Our trip in Peru began with an overnight layover in Lima on our way to Cusco. I had arranged for a no-frills $15 / night place to stay by the airport through Airbnb. This was the first of three Airbnb-arranged overnights, all went very smoothly and I highly recommend the service as a more reliable way of finding a good place to stay while on vacation compared to hotels — reliable in the sense that you can be sure of what you are getting, as most hosts have a nice set of reviews from satisfied (or dissatisfied) guests on their profile. Our host met us at the airport and escorted us via taxi cab to our room. Perched on the third floor, above what was the host’s home, a couple of similar guest rooms, and their family grocery store, it was very clean, yet spartan.
It was late at night by the time we got there, but we were hungry, so before we went to sleep, our host took us for some amazing rotisserie chicken down the street. He encouraged us to order an entire chicken, yet seemed a bit nonplussed when I took it seriously and proceeded to eat my entire 3rd of it. I’m sure something was lost in translation, but I thought the situation was a bit comical, given the stereotype of Americans being big eaters. Speaking of translation, I should note that Antonia’s Spanish-speaking skills kept disaster at bay on many occasions.
We ended up missing our scheduled flight to Cusco due to some poor judgement about how long it would take to get to the airport in the morning. There were some tense moments as we considered the possibility of missing the Inca Jungle Trek we were scheduled to start the next day. Fortunately, we were able to make some quick arrangements for the next flight just a couple of hours later at no monetary or logistical cost.
I was planning to explore Cuzco a bit that morning, but instead we settled for exploring the Lima international airport. In the food court, Antonia and I discovered the wonders of fresh passion fruit. Neither of us had had anything like it before, and I know that I, for one, am a better person for having tasted it. A nice Peruvian lady stopped by our table and told us how to eat the fruit and also described how her baby likes to suck the innards of the fruit out of the shell.
I purchased a Claro SIM card at the airport for my phone, mostly with the intent of using the data for Google maps to help us navigate the cities. This worked quite well.
We overnighted at another Airbnb-scheduled place in Cusco, very close to the Plaza de Armas. The place was a little up the hill from the city center, most of the city was visible from the window. Cusco is at about 11,000 feet, which is a couple thousand feet higher than the highest elevation I’d ever experienced up to that point. We did notice that it was a bit harder to ascend a single flight of stairs and attributed it to the altitude. Travel guides, locals, and tourists all recommended coca leaf tea as a way to help your body acclimatize, so in a bold move, we cast cast aside the U.S.A.’s strictest schedule A narcotics prohibitions and headed into town to get some coca leaf tea.
We made a quick stop at the Lorenzo expeditions office, which was a few doors down from where we were staying, and got everything in order for the Inca Jungle Trek that we would be starting the very next day. They fitted us for the overly-protective gear that we would be wearing for the downhill cycling segment, discussed the food and accommodations that we would be provided with during the tour, and ran through a checklist of recommended gear. We were told to meet in the morning at the Plaza de Armas in the morning and were out pretty quick. We proceeded on to the city to get the coca leaf tea, and some dinner too, since we were a bit famished.
After getting the tea at a bodega, we had dinner at the Inka Grill, right on the Plaza de Armas. It came highly recommended by my Lonely Planet guide. We ordered the guinea pig, the alpaca fillets, and a plate of ceviche. It was all pretty good, but the guinea pig was our favorite. The alpaca tasted like steak to me, but I’m sure it had some novel flavors in there somewhere, and the ceviche was amazing. (You really can’t go wrong with fish cured in lime juice.) We also split a bottle of wine, which turned out to not be such a great idea given our recent introduction to the high altitude. I felt hung over for the next next two days and the coca leaf tea did not seem to help.
We got up very early the next morning and presented ourselves at the Plaza de Armas at 6:30 am where we met some of our fellow tour-mates for the Inca Jungle Trek. After a few minutes of waiting, a large van drove up containing the remainder of our tour group companions, as well as our tour guide, Juan Carlos, and his assistant, Bruno. We headed off to the Lorenzo Expeditions lodge on the outskirts of Cusco. There were fourteen people total in our group, composed mostly of late 20-somethings. If it weren’t for the couple in their late 50’s, I think I might have been the oldest person on the tour. Everyone was friendly and nice, and I was looking forward to spending the next four days in their company. Strangely, everyone in our group except Antonia and I spoke with a U.K. accent.
We were fed a nice breakfast at the lodge and then began a four-hour drive to the mountain pass from which we would descend via mountain bike for three hours.
Along the way, we stopped at a small town and I decided to get some soles out of an ATM. ATM’s in Peru are all of the type that hold on to your card for the duration of your transaction. I am not accustomed to this, and as the machine dispensed my money, I simply took it and got back into the tour van, completely forgetting to take my card after the machine ejected it. Several minutes later, as we were driving out of the city, I noticed that my ATM card was missing. I ran back to the machine to see if it was there, but by that time, the card was gone. Most likely the machine had reclaimed and shredded it. Fortunately, no fraudulent incidents occurred to my bank account, I was able to cancel the lost card quickly, and was able to obtain cash from ATM’s with my credit card for the duration of our visit to Peru, so it wasn’t as big of a setback as it originally seemed like it was going to be.
After what was, for me, a nauseating van ride up the mountain, we finally reached the Abra de Malaga Pass, which at 4,350 meters, is one of the highest points in the area. It took a while to fit everyone with their bike for the downhill part. The bikes, while rugged, were not well maintained. My front derailleur was not adjusted properly, which caused my chain to fall off, which in turn caused me to fall off the bike towards the end of the ride. It was a pretty minor crash, and Bruno took care of my road rash very well afterwards.
Before we all departed, Antonia noticed a couple of people in very traditional-looking clothing humbly walking what appeared to be a trail just a few feet up the mountainside from us. The woman stared at our group, perhaps not knowing what to make of us with all our crazy protective gear and full-suspension bikes. I should emphasize that this was a particularly remote area, both for it’s distance from any sort of apparent humanity, and also for its altitude, even relative to Cuzco. Apparently there are groups of people scattered all over the countryside in Peru that live off unmarked trails, and walking many miles per day up a mountain is simply part of how they live.
We were not allowed to take photos during the descent, otherwise I would have posted dozens showing the amazing mountain terrain with scenic overlooks and waterfalls. It was awesome. You should go do it.
We did take a few photos at this one rest stop. As we were posing, I noticed someone from another group riding by, screaming, and apparently out of control, because her brakes didn’t work. She managed to slow down a bit with her feet before she fell off her bike. I don’t think that she suffered any serious injuries. She wasn’t from the Lorenzo Expeditions group, but given the state of the bikes we were on, I wouldn’t have been surprised if something similar happened in our group. The poorly maintained bikes are the only bad thing I have to say about the tour; everything else went incredibly smoothly, and our guide, Juan Carlos, who actually has a college degree in tourism, was very knowledgeable and helpful for the rest of the tour. If you decide to take the Inca Jungle Trek, I would recommend that you ask for a tour with him if you can.
The downhill part was really fun otherwise; the views were amazing, and even after a pretty satisfying semi-career as a semi-professional bike racer, I don’t think I’ve ever coasted as long in my life. We were kept within a rolling enclosure for the whole ride, with Juan Carlos setting a very safe pace at the front. Antonia and I always found ourselves at the front of the pack wishing we could be allowed to go faster.
As we descended, the climate gradually changed from arid mountain coldness to warm, tropical, and a bit humid. The ride concluded at a small restaurant on the side of the road, where we ate lunch and had our first taste of Inca Kola, which as far as I could tell is just yellow-colored Sprite marketed towards Peruvians. It is a very popular drink in the country.
We stayed in a cute bamboo hostel structure by the river that evening. Just before sunset, we joined another tour group of younger, more annoying fellows, and went whitewater rafting, which was a new experience for both me and Antonia. She insisted on wearing her blue jeans for this since “they were already a bit dirty and needed to be washed anyway”, but this turned out to be a pretty bad idea in hindsight since denim doesn’t dry very quickly when you don’t have a dryer.
For our return drive, the large inflatable rafts were stacked two-high on top of the van, with each of the two vans holding about twelve people. With the high mass and center of gravity, the vans at one point began sliding backwards on the slippery dirt road between the river exit and main road. It was pretty scary for a while, but they were able to get traction once we all temporarily exited the vans and walked up the road a bit. The main road back into town wound around some steep cliff sides, and the large bouncy rafts on top of the vans, now blowing in the wind, made for a pretty challenging situation for the driver. We felt the vehicle sway from side to side as we drove and are happy to still be alive.
Once we got back into town, we met up with Juan Carlos and Bruno who took us to dinner at the local “discotheque”, which was actually just a bar. Juan Carlos had been guiding this tour for at least five years and Bruno for one, so they were both on very familiar terms with the operators of the establishments that we patronized. For example, they usually functioned as the waitstaff for the restaurants, and the front-desk staff for the hotels and hostels that we stayed at. That evening, over dinner in the local pub in Santa Maria, Juan Carlos gave us a little show-and-tell with a traditional Incan erotic pottery mug, where a ridiculously disproportionately oversized penis of the character on the mug acts as both the handle and the spout from which you drink.
The next morning we were treated to an early breakfast of crepes and juices. There was also coffee, which in Peru is usually served as a concentrate that is mixed at the table with hot water.
We drove for just a few miles out of town and to the start of the hike through the sacred valley. Many different types of crops are grown in this area, and as we walked through each of them, Juan Carlos would stop and give a lecture about them. We learned about achote, a type of berry whose juices can be used as a dark red paint, even body paint or lipstick. We also walked through a coca crop. Apparently it takes many acres of the plants to yield enough alkali to make even a single serving of cocaine, which should put the potency of coca leaf tea in perspective, since it is usually made from just a leaf or two of the plants. In a more wooded area on the mountainside, we came across a termite hive, where Juan Carlos explained that termites can actually be a nutritions woody snack for hungry forest travelers. We ate some, and they were actually pretty delicious. They didn’t look like the ant-like bugs that I’ve seen eating wood back in Texas, though; they were much smaller and mite-like.
The last part of our agriculture tour took us through a small set of huts on the mountainside where we met a monkey, tried on traditional Incan outfits, and got a somewhat questionable lecture from Juan Carlos about a very strange looking potato that he insisted grew above ground on trees. I have not been able to find any information through Google that even remotely suggests that such a thing exists or ever existed. My current theory is that this “tree potato” was grown by the same aliens that made Macchu Picchu and the Nazca lines. Let me know if you have a better idea.
After we left this establishment, we started hiking an official Incan trail. This was not the famous Incan trail, it was actually used by the runners for the Incan postal system that used a system of relays to operate all day and night. Nowadays it makes for a nice low-traffic backdoor route to Macchu Picchu. At one point on this stretch, Juan Carlos pointed to a neighboring hill and said that some land in the country is simply unowned, and that it is free to anyone who can build a house on it.
At the most scenic overlook, Juan Carlos had us all sit down and gave a lecture about the proper way to chew coca leafs, which involves mixing just the right amount of the leaves, some kind of acidic ash, and some kind of sweet seeds in your lip, saluting the pachamama (the Peruvian earth-mother deity), and then chewing until the flavor is gone.
This part of the Incan trail ended with a rickety suspension bridge that crossed a mostly dry river. On the other side, we were greeted by a tiny old Peruvian lady selling bottled water who was, not surprisingly, on familiar terms with Juan Carlos and Bruno. Juan Carlos seemed to be calling her “Senorita Burrito”. I’m sure that wasn’t it, but that’s certianly what we remember hearing! I propositioned her for a photo, and like a good tourist, paid her a sole for her modeling work. She seemed pretty enthusiastic about the whole transaction, as you can see in the photo.
After hiking along the creek bed for a little bit, we came to the last part of the hike; a bare-bones family-run cable car that would carry us across the river and onto the hot springs. While it was called a “cable-car”, it was more like a cable-box, maximum capacity 2.5 small people. It required one person to stand at one end of the cable and pull the passengers across, and any remaining passengers have to pull the car back if they want to use it.
I’m pretty sure that if I had stood up while crossing, the change in center of gravity would have caused the box to invert. We finished the day by walking a few more feet to a massive set of three hot springs pools. It was so refreshing to bathe in them after being on our feet all day.
We spent the night in the “nicest hotel in the city”; it was supposed to have hot water, but having recently come from the hot springs, the lack of it wasn’t much of a problem.
The next day the big event was zip-lining. It was an optional activity like the rafting, but most in our group signed up for it. We began with a short drive to the outskirts of the city, where we were fitted with harnesses and then proceeded to hike up a hillside. I had been zip-lining once before, in Texas, but in contrast to that experience in the USA, where there are lawyers, we began zip-lining over huge ravines immediately. No need for a practice line or extensive training videos here! It was actually really fun, and the equipment they used made the whole experience, as far as I can tell, idiot-proof.
There were seven lines total, each connecting progressively longer and deeper ravines. The second-to-last line went between two mountains, over a jungle, and was over a kilometer long. It was pretty amazing. The last line did not connect to land, but a platform in the middle of the line, where a guy would unhook your harness from the main line and connect you to a rappelling device that you would use to rappel down to the bottom of the hill we first hiked up.
After zip-lining, we drove a bit to a small town near some hydroelectric project, and saw a couple of stunning waterfalls along the way. At this small town, which as far as I could tell was just a snack shack, Bruno introduced Antonia and I to the lucuma popsicles in the freezer. I should back up a bit and explain that before I went to Peru, I had read about this fruit called a lucuma. It only grows in Peru and has a very unique flavor. Antonia and I actually tried some lucuma mousse at a Peruvian restaurant in the West Village back home. I had gone out of my way to look for it fresh a few times since we got to Peru, but could never find it. Upon researching the subject after returning home, I now know that lucuma harvesting season in Peru is from October through March, so we had missed the fruit by a few months.
It was a bit rainy that day, so Juan Carlos decided to take us on a shortcut through the jungle. At one point, while we were on top of a very large boulder, Juan Carlos proceeded to explain how the large rock below us was actually cut by the Incas and was used as a ceremonial altar called IntiHuatana which was probably used for sacrifices. He pointed out places where Incan royalty would be seated, as well as where mummies would be “seated”, a-la Weekend at Bernie’s. Mummies were apparently an important part of many Incan ceremonies.
He concluded his lecture by pointing to a peak of one of the mountains behind us, and said that if we looked very closely, we could see a small part of Machu Picchu: the Sun Gate.
The remainder of the day was spent hiking along the rail tracks to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu, where we would be staying for the final night of the trek.
The next morning we woke at 4:30 am. We would be hiking up the famed 1,700 Incan-cut stone steps to arrive at the entrance to Machu Picchu at 7 am that morning. We began in the dark of night, but over the next hour and a half, as we were ascending, the sun rose to illuminate the beautiful mountainscape surrounding us from above. By the time we could see the clouds, we were already above them. I wish I knew more about photography; I could have taken some amazing pictures for you.
It was a tough climb. I counted each step, and sure enough, there are almost exactly 1,700 of them. The older couple opted to take the bus, and we met them at the top of the climb.
So, at the crack of 7:00 am, the gates to Macchu Picchu opened and we were in pretty quickly. Juan Carlos began his tour of the archaeological site with an overview of how the site was discovered, why it was built, when it was built, and an explanation of work on recent restorations.
Machu Picchu is built on a heavily terraced landscape, which makes the terrain particularly difficult for lawn mowers, so instead, llamas are used to keep the grass short. After only taking a few steps into the site, two of these llamas greeted us with a sort of courtship show… I’m not going to describe is further, just see the photo below.
If you want to know more about Machu Picchu, there are many places you can read about it online, so I won’t go into too much detail here, except for a few photos. I do think that it’s worth emphasizing that if you are able to appreciate good masonry, you will likely appreciate Machu Picchu more than any other stonework you’ve ever seen. The Inca could have simply cut the stones down to a manageable and uniform size and stacked them like bricks, but instead, they sculpted each stone to the contours of its adjacent stone so perfectly that there is no gap between them, despite often complicated contours. It’s amazing, and I recommend that you go check it out if you haven’t already.
After Juan Carlos finished his tour of the site, the Inca Jungle Trek was officially over and we were free to roam about the ruins for the rest of the day. We said our goodbyes to our fellow trekkers and gave Juan Carlos a big tip for a great tour of the area.
Antonia and I made arrangements beforehand to also ascend the peak above Macchu Picchu called Huayna Picchu. Huayna Picchu was supposedly where the sacrificial virgins were kept while they waited for their time to come. Getting there was a steep climb that at times felt like it went straight up the side of the cliff face. There were many places along the climb up to Huayna Picchu where Macchu Picchu could be seen in its entirety.
It took us about 45 minutes to get to the top of Huayna Picchu. I had read a small mention of some additional ruins on this peak, but there was no indication of their scale. At the top, we were greeted by a sprawling set of ruins that seemed almost like a castle. They were a real joy to explore. We had no guide, and no guards were around to keep us from climbing all over the place. (Back on the main ruins of Macchu Picchu, guards would yell at you if you so much as skipped over one of the steps.) We even found a small cave that seemed to be the only passage to another substantial part of the ruins that no other tourists seemed to have discovered when we were there. If you ever make it to Machu Picchu, and if you don’t mind a short but steep climb, be sure to get tickets to Huyana Picchu as well. Antonia said that it was her favorite part of the whole site.
I had tickets to ride the train back into Cusco at 5:20 pm, so eventually we decided to head back down the 1,700 steps to Aguas Calientes, get a bite to eat at Apu Qoyllur Rit’i , and board on our train headed back into Cusco.
The train ride started out normal enough, but once we were underway, an announcement came on that the train crew would now begin a fashion show for our enjoyment. The same people taking tickets outside the car and showing us to our seats started parading down the aisles encouraging us to “feel the alpaca” on the scarves and sweaters they were wearing. It was a bit bizarre. There was also this spirit cat thing that was dancing around, and even stole a dance from Antonia before either of us really knew what was going on. Check it out!
The photos of the train car on the website where I got the tickets showed the train cars as having amazing glass ceilings through which you could see amazing views of the mountains. Unfortunately, it was dark by this time, so we couldn’t see anything, but here’s what we could have seen if we had taken an earlier train:
We had to transfer to a bus about halfway through the train ride because floods had damaged the tracks closer to Cusco. We overnighted in Cusco at a really nice bed and breakfast. I wish we could have stayed longer at this place, as it was really nice, and we hadn’t gotten to see much of Cusco at all. But early the next morning we would start the next Peru adventure: the Colca Canyon.
Finally, here is a nicely edited video from Lorenzo Expeditions that shows highlights of the Inca Jungle Trek. This is not from our group, but the places and activities shown are the same:
The next post in this three part series will be about our adventures in the Colca Canyon.
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