Peru March 2008

This is my account of a trip to Peru in March 2008. I found Peru to be a tremendously interesting country full of welcoming people and a beautiful diverse landscape. Coming from the west coast of the US, the time change was minimal, the flight was fairly easy, and the local costs were easy on the wallet. It was quite an adventure physically, mentally and culinarily. I cannot recommend it highly enough as a destination for the adventure seeker.

The trip began in Oakland early on a Friday morning. We left the house as two, Devon and Andrea. We met Erin on BART. We added Yurah and Andrew at SFO. Derek joined us at LAX and then Brittany in the Lima airport to make 7 for the beginning of our trip.

We arrived in warm sultry Lima near midnight. As promised, there was a taxi from our hotel waiting for us. Thus began our extremely welcoming relationship with the Peruvian tourist industry. We stayed at the Hostal el Patio in the upscale Miraflores area near the beach. The hotel was very charming with delightful common areas and a lovely breakfast. Before turning in that night, Devon and I went on a late night snack hunt to the local super market. It felt very similar to Whole Foods and we enjoyed some cheese, bread, and chorizo at 2 am while watching people shop.

On Saturday morning after enjoying fresh bread and Nescafe, the 7 of us set out in two taxis to the Plaza de Armas (main square) in central Lima. Although Devon and Erin were the strongest Spanish speakers among us, we were all having a good time trying to communicate. It may be that living in California I am surrounded by Spanish and know more than I think, but Peru has been one of the easiest countries to attempt speaking another language.

We soon discovered that many things were closed for Easter the next day, including the large church on the square where Pizarro is supposed to be buried. We headed towards the Monasterio de San Francisco instead. It was hot and humid so our tour in the cool vast church and catacombs was most welcome. While walking back to the Main square, we tried some cherimoya, which is a fruit I can get at home, but is not nearly as good. We then took taxis to the famed Museo de la Nacion only to find it was closed for the rest of the month. So we headed to Barranco, the seaside area next to Miraflores and ate lunch by the beach. You can click here to see a video of the waves. We all decided to tempt fate and enjoyed some fantastic ceviche. We toasted the afternoon with pisco sours, the national drink - similar to a margarita. On our walk back to the hotel for an afternoon siesta, we stopped to get popsicles from the Popsicle man. You can click here to see a video. Before heading to dinner that night, we stopped by a large cathedral in Miraflores to watch the Easter procession. We looked on as they sang in Spanish and lit candles held by everyone in the Church. I found it very moving although I was clearly not a participant. Dinner that night was at Restaurant Huaca Pucllana, where we sat outside overlooking a pre-Inca pyramidal temple. Among other things, Brittany and I ordered grilled beef hearts, but did not find them or the rest of the food that impressive. Clearly it was about the view. I was not feeling well due to the altitude sickness pill I had taken so I turned in early, but the rest of the gang was up to greet Steve and Sarah when they arrived late that night. The group was now complete and totaled 9.

On Sunday we flew from Lima to Cusco. We took LAN Peru and found it to be just as good if not better than an American based airline. We were met in Cusco by a taxi sent from our hotel, Pension Alamana. We drove up narrow cobblestone streets to the hotel located in the San Blas area of Cusco. Again we found the hotel delightful. We were welcomed with a cup of coca tea as they signed us in to our clean, comfortable rooms surrounding a lovely courtyard. Next we walked down to the main part of town (also the Plaza de Armas) to check in with our trekking company, Andean Life. Again, we were greeted with enthusiasm and warmth. William sat us all down and not only went over the basics of the trek, but helped us with restaurants and set-up a tour for us the next day. We had a delicious late lunch and purchased some last minute supplies for the trek. Devon, Brittany and I relaxed in a cafe while the others went in search of Inca walls. Walking back up the hill to our hotel that night was literally breathtaking. At around 11,000 feet, Cusco took some getting used to. We took it easy for the rest of the evening. Some folks turned in early, but Devon, Brittany, Andrew and I went to a creperie in San Blas. There I had blue corn drink called chicha morada. It was sweet and vaguely reminiscent of spiced blueberries.

On Monday, 8 of us set out on a tour of some local ruins and the town of Pisac in the Sacred Valley while Devon explored Cusco. Our guide, Christian, was from Cusco and was very knowledgeable and interesting. We began 10 minutes out of Cusco at a ruin called Saqsaywaman which is pronounced "sexy woman" (seriously). There we began our education in the history of the Incan empire, including the prominence of astronomy, special triads, and their incredible stonework. On the way to Pisac we stopped at a cultural center with llamas and alpacas as well as textiles made from their wool. You can click here to see a video of llamas eating. We had lunch in the small town of Pisac and explored the market there. The current town is on the Urubamba river down in the valley, but we were soon to learn that the original inhabitants preferred the top of the steep mountain behind it. These ruins gave us our first close up look at the incredible terracing that the Incas did (and Peruvians still use) for farming. That afternoon we returned to Cusco and the Andean Life office to meet our two guides, Fred and Alfredo, along with two women from Ireland, Eva and Eidin, who would join us on the trek. By the time we went to bed that night we were anxious to get our 4 day journey to Machu Picchu under way.

Tuesday morning we were up at 4:30 am and on our way by 5:30. We picked up our guides and porters in town and drove and hour and a half to the small town of Ollantaytambo. There we had breakfast and met the last people who were going to join us. Dave and Cindy were there with their 12 year old daughter, Tristan. They also had Dave’s aunt Jeanie and her friend, Eileen with them. They would turn out to be an incredibly fun and athletic family who left most of us in the dust each day on the trail. We continued on the bus to the end of the road (literally) to our starting point, "KM 82" at 8,500 feet. As we started out with full backpacks, I quickly discovered that I was the slowest of the group. Devon stayed with me and taught me my first mantra in Spanish, "yo camino despacio, pero siempre llego" (I walk slowly, but I always get there). We stopped often though and Fred explained many strange and interesting things along the way. Lunch was a grand affair complete with hand washing, seats and tables in a large tent, and several courses. When we started up again, I noticed that my fingers were tingling, but chewing on some coca leaves seemed to clear it right up. We were supposed to camp about 7 miles in that night at Wayllabamba, the last village along the trail, but we actually went about 9 miles to the nicer site at Tres Piedras. We arrived around 5:30 to find our tents all set up. Devon and I collapsed in a heap but were able to rouse ourselves for a hearty dinner and a brief astronomy lesson. We all went to bed before 9 pm. The elevation was nearly 11,000 feet.

The second day of the trek was noted as the most grueling and it did not disappoint. We set out very early and began the 3 mile climb to Abra de Warmi Manusca (Dead Woman’s Pass). At 13,776 feet, it was the highest point on the trail. I found it slow going, but not impossible. After we took a fairly long break halfway up, Devon went on ahead at his own pace. I had opted to give some of the weight from my pack that day to a porter, but Devon powered on up with a full pack and waited for most of the rest of the group at the top. At this point, I was no longer the slowest as each person struggled their way along the rocky trail. My feeling of triumph at the top was short lived though. All but Yurah and Derek had made it to the top and Fred had even sent some people down the other side when Derek and Yurah came in to view. Derek motioned for help so Fred, Alfredo, Steve, and Andrew went scrambling back down. Yurah was suffering fairly severely from altitude sickness. Fred and Alfredo gave her oxygen while Derek, Steve and Andrew gave her moral support. In one of the most inspiring moves I have ever seen, she continued that last 200 yards to the top. She would continue to suffer from the altitude over the next two days. Where I would have asked to be carried out on a stretcher she powered on, which must have taken an immense amount of physical and mental strength.

After the first pass we encountered the first of many many Inca stairs. Even though these were all down to lunch, our knees were glad we had trekking poles. After lunch we climbed back up through the second pass at 12,916 feet. We stopped at Sayaqmarka, which is a very well preserved Inca town. Fred, who has a degree in archeology, continued to tell us about Inca culture and history. Some of the stories may have been embellished or lost in translation, but it was certainly interesting to hear while sitting in an actual ruin. We spent that night at Chaquiqocha, a beautiful campsite in the cloud forest overlooking steep peaks. At just over 12,000 feet it was the highest I had ever slept. I too was beginning to feel the altitude, mainly in that I had no appetite after hiking another 9 miles that day.

Having already completed 18 of the 26 or so miles of the trail, the third day was quite leisurely. After breakfast Fred introduced all of our porters and we introduced ourselves. Then followed a crazy rite of passage that involved running through the line of porters and being smacked with our sleeping pads. You can click here to see a video of sleeping pad smacking.They went easy on the tourists but seem to really enjoy whacking each other and cracking up. The porters spoke Spanish mixed with the native language, Quechua. They were all amazing in the amount that they carried and everything they did for us each day. Each morning we would set out and they would tear down camp. Then they would fly by us on the trail carrying HUGE amounts of stuff on their backs (not exactly in packs either) and set up the next lunch spot or camp site.

The third day was spent going up and down on a lot of Inca steps and stones through a cloud forest. The views were amazing. Lots of steep cliffs and waterfalls along with exotic plants and flowers. We ended midday at Winya Wayna which featured a small restaurant with hot showers. We had lunch at our campsite then made use of the showers. We spent the rest of the afternoon lazing about and enjoying the views. We then met up as a group at the restaurant to enjoy a few beers before heading over to the ruins. The ruins at Winya Wayna were the first we had seen that had walls that showed actual angled roofs and it looked like a real village. After more interesting information from Fred, we wandered around on our own until it got dark. That night dinner was much more celebratory and I found that my appetite was coming back a little. It was also the birthday of one of the porters so there was a lot of singing and some cake.

We woke up at 4:30 on day four. At this point we were almost getting used to it. It had rained overnight but had fortunately stopped. We got our things together and ate a little breakfast in the pre-dawn darkness. We said good-bye to our porters (I guess they get to see Machu Picchu often enough) and set out. We were one of the first groups through the checkpoint when it opened around 5:30. The trail became very crowded and there seemed to be a renewed sense of urgency as people raced towards the sun gate. Devon and I took it easy though and still made it there to seem the same view as everyone else... Machu Picchu completely covered in fog. We waited at the sun gate, poised on the edge of our seats to have the spectacular view revealed, but eventually Fred had us move on. Fortunately the mists did clear and we were able to catch glimpses on the way down.

By the time we arrived at Machu Picchu it was clear, sunny, and absolutely amazing. Fred gave us a tour for about 2 hours before setting us loose on our own. I think you could spend a week there and not cover all of the intricate, interesting things in the ruins. Not to sound completely corny, but it felt a little bit like Eden. The weather was pleasant, with a very pastoral scene of llamas grazing in a main square. Birds and butterflies were flitting about in the exotic plants. The fact that everyone else (mostly hikers) was walking around gawking in amazement also added to the feeling of discovering something special. Devon and I took some time on our own to explore before taking the shuttle bus down to the town of Agua Calientes, on the Urubamba river down in the valley below the ruins. We visited the hot springs which were clean, cheery, and provided welcome relaxation from the long trek. We met up with the group at a local restaurant for a bite to eat before doing a little shopping in the handicraft market. Devon and I did some hard bargaining and came away with some nice jewelry, some alpaca hats, and most importantly, an actual silver spoon of Peru to add to his mother's collection.

At 5 pm we boarded the train back to Cusco. We found it immensely charming at first to be traveling by rail through the jungle. After the 3rd hour we were all ready to be done with it and go to bed. The 4th hour brought the most unique part of the train ride - 4 switchbacks down the steep sides of the hill above Cusco. The train would seem to stop and then backtrack, which caused us to be alarmed until we figured it out. Devon pointed out though that if any of us has read about the train in the guidebook we would have known what to expect. Back in Cusco at 10 pm we took welcome showers and a few of us headed out to get something to eat. I didn't even last long enough to order though before I decided that sleep was what I needed most.

On Saturday morning we had one last breakfast at our lovely hotel and then flew back to Lima. As nice as Cusco was, many of us were glad to be back at sea level. We checked back in to the Hostal el Patio and then the 9 of us went to lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. Apparently there is a sizable Chinese population in Lima and the Chifas (Chinese restaurants) are quite popular. Devon and I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in and around the hotel while the others wandered down to the beach. Devon and I checked out some of the local music stores and after some haggling and a conversation with a local music professor, Devon bought a small guitar. Having it restrung as a lefty was included in the price. We met back up that evening though for our celebration dinner at the world famous Astrid y Gaston. Our reservation was early as Steve and Sarah were flying out that night. One of the first things I noticed as they lead us to our round table tucked away among the wine racks in a gorgeous red room was that there was air conditioning. Although the service was a little rough around the edges for such a fine dining establishment, it was hands down the best meal we had in Peru. Brittany picked out two lovely wines and we shared many of our dishes. I had ceviche prepared two different ways and it was outstanding. One of the other highlights was the cuy (guinea pig) that Derek ordered. It was cooked like duck confit and was delicious. We even ordered dessert and I was able to make room for the rice pudding. Sadly, Steve and Sarah had to say goodbye part way through the meal, but it was a fitting end to their trip. The rest of us lingered for a while and then on the way out, we met some other Americans dining near us who turned out to be from the Oakland Museum. Small culinary world indeed.

On Sunday we enjoyed breakfast at the hotel before taking taxis over to the Museo Larco. Housed in an old mansion with beautiful gardens, the Larco has fabulous pre-Columbian art and provides a very interesting historical picture through pottery, jewelry and erotic art. Having an English speaking guide helped too. We stopped for a bite to eat at the Cafe del Museo and enjoyed the breezy courtyard. Next we followed a blue line painted on the street to the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia, Antropologia e Historia del Peru. By this time I didn't really need to see a whole lot more pre-Columbian art so I poked around and then spent some time in the Spanish style courtyard listening to some nearby music. While we were waiting for others to finish up, Brittany and I went to the park across the street to nab some picarones (fried dough like a skinny donut). We discovered a wine festival going on and soon we were all sitting at one of the stalls enjoying a pitcher of Pisco Sours and some live music. It was while enjoying this lazy Sunday afternoon that Devon noticed he no longer had his ATM. It was a bit of a mystery, but fortunately it was the only thing he lost. All of his money and credit cards will still in place. We made a quick detour to an internet cafe to cancel the card and then we were all on our way to do some shopping at the Mercado del Indios. We ended the day at restaurant Las Tejas across the street from our hotel. Then before we knew it, it was time for Yurah, Andrew, Brittany and Derek to be on their way home.

By Monday morning the 3 of us did not really have anything else we wanted to do in particular so we wandered down to the beach to check out some of the shops. Devon decided to hang out at a quirky little cafe called Maquina while Erin and I did some souvenir shopping. We all met back up in the early afternoon to admire our purchases. For lunch, Devon and I set out on our own for La Mar, a famous cevicheria. It was a bit of a hike across town, but well worth the effort. A stylish oasis in the middle of a bunch of mechanic shops, it had fantastic food and drink. What made the lunch even more delightful was that we enjoyed it courtesy of Devon's parents. After lunch we went to pick up Devon's guitar and then I got my shoes shined. Not only was it an incredibly good deal, but I got to watch Lord of the Rings in Spanish while the guys shined my shoes. Back at the hotel we slowly gathered our things together. That was when I noticed that I had lost my ATM card. I guess if that was the worst of it, we were lucky, but we are still baffled as to how we both managed to loose only our ATM cards and nothing else.

We left the hotel with plenty of time to spare before our flight, which was good because it was during our taxi ride to the airport that we experienced our first hiccup in Peruvian hospitality. The guy drove for about 10 minutes, got a phone call, turned around and drove back to our hotel. He explained something about having to pick up a different group. We got in another cab and headed off to the airport. It turned out not to matter in the end as our flight was 3 hours delayed. Getting home in the end was far from perfect, but it was April Fool's Day. Even so, the difficulty getting home in the end could not ruin a fabulous trip to Peru.

Adios - Andrea

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