Note : This is part 1 of a multipart series about Peru. All photos are protected by copyright.
In the past several years, I have tried to make at least one big trip a year. Last year it was the Philippines, a country that wove itself into the fabric of my heart in an incredibly deep way (see my last post What Defines Us?). So after the new year, as I gladly gave the finger to 2009, a year that was one of the most painful of my life so far, I contemplated returning to the Philippines and taking a side trip to Cambodia. As I considered my options more, I remembered that I have always wanted to visit Machu Picchu. Following my Vivez sans regrets! motto, I decided this would be the year, and so I began planning. Then I remembered that the winter solstice in Peru is in June. I did some more investigation and discovered there was a marathon in Pacasmayo. I love when I can mix in another love with my travels (which is why I went to Paris in the spring so I could run the Paris Marathon). And it would work out perfectly so that I could be at Machu Picchu during the solstice. How freakin cool would that be? That settled it.
Peru has so many different regions and so much fascinating and amazing culture that it would definitely take more than one trip, or more than the 2-1/2 weeks I had, to adequately explore it. So I settled on first going to Cusco and Machu Picchu, then on to Puerto Maldonado to stay in the rainforest, and then I would fly up to Pacasmayo, explore there, and finish off my Peruvian trip with the marathon.
First off, let me say that the Lima airport is pretty modern. It was pretty comfortable napping in the gate area except for the loud prerecorded announcements that blare over the intercom system at regular intervals. There is free WiFi throughout the terminals, but you have to sit pretty close to where the signs are posted to get a decent signal. The Peruvian restaurant at the far end of the food court is actually quite good and reasonably priced for an airport food joint.
I arrived in Cusco and was glad I knew that the millions of rainbow flags everywhere are NOT gay
pride flags. It’s a common mistake people make, but don’t mention the comparison. They’re pretty sensitive about that, and understandably so. The Incan flag is well-treasured, respected, and important. We’ll talk more about Cusco in the next post.
I stayed at a hotel that provided airport pickup and was close enough to walk to the Plaza de Armas but far enough to not be in the heavily tourist-occupied section. In spite of the throngs of tourists there to witness Inti Raymi, a re-creation of ancient rituals to keep the sun from retreating further from the earth, I loved Cusco. It has a fascinating mix of Incan & Spanish architecture, is very walkable, and it’s easy to get away from the major tourist sections. Often I was the only white person around.
There are some different options for getting to Machu Picchu. Having had a rough year, I decided a little pampering was in order, and so I forked over the criminal fare to take the fancy train. We were treated like royalty. The guide did a great job once we were there, and we had plenty of time to explore on our own.
It was an incredible experience to be at Machu Picchu during the winter solstice. As you walk around, it becomes readily obvious why the people who built this phenomenal place felt it was a place of great power. The apus (dieties that dwell within the mountains; sharp peaks are male, and rounded peaks are female) surround it, the weather can fluctuate wildly, the mosquitoes are like ninjas, and the air almost hums with a whisper of the sacred. The more time you spend walking around the structures, the more you are filled with awe. My other more modern surprise was that I had 3G service throughout the ruins. Why I can get 3G at Machu Picchu and constantly hit dead spots in Denver, I’ll never understand.
The walls are built without mortar, yet even a piece of paper can’t be inserted between them, in spite of being placed in an actively seismic area. Not a lot is known about its purpose, but much of it is designed around tracking the sun’s movements and especially its location during the critical winter solstice when the sun appears to be at its furthest point from the earth.
You can find more pictures here.
- Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the mountain, is tourist central and not really worth an overnight stay. While there are buses that go to Machu Picchu, the train arrives late enough in the day that there are less crowds at the ruins, and early enough to allow plenty of time to explore at your leisure. If you want to hike up Waynu Picchu, the very steep mountain across from the main ruins of Machu Picchu, stay overnight in Aguas. You need to get in line at about 4 AM or earlier to get one of the coveted tickets during the high season. Only a small number of tickets are given each day, and they are gone very quickly. It’s an incredibly steep and narrow climb.
- Bring plenty of water with you. You can buy bottled water before entering the ruins, but the prices are exorbitant.
- If you take the Hyrum Bingham, they will feed you before and on the way, you will get lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge (it’s a buffet offering a wide variety of typical Peruvian food), they will give you snacks and a filled water bottle, and then you will have more food, including alcoholic beverages if you so desire, on the way back. Even though they give you a water bottle, I would bring my own. I don’t think the metal bottle was treated, and the flavor was pretty nasty. One of their staff will act as a guide. Ours was very knowledgeable, and her English was pretty good. The other advantage is they will guide you through the souvenir gauntlets at the stations. Before you get too excited, though, realize it is EXTREMELY expensive (approx. USD 600 for the roundtrip per person from Cusco). Dinner service includes live performances, so if you decide to only take it one-way, you may get more bang for the buck and experience if you choose to take it for the return trip to Cusco. There are some other stations where you can catch this train which might reduce your cost a little, but if you’re going to do the HB, it’s really worth going from Cusco in my opinion.
- If you’ve spent any time in third-world countries, you already are accustomed to being accosted nonstop by people trying to sell you things. It can get on your nerves rapidly, especially if you’ve been in Cusco for a few days before making your journey. While it may seem rude, it is culturally acceptable to simply shake your head no and keep walking or to just ignore them. When others see you aren’t engaging, they don’t bother you. Most of the time.
- When booking hotel rooms, don’t be impressed by advertisements stating “American breakfast” is included. I rarely found a place that actually had anything but a purely strict interpretation of continental breakfast (weak coffee, bread with jam and butter, and juice). Empanadas are much more filling and cost about $1 USD.
- You simply must try Inca Kola. Some people feel it’s an acquired taste, but chances are you’ve probably never tasted anything like it. The best description I can give of its flavor is bubble gum.
- Cusco is very high altitude, and Machu Picchu is only a little lower. Many people swear by mate de coca to help them breathe more easily. It is tea made from the coca leaf, although some people put a wad of the leaves in their mouth and chew it. No, it isn’t cocaine-like. It has a very pleasant flavor and has become one of my favorite teas. Unfortunately, US Customs won’t let it into the country, even in teabags, so don’t waste your soles buying any if your next or final stop is the US. Make sure to drink more water than you think you need. In high altitude you lose lots of water through normal respiration. By the time you are feeling the symptoms of dehydration, you’re already fairly dehydrated. Use your urine color to guide you on your fluid intake (clear to pale yellow means you’re doing great), or drink regularly even if not thirsty.
- Not to gross you out or anything, but I wouldn’t recommend buying bread products from street vendors. I spent a lot of time people watching and noticed that nose-picking is socially acceptable in public. The hands that are all over your bread could very well provide you with some unwanted extra flavoring.
- Be advised that while many places will accept credit cards, Visa reigns supreme, and I rarely found any place that accepted Mastercard. Peru also has the coolest ATMs. Every single machine I found gives you the option of withdrawing in USD or the Peruvian nuevo sol. Some had the additional option of dispensing euros as well. It may also be helpful to know that you should only carry small bills. I would suggest nothing bigger than a 20. Most businesses and vendors don’t keep a lot of money on hand and have difficulty making change for larger bills. Unfortunately, most of the ATMs give you large bills. What I often did was withdraw money from an ATM and then step into a exchange center. They will usually break your bill into smaller denominations.
- If you are bringing cash to exchange, the bureaus are extremely selective on what they will accept. If it has the slightest tear, has been marked in any way, or is pretty worn, it will be rejected.
My 2nd winter solstice of the year will be in our home state of Colorado. Being a culturally mixed family, we have our own holiday celebration called Chrismakah. We’ll be celebrating it during the solstice. Talking about winter holidays: May your holiday season, whatever form that may take and wherever you may find yourself in the world, be filled with joy and love. From Tigger and me.