Getting High in Peru

After a great time in Lima we made our way to Cusco for a trip to one of the most iconic sights in Latin America: Machu Picchu.  Cusco is the third largest city in Peru and sits at about 11,200 feet above sea level.  It was once the capital of the Incan government.  When we came into Cusco it first looked like a dirty and not so welcoming city, but after hiking from the bus terminal to the city center, everything changed.  The center is filled with small plazas and a cathedral as the cornerstone.  Many of the buildings are built on the old Incan foundations.   Throughout the town there are archeological markers pointing out areas where archeologists found things below the stone streets or pointing out specific symbols in the foundation walls.  One wall in specific has a famous stone with twelve angles cut to fit perfectly with the surrounding stones, as well as a puma and a snake represented in other stones of the foundation.  Much of the Incan history was covered up or destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors and Catholic Church.

(12 angled stone in an old Inca wall foundation)

During our stay in Cusco we had Thanksgiving and my birthday back to back.  There wasn’t a ton of celebration as Thanksgiving is a North American holiday, but we enjoyed some enchiladas and guacamole, and for my birthday we had Alpaca burgers with some beer.  Alpaca is quite good, as it is a very lean meat but still very flavorful.  I think more than anything Megan and I spent the time just trying to stay warm as it got pretty cold at night.

(Cusquena Beer)

(Alpaca Burger)

This region has to be the most expensive area we have visited to date.  One day we tried hiking up a road to see if we could check out one ruin from a distance, but as we started to approach the site on a public road, we were stopped and told we could only continue in a vehicle and could not walk up the road any further.  Of course we could have bought a single day or multiday ticket, but it was very expensive and didn’t seem worth it from online reviews.  Instead, Megan was keen on sneaking up a neighboring hill so we could get a peek of the site.  I wasn’t much help as I was wearing a bright red shirt and stood out like none else. Luckily we didn’t get caught as it was my birthday and the last thing I wanted was to get arrested for that.

(Sneaking a peek of Inca ruins from an adjacent hilltop)

The train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu is $115 for about a two hour ride one way.  To say the least that was way out of the scope of our budget so we of course went for the backpacker route.  We took a six hour van ride that went up through the mountain pass and along a long dirt road etched into mountainsides.  The van dropped us off at a hydroelectric plant where we were given a keyword, and then we followed some train tracks for 2.5 hours on foot until coming up on Aguas Caliente, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu.  When we made it to town we used our keyword to find our tour guide in the town square.  He showed us to our accommodations and we met up a couple of hours later to get our tickets and go over the next day’s agenda.

(Walking the railroad)

At 3:45 am our alarm went off, which seemed way too early.  We made our way to the trailhead to start our hike up to Machu Picchu.  The entrance gate opened at 5 am and we started our trek up a very steep stone and dirt staircase assent.   We were told the steep hike takes 1.5 hours to complete versus taking a ten dollar bus up that takes 25 minutes.  Amazingly it only took us a little under an hour to complete and the views along the way were amazing with low clouds and fog hanging over everything.

(Looking off trail on our way up to Machu Picchu)

When we reached Machu Picchu we were absolutely stunned by the sight.  It’s like a mini-city sitting in the saddle of the mountains.  Machu Picchu wasn’t constructed until around 1450 A.D. and was abandoned shortly after and sat untouched until 1911 when it was discovered by a U.S. historian.  During the Spanish conquest of Latin America it is believed the Incas destroyed all roads to Machu Picchu to keep the Spaniards from finding it.  As we were walking around, the fog was breaking around the mountains making for some epic views.  We went around with a guided tour for the first couple of hours before breaking off to hike up one of the neighboring peaks, Huaynapicchu.  This climb was pretty steep and had some very narrow steps that made it a bit dangerous, but more so for the way down.  Many of the pictures you see of Machu Picchu are taken from this point, and there is good reason as it is a most remarkable view.  I don’t think I can describe the majestic landscape with a most amazing archeological site buried within it.  It was a great experience, but after that Megan was exhausted from the steep hiking, so I ran ahead to make it up to the other side of Machu Picchu and get a good look at the “Inca face”.  The landscape creates a face of an Incan person lying down, with Huaynapicchu as the nose.  See the picture below.

(Megan and I on Machu Picchu)

(Looking down on Machu Picchu)

(The Incan Face, you have to turn your head to the side to see it.)

That afternoon we made our way back to Cusco for a quick night before we caught a bus early in the morning for Puno.  Puno is a pretty sad town and doesn’t have much going for it, but it does lie on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  Lake Titicaca is situated at an elevation of 12,507 ft., which makes it the highest navigable lake in the world, and when you have a nice bright day the water has a beautiful turquoise color.  When we made it to town we quickly booked a two day tour of the lake, because as similar to much of Peru, access is difficult without a tour.  Luckily this tour was pretty good as we set out early on a boat to visit the Uros Islands.  These are manmade, floating islands of grass reeds on top of peat moss.  Every couple of weeks they add more green reeds to the top.  Have to stay afloat!  The little islands house five or six families that live off what the lake provides.  It was a crazy feeling walking across these little islands as in some places it felt like you could just fall through the reeds.  One of the families gave us a demonstration of how they build their little islands and maintain them, and they also gave our group a chance to take a spin on their reed boat.    We even got to taste the reeds themselves as the locals snack on the core.  They taste like a light styrofoam material, so not really that great.  Maybe if they added some hot sauce!

We moved on to Amantani Island where we spent the night.  We were paired up with a local family to stay at their home, but in a private room, and enjoy some local cuisine.  It was most interesting trying to converse with our “mama”, as we speak very broken Spanish and Spanish is a second language to them.  Their first language is Quechua, the language of the Incas.  Many of the islands have their own languages that pre-date the Incans.  Our accommodation was quite nice, just a simple bed with half a dozen thick blankets on top and a candle on a table.  Most of the houses are constructed of adobe with maybe one room in the entire house having an electric light.  After checking out our room we enjoyed a nice quinoa soup, fried cheese that squeaked in your mouth as you ate it, potatoes, and a local tea called muna.  Muna grows wild on the island and is pretty much mint, but not as strong.  For a little entertainment (for the locals, not us) we played a small game of soccer with them.  It only took two seconds for all of us to be absolutely winded from the altitude.  About twenty minutes in I felt like I could pass out.  We luckily only lost 4-2.  Taking a quick five minute break, which was way too short, we hiked to the top of the island where we got to have a stunning view of the lake and surrounding mountains.  We could see Peru on one side and the snowcapped peaks in Bolivia on the other.  On top of that we got to watch a beautiful sunset.

(One of the Uros floating islands)

(Looking at white capped Andes of Bolivia from Lake Titicaca)

For dinner our “mama” cooked us up a wonderful soup and vegetable meal.  They use potatoes in almost everything!  Quickly after dinner we got dressed up in some local clothing and went to the ‘disco’ to experience local music and dancing.  Megan had a most elaborate skirt, top, and accessories, whereas I had a poncho and cap.  The dancing was super easy: Hold hands and follow each other in a circle.  I think Megan really had a blast.

(Dressed up for a disco)

The next day we got an early start, said bye to our “mamas”, and headed off to Taquile Island.  As we got to the island we took our time hiking around and experiencing a different local tribe.  One really interesting thing about this group is that the men do the weaving and knitting (on the previous island, the men are responsible for making the clothing for their wives, now by machine, but the women still did the knitting).  You’re not considered a man if you can’t knit.  When a couple gets married, the woman cuts her long hair and then the man weaves it into his belt.  The men even wear different hats to depict if they are single or married, and the way the single men wear their hats says if they are looking for a girl or not.  While there we enjoyed a local lunch of grilled trout, which was most splendid.  During lunch we were shown how the men weave different things, and how they make natural soap with a demonstration cleaning llama wool. They use this leafy, wild plant that they grind up and put into water and it really suds-up.  Watching this guy do it was like watching an infomercial and you were ready to ask how you can get your hands on this miracle plant.

(Demo of miracle soap)

Back in Puno we quickly made it to the bus station for our next destination, Colca Canyon.  Colca Canyon is a couple of hours outside of Arequipa and is the world’s second deepest canyon.  Imagining something like the Grand Canyon, the reality was quite a bit different.  To us it just seemed like an immense valley and it wasn’t until we were much further down in to it that it looked a bit more like a canyon.  When we arrived in Chivay, the major town in the canyon, we found a place to stay that could do laundry, and made our way around town.  The town is quite small with not much to do.  On the main square we enjoyed some really great chicken burgers on fresh bakery bread.  Yummy!  Later we had some amazing churros.  Always a tasty snack!  The next morning we were up early to catch a bus to the Condor viewpoint.  We were originally led to believe the bus was direct and somewhat timely, important because the condors are only active in the morning.  It was not.  We arrived pretty late quite frustrated.  It took two hours to travel less than 30 miles.  Luckily we caught site of a couple of condors, as they lay down a large shadow while flying overhead.  Instead of waiting three hours for a local bus to come back by, we hooked up with a tour bus for a ride into town.  The next couple of hours were extremely irritating as the tour guide tried to extort more money from us the entire way back (we had already paid what he asked for).  About 5 miles before making it back into town he threated to kick us off if we didn’t pay him more, so I told him we would just walk instead of pay.  I am pretty sure he didn’t want to make a scene in front of his tour group so he drove us the rest of the way.  As we made it back to our hostel we went to pick-up our laundry.  All of mine was returned, but Megan was missing several pieces.  We asked several times for them to look for the missing pieces as we waited freezing in our unheated room, and then half an hour bickering with the owner and her niece in the dark because nobody had looked all day.  They never found anything but they partially reimbursed us for the loss.  Talk about a lousy day.  We were most excited to get out of Colca Canyon.  If you decide to visit, I suggest you go farther into the canyon and spend a week or more so that you can do some hiking, and make sure it’s not their rainy season.

(Condor flying through Colca Canyon)

Arequipa was much like Cusco, as it is a very dirty city on the outside but towards the city center it is amazing.  There are tons of Spanish colonial style buildings and a nice central plaza with some huge historic buildings surrounding it.  Arequipa was just a short stop, but during our full day there we joined a free walking tour where we got to feed the different types of alpacas and llamas, see some historic buildings and parks, and then sample some local cuisine.  The best part was that we got a two for one coupon on hot spiced wine.  Megan and I totally enjoyed that.  I think we both could have gone for a few more glasses.

(Part of the City Center)

(Megan feeding an Alpaca)

Peru was a beautiful country, and venturing through the Andes has been absolutely amazing.  Having Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca back to back was mesmerizing and beyond our expectations.  From Arequipa we have started our bus journey down into San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.  From here we will be weaving our way back and forth through Argentina and Chile for the remainder of our trip.