Category Archives: Peru

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.

Pisco Sour and Ceviche

Peru has so many amazing places to visit that we were at a loss trying to figure out what we could and could not fit in during our short time in the country.  Ok, three and a half weeks is not all that short, but that’s how fantastic (and spread out) Peru is!  We ended up skipping the most Northern parts of Peru for the sake of time, which meant we missed the best beaches, the majority of the jungle, and some Incan ruins that supposedly rival those of Machu Picchu.  What we have seen and experienced, however, has been pretty incredible!

Our first stop was Trujillo, partly because of the nearby ruins and partly because it was on the way to Huaraz.  At our first experience of food in Peru, Bryan was very pleased to finally have true hot sauce – a green salsa with a good kick set out at many of the restaurants – for the first time in South America so far.  We spent our first morning trying to find the local bus, a.k.a. collectivo, to the Huacas de Moche (temples of the Moche people).  We stood at a round-about watching a hilariously chaotic display of local buses and collectivos (vans that pack ‘em in) dodging one another to get to the customers while someone hung out each door yelling out their routes.  We never saw our route symbol so we trekked back to our hotel, where we found out the collectivo we needed passed by right out front.  That was much easier!  I had to smile all the way to the ruins watching Bryan being squeezed between two plump ladies on a bench behind the driver, while I sat as cozy as possible in a real seat.

(Bryan trying to stretch his mouth over something called “King Kong”, which turned out to just be a fancy PB&J.)

At the Huacas de Moche we paid our entrance fee and began exploring the museum before the ruins, as recommended.  A few moments in, Bryan realized we were short changed 50 soles (about $18) and we rushed back to the entrance with little hope.  The two employees counted their cash drawers against the tickets sold and thankfully acknowledged the mistake.  Phew!  In the museum we saw examples of the pottery similar to nothing we had previously seen (sorry, no pics in the museum), and learned that the Moche people were a bit on the violent side with gladiator-type battles and human sacrifices.  They were eventually overruled by the Incas.  The Huaca del Sol (temple of the sun) was the largest adobe pyramid in the Americas before the Spaniards did major irreparable damage in the pursuit of gold.  It is currently being excavated so it was closed to us.  We were able to tour the Huaca de la Luna (temple of the moon).  The most interesting detail about these temples is that the Moche built a new temple on top of the old about every century, filling in spaces with mud bricks and adding another layer, making it larger while preserving the earlier temples and art.  Between the two temples, little remains of what was once the capital city of the Moche.  At the site I was also fascinated by a strange, hairless dog running around.  I later looked it up and found out it is the Peruvian Hairless dog and the breed has been around since pre-Incan times.  Maybe the dog was waiting for its Moche family to come home!

(Exterior wall of Huaca de la Luna – the hole made my Spanish conquistadors.)

The next day we checked out Chan Chan, the largest pre-Colombian city in South America, built by the Chimor people also from adobe bricks and surrounded by massive adobe walls.  This was different from the Huacas de Moche primarily because it consists of the structures in which the people lived, but also many of the design styles differed greatly.  The majority of the Chimors’ diet came from the nearby ocean, but they also became reliant on irrigation farming.  It was hard to believe they could grow enough crops from that sand dessert, but apparently they did.  We were able to see what is believed to be many crop storage rooms throughout the ancient city.  A design symbolizing fish nets make up many of the walls (the holes made for ventilation of the storage rooms) and repetitive symbols for fish, birds, and squirrels can be seen.  A lot of Chan Chan has been reconstructed, which is both nice and somewhat disappointing.  A lot of erosion occurred making it hard to imagine what the structures once looked like, so the reconstruction is helpful in that way, but it also takes away a bit of the ancient feel.

(Symbolism of waves, ocean currents, fish, and ducks.)

We walked from Chan Chan to another temple, Huaca Esmeralda; an interesting walk because it was set back in a neighborhood and we had to stop and ask several people for directions.  Not very much attention is given to this temple, and we weren’t able to learn much about it as a result, but the style seemed similar to both the Moche’s and Chimor’s.

On the way to Huaca Esmeralda, we passed a packed restaurant that seemed very out of place being so far from the city (until we noticed it was next to a cock fighting place).  The food looked amazing so we decided to try Ceviche there for the first time.  People all over Ecuador had been raving about how good Peru’s Ceviche is.  Daaaanng!  Essentially it is raw fish marinated in lime juice with onion, sweet potato, corn, lettuce, avocado, and whatever else that particular restaurant adorns it with.  The “mixto” we had also included shell fish and crab.  Definitely our favorite single dish of South America so far.

(The incredible “ceviche mixto”)

We ended up with less time in Huaraz than we had wanted due to sold out buses, but our two days there were incredible!  We would be happy to go back in the future to spend an entire week or so trekking.  This was the first time we saw the Andes looking like what you expect the Andes to look like – steep, dramatic, snow-covered peaks that make the Colorado Rockies look like child’s play.  Our bus arrived at five in the morning and we went straight to bed at our hostel.  We pleasantly woke up to a big breakfast a few hours later and the owner helped us make plans to do a mountain bike route that had great views of the surrounding peaks and overlooked the town.  With bikes strapped to the roof, a collectivo brought us to the start on a gravel road high above Huaraz.  We continued uphill for another 5.5 miles, thighs burning, surrounded by breathtaking views.  The route down was really fun as we bounced through traditional villages on a rough route, dodging school children, crazy dogs, and hardworking people carrying big loads on their backs.

(From the hotel rooftop – now this is the Andes!)

Our hotel organized a van to take a big group of us to a popular day hike to Lake 69.  It was a very long day starting with a two hour drive followed by the most physically challenging experience of the entire trip for me.  Nine months ago (when I was in good shape and acclimated to high altitude) this wouldn’t have been as difficult, but being at sea level for so long with lack of regular exercise hasn’t been helpful.  Yet, I have absolutely no complaints!  After passing two gorgeous turquoise lakes enclosed by sharp, snow-capped peaks on the drive in, the trailhead began at around 12,630 feet elevation.  For the next four hours we went up, up, and up – through mountain fields, over two passes, and past the hairiest cattle I had ever seen – until we finally reached Lake 69 at 14,435 feet.  I’d say it was breathtaking, but I didn’t have any breath to take by that time!  As we crossed the last field before climbing the second pass, we were faced by enormous cliff faces topped by thick glaciers.  Countless thin cascades from the melting glaciers dropped a very long way to the field below.  Just after making it to the top of the second pass, the most perfect site came into view:  an enormous waterfall dropping from another cliff face straight into the most turquoise water we had ever seen.  As the rest of the lake came into view, so did the continuing wall of marble-patterned rock face topped by glaciers and pristine peaks, with several more wispy-thin waterfalls.  The sky weather stayed clear just long enough for us to take it all in, and then the clouds changed form and dropped down, covering the peaks and hiding the sunlight.  The temperature dropped fast and it began to snow/rain on us just as we finished our lunch.  Needless to say, we hurried back to the van in just two hours – wet, cold, and happy!

(A lake before the trail head.)

(Lake 69 backed by a marble-patterned cliff, waterfalls, glaciers, and sharp peaks (fish-eye view))

After all that, we had just enough time to take showers before our night bus to Lima.  We were really excited for Lima because it is the home of one of my best friends, Vanessa, who I met in grad school and who still lives in Colorado.  Vanessa has an incredible family who welcomed us into their home and took the time to make sure we experienced Lima the right way!  Her parents, Julio and Merida, don’t speak English (although they know quite a few words), which is the biggest reason we took that Spanish class in Quito and had been practicing so much.  We are very far from fluent, but we did ok considering the short amount of time we’ve been studying.  We can understand more than we can speak, and Julio and Merida are wonderfully animated, which made them quite easy to understand.  Vanessa’s brother, Arturo, was also a life saver when he wasn’t working because he speaks fluent English, and Vanessa called a few times to make sure we understood everything.  Julio and Merida met us at the bus station that morning and had the next two and a half days all planned out for us.  At breakfast we met Vanessa’s grandma, aunt, uncle, and Agida, who helps around the house.  It was actually really fun trying to tell them about ourselves and our trip with our broken Spanish and animations!

(An amazing lunch with Julio, Merida, and Arturo)

After breakfast, we went downtown where we watched the changing of the palace guards and then had a really nice lunch where Arturo met up with us.  We got to try another Ceviche which was even better than the first, some drinks made with pisco and passion fruit (yum), and a couple other seafood dishes.  This was a good start to experiencing the “Gastronomical Capital of South America”.  Julio, Merida, Bryan, and I took a city/coast tour on an open-topped bus where we laughed about dodging tree branches and got to watch people paragliding off the edge of a cliff over the beach.  The city sits much higher than the ocean, with a sudden drop down to the beach all along the coast.  It’s still springtime in Peru, and Lima’s weather was a bit chilly while we were there, so after that open-topped bus we headed for hot cocoa and coffee.  Churros with my hot cocoa? Yes please!  The day ended perfectly at a bar rated for the best Pisco Sours in Lima several years in a row, Huaringas.  Pisco Sour is the Peruvian drink.  We have had many with Vanessa in Denver when her parents bring up the pisco and sour mix, but having it with fresh fruit is a whole different experience!  Pisco is a grape brandy; I describe the taste as a few steps past wine.  We had told Julio and Merida that we plan to have children eventually after the trip, and we laughed hysterically as Julio told us about Peruvian witch doctors that people go to see when they want to have children.  In his very animated way, he told us that the men get the juices from a freshly killed guinea pig rubbed all over them by the witch doctor.  Now that sounds fun!  We’re still laughing every time we remember Julio acting it out!  After Arturo showed up, Julio and Merida left us to keep experimenting with all the flavors (Bryan and I always got different ones), and we had a blast with Arturo and his girlfriend, Gianinna.  That didn’t make the next morning so easy, though!

(Paragliders over the coast of Lima)

Julio and Merida had a big day trip planned for us, so we woke up early to catch a four-hour bus ride South to Paracas, where we first had a nice boat tour the Ballestas Islands.  Bryan and I actually had no clue why we were hopping on this little boat and where we were going (these were all new Spanish words to us) and the guide spoke fast Spanish, so we figured it all out as it appeared in front of us.  The first sight was a very large geoglyph, called El Candelabro, in the side of one of the islands.  It looks like a big cactus and is similar to the more famous Nasca Lines (mysterious large-scale, ancient geoglyphs on the desert floor best seen from airplanes) a little farther South.  But the real sight was the wildlife: Humbolt penguins, sea lions, and millions of other birds blanketing the islands.  It was pretty exciting to see penguins in the wild for the first time, and the sea lions looked so goofy!  The two islands were white with guano (we were told they are important for the agriculture industry) and species included blue footed boobies, guanay guano birds, and pelicans.  Of course we couldn’t understand what species we were seeing at the time, but after looking it up, I’m pretty excited that I can say I saw blue footed boobies!  For lunch we got a ride into Paraca National Reservation on the peninsula for a fantastic lunch (two types of ceviche plus grilled fish dishes) at a very peaceful and beautiful location.  Next to the restaurant was a quiet little beach overlooking men fishing with bare hands and fishing line while pelicans and guanay guano birds watched closely.  Merida and Julia tried to convince us to go for a swim.  It wasn’t exactly warm.  In another month it would probably be great, but we had a chilly wind and the water was even colder.  Bryan did it, though!  He made it all the way in and right back out!  Back in Paraca (the town), we strolled along the beach, enjoyed hot drinks and deserts, and taste-tested pisco at a beach-side bar.

(Blue footed boobies.)

The next day we had another amazing lunch, this time at the country club that Julio is a member of, with a great view overlooking the coast.  Each day the lunch kept getting bigger, like they were stretching our stomachs little by little.  Actually, they kept telling Bryan they were going to fatten him up to make him strong for babies!  Ha!  Julio found out that Bryan loves spicy food, and he wanted to see if Bryan could handle the local hot pepper, rocoto, so he had the waiter bring out a sliced, whole pepper.  Needless to say, Julio was impressed that a “gringo” could take it.  From then on, we had fresh rocoto at every meal.  The food was fantastic, and we both loved this side dish of potato and beans mashed together and grilled on the outside.  Once we were full up to our eyes, out came the desserts.  Despite how amazing they were, it was a difficult task.  Julio and Merida had a baby shower to go to, so Bryan and I wandered around for a bit.  We found an interesting mall inside the cliff over the coast.  It was right below the view out the restaurant window and we had no idea.  We spent some time using the internet at Starbucks, and then hopped on another open-topped bus for a night tour of the city and the fountain park.  The fountain park was pretty cool, with several pretty, but regular fountains, a fountain tunnel to walk through, and then a really cool laser/projector/water show like we had never seen before.  The water was sprayed up in a mist and an animated image would be projected into the mist, and it absolutely looked 3-D like a holographic projection from Star Wars.  Really cool!

(A ‘holographic’ ballerina)

The next day we had the largest meal yet, and the most variety of Peruvian foods.  We got to try Papa a la Huancaina (potatoes in a creamy/cheesy/mustardy sauce) – one of Vanessa’s favorite dishes and the one that she brought to our house a few times for Thanksgivings and other get-togethers.  Mmm!  As soon as we finished one round of food, another followed shortly.  We had all different types of meats, vegetables, potatoes, sauces, and then three types of desserts.

(Papa a la Huancaina)

On our last full day in Lima, Julio and Merida took us to the zoo where we got to see animals from all three climate zones of Peru (jungle, Andes, coastal).  We were most impressed by the many birds that we had never seen before, for example, the giant Condor with its wrinkly, naked head and a small, safety-orange bird with a mohawk.  During the drive between the zoo and their house, a 5.8 earthquake shook Lima and we didn’t feel a thing since we were in the car.  I’m bummed we missed out on feeling our first earthquake.  That day we had a delicious homemade lunch and dinner, of which we especially liked a stuffed potato dish (I think ‘papa rellena’).   That day was pretty relaxing and we were able to recover a little from the food coma before leaving the next afternoon for Cusco.

(Bryan’s favorite bird at the zoo)

We are extremely grateful to the De La Puentes for treating us like family, taking great care of us, and making sure we had such a memorable experience in Lima!  Peru had exceeded our expectations so far, and we still had the most popular sites to come: Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and Colca Canyon.