Our 4 days in Lima were cut short by an incident at the Cusco airport that delayed our flight 2 days. (The good news is that no one was hurt in the incident.) So our short visit to Lima was focused on gearing up for an upcoming trek in the jungle to La Cuidad Perdida. We enjoyed the city and recommend stopping over for a couple days if you are heading to Cusco and Machu Picchu.
The city is perched on some dramatic cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a beach that stretches out for kilometers. There are nice promenades atop the cliffs and along the beach which make for nice running, biking or strolling. Surf breaks are within the city’s boundaries, and we saw more than a couple surfers navigating the city streets with their surf boards. The vibe and scenery feels very “Californian”.
We had a chance to check out the modern art museum which is set on a large park in one of the city’s centers. In addition to some great art, the museum has many indigenous and Inca artifacts. Both the park and art museum were quite nice.
Unfortunately, the day we visited the museum was also the day for an afternoon futbol match. Peruvians love their futbol, and the streets were jammed with vendors and spectators. It was absolute gridlock for hours.
They also enjoy their gambling, and Lima is filled with Casinos which seem to be visited by everyone, not just the “fat cats”.
If you go, Miraflores is the neighborhood to stay. The neighborhood is a little touristy, but it also has a very large residential area with beautiful old homes and leafy trees lining the streets. We found a great hotel, Tierra Viva Miraflores Larco, on a quiet street in the neighborhoodthat was walking distance to the beach, close to restaurants, very good surf shops, and a few barber shops (corto, por favor!). There are lots of good restaurants and shops as well. And the Shawerma is also there.
Until they build the new international airport in Cusco (which looks like it will decimate hundreds of hectares of beautiful, mountainous farm land), you pretty much have to fly to Lima to get to the Inca Trail so you may as well stop off for a couple days and check out the city – it is worth a look.
There are many books written on the Incas, and it can be a challenge sifting through the plethora of books out there. Perusing Kindle samples (which I love) helps but can sometimes take time. However, this book, The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie, pulled me in immediately. Part of my rationale for choosing this book over the many other books was that it was not written by explorers claiming to have found Inca ruins, and MacQuarrie is a four-time Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker and an anthropologist. If you have any interest in what happened to the Incas, the brutal takeover by the Spanish as well as three American explorers of Peru, this is a well researched and written book with a focus on the thirty-six year war between the Incas and Spanish.
MacQuarrie’s detailed account of the events during this war is woven into a fascinating story. The book kept my attention throughout the roughly 540 pages as it reads more like a novel and has a number of interesting characters- the brutal and ruthless Pizarro brothers, the Inca emperors, Pachacuti, Manco, Atahualpa and his brother, Huascar. And there is an added bonus towards the end of the book where MacQuarrie transitions from the thirty-six year war to the trials and tribulations of three American explorers (Hiram Bingham, Gene Savoy and Vincent Lee) who rediscovered various Inca ruins. This section of the book was another fascinating read about the cutthroat explorer business. This is a must read, in my opinion, for anyone planning to visit Cusco, Peru and the Inca trail and ruins.
You may know the story of Hiram Bingham III, a historian and lecturer at Yale University, who rediscovered Machu Picchu (Quechua meaning “old mountain”) in 1911. National Geographic and Yale University funded another expedition in 1912 followed by a National Geographic article that put Machu Picchu on the world map (and did a lot to make the small upstart magazine the global brand it is today). Since the publishing of Bingham’s work and the National Geographic article, the world has marveled at the Incas’ engineering- the perfectly carved stones and pathways/ roads, the water system and canals still used today and the agricultural terraces.
On Day 4 on the Inca Trail, we set out for Machu Picchu. Up until this point, we had gorgeous weather, but we woke on Day 4 to pouring rain and a cup of coca tea delivered to our tent at 3:30 am by the awesome Valencia team. (Valencia is truly one of the best guiding companies with which we have had the pleasure of traveling.) It was actually a torrential downpour, but spirits were high. We all joked that the rain completed the Inca Trail experience. So with our rain gear on, head lamps, walking poles and backpacks, we set out for the checkpoint to Machu Picchu.
At the checkpoint and a little soggy, we waited for about an hour for it to open which was actually a good thing as the rain subsided while we waited in the protection of the overhang with ~200 fellow trekkers and guides. (The porters do not join the guests to Machu Picchu as there is no need and they hike down with the 70 + lbs they carried up to catch the 5:30 am cargo train back to Ollantaytambo.)
During days 1-3 on the Inca trail, we joined many other people on the trail, but it was not the steady stream of people that we experienced to and at the Sun Gate and in Machu Picchu. Regardless, walking the ancient, Inca, stone path carved into the gorgeous Andes mountains and sometimes carved into sheer precipices was a surreal experience.
After about two hours of hiking single file with a steady stream of people, we arrived at the Sun Gate. The Sun Gate was the main entrance to Machu Picchu and the point at which the Incas entered and exited Machu Picchu.
Following the Sun Gate, we were not only hiking with our ~200 fellow Inca Trail hikers over the last three days, but the day trippers to Machu Picchu. From the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu, the hike was only about another 30 minutes and all downhill. We passed many panting visitors going in the opposite direction hoping for the clouds to clear (no chance on that day). Finally, after 4 days of hiking, coming around the corner to view the classic photo now associated with Machu Picchu is awe inspiring- even with some clouds. And the the sheer number and size of ruins surrounded by the beautiful Andes peaks is quite a site.
The site is divided into an urban sector and an agricultural sector, and into an upper town and a lower town.
In Machu Picchu, there is one engineering marvel after another to explore.
The photo on the left above is believed to be a sundial. The photo on the right above is believed to have been designed as an astronomic clock or calendar by the Incas.
Even after visiting Machu Picchu, it is difficult to describe where we have been and what we saw because the words and pictures do not do justice to the work of the Incas. Many believe the site is still a powerful and mystical site and believe there is energy to harness while visiting.
After spending the day at ruins, we took the bus to the town of Machu Picchu (or Aquas Calientes) for a celebratory lunch with our team which was followed by the super scenic and beautiful train ride back to Ollantaytambo (and then a bus ride back to Cusco to end the 18 hour day).
So haku, haku (Quechua word ) to Machu Picchu! Check out our other posts on Peru, Cusco, and the Inca trail here.
If you are planning at trip to Machu Picchu or just have interest in the site and the history of its rediscovery, Turn Right at Machu Picchumay be a good read for you. It is a light-hearted, humorous story of a travel writer’s (from Outside magazine) re-creation of Hiram Bingham‘s orginal expedition to Machu Picchu. A lot of the non-fiction on the site are a bit dry, including Hiram Bingham’s book which outlines his expedition. This read is very much like something from Bill Bryson (of A Walk in the Woods fame). It is light and fast and provides a lot of great facts on Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham, as well as the ongoing disputes between Yale University and the government of Peru over artifacts that were removed from the country and are currently in Connecticut.
While the book describes the author’s multiple expeditions to Machu Piccu, surrounding ruins, and the Inca trail, it also provides a lot of information and strong arguments that discredits Hiram Bingham as the discover of Machu Picchu (think Columbus and the Americas).
It wasn’t my favorite book but it is a fast and entertaining way to get more information on Machu Picchu and the history of its rediscovery. It is definitely worth a read if you are at all interested in the topic.
If you are interested in our short expedition on the Inca Trail, check out our blog post here.
Saksaywaman, pronounced “sexy woman”, is a site of some impressive ancient ruins just on the outskirts of Cusco town. It is about a 2K hike up and out of town and well worth a visit. If you are heading to the Inca trail, it is a nice short hike that will help you acclimatize to the altitude. In preparation for the upcoming Inca Trail hike, we decided to walk to the ruins which took about 40 minutes (we were meandering). Once we got there, we hired a local guide because we wanted some historical information. You certainly don’t need a guide to see the ruins but if you want to learn a bit more history and ask questions, it is worth it.
The ruins include a temple, ceremonial table and play field, an amphitheater which was the location of animal combat, a quarry, and some dramatic views of Cusco town.
And after the warm hike, there is nothing like a cold Cusquena!
Cusco is a lovable tourist town. By far, it is the most “touristy” spot we have visited in the last six months as we are usually not attracted to locations that are overwhelmed by tourists.
There are people from everywhere here – including quite a number of Peruvian visitors. Most are stopping by before or after their visit to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, others are visiting from the countryside to spend time in the big city, and, during our visit, many were visiting the cathedrals and churches during the big Catholic holy week. And there is not an insignificant number of young and old backpackers, gypsies, and perhaps “dharma bums” wandering the world and stopping by Cusco and Machu Piccu to be energized by the alleged mystical powers of the sacred rocks and and ruins.
Yet, despite all the visitors, the relentless street vendors, and shop after shop of Peruvian kitsch, it drew us in. Maybe it was because Cusco was our first stop in Peru and we had our first opportunity to try a number of Peruvian dishes including lomo saltado (stir fried beef with vegetables sometimes served over quinoa), tacu tacu (peruvian refried beans and rice), alpaca , cuy (guinea pig), chicha morada (purple corn juice), coca tea, and so many more lomo and vegetable dishes.
Here are a few of our favorite Cusco restaurants that are somewhat off the radar.
Morena – local Peruvian dishes at reasonable prices and the ladies here are super friendly.
Mr. Soup – at altitude, sometimes you lose your appetite. This soup spot is just what the doctor ordered.
Nuna Raymi – another good Peruvian spot that is relatively quick.
Carp Diem – run by Italians with great pizza, pasta….and limoncello!
There are many more upscale restaurants where you can get some fine Peruvian dining. You can find these on Trip Advisor or other spots pretty easily. But the above spots are less known and were good to us.
Susan and I were both reading books about the history prior to and during our stay which may have made the visit more compelling as well. (Check out our reviews). Or maybe it was the opportunity to mingle with so many like-minded travelers that we found compelling. Or maybe it is the gorgeous architecture and fascinating history that the former capital of the Incas holds. Certainly both the Spanish and Inca ruins integrated into the very heart of the streets and buildings of the city and its dramatic setting at 11k ft surrounded by stunning green mountains had something to do with its appeal.
The cobblestone streets and countless squares very much have a colonial Spanish feel but the roaming llamas and alpacas remind you that you are in South America. The Inca ruins are also indication that you are not in Europe. Amazing, Inca foundations have outlasted earthquakes and thousands of years – their engineering was so good that the Spaniards used most of the original foundations when rebuilding the city and building new cathedrals (this, of course, was after they demolished and burned all the existing structures as they raped and pillaged the entire civilization).
It is quite a festive and lively city. During our short visit, we experienced Sunday and Saturday food markets, elaborate street celebrations for the Easter week, fireworks, crowd-control, and visiting government officials. Traffic and pedestrians were re-routed constantly.
Plaza de Armas, the main square with its cathedral, La Catedral del Cuzco, is a must see. A short trek up to Saqsaywaman (pronounced “sexy woman”) should also be on the list. And the San Pedro Market is a great place to sample the local food (walk to the back of the building to check out how the locals eat when in Cusco).
We really enjoyed Cusco and due to an incident that shut the airport down for 24 hours, we ended up spending two more days during their largest festivals of the year. If you are heading to the Inca Trail or Machu Piccu, make sure to spend some time here and don’t just pass through. Check out the Sacsayhuaman ruins, take a day trip to the Sacred Valley, check out the ruins within the city, or just simply check out the squares and local cuisine. Check out more of Peru travels and thoughts here.
If you are heading to Cusco or Machu Picchu, be sure to carve out a day to head out to the Sacred Valley. It is the agricultural bread basket for Cusco and filled with Inca ruins. We took a day trip from Cusco and made three stops in the valley.
Chinchero , known locally as the birthplace of the rainbow, seemed like a good first stop. We checked out some ruins and a local farm where we learned about the local customs (a bit touristy, but it was quick). At the farm, the local women showed us how llama wool is made into yarn, how it is dyed using local plants as well as the beautiful textiles that these women make. Chinchero also has a gorgeous Spanish church that dates back hundreds of years. Roughly 75-80% of Peruvians practice the Catholic religion now, and it only took about a hundred years of torture, massacres and other persuasive techniques by Spanish conquistadors and missionaries to make everyone see “the light”.
Next stop was the town of Ollanaytambo . This is the gateway town for those taking the train to and from Machu Picchu, but it also has an impressive set of ruins. It is definitely worth a few hours to explore the town and ruins. Ollanaytambo has storage houses built by the Incas for the produce from the Sacred Valley strategically located where the temperatures are lower. The Incas also built an irrigation system that is still used today by the town of Ollanaytambo and folks that live in the town do not pay for water to the local government thanks to the Incas’ amazing engineering. Manco Inca, the emperor that fought the Spanish conquistadors in the 1530’s ,also stayed here for a period of time after fleeing Cusco when the Incas lost hold of Cusco to the Spanish.
Pisac was our final stop. It is another small market town with some ruins. The views from above were quite dramatic. The ruins include the largest known Inca cemetery, a residential settlement and ceremonial baths. The ruins are surrounded by agricultural terraces which were actually used by the local farmers until about the 1980’s. Most of the porters working on the Inca Trail also live in a small village near Pisac.
The Inca Trail is one of the world’s epic treks. It has has been on Susan’s bucket list for years, but I have always been hesitant on signing up because of the weather. Cusco, the launching point for the trek, and the Peruvian Andes receive a fair amount of rain and cloudy days throughout the year, and we get enough of that in our home base of Seattle. But given our travels over the last few months, we thought this would be a perfect time to add this hike to our swing through South America.
As this is a very popular trail, logistics make it very difficult to do it yourself. Even with guides, one must plan months in advance. There are only 500 people per day allowed on the trail and 300 of them are porters, guides and support staff. There are over 200 licensed operators that guide people on the trail and group sizes can be as small as one and as many as 20ish. By far, most people are hiking in groups of 15 or so. We did a fair amount of research and found a great guide company, Valencia Travel, that we would highly recommend after spending a week with them. We used Trip Advisor and Google to locate options and ultimately, booked through The Clymb, which can have some great deals on outdoor travel trips.
We chose the classic, four day trek which was 26 miles of hiking (with elevation as high as 13.7k ft. (Dead Women’s Pass) and as low as 7k ft. (Machu Picchu)), 3 nights of tent camping, 3 mountain passes, plenty of ascending and descending ancient staircases, countless Inca ruins (some arguably as impressive as Machu Picchu) and an 3:30 am revelry for the final to push to the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. For us, the Inca trail experience was as much of the trip as checking out Machu Picchu. With the hordes of people at Machu Picchu coming in mostly via bus and train, we may have liked the hike more than the destination. ( 3,500 people is the limited at Machu Picchu per day.) For this reason, if you plan to hike, you may want to consider the five day trek to give you more time out on the trail with less people and incredible views.
We were a large group of 34 not including our drivers to get us to and from the trail head. Our team for the hike included 15 porters, 13 guests, 2 chefs (complete with a torque), 2 guides, 1 lead porter, and a waiter. All the guests were from the US and consisted of a couple of sexagenarians with their 20 something son and girlfriend (all from Oklahoma), a mother and teenage son from Phoenix, a father and teenage son from Florida, two cousins from Iowa, and a solo male traveler from LA.
Day 1 was one of three early mornings as we left the hotel at 4:30 am for a couple hour drive to the town of Ollantaytambo where we had breakfast, met up with our porters, and had our first view of some of the surrounding peaks. It is also where one can take the train to or from Machu Picchu if one is not hiking. After hiking and visiting Machu Picchu, our experience included a train ride on the PeruRail from the town of Machu Picchu back to Ollantaytambo where our drivers met us to take us back to Cusco (to complete a 18 hour day). The train ride was another treat with gorgeous scenery.
Starting at what is sometimes referred to as KM 82 and after clearing a checkpoint where each passport and ticket for the Camino Inka are verified, we slowly followed the trail up a dusty path dotted with small villages, a number of ruins sites and small vendors selling water, Gatorade and even cerveza. Spirits were high, and weather was outstanding. There was a lot of introductory conversations, discussions of pack sizes and contents and vigilance for the teams of porters that would pass us with packs of 70 lbs and moving at double time. Most of the porters are farmers in their twenties and cannot way more than double their packs. They are absolutely amazing to watch as they navigate the trails with their heavy loads.
We had our first look at a significant Inca ruins site set high above the Urubamba River. Llaqtapata, or the Town on the Hillside. We had a quick look around and got some background and history from our fearless leader, Alex, and then headed up the trail for lunch.
Each day at lunch, the team set up a mess tent complete with tablecloth, chairs, real silverware (not the utensils you get at the airport these days) and served us a full, multi-course, hot lunch that we all inhaled looking for extra calories and carbs for 6-10 hours of hiking we did each day.
Our first campsite( Ayapata) was up at 10k feet with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and an awesome view of the stars and night sky when the sun left us. We all crashed pretty early after the nine miles of hiking at elevation and the early and huge ascent planned for the next day.
Day 2 plan was for an o’dark hour wake-up call, two mountain passes including the infamous Dead Women’s Pass at just under 14K feet and 10 miles of hiking. Our mornings always consisted of some hot coca tea that was delivered to our tents by Edy, one of our guides , while scurrying to get everything back in the packs and then followed by a carb-heavy breakfast. (We never spent more than 90 minutes from awaking to hiking and a couple of days, we were under an hour.) Coca tea (along with candy and leaves) is everywhere in Cusco and on the Inca trail. Hotels serve it to guests in their lobbies. It is a mild stimulant and contains alkaloids that are believed to be good for hydrating and countering the effects of high altitude. Our porters and guides chewed the leaves non-stop during their days on the trail. Coca is very much part of of the culture in Peru and its medicinal use dates back thousands of years. So while it is the source of Cocaine, there is a bit of resentment here for the outlawing and vilifying of the plant in other parts of the world (some argue that banning coca would be like banning potatoes if one was trying to stop alcohol consumption).
Day 2 was an incredible day. The hike up to Dead Women’s Pass lived up to its reputation. It was a bit of a grind, but the views from the top were stunning. The second pass of the day was just as scenic and both were followed by epic descents on the ancient stone paths of the Incas. (Some parts of the Inca Trail have been renovated and other parts of the Inca Trail are close to, if not, 100% original.) We had perfect weather (again) for our climb up to about 14K. It was blue skies and warm enough for t-shirts and sunscreen. In fact, the first 3 days of our trek were perfect with plenty of sun. We were only hit once with rain on our final morning (more on that later).
After the big uphill, we had an incredibly long downhill to a nice lunch spot at Pacaymayu (11.6k ft), followed by some ruins and another big and scenic uphill. To say this day was big is an understatement. The total time hiking on Day 2 by the team was about 10 hours.
Even with all the hiking, we managed to squeeze in a couple more Inca ruins on the way – Runcuraccay and Sayacmarca. Runkuracay or the Egg Hut is a small site about halfway up the climb to the second pass, it overlooks the Pacamayo valley. It was probably built as a lookout point for watching the commercial Inca highway, and perhaps also as a traveler’s lodging for the chaski’s (Inca messengers with oral messages) and temporary storehouse. No one is really sure what the purpose of Sayacmarca was, but one hypothesis is that Sayacmarca was a fortified outpost of Machu Picchu, storing food for pilgrims and visitors.
Our destination for the night was a camping spot in the cloud forest, where we would be sleeping above or with the clouds. It did not disappoint.
After a big day, we looked forward to a relatively easy hike for our 3rd day. We still ended up hiking for 6 hours and ascending one pass, but after the 10 hours the day before, we were all happy with a relaxed afternoon. And with all the celebrating with the Pisco Sours (that the Valencia team provided us) the night before, we were also looking forward to an extra long siesta. The sours were just one of many treats our cooks and team had for us. We were treated to all sorts of fantastic quinoa power dishes ranging from soups, to granola, to porridge and salads. Dinners were always followed by deserts, including a baked cake on our final night, and teas of all sorts including the digestion-friendly local munta tea.
During the day, we visited two ruins including one of favorite ruins, Wiñaywayna (meaning “forever young” in the local Quechuan language). Intipata was first. The name Intipata means “Sunny Slope”. Intipata was primarily an agricultural settlement, but it probably had a strategic function as well. Wiñay Wayna is a neighbor to Machu Picchu, on an elevated perch overlooking the Urubamba River. The ruins consist of upper and lower house clusters, interconnected by a long, precipitous staircase and includes a large area of agricultural terraces.
Followed by Wiñaywayna.
It was another great day of hiking with a great campsite at the end. Although, we did note that this campsite was also used by day trippers and 2-day hikers (Do no do the day trip or 2-day hike – you will miss too much) so the amount of people out and about increased significantly.
Our final day was challenging as well because we had a 3:20am wake-up call when we ate a quick breakfast and were on the trail by 4am. Due to the crowds, we had to hike to the park’s entrance early to secure a place in line for the 5:40am opening. It was tough getting up early only to get to the entrance and wait for 90 minutes but this is life on the trail. Machu Picchu has become so popular that logistical challenges await all visitors – hikers and those arriving by bus and train. To add to our challenges that morning, we faced a full-on down pour of biblical proportions. The morning hike was quite surreal as the 13 of us, covered with gore-tex and plastic and donning head lamps, searched for our footing in the muddy trail in the dark as we were blasted by water. But the skies broke around sunrise and we had only a couple hours of hiking to get to the Sun Gate – the entrance to Machu Picchu, our final destination.
The section of trail today was mostly “up and down” and relatively flat but we negotiated one final set of stairs, nick-named “the Gringo Killer” , to add to our countless encounters with steps during the week.
The Inca Trail was fantastic (and exceeded our expectations including the gorgeous weather we had). We are so glad we chose the Inca Trail route to see Machu Picchu not only because of the outstanding views but also because of the additional ruins. There are other hiking approaches to Machu Picchu, but the Inca Trail is supposed to be one of the most historic and has the most ruins. As mentioned above, the trail experience was every bit as good as Machu Picchu itself. If you have not gone, go! Tourism drives the local economy in Cusco and the surrounding towns. Not only will you be rewarded with an amazing experience but without tourists, Cusco would likely be another very poor city. Stay tuned for some of our thoughts and pictures of our Machu Picchu and our Cusco visit.