my heart rate but because I knew these were our last couple hours on the trail and I wanted to soak it all in. I stopped to take mental photographs and simply to be present in the Andes and appreciate all I had done to get to that point. It’s easy to rush to the denouement when it was the whole impetus for your journey. But, over the course of the past three days, I’d had the opportunity to focus solely on the journey. It transformed what would have been a great trip into a life-altering one. It’s our rushing through life to the next big thing that ruins us.

The last section of stairs you climb are aptly called the “Monkey Stairs.” This is because you more or less climb them on all fours because they are so steep. There’s no way to capture adequately a photo of these stairs, but imagine that you’ve just hiked nearly 27 miles, slept on the ground for three nights, and are dog tired from getting up at 3:30 a.m. To make matters worse, you’re wearing a pack. You approach a significant length of steps. They are uneven, worn, high and, frankly, the last thing you want to see at this point, but they are the final obstacle between you and Machu Picchu. You suck up your pride and begin climbing, hands on the stairs ahead of the ones your feet (or knees) are on so you can keep your balance. No point in getting this close to Machu Picchu and then injuring yourself so you can’t walk around and experience it.

The end of the line

When we got to the top, I realized we had reached the end of our hike. I hadn’t realized it was that close. At the top of the stairs is a sign that tells you that you’ve finished the Inca Trail. With a bit of melancholy, I took this photo of the sign to mark the occasion. I looked ahead of me, but the Sun Gate sits around a corner and there are people at the top resting from the stairs. The view is obscured. I finally summoned the courage to walk ahead to find the actual Sun Gate and see what I’d only read about. The Sun Gate itself is not something special to look at. It’s not a gate of any sort any longer, just a bit of ruins with windows overlooking the scene ahead.

Machu Picchu before sunrise
Machu Picchu before sunrise

I walked through the group of people gathered there, and it took me a minute to adjust myself to the view and what I was seeing. You’re still a hike away from Machu Picchu. It is there ahead of you and you can make it out, but it is a faded image in the distance. Because it’s still a way off, there’s some sort of mental acknowledgement that you’ve made it but the excitement of being there hasn’t kicked in because, well, you’re not there yet. The Sun Gate is an excellent spot for a photo-op, though, so we hastened to get that done while we waited for the sun to begin lighting up Machu Picchu.

We had timed our hike perfectly because the sun was on the hill directly behind Machu Picchu but it hadn’t yet landed on the ruins themselves. We all realized we needed to move it in a hurry if we wanted to hike the 1.5 miles down from the Sun Gate to watch the sun slowly sneak over the ruins until they were totally bathed in sunlight. The weather had been with us the entire trip. We’d encountered not one drop of rain, and the sky this day was again clear. There were no low-hanging clouds to obscure our view. It was literally a picture-perfect day.

Getting my zen on
Getting my zen on

I found speed in reserves I didn’t know I had while trying to reach Machu Picchu and enjoy it a bit before the crowds became insane. I am not afraid to admit I was nearly skipping my way down the last of the Inca Trail from the Sun Gate. I had done it. There I was. And there it was. My lifelong goal of being at Machu Picchu could be crossed of my bucket list. There aren’t many things that can eclipse the feeling of a long-term goal achieved. All that’s left is to savor it.




Peru Adventure – Day Three on the Inca Trail

July 13, 2014

When this is your view as you start your day, don't you just know it's going to be perfect?
Daybreak in the Andes

After spending a long, cold night at 11k feet and not sleeping well despite my considerable exhaustion, my distaste for camping was growing. So when our wake up call came, I was ready to get at it. We were much more efficient packing up our belongings and throwing on yesterday’s clothes without too much disgust. The relative amount of filth on our bodies was heading from tolerably uncomfortable to sort of gross, but we weren’t stinky yet so that was something. While I was missing my showers and rapidly becoming tired of squat toilets, I was pleased with how I was holding up physically. My legs were not sore from the previous day’s climb, proof that my training had paid off. When we finally unzipped the door to our tent, I had my first inkling that the day might be really great. The sun was just starting to light up the horizon. This planet blows my mind.

There's a ruin there if you look for it.
There’s a ruin there if you look for it.

As we began our day, we headed into the cloud forest up the steep path I’d seen and mentally anticipated the day before. Because we were getting closer to Machu Picchu, we were seeing more evidence of the Incas as ruins dotted the hillsides. Honestly, the ruins you encounter along the way make the trek completely worth it. I mean, you’re in the middle of nowhere. There are no cars to get to these places. You walk in or you don’t get there. I kept thinking about that and about how incredibly fortunate I was to be able to do this hike. I hadn’t even reached the end game yet, but I knew without a doubt that this is the way to get to Machu Picchu if you can, having the whole experience in the Andes. Sure. You’re hiking with 200 of your newest best friends, so it’s not completely secluded. But it is impressive and well worth the effort and the pit toilets.

A portion of the Inca Trail ahead of us
A portion of the Inca Trail ahead of us

Once we’d finished our ascent, we were solidly in the cloud forest. At one point, my hiking friends and I placed guesses about the altitude here. I guessed around 12k feet. We were closer to 13k. We hiked along a trail that wound along the sides of cliffs. If you slipped, the only thing stopping you from tumbling down was a dense carpet of foliage as far as the eye could see. The trail in this relatively flat section at top was an old cobblestone pathway. It seemed out-of-place and yet it was so cool that it was there. I appreciated that we were at least temporarily finished with the wretched stairs. We stopped and investigated plants and took lots of photos, none of which did any justice to the beauty of our surroundings. Ray had urged us to take our time and enjoy the ride. Everyone else was at least 15 minutes ahead of us, so it appeared we were the only ones in our group who were taking that recommendation seriously. It was a flawless day, sunny with the low-hanging clouds you would expect in a cloud forest. It seemed a shame to rush through the experience. Day Three was rapidly shaping up to be my favorite day of the trek. I didn’t want time to pass or the day to end but, dang it, I was hungry again. I needed lunch.

I'd like to have my lunch served here everyday, please.
I’d like to have my lunch served here everyday, please.

After a short scramble up some more infernal stairs, we found ourselves atop a rock outcropping in a sea of tents. The views were nearly 360 degrees. We were on top of the world. Our porters and chefs had set up another delicious meal, and this one ended with cake. Seriously. CAKE. On top of a mountain in the Andes. It was frosted and decorated in honor of a couple of newlyweds on our trip. If you’re going to backpack in the Andes, do yourself a favor and spring for a good tour company with porters and chefs. Having someone else help with your heavy load and do the meal planning and cooking is the best gift a stay-at-home mom can ask for.

Cake at high altitude. How did they do that?
Cake at high altitude. How did they do that? I can’t bake a successful cake from scratch at 5k feet. It must be chef school that makes the difference. That’s where they keep the secret.

After lunch, we found a spot to sit for a while to let our food settle. I pulled out my iPhone, which I’d kept off for most of the trek knowing we wouldn’t have a signal. But we were now about a 5-6 hour walk from Machu Picchu and, well, hope springs eternal. I fired up my phone and discovered we had signal strong enough to make an actual call. We hadn’t spoken to our boys on the phone since we’d left. It seemed like this would be a perfect time to call. Once we convinced my sister-in-law that everything was fine and no one had died, we told her that we were calling her from a mountain top in the Andes and we had limited time. She put our oldest on the phone. His first question was, “How do you have coverage there?” Then, our safety-conscious son followed up by asking, “You’re not near any cliffs, are you?” It was almost like being at home.

Winding staircase in the forest
Winding staircase in the forest

The rest of the day was even more magical than the first part. It seemed that every bend we rounded brought us a better surprise. Who knew that the Inca Trail had tunnels and spiral staircases? We sure didn’t until we found them. Those Inca were clever craftsman. We were descending rapidly into a lush forest. Because it was the dry season, we weren’t seeing a ton of the orchids the cloud forest is known for but the vines, moss, and ferns made it not matter a lot. It was a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was half waiting for natives with poison darts to come running at us. Steve was just hoping there would be no snakes.

When our tour group had coalesced again, Ray told us that if we were willing to add an additional half hour of hiking into our already long day we could see one more ruin. I don’t think there was a person in our group who thought that would be a bad idea. How many times are you in the Andes looking for ruins, anyway? So we took our little detour. The forest became more dense. We were having to duck our heads under tree limbs. The path leveled off and the drop off on my right side became more obvious. Where the heck was Ray taking us? I separated myself a bit from the others and took a moment to stand alone in the forest and soak it all in. I could have been the only person on earth.

Intipata Ruins
Intipata Ruins

We emerged at the edge of the Intipata ruin. It seemed to appear from nowhere. I shook my head. Ray was right. This was well worth the extra steps. The agricultural terraces here were high above the Urubamba River below. We commented that if you fell backwards onto one and started rolling, you’d just keep rolling until you landed in the water a couple thousand feet below. That was not much of an exaggeration. We watched our footing. I was so grateful that Ray suggested this detour. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. You could tell by the quality of the ruins that we were nearer to the grand prize. We took a little time to walk around and enjoy the scenery. Ray gave us one last talk about the area and the history, finishing a story he’d started about the Incas on Day One.

Don't get out the walkers just yet!
Don’t get out the walkers just yet!

The sun was beginning to set rapidly and we had to backtrack a bit to get to our camp for the night. Before we headed in that direction, though, Ray talked us into a photo-op. It seemed a bit silly as we watched each couple pose for their photo. But when it was our turn, we did a trial run and then went for it. Turns out old folks can jump! Yep. We’ve still got it…even if sometimes we walk into a room to look for it and forget we went in there for it.

Peru Adventure – The Sacred Valley

July 10, 2014

Cristo Blanco watching over Cusco
White Jesus watching over Cusco

We started our day in a van around 7:30 a.m. We had a busy day planned, so we got right to it. Our first destination was a statue that sits high above Cusco. Ray called it “White Jesus,” but it is officially called Cristo Blanco. The statue was a thank you gift from some Christian Palestinians in the mid-1940s after they sought refuge in Peru. Considering that we were about to take a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, it seemed a little strange to be hanging out by a white Jesus but the view was worth it. From there, we were also able to get a glimpse of our first Inca ruin, Sacsayhuaman. Ray told us the correct pronunciation for that word. Then he told us most gringos call it “Sexy Woman,” and that stuck. Go figure.

After our photo-op, we got back into the touring van and descended down the winding road toward the first of our two cultural destinations of the day. We were going to a local village where women still practice the art of weaving as it has been done for centuries. One of the reasons I chose G Adventures for our trip was their dedication to helping the communities they visit through Planeterra, a charitable organization they founded. Planeterra’s mission is to protect iconic destinations from being exploited by partnering with community members and finding ways to support them, help the environment, and encourage local business.

Weaving the old school way
Weaving the old school way

As we pulled up to the village, our van slowed to pick up a diminutive woman in traditional costume who served as our guide for the tour. Lucila explained how they shear the wool from alpacas, clean it using the roots from a plant, and then color it by creating dye from different native plants and minerals. Once the wool is dyed, they spin it and then weave it into hats, scarves, and other textiles that the families sell to folks who visit the co-op. If the women use the ancient weaving process (shown here), it can take a month to make one patterned table runner. If they use the more modern looms provided by the Planeterra foundation, these same textiles take half the time to create. Either way, they’re producing handcrafted, truly Peruvian souvenirs for tourists while sustaining their community and preserving cultural traditions. We bought gifts for everyone on our list and felt good about supporting these families and the Planeterra mission. Total win/win.

Ray explaining the Inca terraces
Ray explaining the Inca terraces

Our next stop was to Pisac to tour our first Inca ruin. As we pulled up, we could see the agricultural terracing the Incas had set up. It was my first opportunity to acknowledge that we were actually in Peru and about to experience something I’d only seen in photos. I felt so small in the expanse and could not wait to stand there in the midst of what the Incas had created. Once we negotiated the maze of tour buses and finally reached the entrance, Ray took over. He told us how the terracing allowed the Incas to grow diverse crops depending upon the altitude at which they were planted. The Incas were not only master builders, but they were masters of their environment as well, creating channels and rerouting snow melt water to irrigate their crops from the top down. We toured the ruins and got some practice huffing and puffing our way up the stairs. Ray told us he was going to be evaluating our group fitness. As the oldest person in our group, I crossed my fingers that I would not turn out to be the weakest link.

The perfect setting for an authentic Peruvian lunch
The perfect setting for an authentic Peruvian lunch

In the meantime, I needed something more than oxygen. Lunch. Did someone say lunch? We had an hour-long bus ride to reach our lunch destination, another Planeterra brainchild. To foster preservation of native, Peruvian cuisine, Planeterra had worked with one small, struggling community to create a top-notch restaurant that serves traditional cuisine crafted from local produce to weary travelers like our group. Ray assured us that the meal would be excellent. It was. In a state-of-the-art kitchen in the middle of nowhere, Peruvians who had been trained as chefs by Planeterra had spent their morning whipping up delicacies for us. We had appetizers, a delicious green salad (you have no idea how excited I was about that “safe” lettuce), a rocoto pepper stuffed with ground alpaca (so good), and mazamorra morada (spiced pudding made with purple corn and fruit) for dessert. It was probably the best meal we’d eaten yet in Peru. To rest after lunch, we all took turns trying our hand at Sapo, a Peruvian tossing game similar to our Cornhole game where you try to land a beanbag in a hole. Instead of tossing a bean bag, we were tossing heavy, metal coins into holes on a table to score points. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but it was a fun way to interact with our fellow travelers. I found myself grateful that hand-eye coordination is not a skill required to hike the Inca Trail.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place
Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Our late afternoon plan included yet another bus ride. This time we were headed toward our last civilized accommodation before becoming ground sleepers. We arrived in Ollantaytambo (oy-on-tay-tom-bo), checked into a super cute inn, and had just enough time to unpack our souvenirs and freshen up before hitting our last destination of the day. Within walking distance of the inn and situated at the junction of two valleys sit the Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo. The sun was starting to sink behind the Andes and we were losing daylight. Because of this, as we were entering the ruins, most of the crowds there were leaving. Like all the other ruins, this one included an impressive number of stairs. Ray broke it down into sections for us, giving us time to gasp for air while he told us about our surroundings. Of all the ruins we saw on our tour, these became my favorite. The stonework was incredible, and the setting was impressive. Scanning the nearby hills, small ruins were evident all over the place. Maybe it was the setting sun. Maybe it was the excitement of the trek we would begin the next day. Maybe it was the recognition that we were in truly sacred territory. In any case, something that evening made those ruins stand out. What the Incas were able to do in the formidable terrain of the surrounding Andes is awe-inspiring. And despite the cold wind blowing down the valleys and into the site while we walked around, I was getting a warm, fuzzy feeling about where this trip would take me.

Peru Adventure – Cusco

July 9, 2014


Before we could begin our Inca Trail trek, we needed to spend some time acclimatizing to the higher altitude. We were already fortunate enough to be coming from the Mile High City, but any Coloradoan can tell you there’s a big difference between physical exertion at 5,280 feet and physical exertion at 14,000 feet. We needed some time to get ourselves ready. So on Wednesday morning, we headed back to the Lima airport to board a flight to Cusco, which sits at 11,200 feet. A combination of Inca and Spanish culture, a blend of old and new, Cusco did not disappoint. For starters, landing at the airport there was more eventful than I was prepared for. As you descend toward the city, the Andes rough you up and force you through sharp turns as the pilots maneuver to land in the narrow, high valley where Cusco rests. I’d like to say that regular flights over the Rocky Mountains had prepared me for this, but they didn’t. But then I’m not sure anything can prepare you for the wonder of Cusco.

Our G Adventures guide, Ray, was waiting for us safely outside baggage claim. He efficiently loaded us into a large van for the 15 minute trip from the airport to our hotel and began briefing us about the rest of the events for the day. After a couple of free days wandering around Lima sans guide, I was looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about Peru from a local. A guide will make or break a tour, and immediately I knew we were in good hands with Ray. He was born and raised in Cusco, spoke Quechua (the language of the local natives), and finished his degree in tourism at the university in Cusco by completing his thesis on the Incas. And if his expertise were not enough, Ray’s impeccable people skills carried us from that first van trip through our last night in Cusco. He somehow managed to keep us motivated and on track for our entire tenure with him without ever making us feel rushed. I later discovered that he’s a Gemini like me. I knew I liked him.

Grains available for purchase from local farmers in the San Pedro Market
Bags of grain in the San Pedro Market

We had a quick stop at the hotel to freshen up before heading out for a walking tour of Cusco. Ray first took us to the San Pedro market. We wandered the aisles of this packed, open air venue where you could buy produce, grains, meat, herbs, textiles, and other assorted items. I marveled at the size of the Inca corn, which makes our corn nut snacks look piddly. We stopped occasionally to make food purchases from several local vendors so we could sample traditional bread and some tropical fruits that we can’t find here at home. It was one of those things that we might not have experienced without a good guide. We might have found the market on our own, but the likelihood that we would have felt comfortable purchasing and ingesting unknown foods is slim. The most interesting fruit we sampled was the granadilla, which had a hard outer shell similar to a gourd but which was very similar to a passion fruit. The flesh around the seeds was gelatinous (think chia seed consistency) and you had to suck the fruit from the outer shell. It was a fun experience. Nothing like getting to know your new friends by mouthing fruit on a street in Cusco.

Looks like a good time to walk your alpaca
Looks like a good time to walk your alpaca

We walked from the market toward the main plaza. Along the way I took time to marvel at the architecture. The bottom portion of many of the buildings was fashioned from different materials than most of the top parts of the same buildings. Ray explained that over the course of hundreds of years and dozens of earthquakes, the Inca walls remained in tact while the Spanish buildings erected on their ruins crumbled. Consequently, Cusco has a very new, old feel. I marveled as we walked near one of the old Spanish churches erected by the Conquistadors. Outside there was a street performer who had painted himself gold and was posing as a living statue for cash, a scene I could easily imagine any day of the week on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Passing right in front of the church at the same time, however, was a woman in traditional costume walking an alpaca. That was when I knew we were in for something special over the next week.

Noting we were hungry and a bit worse for the rapid altitude change, Ray directed us to a spot to grab a late lunch. He told us that our best bet was soup. Better not to overburden your system when your body is already struggling to acclimate. I was definitely feeling somewhat off already, so at Ray’s suggestion I tried the quinua (quinoa to us North Americans) soup…just the right amount of protein and comfort. Perfecto!

Later we met back at the hotel for a briefing about our journey into the Sacred Valley of the Incas and our Inca Trail trek. We were at last introduced to the whole of our hiking group. There were fourteen of us, six Americans, four Brits, a Swiss couple, and two Danish twenty-somethings. We quickly surmised that we were older than most of our fellow travelers by at least 20 years. We tried to imagine our advanced age would not be a handicap but, just in case, I began referring to us as “the old folks.” (It was what “the kids” were thinking anyway.) We covered logistics and were reminded that our packing limit for the next five days was 6 kilograms (about 13 pounds) and that had to include our sleeping bag and ground pad. They gave us the trip bags to pack for our porters and sent us back to our rooms to begin the arduous task of packing, weighing, and repacking. I was thrilled to realize I’d estimated well at home. My first time to the bag scale left me a half kilo under the allowed weight. Woohoo! I got to add in another shirt and the portable battery charger for my iPhone. All was right with the world.

Comfort food of potential destruction
Comfort food of potential destruction

Dinner was at a quaint, well-reviewed restaurant called Nuna Raymi’s. While my friends all went with more traditional Peruvian food, I was still feeling not quite 100% so I opted for the comfort of pasta. And I was enjoying my spaghetti with olive oil and chunks of delicious, locally crafted cheese until I thought for a second about the fresh basil and tomatoes in the entrée that I’d happily been gnawing. My mind did the inadvisable and considered that they may have been washed in water that hadn’t been boiled. I am not much of a worrier, but for about thirty seconds I entertained the horrific idea of uncontrollable, unscheduled, and just plain ugly potty breaks in the presence of 10 strangers with no proper toilets, limited foliage, and pack-out-your-own trash. I considered the swamp ass that would certainly follow such episodes and the irreparable damage it would inflict on my limited undergarments and two pairs of pants over the next five days. I imagined sleeping in a tent with these clothing items and my unclean self. I shuddered. Too late now. There was a reason why I purchased and packed Imodium AD and filled a prescription for Cipro. Why borrow trouble? One way or another, it would all be fine, right? I’m not much of a praying woman, but I’ll admit that on that note I sent some positive energy out to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to encourage her to look after me, just in case.


Peru Adventure – Lima

Last week we returned from an 11-day trip to Peru. The impetus for the trip was to hike the famed Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, something we’d been talking about doing since we were in our twenties. It was then one of those distant, maybe-someday, sort of things, a long-term bucket list item that we shelved once we had children and the notion of traveling 4,000 miles away to hike 27 miles without them would have raised some eyebrows. Then, late last year, my friend Heather reintroduced the idea. Turns out we aren’t getting any younger, and the strenuous nature of the trek made the feasibility of postponing this adventure much longer a little sketchy. I mean, here at midlife we’re still reasonably fit and healthy, but you never know what’s right around the corner. So we took a chance on ourselves, put down a wad of cash on the trip of our dreams, broke the news to our children (who were less than thrilled to be left behind), and started working out the logistics. Seven months later, we were winging our way to Lima in coach, fingers crossed, trusting that we’d return home safely to children who discovered they could survive without us.

I want to share something of our adventures, so I am going to spend a week or two writing up some memories of the trip. Thanks for indulging me.
July 7th, 2014

Larcomar with the Pacific Ocean in the background
Larcomar with the Pacific Ocean in the background

After a decent night’s rest at the Tierra Viva Hotel in the Miraflores district of Lima, we were anxious to explore. First stop, sadly enough, was to Starbucks to access reliable, free wifi and to satisfy an intellectual curiosity about the international cost of a Starbucks vanilla latte. (The latte was comparably priced to our local haunt…approximately $4.33 for a venti.) With no desire to sit after a long travel day, headed out armed with a map and a little blood in our caffeinestreams.

We walked to Larcomar, an upscale shopping mall built into the sea cliffs in Miraflores and listed as a must-see attraction in the area. While its location and architecture are worth noting, at the end of the day it’s just another mall with a Pinkberry and a Gap. We were hungry, though, and decided to eat lunch there at a local chain that specializes in pollo a la brasa (roasted chicken). Not eager to encounter stomach sickness before our long hike, we eschewed the salad we might have had at home and filled ourselves with chicken, fries, and Cusqueña, the local lager. With full bellies, we headed away from the coast and walked blocks back into town in search of something that felt a bit more unique.

Yoga cat in Parque Kennedy
Yoga cat in Parque Kennedy

We found it at Parque Kennedy, which is home to dozens of feral cats who have been adopted by the city’s residents. Local citizens set out bowls of water and food for them under trees in the shade. The park was designed with built-in seating where people can relax with their lunches and smartphones (free wifi in the park too, who knew?). Once you settle into a seat, a cat is likely to find its way into your lap for a warm, cozy nap. I found this local custom perfectly charming. The cats seem to be well-cared for and not at all mangy or unclean. We even saw one with stitches in its leg, which leads me to believe that they are getting medical attention when necessary too. The park serves as a de facto library system for cats. You stop by, borrow one for a while, and return it when you’re ready to leave. I was missing my dog and wanting some animal attention, so I sat down near a cat who was not spoken for and waited to see what he would do. After sizing me up for a minute, he decided I was acceptable and crawled into my lap. There he napped for about 20 minutes while I petted him. Made my day. Pet fix achieved, we returned to our hotel to mull dinner options.

Peruvian sampler platter at Panchita
Peruvian sampler platter at Panchita

We landed at Panchita, a large restaurant that was more populated with locals than gringos. There were no menus in English, which boded well for an authentic experience. We attempted to conjure up any Spanish-language remnants from high school for about fifteen minutes before our waiter realized we were out of our element and sent over another waiter to offer suggestions in English. Good man! Eager to try some real Peruvian food, we ordered a sampler platter and four different entrees. There was not a thing we tried that we didn’t enjoy. We tried Peruvian Anticuchos (beef hearts), papa relleña (fried, stuffed potatoes), causa (a layered dish with mashed potatoes, meat, and avocado), and some local giant corn covered with huancaina sauce. Steve ordered the lomo saltado (grilled beef with peppers and onions) and I had tamales and arroz verde. For dessert we shared some picarones (Peruvian donuts). You could stick a fork in us because we were so done. Not exactly sure how we ate that much or how we managed to waddle back to our hotel. By far the most unexpected thing about Peru was how wonderful the food was. Everywhere we went we found new delicacies to enjoy. The Peruvians take great pride in their cuisine, and it shows in the flavor and presentation of every single dish. We thought we’d head to South America and lose weight. Tell that to my now tight pants.

July 8, 2014

Dismayed Brazilians watching Germany massacre them in the World Cup
Dismayed Brazilians watching the World Cup

After transferring our bags to the hotel where we would meet our tour group later, we walked back up one of the main streets in Miraflores to look for our next great food adventure. We apparently planned to eat our way through Peru. We stopped into a sandwich place and somehow lunch became more dessert than anything else. Tres Leches cake and churros dipped in chocolate, anyone? Desperately seeking exercise, we walked toward the sea cliffs to stroll the boardwalk that connects Larcomar to several local parks. Along the way we passed a restaurant where Brazilians had gathered to watch their World Cup game against Germany. It was not pretty. My blonde hair made me feel like sore thumb for some reason.

Winter in Lima
Winter in Lima

We strolled toward the boardwalk, which in truth is more of a sidewalk than a boardwalk, with the intention of making our way through several parks. This part of Miraflores is called the Costa Verde because despite Lima’s status as a coastal, desert town, things actually grow green here. There were tons of flowers and bushes, along with cactus, green grass, and palm trees. It was hard to believe Lima was in the midst of winter because it didn’t seem like winter to these northerners. It was never under 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and most daytime temps were closer to 70. While the locals walked in boots, coats, and scarves, we strolled in light jackets. It was chilly, but not a Colorado winter by a long shot. I had read that winter in Lima was grey and dry, and that was no exaggeration. It was continually overcast, but rainless, and still quite tolerable.

El Beso
El Beso

Our walk down the Malécon landed us at El Parque Del Amor. There resides a sculpture by Victor Delfin called El Beso (The Kiss). Surrounding the sculpture are walls filled with bright mosaics. There are more built in benches where lovers can hang out and enjoy the sculpture…or not. A local tour guide told us that every year they hold a kissing contest beneath the sculpture. The longest kiss was over 9 hours. That’s more dedication than I have. I honestly can’t think of anything I’d like to do for 9 hours straight. Not a thing. Further down the boardwalk we came across the place where paragliders launch themselves via updrafts over the cliffs. We watched them for a while and, for a few seconds there, I almost thought it would be worth the $60 flight cost. Then I decided that since my main goal in traveling to Peru was to hike the Inca Trail I might be better off saving my flight for another bat time, another bat channel. No need to risk breaking my ankle landing from paragliding the day before our trek to Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the Inca Trail, and finally Machu Picchu. We walked back to our hotel to meet our G Adventures representative and get the skinny on our flight to Cusco in the morning. We were finally on our way.