Climbing out of the sedan, an informal taxi that our Airbnb host in Puno had arranged to bring my friend Amy and I to the airport an hour from the Lake Titicaca community, I had to admit that our Airbnb host’s daughter was right – the Juliaca airport was small, with just two gates in the entire terminal.
I had discussed what time we should leave for the airport with her the day before, since her English was much better than our friendly host Lucy’s. My rule of thumb has been to always arrive two hours early for domestic flights – especially in foreign countries and especially after missing a flight in the United Kingdom a few years ago. But Lucy and her daughter were adamant that we didn’t need to be there any earlier than an hour ahead. We compromised and left with enough time to be there with an hour and a half ahead of our afternoon departure for Lima.
After slipping a bit outside on the smooth pavement in the rain – a bit strange since we made a point to travel during the country’s dry season – we were directed straight to a kiosk to check in and check our bags, assisted by a young woman with the LATAM airline. We were about to finish the process, and then the lights in the crowded airport went dark. The power in the airport went out.
It was just one of the things in Peru — good and bad — I had never experienced before in my two decades since getting my first passport as a high school freshman for a German Exchange program.
In an age of being able to Google anything — for travel, food recommendations, excursions, accommodations — Peru still surprised me, mainly in a good way.
Like most people, it was the fabled Machu Picchu that brought Amy and I to Peru. The mountaintop ruins may not be as old as those in Italy, Greece, Egypt, or China, but people love a good mystery and if there’s one word to describe the cloud-covered city at the juncture of the jungle and glacial peaks of the Andes, it’s mysterious. Unlike many other civilizations, the Inca did not leave behind a writing system. Theirs was a culture that revolved around oral history. One archaeological find that could be a game changer with the understanding of the Incas are recording devices with knots likely representing the crop tallies for various seasons.
The purpose of Machu Picchu is still a mystery. Some believe it was built as a resort for a wealthy Incan. After all, the word “Inca” initially referred to the royalty of the civilization before it was used to generally label the people who, at their height, had control over much of the Andes and western coast of South America, spanning 2,500 miles — until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Another theory is that the complex was a university where people could learn about various topics, including studying the skies and movement of the sun and stars. Whether that was why people lived in Machu Picchu, it is now a reason many visit the site today. Peru’s winter solstice in June (our summer) is a popular time to take the meandering bus ride up to the ruins from Aguas Calientes, where the train — the only transport to the area around Machu Picchu — comes right through the downtown area and drops off excited visitors, like students freshly off the Hogwarts Express in Harry Potter.
In the entirely pedestrian-based community of small streets and large alleyways, once we arrived in Aguas Calientes, I had just enough power on my phone to navigate to our hotel. Both of us carrying heavy backpacks, we were happy to arrive and to meet JC, who would be our guide the following morning for Machu Picchu. When he examined our tickets that we bought ourselves after a lengthy process online (not the typical way that you purchase Machu Picchu tickets but we wanted to make sure we got tickets and a time slot for one of the adjacent mountains which also requires a ticket), JC became the first of two guides to question the validity of our tickets.
We woke up around 4:30 a.m. the next morning to do the five-minute walk to wait in line for the buses. There were already over 100 people in line when we arrived and the first buses would leave at 5:30 a.m. There was some confusion for Amy and I about getting bus tickets and more confusion about our Machu Picchu tickets and then we were on the bus. There is a fleet of large tourist buses that bring visitors up the switchback roads to the mountaintop site, 8,000 feet above sea level.
When we finally made it to the top, I could not believe it. After two domestic flights in the U.S., an international flight, another flight in Peru, a tour bus through the Sacred Valley to Ollantaytambo, a train ride to Aguas Calientes, and a bus to what seems like the top of the tourism world, we were here. We could see the iconic Huayna Picchu (or Young Mountain) that guards over the so-called Lost City of the Incas. We were finally here, just steps away. And, as luck would have it, our ticket was indeed valid and we walked through with our guide soon after sunrise. Machu Picchu was worth the trip.
Knowing my love of hiking, many of my friends and family were surprised Amy and I didn’t hike the Inca Trail or do another hiking trip to travel to Machu Picchu.
The more I researched our trip to Peru, the more I realized that as amazing as Machu Picchu is, a trip to Peru can — dare I say, should —include much more.
Ahead of the trip, I heard mixed thoughts on Lima, which has a population of about 10 million. Some people said that we should go straight to the Andes and others said that Lima was worth checking out. We ended up staying a couple days. I tend to agree that Lima is worth a visit. Food is a highlight with many internationally-recognized restaurants and chefs in the country’s capital. Ceviche and Asian-influenced cuisine are quintessential Peruvian cuisine and delicious. Pisco sours are also a must-try. Restaurants we went to included: oceanfront Mangos and Amaz, which was visited by the late travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain. One thing I enjoyed about the food is that a meal that would normally be over $100 per person in New York City, was about $70 total for two people. One really can’t beat the food prices. On top of this, it was all fresh and flavorful.
As for sights, there are parks, museums, and beautiful areas to walk around. Must-sees include:
The San Francisco Monastery and Catacombs, where the remains of 70,000 are decoratively-arranged below a beautiful basilica. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Huaca Pucllana adobe brick pyramid site is right in the middle of Lima, in the Miraflores district. Built between 300 and 700 A.D., it is amazing and surprising to see the pyramid in the middle of a city neighborhood. “Huaca” in the native South American language of Quechua means something that is revered or sacred.
The Barranco District is a fun, hip, artistic neighborhood of Lima with quirky stores, cafes, murals, museums, and nooks to explore. It’s a great place to wander and check out local businesses – like the Barranco Beer Company brew pub.
The Parque del Amor and Parque Kennedy are parks and community centers of the city where people gather. Parque Kennedy is known for the dozens of cats that call the park home. And Parque del Amor has love-themed sculptures, perfect for a sunset stroll along the Pacific coast with a loved one.
At 11,100 feet, Cusco is the perfect jumping off point for trekking into the Andes. But at 11,100 feet, Cusco is also a place where many (well, most) visitors face some kind of altitude sickness. The local remedy for this is coca tea. Peru is one of a handful of countries in South America that grow the coca plant as a cash crop. Coca, by the way, is also used to make cocaine. I had read that chewing the coca leaves can give you a buzz but, from drinking the tea, I never felt anything more than confused that I was drinking a tea that tasted like actual leaves. I’m pretty sure giving coca tea to tourists is a big inside joke for Peruvians. But I still brought back a large box of the tea as a souvenir and to drink here if I ever want a taste of the Andes, or its vegetation.
The city of Cusco may have a population of 350,000 but parts of it feel like you’ve gone back in time to a quaint European village in the mountains.
Must-sees in and around Cusco:
Plaza de Armas is a central square in the city with stores and restaurants. While in Cusco, you’ll have to decide if you want to try the traditional dish of guinea pig. Residents of Cusco eat this during festivals. Just as Thanksgiving is not complete without a turkey, no celebratory meal is complete in this part of the world without guinea pig. The overall taste will depend on the spices used but the texture is similar to duck.
Sacsayhuaman are Inca ruins that were built around 1,100 A.D. and located in the northern end of Cusco. Like many Inca designs, it’s particularly impressive to see how these large stones were perfectly placed to fit in the citadel even without mortar.
San Pedro Market is a large and diverse market where you can get everything from guinea pig to alpaca woolen items. It’s impressive with some similarities to local farmers markets.
Sacred Valley sites are a day trip from Cusco. You can book a tour and then get a pass which will include many of these ruins. There’s a pass that also includes sites in Cusco. Along the Urbamba River, which eventually leads to Machu Picchu, there are nearby ruins like Pisac, Moray and Ollantaytambo. Pisac had an impressive burial mound area, Ollantaytambo is a massive Inca fortress, and all of the sites have the famous Inca terraces.
In the distance from Cusco, you can see the glacial mountain of Ausangate, a nearly 21,000-foot mountain that is taller than any mountain in North America. In Peruvian culture, mountains are thought to have an “apu” or spirit. Before hiking a mountain, Peruvian guides will lay a rock down on a cairn and ask for permission to trek on the mountain.
From Cusco, there are day hikes with tours that bring you on one-lane, gravel, winding roads along cliffs to trailheads like the start of the Salkantay Trail, which is becoming a popular alternative to the Inca Trail. The start of this trail includes a short but steep ascent to Humantay Lake, a glacial lagoon with the Humantay glacier and 16,000-foot mountain in the background. The trail also has views of the 20,500-foot Salkantay Mountain.
Rainbow Mountain is becoming like the Mt Fuji of Peru — there’s no way you can visit without seeing it. And it is a bit of a hike but entirely worth it. Our white, 15-person Mercedes Benz van traveled through picturesque alpaca farms to a brand new trailhead for the mountain. Rainbow Mountain has colorful sediment that resembles a rainbow. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen it on Instagram.
Desert, Plains, Mountains, Ocean
While Machu Picchu was certainly the keystone of the trip, the rest of Peru was unforgettable. I hope to go back to see even more of Peru.
In 12 days, Amy and I strolled through the streets of Lima, rode a dune buggy and watched the sunset over a desert oasis, almost got airsick while flying over the immense Nazca lines, took selfies with seals at the Ballestas Islands off the Peruvian coast, kayaked through tall reeds on Lake Titicaca, hiked through alpaca farm country and near glacial mountains, and had a taste of the jungle at Machu Picchu.
In the New York Times’ “52 Places to Go in 2018,” it includes the pre-Incan ruins of Kuelap in Northern Peru. It’s hard to see all of the highlights of a country in one week, the usual American vacation. For my part, I hope to go back and see the northern areas of Peru – which have some even taller peaks than the ones we saw – maybe visit the beaches in the north as well and the 10,700 foot deep Colca Canyon area in the south.
Choose Your Own Adventure
In Peru, you have a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure of places to visit. There’s a reason director Steven Spielberg began the popular Indiana Jones films with a story that started in Peru. There’s an irresistible mystery and appeal of the country, its people and their history. You are all but guaranteed to new experiences – some good, some bad, some amazing and will leave you awestruck. And even if you end up in an airport that temporarily loses power during a freak rainstorm, it’ll all work out in the end. You’ll come away with a great story.
Things of note — AKA things I wish someone had told us going in.
Like other Latin American countries, you don’t flush the toilet paper down the toilet. There is a designated basket next to the toilet.
You will see a lot of stray dogs and cats. It’s a bit heartbreaking but a reality of many countries that don’t have advocates like Bob Barker to constantly remind people to spay or neuter their pets.
Hot water is not a given and not reliable, even when staying at a hotel.
Museum employees and store clerks either don’t have change or hate giving change.
The altitude really is no joke. I’m glad my doctor prescribed altitude sickness medication. Drink lots of water and try to avoid alcohol, of course, making the exception for Pisco sours.
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