After surviving hurricanes and the tropical heat of coastal Colombia it was time to follow the Andes southward, this time into Peru. The transition from the steaming tropics to the chill of Cusco was abrupt, but worth it.
Our trip to Peru centered on Cusco; the ancient capital of the Inca Empire and now major tourism center. The Inca archeological sites of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley are day trips out of Cusco. Within a day travel of Cusco is Lake Titicaca, the highest navagable lake in the world and the immense Colca and Cotahuasi canyons near Arequipa; the deepest in the world. A few hours east and north of Cusco are the remote, high Andes with glacier-covered peaks reaching over 6,000 meters (20,000 feet). And a short flight away is the tropical upper Amazon Basin at Manu. It’s a remarkable place.
NOTE: Cusco is a Spanish translation of the orignal Queshua name, Qusqu. Today it’s a medium sized city of 500,000 set in a high valley in the Andes of south-central Peru and surrounded be even higher mountains. At 3,400 meters (11,200 feet) it’s high, cool and clear with a large historic center focused on the 16th century Plaza de Armas and radiating out from there into the surrounding hillsides in a maze of steep, cobblestone streets and old red-tile roofed houses.
This is where the Spanish conquistadors finally defeated the Inca in the early 1500s and buidings around town are a mix of 16th century Spanish buildings built on top of much older Inca bases; the difference obvious with the rougher stone Spanish churches and houses blended into the finely fitted Inca stonework.
The indigenous presence in Cusco is very strong with Queshua women walking around in traditional dress of full, colorfully embroidered skirts and fedora hats, usually carrying a large bundle on their backs. Short, proud, strong people these descendents of the Inca are the largest indigenous group in the Americas and Queshua is spoken by millions here and though Spanish is the official language, many people speak only Queshua, especially in the countryside.
It takes time to adjust to Cusco. The altitude is unavoidable and newcomers are easy to spot, gasping for breath in the high altitude as they climb the stairs and streets around town. Coca leaves (from the coca plant from which cocaine is made) help dispell the effects of high altitude and coca leaves, teas and candy are available everywhere. Most hotels have a basket of coca leaves in the foyer.
Our introduction to Peru was rough:
First, Avianca Airlines wouldn’t let us board our flight from Bogota to Cusco without showing proof that we had reservations of some sort out of Peru. This is called “proof of onward travel” and many countries including the United States have this rule, though it is rarely enforced. Since we were traveling without definite plans, we had no reservations to leave Peru and we only had an hour and a half before our plane left for Cusco. So we hurriedly went to the Avianca ticket office, bought two one-way tickets from Cusco to Santiago Chile for October 18 for $1,900 usd, and ran back to the check-in area. We were then allowed to board our flight and we checked our bags and made it to the boarding gate just as the plane was loading. The tickets to Santiago were refundable, so we hoped we could change them later since they were so expensive, but at last we wouldn’t lose our current non-refundable flight to Cusco.
Then, immediately upon arriving at the Cusco airport, we withdrew cash in Peruvian Soles from an ATM and tried getting a taxi at the official taxi booth by the airport exit. But the “official” taxi service at the exit gate tried to overcharge us saying that the ride was longer than normal due to road construction. We refused and found another taxi for almost half the price and left disgusted that we had been targeted for a scam within minutes of arriving in Peru (there was no road consruction of course).
When we finally found our airbnb it was a depressing, dark, cold apartment with no heat and no WiFi. We later got the owner to provide a couple of small heaters and the WiFi started working later. At least the apartment was near the central Plaza de Armas and thank god we were only staying in it for one night.
Then, as we walked around the historical center of Cusco, we found many tour operators and discovered we had paid far too much for the tours we had already reserved online (Machu Picchu and my Rainbow Mountain trek). There were many operators over town offering similar trips for much, much less.
Finally, we walked to the Avianca Airlines office near the Plaza de Armas to negotiate a refund for the expensive tickets we had to buy in Bogata in order to get into Peru. We found that if we canceled the tickets it would be over a month before we would receive a refund to our credit card and I didn’t trust that. We decided to think about that and went to a local artesenal market where I bought a belt to replace the one I lost in the Guajira Peninsula during the hurricane and then ate lunch at a local restaurant.
When we returned to the dank apartment the WiFi started working and we spent a few hours checking e mail and looking into tours of Patagonia for later in October. Finally, exhuasted and disgusted, we and went to bed in the cold, dark apartment hoping the next day would be better. Yep, it was a rough start in Cusco for us.
The next day was better; much better. We moved to the next airbnb apartment that we had reserved; high on the hillside overlooking Cusco in the trendy San Blas neighborhood along steep, narrow cobblestone streets. Our friend Victoria from Seattle was arriving in two days to go to Machu Picchu with us (we had made plans to meet her in Cusco a month earlier) and we’re looking forward to seeing her. We walked around the town and had a good meal and then rested in the comfortable airbnb apartment on a sunny, warm day. Yep, things are much better today.
The next morning I got up early and walk up to the nearby Inca ruins of Sasquayhuman which was very nice in the early morning sunrise with just a few joggers running around the site. Then we walk around town, to the San Pedro Mercado, the main market in Cusco; a massive hectic place in a giant warehouse-like building that spills out into the surrounding alleyways with vendors selling everything from handmade clothes to a varieties of potatoes and corn that we had never seen.
After that we walked back though the historic center to the main Plaza de Armas to discover a celebration with a parade going on there. It was the annual celebration of the Virgen del Rosario and the parade was loud and colorful with processions of Catholic saints and Peruvian folklorical figures filing by; every one dancing as Peruvian marching bands played.
Afterward we look at hand made alpaca sweaters and scarves in the many shops around Cusco and though expensive, they’re very nice. We learn that the best clothes are made from baby alpaca wool with a scarf costing about $100 usd, sweaters and coats costing two to four hundred dollars usd. Some shops sell clothes made from vicuna (a wild relative of the llama and alpaca) and these things cost in the thousands of dollars each. Vicuna goods are out of the question for us, but we consider splurging on an alpaca sweater or scarf each, but decide to come back later.
Next day is another nice one in Cusco; warm and sunny after a cool, almost cold night. We spend the morning talking about what we want to do. We agree that as interesting and fun as Cusco is; we were ready to complete our South American journey earlier than we had planned. We were spending more money than we had expected and we were getting uncomfortably close to the end of our travel reserves. We also never stopped thinking about our long-term plans; to buy a truck and travel trailer and continue or journey in North America from Alaska to Mexico, and longed for the comfort of a permanent home (the travel trailer we would buy in our case). And, though we have had some remarkable experiences, we were a bit disappointed in general with South America. Maybe we were just homesick. At any rate we decided to shorten our trip in South America.
Our new plan would limit our travels in Peru to Cusco and surrounding áreas. Then we would get into the Patagonian area of Chile and Argentina for a week or so, and then return to either Mexico or the United States in November. But, we decided we’d finish up in South America with a bang.
Sonia found a cruise online that goes through the remote archeapeligo of Tierra del Fuego and the Sraits of Magellin at the southernmost tip of South America at Cape Horn near Antacrctica. It would cost us $3,000 for us both to take a three night/four day cruise plus the costs of getting to the remote town in the Argentian Patagonia, Ushuaia, where the cruise starts from. In addition to the costs of flying back to Mexico; this cruise would exhaust our financial reserves, but we decided that’s what the money was for. Besides, the cruise would be a unique experience as it sails into the wilderness of the southernmost coast of South America and we decided, what the hell; why not treat ourselves to some luxury after months of airbnbs and cheap hotels. To top it off, the cruise ends in Punta Arenas Chile near Torres del Paine National Park, one of our last, big “must-sees” in South America.
So we decided to do it. Since the cruise starts in Argentina and ends in Chile, we’ll fly into Buenos Aires first before flying on to Ushuai, a small city deep in the Argentinian Patagonia where the cruise ship is based. That decided, I try to book the cruise only to find both our PayPal and our credit card accounts are frozen. In fact we can’t use any of our accounts and we panic for a minute until we realize that we hadn’t updated our travel notifications and the cruise company was trying to bill us from Argentina, not Peru. Once again we learn the value of carrying a cell phone which we could easily use to contact our banks and un-freeze our accounts. Instead we would now have to find some way to call or contact our accounts to restore them.
To top it off my overnight trek to Rainbow Mountain starts early the next morning and, since I’m the primary account holder for both accounts, I either have to cancel the trek to deal witht the accounts, or deal with it when I return in two days. Luckily we have enough cash (in Peruvian Soles) to last until then, so we decide I’ll unfreeze our accounts when I return. I do update the travel notifications for our accounts and try again to pay again, but it still doesn’t work, so I prepare for the trek; we’ll deal with all of this when I return.
Then Victoria arrives in the afternoon and we go to dinner. It’s great to see her and she brought supplies for us (Starbucks instant coffee and some REI wool socks for Sonia). They’re like treasures to us. Then it’s to bed early since we’re all tired and I have to get up early for my trek deep into the Andes and the newly discovered Rainbow Mountain and – I’m coming down with a head cold.
While Sonia sleeps in to tour Cusco with Victoria later in the day, I meet the guide, Alex, for the Rainbow Mountain trek at 4:00 am the next morning at our apartment. We load into a van with the rest of the trekkers; three young Norwegian guys and a Swede traveling together and an American couple from Chicago in their late thirties; I‘m the old man of the crew.
We drove three hours out of Cusco, through small Quechua towns, and finally up a canyon to a field in a Deep valley surrounded by tundra-covered Andes peaks. There we met the rest of our crew, two Quechua men and a woman that would be our cooks and porters; all the tents and gear taken to our campsite for the night by horse while we hiked. After a lunch of pasta and boiled yucca root we started hiking, everyone breathing hard in the thin air at 4,300 meters (14,000 feet).
As we climbed higher it started to snow and by the time we reached a 5,000 meter pass three hours later (16,000 ft) it was almost a whiteout. We were at the base of glacier-covered Auncancaga, one of the major peaks in the área, but couldn’t see it and everyone was starting to get wet and cold. So, we quickly hiked on other hour to our campsite in a protected valley full of grazing alpacas. Our Quechua crew quickly set up our tents and cooked dinner. We ate, got to know each other, and went to bed knowing we had a long, hard hike to Rainbow Mountain the following day.
We woke up early, 4 am. The snow had stopped, but could start again at any minute, so we quickly ate breakfast of arepas and coffee and started up the next pass, a steep climb to 16,500 feet (5,100 meters). As we reached the pass and started down the other side we saw the first wildlife of the trip; some wild llamas, some llama-like vicunas staring down at us from even higher peaks, and a group of raccoon-like chinchillas hopping across the boulders and scree. And, it started snowing again, hard.
Another two hours and we reached Rainbow Mountain just as the snow storm cleared. It was magnificent, but we couldn’t see the surrounding peaks including Auncancga. We rested in a rock shelter at the base of the multi-colored peak admiring the red, purple, yellow and blue stripes covering the ridge in front of us and the surrealistically red mountains behind.
As we rested there a Quechua woman in sandals and carrying a heavy bundle effortlessly walked up to the viewpoint and set down her load beside me, silently spinning alpaca fibers into thread on the ever-present spindle that all Quechua women carry with them. She spoke Spanish and said she was from the village down below, so far away it was out of sight.
Then the snows returned and we quickly descended from the brilliant Rainbow Mountain to the valley below, the snowstorm following us the whole way out. We were walking out by a different route; a more direct route to the road 8 r 9 okilometers away. As we hiked out, hundreds of day-hikers were coming in. Ironically, Victoria signed up for the day-hike to Rainbow Mountain two days later and had a sunny, warm day; the mountain shining in its multi-colors and was back in Cusco in time for dinner at 6:30 pm.
I reached Cusco by early evening in time for dinner with Sonia and Victoria, but by then my head cold had settled into a nagging cough and I was exhausted. But no time to rest; Sonia and Victoria had signed us up for a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas at Ollaytatambe the next morning. I showered, we ate dinner and went to bed as early as we could to get ready for the all-day tour the next day.
And, we had good news. Before I slept I tried paying for our cruise through Patagonia one more time and voila – it goes through! Now we are scheduled to go to Buenos Aires for a few days, then on to Ushuaia Argentina (u-SWY-ah) to meet the ship and finish our South American travels with a cruise through the Patagonian fjords and islands to Cape Horn. And, Sonia was able to exchange our unusable airline tickets for flights to Buenos Aires and our flights to Ushuaia. This was all good news indeed.
Up early and off for the three-hour bus ride to Ollatatambe, but first stopping at the spectacular Inca terraces at Pisac. Our guide explains the different crops grown at different levels of the mountain and while Sonia and Victoria visit the tombs near the mountaintop, I take a ½ mile hike along an ancient Inca trail through a natural tunnel through the cliffs to viewpoints across the valley far below. It’s truly an incredible place, but mobbed with tourists and we are herded along through the site. And, this is low season!
Another hour and we arrive at the Sacred Valley, one of the best preserved Inca towns in Peru. It’s located far into the mountains in a small valley where three other canyons come together; too remote to have been pillaged by the Spanish conquistadors.
The place is mobbed and we are herded through the Quechua town of Ollatatambe to the ruins behind it. Crowded or not, the place is magnificent with fifteen foot high terraces stepping up the mountainside to culminate in a small saddle on the mountain top where the temple to the sun is located built from huge and incredibly tightly fitted stone walls. Off in the distance the glacier-covered peak of Mt Veronica gleams in the sun (so named for a mountain climber that died there).
We hike around on part of the ancient Inca Road, a network of paved trails that radiate out from Cusco as far north as Colombia and south to Argentina. We could spend hours at this place, but our tour is moving on and it is getting late. As we drive back towards Cusco we cross over a high pass outside of Chinchero, a Quechua town high in the Andes. We can see the cordillera (mountain range) of high glacier-covered Andes peaks.
We reach Chinchero for a final stop; a Quechua crafts shop. It’s touristy, but interesting as the Quechua woman in charge, dressed in traditional skirts and hat, spoke excellent Spanish and some English. While standing in front of a large cage full of cuy (guinea pigs) she demonstrated how alpaca clothes are woven and dyed with natural colors from minerals and plants. I buy an “alpaca” sweater from her which I later find is mostly nylon and so badly made that it falls apart with days, but what the hell – the show was worth it.
We make the last hour back into Cusco at nightfall, again exhausted, but ready for the trip to our main destination; Machu Picchu. But first we rest up in Cusco for a couple days; discovering winding alleyways lined with massive Inca walls, shopping for locally made alpaca clothes, and watching the mix of European tourists and traditionally dressed Quechua locals in the main plaza. We considered taking another trip to other Inca sites outside of Cusco, but I was still sick and we were just too tired. Even after four days in Cusco, we still huffed and puffed climbing the steep streets and stairways in the high altitude; chewing our coca leaves as we walked along.
Then it was time for our last tour; Machu Picchu. We met our tour guide, Edwin, at Victoria’s hostal in the evening before we left. We went over our plan with him and decided we would hike up to the Sun Gate above Machu Picchu the first day, then hike up Waynu Picchu (the peak rising up behind the ancient city) on the following day.
Up early at 4:00 am the next morning to meet the van and Edwin at Victoria’s hotel. I was still struggling with a nasty head cold, but as we boarded the train in Ollatatambe I could see this was going to be a spectacular trip and, I wasn’t disappointed. The train passed through Deep valleys with glacier-covered Andean peaks rising above and ancient Inca terraces on the hillsides. We dropped down from the high, cold, dry, steppes of Cusco into cloud forests of orchids and strangler figs and reached the tourist town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, or Aguas Calientes.
The town was surprisingly striking. Set in the bottom of a deep canyon with impossibly steep mountains rising all around and the train line running right through the middle of the town. We quickly checked into our hotel and went directly to the bus stop for the ride up to the ruins. We paused as we saw the hige line of tourists waiting to ride up to the ruins, but fell into the qeue and after an hour’s wait boarded the bus for the long, winding ride up the mountain to the ruins.
NOTE: There is a hiking trail from town up to the ruins, so you can avoid the crowded busses, but it is a strenuous climb of almost 2,500 feet.
We arrived at Machu Picchu, passed through the entrance gate and immediately set off on the trail to the Sun Gate. This turned out to be a good decision as we missed the majority of the crowds that headed directly to the ruins of the town and there weren’t many people at the Sun gate when we arrived.
NOTE: The Sun Gate is a small ruin, kind of a guard post, high above the ancient city of Machu Picchu where the trekking trail comes in from the network of Inca Trails, or ancient Inca roads that cross through the Andes.
We had a sunny day and spectacular views of Machu Picchu far below and the incredibly steep mountains surrounding it. We walked back down to Machu Picchu itself and entered the town from the top. I had expected it to be an amazing place, but it was overwhelming with massive stones cut perfectly to fit into one another to form peaked roof houses and temples. The whole city was an amazingly complicated complex of temples, houses, and buildings with intricate water drainage systems and fountains.
Then it struck us. The thing that makes Machu Picchu so magnificent isn’t just the ruins themselves; it’s where it is. The city clings to a saddle between Machu Picchu mountain (above the Sun Gate) and the iconic peak of Wayu Picchu on the other side that rises dramatically behind it. And all of this is on a peak isolated by an oxbow turn in the Urubamba River far below. In every direction massive, almost vertical peaks rise thousands of feet, cloaked in cloud forest and giving the whole area an aura of a lost world, even today, even with all the crowds of tourists.
After hiking down from the Sun Gate we walked through the upper part of the city with Edwin explaining the structures to us. We finished the day by standing in line foro ver an hour toride thebus back down to Aguas Calientes and an excellent dinner at the Indio Feliz restaurant and to bed, exhausted.
The next day, back in the bus line and up to the ruins, this time to hike up Waynu Picchu, the famous, iconic peak that rises above Machu Picchu. A special permit is required to hike up this mountain, but Edwin had arranged it for us and we started up the trail at 9:00 am. It was surprisingly steep and strenuous; even dangerous in places with steep stone steps rising above high drop offs. But the summit was spectacular with Machu Picchu far below and the cloud-forested mountains rising above us in every direction.
Descending from Waynu Picchu was almost as challenging as climbing it. When we arrived back at the main ruins we toured the lower part of the town where the temple to the condor is and other amazing structures. Llamas wandered around the terraces and we walked through the sacred sites and houses where ancient visitors used to stay.
Still digesting all that we had seen, we rode the bus back to Aguas Calientes and prepared to leave on the next train back to Cusco. The ride back to Cusco was as spectacular as the ride from it; through deep canyons under high Andean peaks. We arrived back in Cusco around 10 pm, exhausted, and went to our hotels to sleep.
After all our treks and then touring Machu Picchu we were exhuasted. We spent the next few days in Cusco, walking the alleyways, buying alpaca scarves and blankets at artisian markets, and planning our next move; Buenos Aires and the southern Patagonia. Victoria left for Seattle and the next day we boarded our plane to Buenos Aires. Though I was still sick and Sonia tired, we were glad we had made it to Machu Picchu truly a wonder of the man-made world that everyone should see.
After Cusco we flew to Lima Peru to spend a night before flying out to Buenos Aires Argentina. We checked into our airbnb in the trendy Miliflores district of Lima and with teh recommendation of our host went immediately to the Punta Azul, a ceviche restaurant in the center of Miliflores. It was very good, but I still like the Mexican style better (with cilantro and a touch of jalapeno).
After that we signed up for a city tour and caught the early afternoon bus into the historical center of Lima. That was pretty fascinating since the central plaza de armas was decorated to celebrate Peruvian Independence. We walked through part of the cathedral and into the catacombs underneath it where thousands of human bones were neatly stacked in crypts (like the catacombs in Paris).
Lima was a huge, sprawling city, but we thought a couple days there could be interesting. Another thing to consider in the future.
As we packed to catch our plane to Buenos Aires we thought about Peru. I think if we return to South America I would start in Cusco. Not only is the city itself fascinating, but it is near the major Inca archeological sites, has treks in the high Andes, and the upper Amazonian Basin at Manu is easily reached from Cusco. But now, time to head south – way south – as far south as you can go within the continent of South America. Time to see southern Patagonia.