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On the Short Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Author: Carolyn Boyle
Date of Trip: September 2016

This review describes an eight-night, small group package tour of Peru with G Adventures. This was the National Geographic Journeys “Explore Machu Picchu (SPENG)” seven-night tour plus one additional night at the joining hotel in Lima. In addition to the extra night, we booked a one-day trek on the “short” Inca Trail (from KM 104 to Machu Picchu) and the “Peru Culinary Bundle” (cooking lessons in Lima and Cusco). This review is primarily a journal of how we spent each day, including suggested resources and web links to tourist information web sites and maps.

SIGHTS SEEN

Lima: Cooking Class, Huaca Pucllana, Guided Walking Tour of Colonial Lima, San Francisco Catacombs, Larco Museum

Sacred Valley: Weaving Cooperative, Pottery Demonstration, Pisac Ruins, Moray Ruins, Salinas Salt Pans, Ollantaytambo Ruins

Aguas Calientes: 1-Day Inca Trail (from KM 104 to Machu Picchu), Machu Picchu

Cusco: Guided Walking Tour, Museo de Machu Picchu, Cooking Class, Cusco Planeterium, Koricancha (Temple of the Sun), Cathedral, Templo de la Compania de Jesus (Jesuit Church)

ABOUT US

John and I (Carolyn) are retired Mississippi State University professors in our mid-sixties, who currently reside in central North Carolina. Both of us are natives of New Orleans and, as such, are interested in good food (and wine!) and good times.

We have traveled extensively worldwide and enjoy both land tours and cruises; often our trips combine the two. We generally make our own travel arrangements; this is only the second package tour we have taken. On our trips, we favor nature and wildlife tours that involve snorkeling, SCUBA diving or hiking. In particular, we will hike for miles to see waterfalls, volcanoes, caves or other interesting geologic features. We also enjoy lighthouses, forts, castles and anything else we can legally climb up on for a good view.

Hiking the “short” Inca Trail requires a moderate level of physical fitness and preparation. For comparison, John and I live at an altitude of about 344 ft (105 m) a.s.l. and have no medical conditions. We routinely walk 6 miles (~10 km) for five days a week on hard surfaces and gravel paths over rolling terrain with a trivial elevation change of about 200 ft (61 m). The “short” Inca Trail is about 7 miles (11.2 km) from the trail head to Machu Picchu but the trail rises from 6,890 ft (2,100 m) to a maximum of 8,858 ft (2,700 m) a.s.l. The path has uneven footing and many rough steps with a high rise (18 in/0.5 m). Another issue is that the effective oxygen concentration is only 72-77% of what we normally inhale. Nevertheless, by pacing ourselves and taking periodic breaks, we were able to complete the hike with only minor difficulties. For more details about the hike, see “Day 4” below.

RESOURCES

G Adventures “Explore Machu Picchu (SPENG)”, www.gadventures.com/trips/explore-machu-picchu/2588/

Andean Travel Web, www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/index.html

The Machu Picchu Guidebook: A Self-Guided Tour, Revised edition (July 1, 2011), by Ruth M. Wright and Alfredo Valencia Zegarra (ISBN-10: 1555663273, ISBN-13: 978-1555663278)

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time, by Mark Adams (ISBN-10: 0452297982, ISBN-13: 978-0452297982)

NOVA: Secrets of Lost Empires – Inca (2), Season 24, Episode 14 (1997) (www.imdb.com/title/tt1406043/?ref_=tt_ep_nx) This NOVA episode focuses on the citadel at Ollantaytambo: how were the stones moved to the site from the quarry on the other side of the Urubamba River, how were they cut to fit so perfectly together and how were they raised into position. There is also a segment on building a bridge out of grass cables.

Secret of the Incas (1954) (www.imdb.com/title/tt0047464/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1) This was the first major movie to be filmed on location at Machu Picchu; scenes were also filmed in Cusco. Five hundred indigenous people were used as extras in the film, which also prominently featured the Peruvian singer, Yma Suma. The Harry Steele character (Charlton Heston) is widely regarded as the direct inspiration for the Indian Jones character in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; however, except for the fedora that they have in common, we see few other similarities.

NOTES ON THE INCA EMPIRE

The Inca civilization began near Cusco in the early 12th century under the leadership of the legendary Manco Cápac. The empire gradually expanded, both by peaceful assimilation and by military conquest. The height of the empire came during the reigns of Inca Pachacuti (builder of Machu Picchu) and his son. By 1533, the empire included Peru and Bolivia, most of modern Ecuador and a large portion of modern Chile and extended into corners of Argentina and Colombia.

The death of Inca Pachacuti’s grandson and his designated heir led to a civil war between the princes Huáscar and Atahuallpa. Atahuallpa defeated his brother in 1532 and became the king. Unfortunately for him, Francisco Pizzaro and the conquistadors were now on the scene and captured Atahuallpa later that same year. Although Atahuallpa paid a ransom of a room full of gold (much of it from the Koricancha in Cusco) and two rooms of silver, he was executed by the Spanish in 1533.

Atahualpa was succeeded first by one brother and later by another, Manco Inca Yupanqui. Although initially a puppet ruler like his predecessor, Manco eventually escaped from the Spanish, raised an army and laid siege to Cusco from Sacsayhuaman in 1536. After the Spanish broke out and captured Sacsayhuaman, Manco retreated to Ollantaytambo, where he achieved a great victory. He eventually withdrew to Vilcabamba, from which he and his successors continued to oppose the Spanish. Nevertheless, the last Inca stronghold was conquered in 1572, the king executed and the Inca Empire ended.

The Spanish were interested in gold, not culture, so almost nothing was left of the Inca civilization after the Conquest. In fact, the Spanish tried to eliminate traces of the Inca, especially their temples and huacas (sacred places). However, the Spanish did not know about Machu Picchu, which was abandoned around the time of the Conquest. It remained unknown to the outside world until Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911 and brought it to international attention. Machu Picchu is an enduring testament to Inca architecture and engineering.

MISCELLANEOUS INFORMATION

Medications: Discuss with your personal physician your need for medication for altitude sickness or traveler’s diarrhea. We knew from previous trips at similar altitudes that we would probably experience a slight headache and had aspirin for that. We also brought along an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal (Imodium) and a prescription antibiotic (generic Cipro).

Water: Our CEO (Chief Experience Officer) stressed that staying hydrated is essential to avoid altitude sickness. However, she said that even Peruvians do not drink water directly from the tap and that restaurants use purified water to prepare food. Only one hotel provided complimentary bottled water in the room, although two had a kettle for boiling water. In the cities and large towns, bottled water is readily available at convenience stores; I paid 5-6 soles for a 2.5 liter bottle.

Insect Repellent: We did not heed our CEO’s warning to wear an insect repellent with DEET on the Inca Trail trek and at Machu Picchu. There are mean tiny bugs that some have identified as biting midges or sand fleas. Whatever they are, they swarm on your hands and face and resist simple shooing away. They are so tiny that sometimes you will not see them and that’s when they strike; they even bite through clothing. The result is a collection of tiny dark red blood blisters on top of larger reddish welts. Like at least a dozen bites. And they definitely itch. For a long time. Like for at least a week. Be smarter than we were!

Personal Care Items: All but one hotel provided bar soap, shampoo and a hair dryer. A couple also provided conditioner and lotion. If you need additional toiletries, you have to bring your own. Wash cloths are not provided; we brought our own (www.amazon.com/Self-cleaning-Washcloth-backpacking-Outstanding-compliment/dp/B00VF6JAQ8).

Money: G Adventures recommends bringing $200 pp in US dollars as emergency funds; those bills need to be in good condition. The Peruvian currency is the Nuevo Sol (PEN or S/) and the exchange rate was about 3.33 soles to the dollar. ATMs are readily available in Lima and Cusco; money exchanges are everywhere. ATMs give the better exchange rate but charge an ATM fee (S/15-18) and your bank may impose additional currency conversion or foreign transaction fees. Our CapitalOne debit card does not impose any fees and ATM fees are refunded on request; we used it to withdraw S/800 (two transactions required) in Lima and an additional S/400 in Cusco. Credit cards are also widely accepted but often incur a 5% surcharge.

Tipping: G Adventures recommends a tip of $20-25 per person/week for the CEO. Our CEO recommended tipping our local tour guides S/20 pp/day and our bus driver S/10 pp/day. Internet research indicated that porters at hotels and the airport expect $1/bag, taxi drivers are not usually tipped and between 5 and 10% of the check would be sufficient in most restaurants.

Pickpockets: Our CEO cautioned us against pickpockets, especially in the tourist areas of Lima. Several of our hotels had safes in the room, which did not always work properly. We felt that our valuables were safer in our security wallets (www.amazon.com/Eagle-Creek-Undercover-Hidden-Pocket/dp/B0054IH9UC/).

REVIEW OF THE TRIP

DAY 0 (SAT SEPT 24) RALEIGH/DURHAM (RDU) – ATLANTA (ATL) – LIMA (LIM)

The tour package includes internal flights and transportation in Peru but not the international flights to/from Lima. Although G Adventures offers to make those arrangements, we found better prices and flight connections on our own. We chose flights on Delta (connecting through Atlanta) that left RDU in mid-afternoon and arrived in Lima at 11:20 p.m.

There were no problems on the flight, during which we were served something unmemorable for dinner along with some drinkable wine. We both napped a bit to offset our late arrival hour (LIM is one hour earlier than RDU). The flight arrived on time and Immigration processing was quick. We had each filled out a “Tarjeta Andina de Migracion” (TAM) on the plane, which was stamped along with our passport. We had to keep the TAM with our passport and show it at hotels and to leave the country.

The luggage was not unloaded until after midnight. While we were waiting, I talked to a nice lady at Tourist Information and picked up maps of Lima and Cusco. The Customs Inspectors collected our customs form and just waved us around the luggage scanners. We exited to a huge crowd of people holding signs. We missed the National Geographic Journeys sign on the first pass but finally found our included transfer. There was one other person listed on the sign but after a short wait John and I were sent off to the hotel in a taxi by ourselves.

Our home for the next two nights (and also on the last night of our trip) was the Hotel San Agustin Exclusive (www.hotelessanagustin.com.pe/hotels/lima/miraflores/exclusive/) in Miraflores, an upscale neighborhood of Lima. At check-in, we received a voucher for two free welcome drinks at the bar—Pisco Sours. We were disappointed to find that our second-floor room had two single beds but it was far too late at night to go back to reception to complain. When we tried to use the safe, we found that it lacked a battery so we were given a key to lock it. In addition to the safe, amenities included elevator, Wi-Fi, TV, AC, telephone, minibar, kettle, hair dryer, bar soap, shampoo and conditioner. Our room had a balcony with a door that was very difficult to lock. The National Geographic Journeys tours supposedly feature upgraded accommodations and this hotel claims to rate four stars. It is dated but clean and comfortable and in a good location only a block from a major thoroughfare, Av. Larco; however, it is nothing out of the ordinary. The lobby is a nice place to rest and the staff is friendly.

We finally made it into bed around 1:30 a.m. Tomorrow morning would be one of the few on which we would be able to sleep a bit late.

DAY 1 (SUN SEPT 25) LIMA

All of the hotels we stayed in included breakfast and it was usually served from 6-10 a.m. The breakfast here was basically forgettable even though it offered a lot of options. The buffet included hot dishes, including scrambled eggs, fried eggs, meat (bony fried pork/chicharrones or sausages), potatoes and Peruvian items (humitas/tamales, flautas), and cold dishes such as cereals, bread and pastries, meats and cheeses, fruit, tomatoes and olives, yogurt drinks, fruit juices and sushi. We had excellent fresh fruit all over Peru but here the fruit tasted days old.

After hot showers and breakfast, we went off in search of an ATM. There is an InterBank on Av. Larco only two blocks from the hotel. We wanted to get S/800 ($230) but could only withdraw S/400 per transaction with an S/18 fee each time. It is interesting that we could withdraw funds in either soles or dollars.

After looking around a bit, we went back to the hotel to check and send email while waiting for the first of our two cooking lessons. When we checked in last night, we had a message (in Spanish) telling us to wait in the lobby between 10:40 and 10:50 a.m. to be picked up. (It’s a good thing I can read some Spanish although my speaking and aural comprehension leaves a lot to be desired.) Only one other person on our tour was taking the class but we were joined by two Canadians who were on a different G Adventures tour.

Our guide, Vanessa, provided some commentary during our drive to a local market, Mercado 01, in the Surquillo District of Lima (www.limaeasy.com/shopping-in-lima/markets/mercado-surquillo). Once at the market, she showed us various fruits, vegetables, grains and herbs from all parts of Peru. Of course, there was a tremendous selection of potatoes; some sources say that more than 4,000 varieties are grown in Peru. We particularly enjoyed the seafood section with delicious-looking octopus, scallops with their roe and sea urchins. The market also featured many prepared foods, which smelled wonderful.

Then it was on to Playa Herradura (Horseshoe Beach). We drove past the Restaurant El Salto del Fraile (the Leap of the Monk). A local legend relates that a Marquis learned his daughter and a young man were passionately in love when she turned up pregnant. The father sent the young man to a monastery and planned to take his daughter away to Spain. As the monk saw the ship passing, he jumped from the cliff into the sea, whereupon the girl also jumped overboard and both drowned. This story is reenacted periodically on the cliff (at least when there are tourists around).

Our cooking class was held at an ocean side restaurant, La Sirena (the Mermaid) (paxonboard.com.pe/dining_experiences_three_options.html). This is a very scenic location and the class was held on the second floor of the restaurant, giving us great views of the Pacific Ocean and local fishing boats offshore. High above on the bluff is a large white statue, Cristo del Pacifico (Christ of the Pacific).

After washing our hands, we were each issued plastic gloves and hairnets (which the men declined). Each person had his/her own station and most of the ingredients had already been prepped for us. The first dish we made was causa. Vanessa said this dish originated during the 19th-century War of the Pacific. When food supplies ran low, women layered the always-abundant potatoes with whatever else was available and gave the dish to the troops saying, “Por la causa!” (“For the Cause!”) Whatever its origins, the dish consists of seasoned mashed potatoes and avocado slices layered in a mold with other items; ours included crab mixed with mayonnaise. The mold was removed to reveal the layers and the whole thing decorated with hard-boiled egg, black olives and various sauces.

After eating the causa, we made ceviche with wonderfully fresh fish. The ceviche was garnished with a hot pepper ring, sweet potatoes cooked in Fanta soda and slices of corn on the cob with humongous kernels. (Peru grows more than 55 varieties of corn: not only yellow and white but also purple, black and other colors.)

We ended by making the best Pisco Sours that we had on the entire trip. At the end of the class, we received the recipes for all three dishes. This was a fun class and gave us a chance to try some examples of traditional Peruvian cuisine (www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/top-10/best-food-peru/). It was also very filling. The cost of the Peru Culinary Package (two classes) was $170 pp.

We got back to the hotel around 1 p.m. and headed out to explore more of the Miraflores area (13160-presscdn-0-69.pagely.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/01_04_Miraflores.jpg). We walked down Av. Larco to Parque Kennedy. The park is surrounded by numerous open-air cafés and fast-food outlets. This being a Sunday afternoon, many people were relaxing in the park, along with a large number of cats. Apparently no one knows how the park became a refuge for cats but there is now a volunteer group that feeds and cares for them (gatosparquekennedy.org). The Iglesia de la Virgen Milagrosa (Church of the Miraculous Virgin) is also located in the park but it was surrounded by a construction zone that made it hard to visit or even see the church behind the fencing.

We continued on past the roundabout (Ovalo de Miraflores) and onto Av. Arequipa, eventually taking side streets to the amazing Huaca Pucllana archaeological site; the total distance is about 1.5 miles from the hotel. Huaca Pucllana (huacapucllanamiraflores.pe) is one of several Pre-Inca huacas, or sacred ceremonial centers, found in the Lima area. The massive mud-brick temple was constructed around the fourth century by the Lima people (220-700 AD). The current temple complex covers several city blocks but originally was much larger. Although it superficially resembles an Egyptian or Mayan pyramid, it is a solid structure and does not contain internal passageways or chambers.

Access to the ruins is only by a 45-minute guided tour, which is included in the admission fee (S/12 pp). We had to wait about 20 minutes for the next tour in English and spent the time checking out the tiny gift shop. There is also a small museum containing finds from the site (closed when we were there) and a restaurant.

Our guide (Beatriz) took us all through the ruins, even onto the top, explaining the purpose of the site and how it was constructed. There are several tableaux with figures showing the types of ceremonies conducted there, how the bricks were made, etc. A fascinating aspect of the construction is that the bricks were arranged vertically, like books on shelves, not horizontally. After the decline of the Lima society, the Wari people (800-1000 AD) used the upper levels as a cemetery for their nobility. Even later, the Ychsma people (1000-1450 AD) used the site for religious observances and burials. Parts of the site are closed to the public as excavations and research are ongoing.

The site has a tiny zoo with some typical Peruvian animals including llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs and torrent ducks. There is also a small garden with plantings of fruit, vegetables, coca and various types of quinoa and other grains.

After our tour, we walked back to Av. Arequipa. A parallel street one block over, Av. Petit Thouars, has several blocks of artisan markets. We checked out the Inka Plaza and the Indian Market. I was looking for our favorite souvenir, a small national flag. I found a really nice Peruvian flag with an embroidered coat of arms; it also had a sturdy metal pole and a heavy metal stand. The asking price was only S/20 (less than $6), so I didn’t bother to bargain. I saw identical flags later at the airport for S/55. Having scored my essential item, we returned to the hotel and took advantage of our welcome drink.

Later in the evening, our tour group of 13 (except for two whose flight was delayed) gathered for introductions and a briefing by our CEO, Katy. This was quite a diverse bunch, consisting of 6 men and 7 women ranging in age from 20s to 70s. Only five people were from the USA; two each came from Canada, South Africa, Germany and the UK. Only one person had been to Machu Picchu before: 50 years ago (when he had to pay bribes instead of buying tickets to visit the ruins)! Another person had won the trip in a call-in radio contest. Some people were quiet and some boisterous but the group quickly evolved into congenial travel companions.

DAY 2 (MON SEPT 26) LIMA – CUSCO – SACRED VALLEY – URUBAMBA

The hotel provided breakfast starting at 5:30 a.m. in order to accommodate our early departure. We were all on the bus by the designated time (6:10 a.m.) and on our way to the airport for our 8:40 a.m. flight on Avianca. Unfortunately, takeoff was delayed by 1.5 hours. A nice surprise was that bottles of water are allowed on domestic flights. We also received a snack and drink during the short (1.25 hour) flight to Cusco.

Cusco is definitely high in the Andes and our flight inbound was past high peaks and down narrow valleys. We seemed to zoom close to the mountains as we turned for our final approach. It was difficult to believe that a city of over 500,000 inhabitants was tucked up there.

Once out of the terminal, we boarded our purple bus adorned with the G Adventures logo. Our local guide was Adelki and our driver was Filipe. After a brief stop at the money changers downtown, we headed out of Cusco towards the Sacred Valley of the Incas (www.andeantravelweb.com/peru/destinations/cusco/cusco-images/sacred-valley-map-cusco-peru.gif), the Urubamba River Valley. We stopped at an overlook above Cusco for a great view of the Plaza de Armas and the red tile roofs of the city. High above us on the mountain was yet another large white statue of Christ, the Cristo Blanco. Along the way, we passed the turnoffs to a number of other Inca archaeological sites (Sacsayhuaman, Q’enco, Tambomachay, Puca Pucara) that we would not be able to visit on this trip. We also passed the private Ccochahuasi Animal Sanctuary (santuariocochahuasi.com); we did not visit there either but we could see Andean Condors from the bus. Adelki seemed pretty skeptical about this operation’s dedication to rehabilitating injured condors and returning them to the wild.

Our late arrival threw off today’s itinerary a bit, changing the order of the sights. On our way to the first stop, Katy gave us the bad news that the people in that area were planning a three-day strike to protest high electricity prices and low teacher pay. Apparently when there is a strike, people block the main roads and bridges with rocks, trees, etc. and halt traffic. That could mean that we would perhaps be prevented from reaching the train station in Ollantaytambo for access to the short Inca Trail hike on Wednesday. Our rather expensive hiking permits were only good on that particular day and were naturally not refundable.

Anyway we carried on with today’s program, stopping first at the Ccaccaccollo Community, where we visited a Women’s Weaving Co-op (planeterra.org/what-we-do/our-projects/womens-weaving-workshop/). G Adventures and the Planeterra Foundation have teamed up to fund training programs that help preserve traditional weaving techniques and provide an opportunity for these women to market their creations. Each Andean village has its own traditional attire and the women here were proudly dressed in their best. We were warmly welcomed and shown the llamas and alpacas that supply the wool, the looms and the plants used to produce the natural dyes. The most interesting part was the opportunity to touch samples of wool from sheep, llamas, alpacas and vicuñas; the difference in softness is astonishing. After the demonstrations, we had time to examine the hats, scarves, shawls, etc. on offer. I bought hats for my two nientas (granddaughters) in their favorite colors of pink and orange (S/30 each). There were three darling little girls about 5 or 6 years old who were “helping” their mothers; when we left they were enjoying the Peruvian version of Ring-Around-the-Rosie.

Along the way to our next stop in Huchuy Qosqo, we saw some llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos grazing in a field. We also saw many carts along the road selling the Peruvian delicacy cuy: grilled guinea pig on a stick. We had lunch at the Parwa Community Restaurant (www.parwarestaurante.com/en), another endeavor supported by G Adventures and the Planeterra Foundation to help empower local families.

The meal, served family-style, started with Panecillos (small bread rolls) and butter mixed with huacatay (sauce of black mint, cilantro, garlic and chile). The first courses were Causita (bite-sized causa), Tamal Qusqueño (tamale) and Ensalada Mixta (mixed salad). The main courses were: Sopa de Olluco (soup made with a starchy tuber), Chaufa de Quinua (Chinese-style wok-sautéed quinoa), Rocoto Relleno (stuffed pepper) and Papitas a la Mantequilla (small crispy potatoes in their skin). For dessert, we had Gelatina de Fresa (strawberry Jell-o) and a tart filled with passionfruit jelly. Lunch was outstanding and probably the best meal we had in Peru. The quinoa was especially good as was the stuffed pepper. We were warned that Peruvian food can be hot with spice but nothing here was too spicy. Some of our more fainthearted eaters complained about the salsa, but I could eat it off the spoon! To accompany the meal, we had the first many Cusqueña beers that we drank on the trip.

After lunch we stopped at the Mirador Taray for the views of the Sacred Valley on the way to the town of Pisac. Here we visited the Pisac citadel, which guarded the entrance to the Sacred Valley.

Like the Greek and Roman archaeological sites we have seen in Europe, the Inca sites include residences, shops, public areas, temples, palaces and fortresses. One thing that really distinguishes the Inca sites is the extensive use of terraces. In this mountainous area, arable ground is at a premium. The Incas addressed this problem by building rock walls along the contour line of the land; the gaps behind the walls were filled first with large rocks, then by layers of gravel, followed by soil on top. Many of these terraces were used for agriculture but others were there to improve drainage or prevent erosion.

The Pisac ruins (www.pomalaza.com/Pisac.gif) sit on a steep ridge between the Kitamayo and Chongo rivers. As the bus climbed the winding road to the parking lot near the entrance, we could see the agricultural terraces hugging the contours of the mountain. There were lots of vendadores in the parking area and some of our group purchased woven bracelets. Adelki herded us to the entrance.

The first group of buildings is the Qantus Raqay, which may have served as a military garrison and residential area. From here there are wonderful views of the agricultural terraces and the Sacred Valley. We followed the path up to the Antachaka plateau, where there is an aqueduct, a series of fountains and Inca baths. We continued around to the back of the site, above the Kitamayo Gorge. Across the gorge, we could see hundreds of holes in the cliff: Inca tombs that were looted by grave robbers.

Higher up was the Citadel, in the Q’allaqasa sector. John and I wanted to climb up for the views and Adelki said we would have enough time. Although the climb was only about 200 ft (61 m), we were not yet adjusted to the altitude (11,335 feet or 3455 meters) and had to stop several times to catch our breath. It was worth the effort, however, because we had great views of the entire complex.

Unfortunately, we only had time today to explore the upper part of the site. We could see people climbing up the trail from town, past other sections. It would have been nice to have the time to walk down and see more of the ruins, especially the temple complex.

After Pisac, we made a short stop in a small, rural community to see how traditional clay pottery and adobe mud bricks are made. Here both the men and the women were dressed in their village’s distinctive garb. First the men demonstrated how the mud was mixed with grass by foot, placed into rectangular molds and set in the sun to dry. Next we saw how clay is mixed with water and sieved to remove impurities. Later it is kneaded, put into molds, fired and painted. There was a large display of finished knickknacks on offer; I bought two gaily-painted bird whistles (S/5 each) for my nientas. The people here were very friendly; at the end of the visit, they dressed us in some traditional garments (vest and hat for the men, shawl and hat for the women) for photographs. As we left, Adelki pointed out a niche containing two terracotta bulls. He told us that it was a local custom to place the bulls on the ridge of a newly-built house; the bulls give their strength to the house. As we drove around later, I noticed many roofs with bulls on top, often with a cross between them to enhance the charm.

With the early morning start, boring flight, big lunch, clambering around the ruins and the altitude, this was turning into a long and tiring day. On our way to the hotel, Katy told us that the strike would definitely be starting tomorrow. Instead of spending two nights in Urubamba as scheduled, we would spend one night there and the next night in Ollantaytambo at a hotel that was a ten-minute walk from the Machu Picchu train station. Understandably, all the other tour companies were also hastily rearranging their accommodations to adjust to the strike, so our new hotel would not be up to the usual G Adventures standards. In addition, we would have to leave very early tomorrow morning to avoid the strikers and still see all the sights on the itinerary.

At this point it became abundantly clear how fortunate it was to have worked with a good company for this trip. On our own we might have been able to make adjustments for the delayed flight into Cusco. However, a local strike (that we would not have known about until confronted with blocked roads) was not something we could have dealt with, especially considering our permit that designated a specific date for the Inca Trail hike. Our CEO and G Adventures made all the necessary arrangements behind the scenes so that our trip could carry on essentially seamlessly and without generation of excess stomach acid.

Tonight we stayed at the Hotel San Agustin Urubamba (www.hotelessanagustin.com.pe/hotels/cusco/sacred-valley/urubamba/). This is a rustic hotel with lovely public spaces but average rooms. Like all the hotels in the Andes, there were free coca leaves in the lobby for brewing coca tea. Although there was no elevator, kettle, minibar or AC, there are WiFi, TV, telephone, hair dryer, bar soap and shampoo. The WiFi was not working until the next morning. Once again, we were stuck with twin beds. It was difficult to get to sleep with light coming into the room from around the edges of the door.

DAY 3 (TUES SEPT 27) URUBAMBA – SACRED VALLEY – OLLANTAYTAMBO

The most disappointing aspect to this hotel was the breakfast buffet. Our group had to be on the bus by 6:45 a.m. but other groups needed to start much earlier. The hotel began serving breakfast at 4:30 a.m. to accommodate those people and then essentially forgot about the rest of us. When we went to breakfast, it looked like locusts had attacked the buffet and the “hot” food was really cold. We’re talking iced eggs! One of our group requested hot eggs but never received any. The staff made no effort to replace the food or to put lighted Sterno under the chaffing dishes. They were also initially out of plates. Maybe it was bad day.

The plan today was to start early (apparently strikers sleep in) and, if necessary, take back roads to the sites. On our way out of Urubamba, we stopped at the Mirador de Urubamba, a great overlook of the Sacred Valley. There is a sign with a good map of the archaeological sites that helped us orient ourselves.

We were the first tourists to arrive at Las Salineras pre-Inca salt pans near Maras. We had seen salt pans before in the Caribbean: fields of small, shallow, rock-lined pools that are flooded with sea water. However, we were not prepared for the amazing sight of nearly 6,000 contiguous pools cascading down the side of a mountain. The pools are encrusted with white salt and there are white streaks of salt trailing down the cliffs. The salty water comes from an underground stream, which emerges from a hot spring and is diverted through a series of channels to feed the pools. Adelki told us that each member of the community (even children) has his/her own pool and an extra pool is reserved for the mayor during his/her term of office. All of the salt must be scraped out of the pans, bagged and carried out by human labor. We saw a number of workers hauling the heavy bags of salt up to the entrance of the site. Naturally, there are small bags of salt for sale as souvenirs. I bought two bags of pink salt for S/5 total; closer to the entrance, they were going for S/5 each.

On our way out, we made a brief stop in the town of Maras for a photo op. There is a monument in the central square that is topped by statues dressed in traditional local clothing and by a donkey. On each side of the base is a model: a local colonial church, the salt pans, the Moray ruins and the Cheqoc ruins. We were not going to visit the Cheqoc ruins but Adelki explained that those were Inca storehouses.

Our next stop was at the Moray archaeological site. At the other sites we visited, the agricultural terraces followed the contours of the hillside. In contrast, here the terraces follow the sides of huge sinkholes, like amphitheaters (static1.squarespace.com/static/516c7f39e4b09ec5fcb89159/t/51e035e8e4b07aea08928e4c/1373648364456/wright_2.png). The temperature difference between the upper and lower terraces can be as much as 15°C (27°F), creating different microclimates. This peculiarity has led to speculation that Moray was an agricultural experiment station, where various crops were tested for optimal growth conditions. Adelki took us through the site so that we could see three of these pits, pointing out native flora along the way.

We continued on to the day’s final designation, Ollantaytambo. When we crossed over the Rio Urubamba, we saw a large contingent of National Police guarding the bridge; we also saw a heavy police presence in Ollantaytambo. As we neared town, we stopped to see the Natura Vive Skylodge (naturavive.com/web/) hanging 1,312 ft (400 m) above on the cliff. These transparent capsule bedrooms can only be reached by climbing or zipline and cost S/980-1085 ($285-315) per night.

Ollantaytambo (Oy-yan-tie-TAHM-boh) has been occupied since the 15th century and is considered to be the best surviving example of Inca city planning. The agricultural terraces and ruins of the citadel loom above the town, while Inca storehouses cling to the opposite hillside. The quarries that provided the stone for these structures is on the other side of the Rio Urubamba. When we reached the ruins (www.pomalaza.com/Ollantaytambo.gif), we learned that today was “World Tourism Day”. In celebration, the staff at the entry were dressed in traditional costumes. Local people were also practicing dances.

Ollantaytambo was the site of the Inca’s greatest military victory over the Spanish conquistadors. When Hernando Pizarro led his forces against Manco Inca in 1536, the Spanish were pelted with arrows, spears and rocks from above as they attempted to climb the steep terraces to the fortress. Then the defenders flooded the plain below, bogging down the conquistadors’ horses as they attempted to flee. When the Inca finally retreated from this site, they moved up a side valley, in the opposite direction from Machu Picchu. This was one way they prevented the Spaniards from discovering Machu Picchu. Although the Incas enjoyed more small successes, the conquest was completed by 1572.

Not only was Ollantaytambo a highly effective fortress, it also served as a temple. Adelki led us up the steep agricultural terraces, past the Enclosure of the Ten Niches. At the top is the unfinished Temple of the Sun, with its wall of massive stone blocks—the Wall of the Six Monoliths. This was our first close encounter with the imperial Inca stone work. The temple walls were canted slightly inwards and the large stone blocks that comprised the walls were fit together without mortar. The fit on most blocks was so precise that you could not slide a fine knife blade between them. Doors were trapezoidal and all had large lintels over the opening. The stone work in the terraces that we had previously viewed was rather more standard with smaller stone blocks and mortar. The work in this temple (and later in Machu Picchu and Cusco) was of a far more advanced style and quality. We spent quite a lot of time exploring these ruins.

One casualty of the upended itinerary was the traditional Pachamanca (from Quechua pacha “earth”, manka “pot”) lunch that we were supposed to enjoy today. This meal is similar to a Hawaiian luau: an assortment of meats and vegetables are baked in an oven of hot stones, earth and grass. Instead, we were taken to The Station Food and Drinks. This was a disappointment because we were in the heart of the Sacred Valley and would have liked to eat local. Local here turns out to be Mexican and Italian. We managed to pick a couple of Peruvian dishes from the menu but they were just okay. We both started with a bowl of quinoa soup. For a main course, I got the Alpaca Saltado and John got the grilled alpaca and chicken kebabs (anticuchos). The kebabs were a little dry but tasted fine. I suspect the food here is typical of a lot of restaurants in this heavily-touristed town. Today we had Heineken beer, partially a nod to a group member who works for Heineken but mostly as a change from Cusqueña.

After our late lunch, we went to our substitute hotel, the two-star Hotel Casa de Mama Valle (www.casademamavalle.com). This hotel is clean and has a nice staff. On the other hand, our toilet leaked from the back onto the floor and hot water was VERY slow in coming in the morning. We were up early and tried for some ten minutes to get even warm water. It never came. After John shaved at the sink, he managed to coax some tepid water into the shower. Others of our group had similar problems. There is WiFi but the only bathroom amenity is a couple of bars of soap—not even drinking glasses. One of our towels in the bathroom had a different hotel’s name on it! Also, there was a clear glass transom over the door that let bright hallway light into the room all night—quite annoying. But on the other hand, we were indeed a strike-proof ten-minute walk from the train station.

Katy gave us a short briefing on tomorrow’s schedule and then took a few of us on a short walk around town. She also showed us the trail head for the hike up to the Inca grain storehouses (Pinkuylluna). At first, we weren’t going to do the hike but later talked ourselves into it. Because it was late in the afternoon, Katy told us not to try to climb the left-hand path to the large four-tiered storehouse we had seen from the fortress. Instead, we took the trail to the right and climbed past several smaller ruins until the trail petered out. From these ruins we had great views of Ollantaytambo and the fortress.

DAY 4 (WED SEPT 28) OLLANTAYTAMBO – MACHU PICCHU – AGUAS CALIENTES

This morning, breakfast was available from 6:30 a.m. Although the selection was minimal compared to the other hotels we stayed, at least the eggs were hot. We needed to leave the hotel by 7:15 a.m. to reach the station at 7:30 a.m.; our train left at 7:45 a.m.

On the way to the train, we had to run a gauntlet of shops selling anything and everything we might need on our trip to Machu Picchu: colorful woven backpacks, water, sandwiches, you name it. One couple in our group did not know in advance that hiking poles with metal tips are not allowed on the Inca Trail. Not to worry—there were plenty of vendadores ready to sell them rubber tips. Katy managed to herd us through the throng onto the train. In addition to the daypacks we were carrying on the trek, she would be taking another small bag (containing overnight necessities) for us to the hotel in Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. Our other luggage would remain at the hotel in Ollantaytambo until our return.

There are three levels of train service to Aguas Calientes. We were on the lowest class, Expedition (www.perurail.com/trains/expedition/#expedition). This train leaves from either Ollantaytambo or Cusco (two hours earlier). The Expedition train has transparent roof panels but smaller side windows than the more-expensive Vistadome service (which also includes Saqra Dances and a fashion show on the return trip). Nevertheless, we had beautiful views of snow-capped peaks, like Nevado Veronica, in the Urubamba Mountains as we rode along. It takes about 1.25 hours to reach the start of the one-day hike at KM 104. The ride includes a hot/cold drink and snack (chocolate chip cookie). I highly recommend using the toilet on the train at around the one hour mark (or earlier to avoid the line).

Hiking on the Inca Trail is no impromptu affair; it requires a licensed guide and a permit. The cost of this add-on is $359 pp with G Adventures. For the classic four-day hike, there are only 500 permits issued each day (200 for tourists and 300 for porters, cooks and guides) and they typically sell out six or more months in advance. There are 250 permits (hikers and guides total) issued each day for the one-day hike. Although the shorter hike is less popular, we were not able to get permits for our original desired trip date (even though we were booking over six months ahead of time) and had to switch to the following week. All of these permits are issued for a specific date and person; they are not transferable or refundable. The two young ladies in our group from the UK had intended to do the trek but their travel agent dropped the ball and did not obtain permits for them.

When you exit the train at KM 104, there is nothing there except a sign marking the trail head and a small foot bridge crossing the Urubamba River. We arrived around 9 a.m. Only six in our group of 13 were hiking but we were joined by five people from a different G Adventures tour. Our head guide was Marcelino, who provided the commentary along the trail and would be the guide for our whole group tomorrow at Machu Picchu. Our second guide was Rudy, who usually brought up the rear and was invaluable for taking photos to prove that we both had actually made the trek. Katy had recommended that we each bring a minimum of 1.5 liters of water on the trek. John and I each brought one liter and Marcelino gave us each another 0.5 liter bottle plus a box lunch.

A short distance from the bridge is the check-in station, where your hiking permit and passport are scrutinized. Most importantly, there is also a relatively clean restroom. This is the last you will see until the Wiñya Wayna campground around the halfway point (and that restroom cannot be classified as relatively clean). You should have gone on the train!

Soon after the trek starts, you detour to a nice Inca ruin, Chachabamba. This may have been a religious site or perhaps a gate house guarding this route to Machu Picchu. After the ruins, the trail begins to climb. As we got higher, we could see the Inca ruins of Choquesuysuy, a complex of buildings and agricultural terraces, below us. We encountered lots of Wiñya Wayna (Forever Young) orchids and begonias along the way, making for a colorful walk.

The first three miles of the hike are for the most part exposed to the morning sun and so can get hot. They are also the most challenging because of the elevation change. You start at 7,135 feet (2175 meters) (as measured on our Garmin) and ascend to a high point of 8,645 feet (2635 meters) in these first three miles. (The absolute highest point on the trail is 8,918 feet (2718 meters) but that comes a little later after some relatively level hiking). In these first sunny miles, there are lot of high-rise steps but also couple of shaded rest stops to provide snack opportunities or just shade. Marcelino also gave us multiple stops along the way after more strenuous stretches. At the second shaded rest stop, with a little imagination and plenty of pointing by our guide, we could see the notch in the distance that was the location of Intipunku (the Gate of the Sun), our penultimate goal.

Just before the three-mile mark is a pretty waterfall, a good place to cool off. Just past the three-mile mark you will come to the fantastic Wiñya Wayna ruins. This is amazingly well preserved and impressive set of structures and terraces. We entered at the bottom and joked that we would have to climb all the way to the top to exit. Indeed, we had to climb those high steps 300 feet (91 meters) to the top to exit. Even higher on the mountain, we could see the terraces and buildings of the Intipata ruins.

A few tenths of a mile further, we started seeing the tents of the Wiñya Wayna campground that is used by the hikers on the four-day trek. This is in fact where the one-day and four-day trails join. The four-day hikers arrive here having completed the famous “Gringo Killer” section of their hike. This is a tortuous and lengthy decent down steep steps that we avoided by taking the shorter trek. As indicated, there is a primitive restroom at this campground and we had our lunch break near here around 1 p.m. Our box lunch included pasta salad with chicken, a roll with spinach filling, a banana, a quinoa bar, a candy bar, cookies, a chocolate cupcake and a juice box. John ate everything but I had to save some for later.

Past this stop (about 3.8 miles (6.1 km)—including some small distances off trail at the ruins and the waterfall), the trail is not nearly as challenging. There are two more short 300-foot climbs. One is at the “Monkey Steps” around mile 5.25 (km 8.4). Here you need to scramble on all fours up 50 very steep steps. At the top there are defensive stations for controlling traffic on the Inca Trail. The other climb is at the Gate of the Sun, a final checkpoint for those descending to to the royal city. Here Machu Picchu comes into view (around mile 5.8 (km 9.3)), with a collective gasp by all on the trail. This is truly a stunning and sudden reveal! We arrived there at 3 p.m.

The last part of the trail is a decent of about 800 feet (245 meters) down a stone ramp, through the terraces of the Agricultural Sector, to the structure known as the Guardhouse. About halfway down is a site with a carved rock, indicating that it was probably a shrine. Further along is a large rock that marks a cemetery, where Hiram Bingham’s 1911 expedition recovered pottery and bronze artifacts. There are 120 terraces, some up them up to 13 ft (4 m) high and some of them hang right above the deep Urubamba Valley. Earlier this year a German tourist fell off a terrace and died from his injuries.

All the iconic photographs of Machu Picchu in the travel brochures are taken from the perspective of the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock, with Uña Picchu and Huayna Picchu in the background. Near the Guardhouse is a large carved stone, the Ceremonial Rock; some human burials were found near here. This area was about an hour from the Gate of the Sun. At this point we had trekked almost exactly 7 miles, including short detours for ruins and waterfalls. We were fortunate to see Machu Picchu in glorious sunlight at the end of our day.

After taking a copious number of photos from the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock, we reluctantly hiked down the Guardhouse Trail to the exit. We had our passports stamped with the special Machu Picchu stamp before boarding the bus for the 30-minute ride down the winding road (13 hairpin turns) to Aguas Calientes. Katy had pointed out that, although the bus ticket was included in our tour price, we could walk down if we preferred. The hiking trail down is about 1.1 miles (1.75 km) long, with an altitude change of 1,100 ft (335 m). Maybe some other day.

Katy met us at the bus stop for the quarter-mile (400 m) uphill walk to the Hotel Taypikala Machupicchu (www.taypikala.com/website/main.php?hotelid=4&linkid=1&lan=eng). This was the most upscale hotel on our itinerary. It was the only hotel that provided complimentary bottled water in the rooms and even supplied lotion along with the usual amenities. It has nice staff, nice rooms, a nice location and a good breakfast (starting at 5 a.m.). We did have two issues during our stay though. Both the sink and the bathtub had plumbing leaks when the water was turned on. This resulted in a semi-flooded bathroom floor. We used our soiled towels to partially stem the tide. We had a room on a lower floor overlooking a quaint square; unfortunately we discovered that the bars in the square don’t stop playing loud music until 11 p.m. And the dogs in the square feud and bark all night. If you stay here, ask for an upper level room. And check the plumbing.

Before going up to our room, we stopped at the hotel bar for a couple of well-deserved, ice-cold Cusqueña beers (S/10 each). Then we both enjoyed relaxing showers with lots of hot water. After the beer, shower and clean clothes, we felt almost normal again.

Katy had made a reservation for our group tonight at Inka Wasi Restaurant and Pizzeria. It was not like the bulk of places that had barkers trying to lure you in. The atmosphere was quite pleasant with the open grill providing a nice background aroma. We weren’t tremendously hungry so we split an appetizer and an entree but still had plenty of good food. I had fried chicken coated with quinoa that was nicely crunchy and John had Aji de Gallina (creamy shredded chicken with chile sauce). He thought the sauce needed more kick but was tasty. For a tourist town, the prices were inexpensive and the portions large. Even with several Cusqueñas, our check was only S/100 ($30) for the two of us.

At dinner we learned that, while we were trekking, the rest of the group had visited Machu Picchu on their own. This is an extra-cost option but we would have chosen to do it if we hadn’t done the Inca Trail hike. Machu Picchu is such a spectacular site that it is worth spending as much time there as possible. Since our two Brits had not been able to take the trek with us, they had hiked to the Inca Drawbridge and up to the Gate of the Sun to meet us. Alas, they arrived at the Gate of the Sun about an hour before we did, so we missed them.

DAY 5 (THURS SEPT 29) AGUAS CALIENTES – MACHU PICCHU – AGUAS CALIENTES – CUSCO

Some people catch the 5:30 a.m. bus to ensure to being at Machu Picchu when it opens at 6 a.m.; they then climb an hour to the Gate of the Sun in hopes of seeing the sun rise from that vantage point. They (and many four-day Inca Trail hikers) are often disappointed because it tends to be cloudy in the morning and it takes the clouds awhile to burn off. Katy suggested that we take the 7:30 a.m. bus to be there at 8 a.m., 1.5 hours before the first tourist train arrives in Aguas Calientes. That way we could get some rest and still enjoy our guided walking tour before the crowds built up.

Marcelino met us at the visitor entrance and took us through the most of the highlights of Machu Picchu in the Urban Sector. Tourists are now required to follow one of two strictly directional routes through the site (3.bp.blogspot.com/_eBp05lsYXM8/TDsk-Q9onyI/AAAAAAAABVU/gmOGU3kUTa0/s1600/machupicchu-official-map.jpg). Just inside the site are plaques honoring Hiram Bingham, who rediscovered Macchu Picchu in 1911. Marcelino took us along the lower circuit: past the storehouses, along terraces to the dry moat, down the stairs along the dry moat, past the aqueduct and up to the Temple of the Sun (AKA the Torreón). The water that feeds the aqueduct comes from springs on Machu Picchu Mountain.

The semi-circular Temple of the Sun may have been a solar observatory. The fine stonework here indicates the importance of the building. Below the Temple of the Sun is natural rock cave with a white rock at the entrance that was carefully carved by Inca stonemasons into five steps, underscoring the importance of the cave. Inside the cave is a stone shaped much like the Intiwatana Stone. Although it is known as the Royal Tomb, no human remains were actually ever found here. Much of this area is now roped off from tourists.

Next we went up the past the botanical garden and the Rock Quarry to the Sacred Plaza. This is the site of several important structures including the Temple of the Three Windows and the Principal Temple. The Temple of the Three Windows is constructed from huge polygonal stones. There were originally five trapezoidal windows but two were later filled in to form niches. There is a stepped stone here that may symbolize a mountain. “Image stones”, found in other parts of Machu Picchu, copy the silhouettes of nearby mountains. The Inca believed that important mountains, along with some rocks and caves, each had their own god or spirit, known as an Apu. Such carved stones may have have been intended to create a ritual connection with these Apus.

The Principal Temple also has several enormous stones and a number of niches high on the walls. There is a large altar stone along one wall. A highly-polished triangular stone near the western wall of the Principal Temple is thought to be a compass rock, whose corners purportedly act as arrowheads pointing east to the Gate of the Sun and south to Machu Picchu Mountain. Next to the Main Temple is a hill, the Intiwatana Pyramid. Marcelino said we would have to return there during our free time because guides are not allowed to take groups up to the top.

We now descended to the Central Plaza. A small tree in the center marks the spot where the only gold artifact (a bracelet) has been found. Like many of the plazas and terraces, this one was populated with llamas, which roam the ruins freely. Earlier, Marcelino had to ask some tourists to stop feeding apples to the llamas; their diet is grass and fruit gives them diarrhea.

The final site that Marcelino showed us was the Temple of the Condor. Here the Inca stone cutters used the natural rock formations to suggest the wings of a condor. On the ground in front of the wings is a rock carved with eyes and a beak; this rock is surrounded by two white curved stones that represent the condor’s ruff. This temple has many levels that are now off-limits to tourists.

[Note: Inca cosmology consisted of three realms. The condor represented the highest realm, the sky, the home of the celestial deities. The middle realm, the surface of the Earth where humans lived, was represented by the puma. The lowest realm, the interior of the Earth, was the abode of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the ancestors and heroes of the Inca; it was represented by the snake.]

This was where we said goodbye to Marcelino and started exploring on our own. We all needed to meet at a restaurant in town 30 minutes before our 2:55 p.m. train back to Ollantaytambo. Some of the group decided to head back now but others (especially those who had gone on the trek yesterday) wanted to explore further. John and I particularly wanted to visit Intimachay (Cave of the Sun), which is illuminated only around the December solstice. However, Marcelino said that it had recently been closed for research. We decided to head back to the Intiwatana Pyramid instead. Technically, we were supposed to completely exit the site and then walk back the way we originally came in. However, Marcelino persuaded the guards to let our small group backtrack a short distance past a series of fountains and get back on the path to the Sacred Plaza.

Once back at the pyramid, we climbed up to a viewing platform for magnificent panoramas. There are two image stones here. One mimics the jagged triangular peaks of Mount Yanatin in the distance; to its right, another stone echoes the rounded peak of Putucusi Mountain. Nearby is the peak of the hill, which has been carved into the Intiwatana Stone. Although Bingham thought that this was some sort of sundial, current thinking is that it is actually an abstract copy of Huayna Picchu. Similar stones in other Inca cities were damaged or completely destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. This one survived until 2000, when a camera crew sneaked a 1,000-pound crane into the site to film a beer commercial. The crane fell over and chipped off the top section of the stone.

From the pyramid, we continued along the tourist circuit across the Main Plaza and around the Unfinished Temple to the Sacred Rock; this rock is another image stone that echoes the shape of of Mount Yanatin. Nearby is the gateway to the trail up Huayna Picchu. There were also a lot of tourists and llamas in this area. One of our group decided to pet a llama, only to find that they look cute but are actually pretty dusty to touch.

We continued up through the residential area to the Three Doorways. This is a series of three residences with matching walls, doorways and niches. The double door jams indicate that these were high-status households. By this point we were almost back to the Temple of the Condor. John and I wanted to to hike to the Inca Drawbridge next. However, I warned the others that this meant climbing back up to the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock and that not everyone thinks the bridge is a “must see”. After that ringing endorsement, only one couple chose to stick with us and the rest decided to return to Aguas Calientes.

To get to the Inca Drawbridge Trail we had to completely exit the site, get our passes stamped to reenter (three entries on the same day are allowed), walk a good ways back into the site and take the Guardhouse Trail to the left up to the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock. It takes about 20 minutes to climb up to the Guard House from the visitor entrance. From the back part of the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock, the trail to the bridge leads up to a checkpoint where hikers are required to sign in and out. This is a secondary Inca Trail that leads around the west side of Machu Picchu Mountain to connect with the main Inca Trail from Cusco, sort of Machu Picchu’s back door. The trail is fairly flat with only a few Inca stone steps; the round trip from the checkpoint took us about 30 minutes. However, at some places there is only a low stone wall between you and a precipitous drop-off; at one point, there are cables to grasp. The trail offers gorgeous views of the cloud forest and surrounding mountains. Near the end of the trail is a viewpoint with a clear view of the bridge. The trail runs across the face of the sheer cliff of the Machu Picchu Fault with a 1,900 ft (580 m) drop. There is a 20 foot (6 m) wide gap in the trail that is closed by wooden planks that could be raised to prevent anyone from crossing. For a closer look at the bridge, you can hike a bit further down to a gate that prevents hikers from crossing. It is possible to distinguish the path just beyond the bridge but it is soon lost in the trees.

After returning to the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock, we were compelled to take more photos of this incredible vista. The route out leads down to the Main Gate (originally the only entrance), down the steps along the Dry Moat and along a terrace to the exit. We again opted for the bus ride to Aguas Calientes instead of hiking down and returned to town about 1 p.m.

Katy had made arrangements for us all to meet at the Apu Salkantay Restaurant (www.apurestaurant.com), where we could hang out until it was time to catch the train back to Ollantaytambo. Everyone else was already there and enjoying lunch. It turned out that the food was really good for a small place. We decided to specialize in local trout (trucha) from the grill. I had Medallones de Trucha, which was grilled trout covered with sauteed red onions and served atop a quinoa risotto. John had Trucha Monumento Machu Picchu. This was a really pretty dish that had pieces of trout arranged into a peak topped by mint leaves. Both of these were quite delicious. Including a large and a medium Cusqueña, the tab was S/121 or about $35 total for two.

Apu Salkantay is right next to the train tracks and several trains passed while we were there; we even got to see the luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham train go by. While we sat there, we were also serenaded by a musician on the sidewalk who was hawking his CDs. Although he wasn’t bad, he was really loud and I was glad when he moved on.

Except for rain at the weaving co-op and a light sprinkle during our Inca Trail trek, we had been extremely fortunate with the weather. On the train ride we had some rain, which obscured the views through the windows in the roof of the car. Again we were served a beverage and snack. This snack was a bag of Inka Corn, toasted giant white corn kernels, which tasted like spherical Fritos. We both nodded off for part of the ride.

Once in Ollantaytambo, we walked to the bus parking area, where Filipe was waiting with our purple bus. In this parking lot we spied a large green bus that advertised pumped-in extra oxygen! After checking that all of our larger bags had been loaded on the bus, we were off to Cusco. We made a brief toilet stop at a place where one of the toilets did not flush because there was no chain linking the handle to the flapper (flush valve). I got it to flush by sticking my hand into the tank and lifting the flapper. Then I had to pantomime the procedure for the German lady who was next in line; she must have thought I was nuts. There was some drinking (of alcohol!) on the ride to Cusco and eventually that spurred some makeshift karaoke involving the bus’ microphone. Quite the “party bus”!

Our home for the next two nights was the Taypikala Hotel Cusco (www.taypikala.com/website/main.php?hotelid=3&linkid=1&lan=eng). Cusco is 11,150 ft (3,360 m) a.sl. and this hotel not only had coca tea in the lobby but also three tanks of oxygen. This hotel is definitely an excellent location from which to explore central Cusco on foot—only a few minutes from the main square and a short walk from the Temple of the Sun. The hotel itself is nicely elegant with a pretty patio. Amenities here included elevator, Wi-Fi, TV, AC, telephone, room safe, hair dryer, bar soap and shampoo. Breakfast was excellent with an omelet station and delicious fresh fruit. There were only two problems: (1) the room safe never worked properly even after someone came to fix it twice and (2) the noise from the car alarms going off outside.

DAY 6 (FRI SEPT 30) CUSCO

Today we got to sleep in a little. I had planned my own DIY walking tour of the historic center of Cusco but Katy gave us a short guided tour starting at 9 a.m. At any rate the six of us over 50 went with her while one of the youngsters sacked out all morning and the other six went off on an ATV tour to the countryside.

Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire and the Centro Historico (www.cuscovisitor.com/cusco-map.html) was the site of many royal palaces and temples. When the conquistadors rebuilt the city in the Spanish style, they simply removed the upper stories and used the original walls as the foundations of their new buildings. We walked from the hotel down Calle Ahuacpinta along one side of the Koricancha (Temple of the Sun). This wall is a fine example of how Inca masons carved enormous granite blocks to fit together perfectly without mortar.

In Plazoleta Santo Domingo, we saw the Baroque facade and tower of Santo Domingo church, which was built upon the walls of the Koricancha in the 17th century. We followed the walls along Pasaje Romeritos, where we could see one of the few remaining genuine Inca doorways (at #402, the entrance to the Unaytambo Hotel). When we reached the corner with Calle Maruri, we saw that behind these walls was a large open area with some ruins. I later learned that these were the remains of the Palace of Cusicancha, birthplace of the Inca Pachacuti (who built Machu Picchu).

We turned right on Calle Maruri, then left on to Calle San Agustin, which changes into Calle Herrajes. We then turned right into a pedestrian alleyway, Pasaje Inca Roca. As might be guessed by the name, the left wall of this alleyway is the south wall of the palace of the Inca Roca. About halfway down is a grouping of stones that (with a great deal of imagination) looks like a puma. Another group of stones, which overlaps the puma, forms a snake. Even with the photos I had brought from the Internet, it was very hard to discern the shapes. There is a souvenir shop (Artesanias Asunta) on the opposite side of the alleyway that has a large drawing of the wall with the shapes outlined. A nice lady from the shop rushed out and gave us all cards for a 10% discount and also a free llama key chain. Although we could not stop now, John and I did return later to check out her shop.

Pasaje Inca Roca ends at Calle Hatunrumiyoc (the Street of the Great Stone), which runs along the north wall of the palace. Near the bottom about halfway along the wall is the famous 12-angled stone, which appears on bottles of Cusqueña beer. Although the Inca carved stones with many more than 12 angles, this one is noted for its size and fine workmanship.

We continued on to the Museo de Arte Religioso del Arzobispado (Archbishop’s Palace) on the corner. It has a lovely carved wooden balcony. This attraction and several others are available on the Boleto del Circuito Religioso (cra.org.pe/precios-y-descuentos) but they can also be visited on separate tickets.

We then turned right onto Calle Palacio and reached the Plazoleta Nazarenas. One side of this pretty little square is occupied by the Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino (www.map.museolarco.org/home_en.html), which contains works on loan from the Museo Larco in Lima. Katy suggested that instead of visiting this museum, we should visit the Museo Larco after we returned to Lima. On the other side of the square is the Belmond Palacio Nazarenas. This luxury hotel was once a convent that was built on the walls of the palace of Inca Amaru Qhala. Next door is the picturesque convent church, Capilla de San Antonio Abad. Between the hotel and the church is a narrow pedestrian alleyway named Siete Culebras (Seven Snakes). Near the corner of the hotel, seven snakes are carved into the stones of the Inca wall.

We left the square via Calle Triunfo and walked to Plaza del Tricentenario, a small plaza with three fountains. Along one side is the Colegio Real San Francisco de Borja, dating to 1628. On another side is the Museo Inka (museoinka.unsaac.edu.pe). The exhibits there walk visitors through Cusco’s history from pre-Inca civilizations to post-conquest life. Katy highly recommended this museum and suggested hiring a local guide for a tour, which would take 1.5 to 2 hrs. Some of our group did go here later and said it was an outstanding experience.

We arrived at the Plaza de Armas (main square) just as a procession was emerging from the Cusco Cathedral. There were people dressed in traditional Peruvian costumes and a band. Men wearing blue scarves and straw hats were carrying a platform bearing a statue of San Jeronimo (St. Jerome), the patron saint of lawyers and tour guides, around the square. The men were also carrying bottles of beer and wearing masks with exaggerated smiles, blue eyes and comically long noses. A banner proclaimed them to be members of the Guia Majeños Cusco. The other men in the troupe were enthusiastically performing the satirical Majeño dance, mocking both the spectators and the dancers.

During Inca times the Plaza was surrounded by Inca palaces and was used for ceremonies and military parades. Now two sides of the Plaza are lined with shops, restaurants, bars and coffee shops with beautifully carved wooden balconies. Another side is dominated by the Cathedral and the fourth side by the church of La Compania de Jesus. There is a fountain in the square topped with a statue of the Inca Pachacuti.

Our last stop was in the Plaza Regocijo, a little square a block from the Plaza de Armas. It is home to two museums: Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporaneo (www.cuscoperu.com/es/viajes/cusco/museos/arte-contemporaneo) and the Museo Historico Regional (www.cuscoperu.com/es/viajes/cusco/museos/historico-regional). Both of these museums are included in the Boleto Turistico del Cusco (www.cuscoperu.com/es/informacion-util/boletos-turisticos/boleto-turistico-del-cusco).

John and I had just enough time left to visit one attraction on our own: the Museo Machu Picchu Casa Concha (www.museomachupicchu.com). Katy was not especially enthusiastic about this new (2011) museum; however, we thought that it was of great historical interest. From 1911 to 1912, Hiram Bingham found over 4,000 artifacts at Machu Picchu and took them back to Yale University. That led to a protracted battle between Peru and Yale over ownership of those items. Yale finally agreed to return all of the items to Peru and this museum showcases 366 of the best pieces. In addition to the artifacts, there are many fascinating photographs of Bingham and other members of his party and of the excavations. There are also many original documents related to the expedition on display. The museum is housed in a restored colonial mansion, Casa Concha, which was built over Puca Marka, the palace of Tupac Inka Yupanqui. Artifacts uncovered during the restoration are also on display and a glass-covered pit in the main patio reveals the original Inca floor below.

After leaving the Machu Picchu museum, we stopped at the Scotiabank on Calle Maruri, which is also built over Tupac Inka Yupanqui’s palace. The bank has a small, free museum Museo de Sitio Puca Marka (www.portalmachupicchu.com/en/things-to-do/museums/scotiabank-museum/61/). We were in a hurry to get some cash at the ATM and get back to the hotel in time for our cooking lesson, so we did not visit the museum. However, we told a member of our group about it and she went there.

Back at the hotel, we met the other person from our group who had signed up for the cooking class. Our guide, Roxana, arrived a little after noon and we started off to visit one of the local markets. First, we had to stop at another hotel to pick up two women from a different G Adventures group who would be joining us for the class.

Roxana first took us to Mercado Casccaparo. She told us that this market is where the locals shop, as opposed to the Mercado Central de San Pedro, which is more for tourists. Roxana took us through the market and spent a lot of time showing us all the vegetables, fruits, beans, grains, corn, herbs and, of course, potatoes. Roxana bought each of us an orange and a pepino melon to eat later.

In addition to a vast variety of fresh potatoes, she showed us the two varieties of chuño, naturally freeze-dried potatoes produced since pre-Inca times. Black chuño is made by spreading small potatoes on the ground and allowing them to freeze for three nights and dry in the sun during the day. Next the potatoes are trampled by foot to eliminate more water and remove the skins. Finally they are subjected to two more nights and days of freezing and drying. The result is something that looks like a hard shriveled mushroom. An additional step is needed to make white chuño: the potatoes are washed in a river before a final drying in the sun. This version looks more like a potato that is covered with a fine layer of white mold. After processing, chuño can be stored indefinitely and it is used in many traditional dishes.

Next we stopped at a shop selling another traditional food: cuy (guinea pig). The place looked a little like a bakery except that instead of cookies or pastries, the trays in the glass display cases were filled with cleaned, ready-to-cook cuy. Each cuy is only enough for one person; they are eaten with the hands, like fried chicken.

Next we made a quick visit to the Mercado Central de San Pedro. This market has all the same items as the Mercado Casccaparo but is more open and has wider aisles. It is obviously more geared to tourists: there is a big handicraft section selling alpaca sweaters, blankets, textiles, bags and other souvenirs.

We exited the market and walked along Calle Santa Clara, passing through the Arco Santa Clara (1835), into the Plaza de San Francisco, site of the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco. Roxana wanted to be sure that we had the opportunity to taste a dessert made with the lúcuma fruit, so she bought us each a chocolate-covered lúcuma ice cream bar.

Eventually we made our way back to Calle Hatunrumiyoc, near the 12-angled stone. Just a little further, at #487, is the courtyard leading to the Aguaymanto Resto-Bar, where we would have our cooking lesson. We started by making a Fresa Sour: muddled ginger and strawberries with lots of pisco. After this lubrication we moved to the flames in the kitchen. Here we made Alpaca Saltado, which was served with rice and fried potatoes. We started by cutting up the ingredients (the alpaca was already sliced). We proceeded to use large woks to stir-fry each ingredient as instructed. When we added the meat, the chef started squirting pisco into the woks AND sometimes onto the flames. We got great columns of flame and great pictures (taken by another kitchen assistant). The food was delicious (what do you expect with such excellent chefs!). Since we were too singed to make any more drinks, the bartender prepared us all a Chilcano de Maracuyá (pisco and passionfruit cocktail) as a soothing finale. This was a couple of hours enjoyably and deliciously spent in Cusco.

After that we a chance to return to the hotel for a little rest before our 5:30 p.m. outing to the Cusco Planetarium (www.planetariumcusco.com/en/). A van from the planetarium collected us at the hotel and took us to this small family-owned and operated planetarium, located in the private Llaullipata Ecological Reserve. This is up in the mountains that ring the city and the city lights are reasonably obscured. However, 500,000 people tend to leave a glow in the sky even if you cannot see their lights directly. It was also cold up there and we were glad to have worn warm clothing and brought along gloves. We were escorted into a small domed room with a small star projector in order to show us the sky. Our guide presented the southern sky and described the constellations as interpreted by the Inca. It was most interesting to see that they also actually used dark sections of the Milky Way to represent animals in the sky. We would see some of these same Inca constellations when we went to the Koricancha (Temple of the Sun) in Cusco tomorrow. The family had prepared three telescopes for us to use outside after our tour of the planetarium sky. The patriarch had been a professional astronomer and he was there to help us with our viewing. They showed us a nice double star system and an open star cluster. However, the star of the night (so to speak) was Saturn with its fabulous rings easily visible along with its large moon Titan. Unfortunately, the telescopes did not have clock drives so they had to constantly be moved to keep pace with the Earth’s rotation. After viewing we went into another room where we were shown information about Inca and pre-Inca ruins with potential astronomical significance. This was all an enjoyable experience (especially since we had gloves!). It is also a good idea to bring a flashlight to help make your way back to the van in the dark.

The planetarium van dropped us off back in Cusco at the Plazoleta Nazarenas. From there we walked two blocks to the Nuna Raymi Restaurant (www.nunaraymicusco.com), where Katy had made reservations for our group. One person in the group had been determined to order roasted cuy before she left Peru and tonight she took the plunge. The servers first brought out a “show cuy” garnished with a long red pepper in its mouth and a red pepper hat, lying on a bed of potatoes and cilantro. Then they brought out a dismembered cuy with fried potatoes and a vegetable puree. She let everyone have a small mouthful; I thought it tasted a lot like the Cochinillo Asado (roasted piglet) that we had in Segovia, Spain, back in May. John and I were not very hungry after our cooking class, so we shared an order of Seco de Cordero (Peruvian Lamb Stew), which consisted of lamb cooked in a cilantro sauce with white beans and potatoes. This delicious stew was served with a side of rice and was plenty of food for the two of us.

Even though we were not very hungry, we were still thirsty. The restaurant featured beers from Cumbres, a microbrewery (www.facebook.com/cervezacumbres/) that uses traditional Peruvian ingredients like quinoa, amaranth, cañihua, purple corn and coffee. We tried three of their beers: Cumbres Maíz Morado (India Pale Ale – IPA), Cumbres Roja-Cañihua (Scottish Ale) and Cumbres Café (Amber Ale). These were very interesting beers—different from each other and quite a step up from Cusqueña. They were also more expensive than Cusqueña (S/18 per bottle) but not unreasonable for craft beers.

DAY 7 (SAT OCT 1) CUSCO – LIMA

Today we had nearly the whole morning to explore Cusco on our own. The only caveat was to be back at the hotel by 12:30 p.m., ready to leave for the airport and our 1:43 p.m. flight back to Lima. We planned to see at least Cusco’s two main sights: Koricancha and the Cathedral.

We went first to the combined sacred sites of Koricancha (Temple of the Sun) and Santo Domingo Church, which sits on top of and surrounds the temple. We arrived at the entrance a few minutes before opening time (8:30 a.m.) to see a long line of children, dressed in white gowns and carrying tall white candles and white gladiolas, waiting to process into the church. They looked too old to us to be First Communicants, so perhaps they were going to be confirmed today. Whatever was going on, it was certainly important for the children; proud parents were snapping plenty of photographs.

Koricancha (Courtyard of Gold) was the Inca’s most important temple and dedicated to their most important god, Inti. Others deities—the Moon, Venus, Thunder and Lightning, and the Rainbow—were also worshiped here. The temple was designed to manifest the dazzling brilliance and magnificence of the sun through the abundant use of gold and silver. Its walls were covered with gold panels and the huge golden sun disc was positioned to catch the rays of the morning sun and reflect them onto the walls, filling the temple with radiant light. Most of these treasures were given to the Spanish in a futile attempt to ransom the captive Inca Atahualpa. However, the sun disc vanished before it could be plundered; it has never been found.

After the 1953 earthquake caused extensive damage to Santo Domingo, both the church and the temple underwent restoration and a large section of the church’s cloister was removed. That revealed four original chambers of the temple. On the east side there are three small rooms and, on the west side, the Main Inca Chamber and a partially-destroyed room. In the cloister’s courtyard is a pre-Conquest ceremonial fountain that was carved from a single block of stone. The so-called Solar Drum is a curved wall beneath the west end of the church and can be viewed from the gardens. This wall is considered to be one of the finest examples of Inca stonework in existence. The terraces of the gardens were once filled with life-sized gold and silver replicas of corn, golden llamas, figurines and jars.

Koricancha also served as the main astronomical observatory for the Incas. In one of the passages are two works by the contemporary artist Miguel Araoz Cartagena. One painting, “Constelaciones Andinas”, depicts the constellations that the Incas saw in the dark parts of the Milky Way (nmai.si.edu/inkaroad/ancestors/creationstories/milky-way.html). The other painting, “El Sistema de Seques del Cusco”, shows the four suyu (provinces) of the Inca Empire and the seques (lines) that connected huacas (sacred places) throughout the empire to Koricancha. There is also a reproduction of a large gold map that depicts the Inca cosmology and once adorned the main altar of the temple.

Admission (S/15 pp) to the Koricancha includes a not-terribly-useful tour pamphlet in English. Moreover, the rooms of the temple and how they correspond to the parts of the church are only vaguely indicated by signage. Considering that this is a major tourist attraction, I expected better.

Next, we walked back to the Plaza de Armas to tour the Cathedral, formally known as the Basilica Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption, which was built on the foundations of the Inca Viracocha’s palace. An excellent audioguide is included in the admission fee (S/25 pp) and leads you through all three churches in the cathedral complex. The tour begins in the small Iglesia Sagrada Familia (Church of the Holy Family). The lavish amounts of gold and silver used on the altars here are just a warm-up for the main show in the cathedral.

An interesting feature of the Escuela Cuzqueña (Cusco School) of religious art is the blending of European and Inca symbolism. One example of this is the use of mosaics made from mirrors to cover the altars and statues. In European art mirrors stood for vanity. However, the Incas considered the mirror to represent character: only an honest person could look into a mirror. Other examples include depicting the Virgin Mary as pregnant while holding the Infant Jesus and giving her a triangular dress (to evoke the shape of a sacred mountain).

The Latin cross floor plan of the Cathedral is much like those in Spain, with the nave surrounded by multiple small chapels. The most notable of those are the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception and the Chapel of El Señor de los Temblores (Lord of Earthquakes). The crucifix displayed in the latter chapel is popularly credited with stopping the 1650 earthquake. Another Inca-Catholic fusion is a painting of the Last Supper with Jesus and the Apostles enjoying a Passover meal of guinea pig, tropical fruits and chicha de jora (corn beer).

The third church in the complex, Iglesia del Triunfo (Church of the Triumph) was named in honor of a Spanish victory. During Inca Manco’s siege of Cusco in 1536, the Spanish were trapped in the Suntur Huasi (the Roundhouse), the main Inca armory. The Incas torched the city and the thatched roof of the armory caught fire. However, the flames went out and the Spanish escaped, rallied and eventually defeated Manco at Sacsayhuaman. Those events eventually morphed into an apparition of the Virgin Mary, under the title “Virgin of the Descent”, coming down from heaven to put out the fire. She was accompanied by Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor Killer) on horseback, reprising his role in the Reconquista of Spain by cutting off the heads of Incas instead of Moors. The church, the first Catholic church in Cusco, was built on the site of the armory.

As we left the cathedral complex, we encountered a parade entering the Plaza de Armas. This procession included a band and a few Majeño dancers carrying canes instead of beer bottles. After that came group after group of senior citizens from all around the region. Each group had its own theme: many were dressed in their colorful traditional village clothing while others carried matching balloons or pom-pom shakers. This was probably part of the ongoing celebration of the festival of San Jeronimo.

We still had a bit more time left, so we slipped around the parade to the Templo de la Compania de Jesus (Jesuit Church); admission here is S/10 pp. A church was built on the site of Inca Huayna Capac’s palace at about the same time as construction started on the Cathedral. That church was destroyed in the earthquake of 1650 and replaced by the current building, which has a Baroque facade with two bell towers (rutadelbarrocoandino.com/en/la-ruta/la-compania-de-jesus/).

Just inside the entrance is a 17th-century painting of the marriage of Sir Martin of Loyola to Lady Beatriz Ñusta, the last Inca princess. That is considered to be one of the most important paintings in Peru. Next we climbed the steps (watch your head!) up to the choir loft; there are windows in the bell towers that give nice views of the Plaza. The layout of the church is the usual Latin cross with a few side altars on the long walls. On the altar of Our Lady of Lourdes, we noted the twin Saints Crispin and Crispinian and immediately thought about Shakespeare’s version of Henry V’s rousing speech before the Battle of Agincourt. The gilded altar-piece over the main altar equals that of the Cathedral. In front of the altar is the crypt; we descended the stairs to see a portion of the Inca foundations.

On the way back to the hotel, we walked down Calle Loreto. The walls along this street are the oldest surviving Inca walls in Cusco. They were once part of the Accllahuasi (House of the Chosen Women). The acllas were women chosen by their lineage and beauty to be eternal wives of Inti. From here, we stopped by the Koricancha to get some exterior photos of the Solar Drum from the perspective of the Sacred Garden of the Sun.

Then it was time to fly back to Lima, arriving there about 2:30 p.m.; on the flight, we had a snack of BBQ-flavored Inka Corn. By the time everyone collected their luggage and our bus fought the heavy traffic back to the hotel, it was almost 5 p.m. The plan was to meet at 6 p.m. for our last dinner together as a group. During that short period, one couple actually manged to run down and see Huaca Pucllana (from the outside only)!

Katy had reserved a table for us at Punta Azul (puntoazulrestaurante.com), which is just down the block from our hotel. We were quite pleased with the food and the service was excellent. They have a nice selection of seafood done in the local styles. I had Pulpo al Olivo, slices of octopus seasoned with lemon and black olive cream sauce. John tried Risotto Punta Azul, arborio rice cooked in squid ink with prawns, shellfish and pieces of fried fish. Both were delicious!

After dinner, it was time to say goodbye to all of our new friends. Some were leaving tonight, others tomorrow afternoon and a few of us around midnight on Sunday night. Our last night was again spent at the Hotel San Agustin Exclusive. Our fifth-floor room was much nicer than the one we had here on the first two nights. It even had a double bed and lotion in the bathroom!

DAY 8 (SUN OCT 2) LIMA

Our flight home was scheduled for after midnight so we had a full day to explore Lima. Katy set us up for a private tour with PeruStep1 (perustep1.com) and we were extremely pleased! We were met in the morning by Carolina and she had designed a private tour ($70 pp) specifically for us. This was a six-hour excursion taking us to most of the highlights of the city.

We first went to the Malecón, a six-mile stretch of parks along the cliff tops on the ocean front. Here we walked for a bit and saw the famous Parque del Amor (Love Park). Inspired by a quote from the poet, Antonio Cilloniz, a former mayor of Miraflores decided that the people needed a park devoted not to some conquering heroes but to lovers. Apparently, this was during the time of the Shining Path guerrilla war and the population was always on edge. This park is a celebration of humanity and has as its centerpiece a giant sculpture “El Beso” by Victor Delfin. It shows a couple engaged in a passionate kiss. The park seems to be designed along the lines of Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona, with benches covered in mosaics constructed of bits of tile.

As we drove through the San Isidro district of the city, we passed the Parque el Olivar. Originally planted in 1560 with three olive trees that survived the sea journey from Spain, this area was once an extensive olive farm owned by the Count of San Isidro; over 1,600 olive trees still remain. We also passed the Park of the Reserve, site of the Magic Water Tour, a water and light show involving 13 separate fountains.

We next drove to the colonial center of town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (13160-presscdn-0-69.pagely.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/01_02_Central_Lima.jpg). We first visited Plaza San Martin. This was constructed in 1921 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the independence of Peru. Naturally, there is a large statue of the liberator of Peru, San Martin, in the center and the square is surrounded by buildings constructed in a Baroque French style. These are mostly older hotels along with an important private club.

After driving a little further, we began a walking tour. Carolina pointed out the ornate carved balconies in the area. We passed the Museo del Banco Central and the Palacio Torre Tagle. Our first stop was at the Basilica of San Pedro. Oddly enough, this church was initially named the Church of San Pablo Apóstol but was later changed to San Pedro. This was Sunday and Mass was about to begin but we were on our best behavior and went in along a side aisle. The church was large and no one really cared about us checking out the beautiful wooden carvings and the ornate gilded statues.

We then walked to the corner of Ucayali and Andahuaylas to proceed under the Chinese arch and enter Lima’s Chinatown. Past the arch was a pedestrianized street lined with little shops and kiosks selling everything. The pavement included panels representing animals of the Chinese zodiac. We think the sign for the Year of the Tiger (our birth year) looked more like a puma. We also saw many restaurants labeled Chifa, which is one of the early fusion cuisines combining traditional Peruvian ingredients and techniques with those of Canton. We took a short detour through one of the local farmers’ markets.

Our walking continued past Plaza Bolivar with a view of the Legislative Palace. We ended at the Monastery of Saint Francis, a beautiful church with a hidden secret. But first we were astounded by a large number of dogs in the plaza in front of the church. Of course! This was the Sunday before the Feast Day of Saint Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4) and everyone had gathered for the blessing of the animals. This looked to be exclusively a dog day; any cats would not have been welcomed by the canine crowd. And the dogs were literally all dressed for the event! There were pups with booties, dresses, jeans! It was a cute collection.

Our tour next included the hidden part of the monastery, the catacombs (museocatacumbas.com). These were rediscovered in 1943 and contain the remains of an estimated 25,000 persons. Bodies were interred here until 1808 and some bones have been sorted into groups. You have your collection of a few hundred skulls here, a few hundred femurs there; repeat in the next crypt. All the time we were down there, we thought about the fact that the Lima region is quite susceptible to earthquakes. We could become a permanent part of the exhibition! But the foundation of bricks and mortar at least seemed substantial and sturdy.

We stopped on the corner of Calle de Pescaderia to make a brief visit to the Restaurante Bar Cordano (restaurantecordano.com), one of the oldest bars in Lima (founded 1905). Then it was on to the beautiful Plaza de Armas de Lima (AKA Plaza Mayor), the site where Francisco Pizarro founded Lima in 1535. Buildings on the Plaza include the Cathedral, the Archbishop’s Palace, the Municipal Palace and the Government Palace. We were just in time for the changing of the guard in the smaller plaza directly in front of the Government Palace. With appropriate pomp and circumstance and martial music, one group of young soldiers marched in and replaced another group. This went on for some time and Carolina suggested we leave to see more of Lima.

We walked onto a bridge over the Rimac River and she pointed out sites on the surrounding hills. There was a large food court in a park next to the river and she bought us some picarones to try. These are narrow, doughnut-like rings made with squash and sweet potato and served with a sugar syrup. They were quite good, if a bit sticky. We met our driver after passing a few more impressive buildings in old Lima, like the pink Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and the blue Casa de Osambla.

The last stop on our tour was the amazing Larco Museum (www.museolarco.org/en/). This is understandably the number-one sight in Lima as rated by the reviewers on Trip Advisor. The setting is gorgeous: it’s a former colonial mansion with flower-covered walls and a beautiful courtyard that houses a restaurant. The museum contains a private collection of pre-Columbian art that dates back 10,000 years and covers the variety of civilizations that arose in Peru before the Conquest. The pieces are gorgeous and the quality of the ceramics that began appearing about 4,000 years ago is really outstanding. It helped to have a knowledgeable guide and we threw lots of questions at Carolina. There are fine examples of tapestries and counting strings used by some groups and there is a separate set of rooms for gold and silver treasures like breast plates. The museum even lets you go into their storerooms where you can see the giant collection of material that is not on formal display. Housed in a separate area but clearly marked is the renowned collection of erotic ceramics from the Moche civilization (www.atlasobscura.com/articles/object-of-intrigue-moche-sex-pots). Here we have a collection of hundreds of ceramics from between 100 and 800 AD that are completely explicit in their displays of sexual activity. With the minor exception of very few depicting the missionary position, everything and all combinations are represented. Some of these sexual acts involve skeletons, deities or religiously-significant animals, suggesting that the pots were associated with fertility rites, sacrifice ceremonies or ancestor worship. The Spaniards tried to destroy what they could but what they could not find presents a fascinating view of an ancient civilization and its views of sex.

As we drove back to the hotel through San Isidro, we passed Huaca Huallamarca (msi.gob.pe/portal/nuestro-distrito/turismo-distrital/huaca-huallamarca/); this is a pyramidal huaca built with mud bricks, like Huaca Pucllana. Our six-hour tour was exhausting but well worth the effort. Unfortunately, we were able to view only a few of the sites in colonial Lima.

We decided to have an early dinner and then wait in the San Agustin lobby for our transportation to the airport. Both Katy and Carolina had suggested that we walk six blocks down Av. Larco to the Larcomar shopping center (www.larcomar.com) and eat at a restaurant called Tanta. The shopping area is also an interesting place to visit in its own right. It is set into the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and has multiple levels. All levels are lower than the streets that pass on the top of the cliffs. This is also a great place to watch the brave souls who paraglide from the cliffs. We saw several just above the levels of the shopping center.

We had to wait about 20 minutes to get a table at Tanta (en.tantaperu.com). It has a lovely setting and lots of glass to give you views over the ocean. The menu was somewhat limited but the choices reflected a diversity of cuisine rather than just Peruvian food. Being tourists, we wanted more local dishes and so went with one of the daily specials, Pescado a lo Macho. This was a big piece of grilled fish topped with a tomato sauce containing squid, octopus and shrimp; it was served with potatoes plus rice mixed with corn. The cost was really low (S/44 or about $13 pp) for a lot of food. We thought it curious that our waiter spoke little English even in this area of Lima with lots of large hotels and many tourists. However, he was a good guy and, even with my poor Spanish and his limited English vocabulary, we persevered. Cerveza is a crucial word!

While we were relaxing back at the San Agustin lobby, a young British woman who was also waiting there asked us whether we wanted to share a taxi to the airport. When we told her we already had a car arranged for much later, she told us a frightening story.

She had been on the G Adventures “Peru on a Shoestring” tour with her twin sister and brother. They had gone on to the Amazon and she stayed an extra night in Lima at a hostel. During the night, the woman sharing her room was robbed of her phone and money by a man who (it was learned later) was also a rapist. The young woman talking to us had wisely put all of her valuables in her sleeping bag, so he didn’t try to rob her.

When the robbery was detected the next day, this young lady left the hostel ASAP and was wandering the streets distraught until she spotted the two young British women from our group. They calmed her down and took her to the San Agustin, where the staff let her wait in safety until her fight later that evening. She was so happy to have run into two kind people who not only spoke English but also had British accents! Our fellow travelers returned after she had left for the airport and confirmed the whole story.

Katy had arranged for us to share a taxi to the airport with another person from our group; his flight was at 12:30 a.m. and our was at 1:05 a.m. The driver came early at 9 p.m. instead of 9:30 p.m. as scheduled but that was no problem. We could pay for the transfer either in soles (S/60) or USD ($20) total for the three of us.

We had checked in for our flight earlier online but still needed to check our luggage. When we first arrived at the airport, there was no line but it built up quickly after that. There was a Delta agent checking people before letting them proceed to the baggage drop counter. We were on his list, so everything was fine. He surprised us with the news that no liquids could be carried on board flights to the USA, including anything we might buy after passing through security.

The security line was also no problem. When we went through Migration Control, the immigration agent saw the stamps in our passports from Machu Picchu; he seemed happy that we had enjoyed our visit there.

DAY 9 (MON OCT 3) LIMA (LIM) – ATLANTA (ATL) – RALEIGH/DURHAM (RDU)

A little while before boarding started, the gate agents started setting up tables and portable belts/stanchions to create a secondary security checkpoint. We had to produce our passports and boarding passes and our hand luggage was inspected to ensure that we did not have any liquids.

Finally we were on the plane and settled into our seats. I have tags that that read “Please Do Not Wake”. I clipped those to the back of the seats in front of us and we tried to fall asleep ASAP after takeoff—that wasn’t too hard. If we missed all the food service, we could get something in Atlanta. The tags worked perfectly and the flight attendants did not bother us when they brought a snack (hot ham and cheese sandwiches) around. For some reason, I woke up later when drinks were being served and I asked for some water. The flight attendant offered to bring me a sandwich, so I got one for me and one for John, who was still sleeping soundly. Both of us managed to sleep until the mediocre breakfast was served (we ate the forgettable sandwiches too).

With Global Entry (www.cbp.gov/travel/trusted-traveler-programs/global-entry), customs and immigration were a breeze. We were soon at the gate waiting for our flight to RDU and that flight was also without incident. With the napping we had done at the hotel and on the plane, we were in pretty good shape and we were back home by about 2 p.m.

It is still hard to believe that we finally made it to Machu Picchu after so many years of wanting to go there. Except for the minor problems with the hotels, we were extremely pleased with the services provided by G Adventures and would definitely consider joining another of their groups. We were especially happy with the way Katy handled the changes in arrangements needed due to the strike in the Sacred Valley. Although we usually make all of our own travel arrangements, this was one time we were grateful that someone else was doing the heavy lifting!

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