North America, South America · 16 Days · 52 Moments · October 2017

Breathless in Peru


25 October 2017

Random thought #4: Peruvian cuisine should be experienced but, in my opinion, it’s nothing to write home about. Other than Peruvian menus, you will easily find food from other cultures. Chifa (Peruvian Chinese cooking) is popular among Peruvians. Pizza is ubiquitous. Always drink bottled water and use it when brushing your teeth. Most hotels provide a daily supply of bottled water in the rooms. Eileen and I compared useless purchases based on pre-trip advice from guide books and concluded that it is NOT NECESSARY to buy some form of water sterilization gear unless you are hiking and backpacking. Someone in our family will find this equipment in his Christmas stocking...
Random thought #3: We highly recommend avoiding large tour groups. It was delightful (and luxurious) to have a personal guide to ourselves and gratifying to be able to add points of interest and stop spontaneously. Please contact me if you are interested in knowing more about the group of guides to which Mija belongs. I’m sure they’re all good but Mija’s knowledge impressed all of us. Stay in good hotels. It is nice to come home to comfort at the end of a strenuous day.
Random thought #2: The Inca culture is fascinating. I just finished SPQR by Mary Beard, written about the rise (vs. the fall) of the Roman Empire, and some of the similarities between the two civilizations are notable. Both cultures expanded by conquering other tribes and assimilating their cultures and traditions. The Romans invaded countries far from Rome and left important political and social legacies that have survived 2000 years. The Inca civilization was more recent, certainly more short-lived, and geographically more limited, but their agricultural and engineering contributions were impressive. Unlike the Romans, Incas seemed not to subjugate conquered tribes. That’s just my superficial take on the two
Random thoughts about the trip: Travel to Machu Picchu and the Cusco area sooner than later, especially if you are getting on in years. It’s physically challenging, made more so by the lack of oxygen. Be prepared. Strong quads are key. Even though we were driven from site to site, we still did a fair amount of walking on uneven terrain. As mentioned earlier, crowds are expected to triple in numbers. We were lucky. Go soon!
Hope you enjoyed reading this blog as much as I enjoyed putting it in writing. Ciao!

18 October 2017

The end of the line. What a trip! Couldn’t have asked for a better travel experience or for better traveling companions. Every minute was perfect. Bob and Jeff had ample opportunity to hone their math skills figuring out tips to much eye rolling from Eileen and me. After dawn breakfast at the Monasterio when the dining room doors opened at 5:00, we headed to the Cusco airport at zero dark thirty. Marco (brother of our other driver, Lucho) picked us up promptly at 5:30 and got us to airport in 15 minutes. Cusco streets are remarkably busy at that early hour. Check in and connections were easy and hassle -free all the way to LAX. Minor snafu with baggage ticketing to SFO but that was quickly solved. We had to reclaim bags in LA anyway.

17 October 2017

Today was a free day in Cusco. We and the Cuzzis did different things and agreed to meet for dinner. Bob and I spent the morning at the Jesuit Church and the Minor Basilica de la Merced (Order of Our Lady of Mercy), one of the oldest churches in Cusco. Both are richly decorated in the Indigenous (or Andean) Baroque style that incorporates Catholic iconography with references to nature and indigenous culture. Done with Peruvian cuisine, we had Thai soup for lunch at a place called Mr. Soup (!), highly recommended by our concierge. Spent the afternoon at the Inka Museum then headedback to the Monasterio to organize our packing. Dinner in town at Incanto, a wonderful Italian restaurant. Back to the hotel to finish packing, check out, and off to bed. Marco, our original driver, was scheduled to pick us up at 5:30 a.m. for our 8:30 flight to Lima.
Last site visited under Mija’s guidance. The Coricancha or Temple of the Sun was the most important Incan temple. The massive stone blocks interlocked much like Legos do, giving them incredible stability and resistance to earthquakes but not to humans. It was largely destroyed by Spanish conquistadors. Its walls were once adorned with gold plates bearing celestial designs (photo 2). The Coricancha was a central square surrounded by temples (to the Sun, Thunder and Lightning, the Rainbow, and to Water). Church of Santo Domingo sits atop its foundation. The temples were part of the Ceques system consisting of huacas (ritual objects revered for their properties) oriented toward one of the 4 cardinal directions (N, S, E, or W) on imaginary lines emanating from Cusco. One hypothesis is that the radial lines indicate linear family relationships and that there may also be lateral connections (maybe inter-tribal? Strictly my conjecture.) Photo 3-an artist’s depiction of the Ceques of Cusco.
Our last day with Mija. After the parade on the Plaza in the morning, she took us through the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin, the seat of the Archdiocese of Cusco. Once again, photography was prohibited. Take my word that it is worth visiting to see more examples of indigenous Baroque art. Statues and paintings of the Virgin Mary often showed her pregnant despite the presence of the young Jesus, purportedly to symbolize fertility. To reflect the Inca reverence for nature, statues of Mary and other female saints often had full skirts so that their outline from head to toe was pyramidal or mountain-shaped. I think this is the church containing a painting by a Peruvian artist of the Last Supper with a guinea pig as main dish. Modern walls and buildings in town still have visible signs of Inca masonry, like the trapezoidal doorway in second photo. The double door frame indicates that the building was once part of a structure occupied by royalty.

16 October 2017

Cusqueneans love their city and are proud of their country. Every Sunday morning, there is a flag-raising ceremony in the Plaza de Armas involving members of the Peruvian Police, the local police, and the Army. Both the Peruvian flag (red and white) and the rainbow flag of Cusco are raised, accompanied by the Peruvian national anthem and the anthem of Cusco. Every week tribute is paid to a local organization. This week they honored social service organizations who worked with disabled individuals. Checkout the photo of the drum and bugle corps and notice the ubiquitous Starbucks logo on a building to the right.
The outskirts of Cusco are decidedly less charming than the old town. Unfinished buildings demonstrate Peruvian philosophy of “pay as you go.” They build as much as they can afford and finish when they can. Mija tells us that there is a growing middle class fueling the building “boom.” Back to Cusco in time for a brief rest and late dinner in the bar at the Monasterio. Note about the ourtyard: Though previously abundant, there are only TWO yew trees left in Cusco. One is on the grounds of the Archbishop’s palace. The other one is in the main courtyard of the Monasterio.
Pikillacta, about 12 miles from Cusco, was occupied by the pre-Inca Wari culture between 550-1100 AD. It was probably a ceremonial site. I’m not sure if it was considered a huaca but this is a good place to explain the concept of huacas—revered sites, structures or objects often venerated in indigenous rituals. I chose not to hike to the top of this site and, instead, stayed in the van and chatted with Lucho, our driver. Other than some workers, we were the only ones in Pikillacta. Such a peaceful place! The quiet was deafening.
The town of Andahuaylillas consists, mostly of a town square and a church. But what a church! The Church of San Pedro Apóstal (St. Peter the Apostle) was built by the Jesuits in the 16th century over a pre-Inca ceremonial site. The church is unprepossessing on the outside but the interior wall frescoes and Mudejar (Spanish with Moorish influence) ceiling have earned it the appellation “Sistine Chapel of the Americas.” It is overwhelmingly ornate in typical indigenous Baroque style which I describe as European Rococco on steroids. Photography is forbidden so you’ll have to take my word for it or check it out online at https://www.wmf.org/project/san-pedro-apóstol-de-andahuaylillas-church

15 October 2017

Side street on our way back to Cusco. We sought refuge from the rain and stopped for lunch at this charming restaurant. The charm stopped at the stairway as this was the site of the infamous “fuzzy chicken” lunch.
Sacsayhuaman, started by the Killke culture around 1100 BCE and extended by the Incas in the 13th century. Often referred to as a fortress because of its strategic location overlooking Cusco. Best example of Inca stone masonry. The boulders were carved so precisely and fit so tightly that even a piece of paper can’t fit between them. Photo 2 shows the entrance to a cave-like passage used by Inca messengers who needed to reach Cusco during battle, or royalty who needed to hide from the enemy. Photo 3: modern day Cusquenean children on giant natural slides. Note the parents ignoring the hazard advisory sign. Photo 4: the largest boulder in the wall weighs about 360 TONS. The zigzag wall (#5) represents the teeth of a mythical dragon who lives in the wall and eats the sun and moon at certain times. #7: Intipunku or Sun Gate, as with MP, controlled access to the site. We walked to Cusco over rain-slicked cobblestones. It was not far. Neither was it fun or easy in the rain.
On our last official tour day Mija took us to Tambomachay in the morning. Site seems to be organized around water coming from underground springs—aqueducts, waterfalls, canals running through rocks. This place may have been for rituals associated with water or an Incan spa. Trapezoidal niches carved into the rocks may have been for ritual offerings to water deities. The grove contains “paper trees” members of the rose family, genus Polylepis. They grow above 5000 meters in the Andes and they’re characterized by bark that can peel off in thin, paper-like layers.
The gorgeous Hotel Monasterio, a Belmond property, was a Baroque seminary built in the 17th century over an Inca foundation. The rooms are 2-story suites with lovely artwork and a comfortable sitting room above the bedroom. All rooms have piped-in oxygen. Not all rooms have good views-we did. First photo -Cusco at night looking at the suburban hillside, much more charming in the dark than during the day. It was a treat to walk through the halls and hear Gregorian chants playing softly in the background. The hotel next door was once a convent. Bob found the (walled off) tunnel that used to connect the monastery and the convent. Hmm. The chapel houses an impressive art collection but no photos were allowed. It’s within a few minutes by foot from the Plaza de Armas, the hub of old town Cusco. Getting there from the hotel is a piece of cake but coming home is uphill. Even though we had technically acclimated to the 11,000 ft altitude, I still huffed and puffed all the way home.

14 October 2017

Our last stop on this amazing odyssey was the city of Cusco, ancient and sacred capital of the Incas. The old town is charming but still crowded, even in October. I attribute that to an influx of visitors who stayed away to avoid high-season crowds, and wanted to time their visit to avoid the pending rainy season. We were lucky. It didn’t start raining until we left MP, thank God. Rain would have made MP treacherous. Caution: Good climbing shoes/boots are KEY. You need something with good traction and lateral support, not just when it’s wet but to navigate the very uneven, cobbly steps. Also, a trekking pole helps. The sanctuary doesn’t allow you to bring in two walking sticks. Instead bring a single trekking pole with a rubber tip.

13 October 2017

Dinners were always on our own. We enjoyed traditional Andean dinner music at the Sanctuary. Lunches were often included in the tour and Mija was intent on exposing us to traditional Peruvian food. Lunches varied in cuisine and quality but were very good for the most part, except for the day we were served cuy, and the day Eileen had “fuzzy chicken” (aka tripe) in her soup. Another soup feature—mega blood vessels. So glad I ordered fried chicken instead. Also pictured here is the restaurant Indio Feliz in Aguascalientes. Clearly (from the number of business cards adorning the walls) a long-standing “institution” with good food, friendly service and interesting decor. It is owned by a couple, one of whom (can’t remember which one) is European.
Our rooms at the Sanctuary Lodge had spectacular views of the surrounding mountains as did the terrace, a great place to relax, contemplate Huayna Picchu-the highest point in MP, and watch stars and sunrises, weather permitting. The property also has a lush orchid garden above the terrace. Here are just three species. Orchid with red, upside down trumpets is Cantua buxifolia, aka Qantuta in Quechua, and Cantuta in Spanish. It’s the national flower of Peru and one of two national flowers of Bolivia. This flower was sacred to the Incas.
It was a luxury to be able to come down off the Machu Picchu site and walk right into our hotel (low building in the middle, just steps from the site entrance/exit). The Sanctuary Lodge is the only hotel allowed in the sanctuary. It’s very pricey but our screaming quads were grateful we stayed there. The other option (when you’re dead tired) is to wait in long lines to board shuttle buses back down to Aguascalientes. Currently, approximately one million people visit MP yearly. They are anticipating 3 million in the near future! Since they restrict the number of shuttles, the waits for the buses will be even longer. If you think you might go to MP, GO NOW!
The Incas had no written language but their traditions (along with those of assimilated tribes) were graphically depicted in textiles, pottery, and architecture. Because the empire included conquered tribes their society was organized by family groups who worshipped a common ancestor. Interesting tidbit: The Incas practiced cranial deformation—they bound babies’ skulls to force them to elongate similar to the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding—ostensibly to distinguish members of one tribe from others. We saw examples of grossly elongated skulls in the Inka Museum in Cusco. We also saw example of skulls with burr holes indicative of the Inca practice of trepanation whereby they would relieve intracranial pressure by drilling holes in the skull (possibly to treat headaches (!), epilepsy, hydrocephalus, and other “mental disorders.”)
Some archeological details: (1) Two staircases led to the main gate. The one closest to the buildings was used by the residents, whereas the outer staircase (narrower and more uneven) was for visitors. (2) Ramparts overlooking the Urubamba Valley gave the Incas of Machu Picchu a superb vantage point. Given the steepness of the mountains and the altitude, outsiders/intruders had to maintain a slow pace giving the Incas ample time to prepare for visitors. (3) Typical archway: the supporting boulders lean inward (12-16 degrees) for stability and support a single massive stone lintel. Very earthquake resilient. Even the view of the distant peaks visible through the archway was deliberately planned. (4) Boulders were shaped so precisely with metal tools that they fit together without mortar.(5) Rubble fields probably represent construction sites where building materials were collected. The boulders came from local quarries.
Machu Picchu at last! The first view defies description. Iconic photos of MP are so well-known that you think it will be no big deal. It is a stunningly big deal to turn the corner and see the ruins in real life. It’s a massive complex with temples, storage rooms, and housing for nearly 1000 workers. The city was built by the Inca ruler Pachacuti in the mid-14th century. Using Stone Age technology (without benefit of even simple machines like the wheel or block and tackle), massive stone boulders were transported from local quarries by human laborers and fitted together without using mortar. Located 8,000 ft above sea level the citadel, unknown even to other Incans, was never discovered by the Spanish invaders. Despite its strategic location overlooking the Urubamba Valley, it was not a fortress. Most likely it was a religious site. Inca life was influenced by celestial events. The position of the sun during the winter solstice was especially important.
Cliff’s Notes recap of the Incas: The Inca Empire, centered in what is today Peru, was relatively short-lived (1438-1533 A.D.); the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa, was killed on orders of Francisco Pizarro in 1533, marking the beginning of Spanish rule in Peru. During their short existence the Incas conquered and assimilated many other tribes, extending the range of their empire from Ecuador to Argentina, the entire length of South America. They were highly respectful of the earth—they still are. They worshiped Pachama, the Earth Mother/Nature, and their culture revolved mostly around farming. They were done in by the Spanish conquistadors who arrived serendipitously when their social structure was already weakened by civil unrest and intertribe fighting.
Exciting shuttle ride overlooking the valley below.
Day 4: Aguascalientes-Machu Picchu
Day 4: Aguascalientes to Machu Picchu. The train went through several different ecosystems—agricultural fields planted with corn, a cloud forest with trees sporting wild bromeliads, along a raging river, and, finally, into town. Aguascalientes, 1-1/2-2 hrs from the Ollantaytambo train depot, is the decision point—walk or ride? You can get to MP only by foot via some portion of the Inca Trail, or by shuttle bus. The full Inca Trail trek from Aguascalientes takes 4 days but there is a 2-day hike as well. The ride up was heart-stopping at times-from lack of oxygen, from the indescribable beauty of the mountains, from the sheer terror of being in a shuttle bus speeding inches from the road’s edge. Swarms of kayakers, trekkers, and all-around adventurers (mostly much younger than we are) gather here before /after visiting MP. Lots of high fives among returning strangers who look ecstatic to be alive.
We left Urubamba extra early to visit the Incan town of Ollantaytambo (Ollanta was Inca Emperor Pachacutec’s general and son-in-law; Tambo means lodge). Incan stone walls are largely intact throughout the town. The irrigation system designed by the Incas is still working. Clean mountain water was rushing through the irrigation canals to the fields, and ultimately to the river. The urban plan is hardly changed from its very regular grid design. In town we were allowed us to enter a family home-based business. By western standards their quality of life is low- dirt floors, guinea pigs running everywhere. By indigenous standards they have a home, food, and a source of income. Who’s to judge? The archeological site above the town served religious and defensive purposes. Ollanta, as the town is called by those who can’t easily pronounce Quechua words, was where the Incas retreated after the Spaniards occupied Cusco from May 1537-March 1537. Beautiful vistas from this site.
Day 4: Urubamba-Ollantaytambo

12 October 2017

Checked in at the Tambo del Inka after lunch. If you travel to Urubamba we highly recommend staying here. The lodge is elegant and the service is superb. They have a strong commitment to sustaining the environment. A lovely place to regroup and prepare for Machu Picchu and not far from other points of interest in the Sacred Valley. Toured the local market before retiring for the day. Off to Machu Picchu tomorrow!
Lunch after the weaving demo included a Peruvian delicacy called cuy—roasted guinea pig. Bob and I tried to pass but agreed to sample the dish out of politeness. We nibbled and left most of it on our plate. We hope never to do that again. Here’s some arcane info for you Jeopardy buffs-in the Cusco area the guinea pig is stuffed and roasted whole so it looks like, well, a little pig. In Arequipa, where Tim had the honor of sampling cuy it is skinned and grilled under the weight of an iron. Cusqueneans call their dish cuy al horno and Arequipans call theirs cuy chactado. I call it guinea pig and it is not my cup of tea.
Day 3 cont’d: Chinchero (elevation is 12,343 feet) is best known for its weaving and textiles. At the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco, a weaving co-op, we received quite a thorough education on the steps involved in creating woven products from the wool of Andean camelids-llamas, vicuñas, guanacos and alpacas. After the animals are shorn, their fur is washed using an Incan version of Woolite-grated manioc root mixed with warm water. The yarn is dried, pulled and twisted into yarn using a drop spindle, and colored with dyes extracted from natural substances, such as herbs, or molds and fungi that grow on certain plants. The pH of some dye solutions can be altered to create different colors. The most fascinating dye source was a tiny cochineal insect that lives on prickly pear cactus leaves (photo 6-look closely ). Ground insects produce an intense reddish color (photo 7). Knit clothing and woven textiles are an income source for women in the co-op.
On to Moray after visiting Maras Salt Ponds. Moray is located on a high plateau-elevation 11,000+ feet- (hence the cloud cover atop the nearby mountains in 3rd picture). It is the site of former sink holes that were used by Incans as templates for nearly perfectly circular concentric terraces which were planted with different crops. There can be a temperature difference of about 30 deg F from the bottom level to the top level so scientists conjecture that the Moray terraces were an Incan agricultural project to study the effects of temperature on certain crops.
First stop: Our guide, Mija, looking out over the salineras (salt evaporation ponds) of Maras. This area was prehistorically an inland sea. After the waters receded they filtered into subterranean aquifers and collected in an underground stream whose outlet is above the salt ponds. The salty water feeds by gravity into the individual ponds. Since pre-Incan times each pond has been (must be) owned and tended by a family in the community. As water evaporates it leaves behind the salt. Crystals are washed, lumps broken apart by feet wearing rubber boots, manually scraped together, collected in mounds to dry, bagged, and carried to market. Fresh water (minus salt) flows by gravity to the Urubamba River below. Incan engineering at its most brilliant! Salt from Maras has a slight pink tinge (bottom 2/3) but the top layer (purest) is white. We watched men running with 50 kilo bags of salt on their shoulders!
Day 3: Day trips from Urubamba to Maras and Moray in the morning , and Chinchero after lunch.

11 October 2017

This wall tile is an example of Seminario’s work. His wife is the one who hand-paints the pieces.
Seminario has a nice collection of Pre-Colombian art. Artifacts recovered (usually during commercial excavations) prior to the 1970s could be kept by the finder. Artifacts recovered after the 70’s are properties of the Ministry of Culture.
Before settling in at the Tambo del Inka we visited Cerámicas Seminario, the workshop of Pablo Seminario, the world-famous Peruvian artist. His works are displayed all over the world. The Field Museum in Chicago and the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Cusco have acquired pieces of his work. Using local clay, he first makes ceramic molds to create his sculptures. After the pieces are fired in an open fire (vs a kiln), the molds are broken to release the sculpture, and each piece is hand painted and embellished with etched details or with silver. The method dates to 1200 years BCE.
After a very late (thank you, Latam Airlines) lunch in a local eco-lodge we arrived at the Tambo del Inka Lodge, located a few blocks of from the town center. It’s grounds are a sanctuary overshadowed by the Chicon Glacier (elevation 15,748 feet above sea level) viewed from the Lodge’s front entrance rising dramatically in the distance.
Urubamba is a charming town situated along the Urubamba River, the 3rd or 4th largest tributary of the Amazon. The river originates in southern Peru and flows northward downhill. Rather than coming off the Amazon, it actually feeds the Amazon. The surrounding valley is known as the Sacred Valley for a variety of reasons—because the river is the source of life to the Incans and their descendants; it was an Incan administrative center; and because the region today is the breadbasket of Peru, supplying more than 80 varieties of potatoes, quinoa, corn, fruit and many other crops. Quinoa, popular among Americans today, is quite hardy and can grow under diverse conditions and at different altitudes.
Local women knew instinctively that there were suckers inside the silversmith’s store and handed us their adorable baby lambs for the mandatory photo op. They are wearing the traditional dress of Andean women of Quechua descent from the Urubamba region. Differences in color combos, styles, textile designs, and, especially, hats identify the region that the women (men usually wear modern, western clothing) call home. Peru is famous for weaving and textile production (More on this later.) Note the stylish Andean caps the lambs are wearing.
After the ruins at Pisac we visited a silversmith and learned that jewelry made from 95% silver mixed with 5% copper for tensile strength does not tarnish. In Latin America, Perú is the first- ranked producer of silver although Mexico produces more world-wide. Residents of the Sacred Valley are proud to say that their river is not polluted by silver mine tailings since silver is mined farther south.
Our private tour guide, Mijail (Mija) met us at the airport in Cusco. She took us directly to the Urubamba Valley so we could start acclimating to the altitude in the Andes. Cusco is at 11,000+ feet. The elevation of Urubamba, where we would stay two nights at the lovely Tambo del Inka Lodge is 2,000 feet lower allowing our sea level bodies to gradually get accustomed to the rarefied air in the Peruvian Andes. We did quite well as long as we walked slowly. It took a while to shed our Bay Area pace. First we stopped at the archeological ruins near Pisac, a mountaintop fortress overlooking agricultural terraces. The mountainsides are peppered with holes that once served as Incan tombs.
After very few hours sleep, we arrived back at the airport and found the crowds and chaos that are typical of Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima . Our good travel karma ran out, however. Our flight to Cusco was delayed 2 hours. Imagine how unhappy we were to realize that we had sacrificed sleep to get back to the airport at dawn after arriving well after midnight just hours before. Our 10 a.m. departure became a noon departure, which meant that our plans for an afternoon tour were in shambles.
Day 2-Lima-Cusco-Urubamba Valley
Had to have a nightcap of Pisco Sours, the traditional Peruvian cocktail made from grape brandy (Pisco), egg whites, some citrus juice, and bitters. Off to catch 39 winks after that.
Arrived in Lima after midnight after flying 8 hrs. Unlike the time in 1998 when Tim and I got bumped from our flight from Lima to Miami and had to sleep in the Lima Airport, the four of us were relieved to find that the Wyndham Costa del Sol was just steps away, connected to the airport by a walkway. Had a chance to catch a few hours sleep before our 8:30 a.m. flight to Cusco.

10 October 2017

Guess who had to go to “camp.”
It was a treasure hunt to figure out where our gate was. Apparently, LATAM Air wanted us to guess our departure gate. No gate assignment either on our boarding passes or on arrival/ departure boards.
Got to LA in good time and found the international terminal after reclaiming our bags and checking In again at LAX. Check in went pretty smoothly.
Thankfully, Jeff and Eileen travel like we do. We left at the crack of dawn, so we had lots of time for an airport breakfast. Got to SFO 2-1/2 hrs before flight time.