Detour: Peru and Machu Picchu

peru-passport-stampsMonths before we embarked on our travel trailer adventure I booked a trip to Peru.  I try to take one solo trip per year, usually to somewhere on my bucket list.  Machu Picchu was calling my name!  That made for a conundrum. Where will I be in August and what city should I fly out of?  I knew we’d be headed south on our RV adventure, so I looked at ticket prices at every major airport from Virginia to Florida.  Not surprisingly, the cheapest flights were out of Miami.  I booked through Miami which meant we had 70 days to get from Northern Virginia to the bottom of Florida.  Well, we made it and I left Florida for Peru on Aug 1, 2015.

The trip was organized by a Virginia/Maryland/DC Meetup.com travel group.  I went to Costa Rica last year with the group’s organizer, but the other travelers were strangers.  It turned out to be a great group of 6 guys and 25 gals.

Quick Peru Stats

Description: Peru is a country in South America known for a section of Amazon rainforest and Machu Picchu, an ancient Incan city in the Andes mountains. The Sacred Valley, the Inca Trail, and the city of Cusco, are also rich in Incan sites. Ancient Peru was home to several prominent Andean civilizations, most notably the Incas whose empire was captured by Spanish conquistadors in 1533.
Currency: The “Nuevo Sol” (S/.)
Exchange Rate: 1 Peruvian Nuevo Sol (PEN) = 0.31 US Dollar
Time Zone: PET  (1hr behind EST)

Day 1: Private Tour of Lima

I arrived in Lima at 3:00 PM and knew we’d be flying straight to Cusco the very next morning.  I didn’t want to miss seeing the city, so I booked a private tour with the same local company handling the rest of the trip.  They took me around Lima in a van, stopping for pictures along the way.  My favorite parts of the tour were seeing the bones in the catacombs of the Monastery of San Francisco and walking in the El Parque del Amor (Park of Love) by the ocean.  The tour didn’t visit all of the sites advertised, but I had such a good time, that I didn’t care.

(Click any image to enlarge it.)

Catacumbas de San Francisco

Catacumbas de San Francisco

Lima's Plaza San Martin

Lima’s Plaza San Martin

That night, I met my fellow tour mates at dinner at the hotel.  The hotel was very nice but a couple of things tricked me.  The elevator had a swinging door, which didn’t automatically open. As a result, I got to ride the elevator up, then down, then back up before I figured out how to exit. Also I couldn’t figure out my room’s key card. The card’s chip needed to face up, which is the opposite of how a card would face the reader in the US.

This hotel was the last time we’d see guaranteed toilet paper, soap, and water in a bathroom.  (For the other locations, we brought our own.)  Most toilets in Peru don’t have seats.  This is fairly common overseas supposedly for hygienic reasons.  And just like in Costa Rica (and in my travel trailer for that matter) no toilet paper can be flushed.  It all goes in the waste basket instead.  Luckily I never encountered a pit toilet, but I know that’s the norm on the longer Inca Trail hikes!

Distance walked: 4.39 miles

Day 2: Altitude Acclimatization and Bathing with Ants

The next day, we got up at 5:30 AM and headed back to the airport for a domestic flight to Cusco.  (You can’t fly directly to Cusco but an international airport is being built.)  I had read a lot about elevation and altitude sickness, but I didn’t expect it to affect me so quickly!  I could feel the effects of the 11,000 ft elevation immediately after exiting the plane into the airport.  (The jetway ramp was hard to climb!) I mainly felt shortness of breath in my chest, but others reported dizziness, headache, and eye strain too.  Luckily, no one experienced any serious problems and we went on our way.

Our first stop was the ruins of Saqsaywaman, a citadel of the Incan Empire.  There we met our guide for the entire trip as well as an additional guide for the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu portions.  Later we visited a weaving community and had a group lunch at a farmhouse, which would be our best meal of the trip.  At night, we walked around the small town of Urubamba (Say it – it’s fun! Ooo-ru-bum-ba!) but I had to skip the delicious smelling rotisserie chicken and potatoes as I was still too full from lunch.  (Fun fact: Peru has 3,300 types of potatoes and 55 varieties of corn!)

Overlooking Saqsaywaman Ruins

Overlooking Saqsaywaman Ruins

Travel Group and Local Tour Guide

Travel Group and Local Tour Guide

Weaving Village of Ccaccaccollo

Weaving Village of Ccaccaccollo

Back at the hotel, I was ecstatic to see a bath tub.  (My travel trailer only has a small stand up shower, of course.)  Half way through my bubble bath I noticed a parade of ants had joined me.  A few years ago, this would have sent me screaming into another room.  Now, however, after the hundreds of daily ants we live with in Miami, they are no bother.  (In fact, I just squashed another ant at home while typing this!)  If the ants wanted to commit suicide by bath water it was fine by me.

Alpacas Eating My Flowers

Alpacas Eating My Flowers

Best Meal all Week

Best Meal all Week

Trip Elevation

Trip Elevation

Distance walked: 5.27 miles

Day 3: The Railroad Putas

This day we got up early for a train ride towards Aguas Calientes (AKA: Machu Picchu Town). The train dropped us off at kilometer 104, the place to start our 1 day Inca Trail hike.  The train was unexpectedly nice inside.  We rode the $80 USD version, but there’s a $500 version too, with white table cloths, I presume.

My Inca Trail Ticket - Age 25? Sure!

My Inca Trail Ticket – Age 25? Sure!

Disembarking Train at KM104

Disembarking Train at KM104

Group is Ready to Hike

Group is Ready to Hike

Now let me explain this hike: There’s a 1 day version, a 4 day (camping, porters, and mules) version, and a 26 mile version for the truly insane. The 1 day hike is 4 miles and takes 5-6 hours. All the tourism websites advertise it as “easy to moderate.” All the blogs written by people who’ve done it rate it as “advanced to extreme.” I did a lot of pre-research on this hike and knew better than to believe the marketing.  I knew hours 1-3 were straight up, hours 2-4 were mostly flat, and the last hour were straight down. Four miles doesn’t sound far, but this is a trek through the Andes mountains, not down your paved neighborhood sidewalk! Along the Inca Trail there are ruins to explore and the hike culminates at the Sun Gate (Intipuncu) overlooking Machu Picchu.

I knew going into this hike that it probably wasn’t accomplishable because:  (1) I’m not a hiker, I don’t enjoy hiking, and I’m certainly not in prime physical shape for such persuits, (2) breathing while just standing still, at altitude, was labored, and (3) when’s the last time anyone has climbed stairs for 3 hours?  But, I decided to at least give it a try, in case all my internet research was wrong.  (When is the internet ever wrong?)

45 minutes into the hike, I determined I had given it a good enough try.  After all, I was going to be delivered to the front door of Machu Picchu the next day by a perfectly functional bus.  Four other ladies decided to join me in an “alternate route” which included backtracking down for 45 minutes and then walking 8 miles along the railroad track to town.  (There is no road into town and the train does not pick up where it originally dropped us off.)  The long walk back on the tracks wasn’t easy either, but at least it was flat.  We had a good time making jokes along the way.  One group member nicknamed us the “Railroad Putas” (or “Railroad Bitches”).  The male guide that accompanied us back found that title quite amusing.

I’m not at all upset with my decision to quit early; it was the best decision for me.  Even if I was in the best shape possible, I’m not sure I’d want to do that hike.  A few people said they would have joined us too had they known it was an option.  Everyone said the hike was really difficult and got even harder than the part I experienced. I can still say I walked on the Inca Trail and I still have the entry point (called Chachabamba) stamp in my passport.  That’s plenty for me.

Suspension Bridge at Trail Start

Suspension Bridge at Trail Start

Chachabamba Ruins on the Inca Trail

Chachabamba Ruins on the Inca Trail

Official Hike vs My Hike

Official Hike vs My Hike

I hear the train a comin'...

I hear the train a comin’…

...but it's not stopping for us!

…but it’s not stopping for us!

Winay Wayna Ruins (Group members were up there!)

Winay Wayna Ruins (Group members were up there!)

When we arrived in town, the 5 Railroad Putas checked in to our hotel, showered and met for lunch.  I was lucky to have a king size bed at this hotel, but unlucky to have to climb 6 floors to get to it!  As an added bonus, the men on the seventh floor could see straight into my shower.  I was too tired to care and will assume their comments were nothing but complimentary.  Later that night, the entire group met for dinner to tell our stories of the day.

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes Goes By Many Names

Aguas Calientes Goes By Many Names

Trout Chimichurri

Trout Chimichurri

Distance walked: 9.12 miles, Floors climbed: 64

Day 4: Machu Picchu and More Stairs

This day we walked to the bus station and waited in a long line of excited tourists.  Luckily my friend Phil had warned me about the bus route filled with cliffs, switch backs, and no guard rails. (I was probably safer there though compared to riding in Lima or in Miami, for that matter.) When we arrived at Machu Picchu there was an even longer line to enter the ruins. We took a 2 hour guided tour with many photo stops and lamas along the way. I still can’t believe humans climbed that mountain and built all those structures!  What an amazing sight!

Line for the Bus

Line for the Bus

Bus Route to Machu Picchu

Bus Route to Machu Picchu

Entry Line

Entry Line

It was incredibly hot at the high elevation, and there was little shade. As usual, I was covered from head to toe in sun blocking heat gear. Sometimes I went into “bank robber mode” covering the lower part of my face with my buff. That always gets some confused looks. The Machu Picchu brochure should really come with a fitness warning. For example: “There are hundreds of stairs. If you’re a fat, lazy American, consider looking at pictures on the internet instead.” After our tour, we entered the longest line yet – for the bus back to town.

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Upon return, we had lunch and I walked around the lovely little tourist town on my own. Aguas Calientes looks just like a ski town – but without the snow. We took a late train back to the Sacred Valley that night.

Distance walked: 6.2 miles, Floors climbed: 192

Day 5: Lunch Cooked Underground

This day was packed full of sites and experiences in the Sacred Valley.  We started the day visiting the town of Pisac where the Inca constructed agricultural terraces on the steep hillside.  Then, we visited an expensive silver jewelry factory, ate a special lunch, toured the Chinchero church, and visited a textile and dying factory.  Later that night I went to dinner with two group mates and had a glass of Chilean wine.  At elevation, that one glass made me feel like I hadn’t had water in months!

Pisac Ruins

Pisac Ruins

At Pisac Ruins

At Pisac Ruins

Intently Listening to Textile Presentation

Intently Listening to Textile Presentation

Pachamanca is a traditional Peruvian baking method where hot stones are used to cook meat and vegetables.  The stones are heated over a fire, the food is placed on top, and it’s all covered with grass, cloth, and earth.  Ours consisted of beef, lamb, chicken, corn, and many kinds of potatoes.  They started cooking before we arrived so we got to watch the entire unveiling.  The cross in the ground (see photo below) was a bit strange; we all assumed zombies would emerge from the mound.

Pachamanca

Pachamanca

Pachamanca Unveiling

Pachamanca Unveiling

Meat & Potatoes

Meat & Potatoes

Meat & Potatoes

Meat & Potatoes

Distance walked: 5.3 miles

Day 6: Co-ed Group Massage

Today was an “on your own” adventure so a group of six of us went out in Cusco.  We started the day at the Museo Inka, where we hired a museum guide to show us all the cool stuff.  The highlight was seeing real mummies!  Next on the agenda was a massage.  It’s always fun to see how massage practices differ (sometimes wildly) in other countries.  The “spa” we found was one single room, with foam pads on the floor, separated by a sheet hanging from the ceiling.  As such, we had a co-ed group massage.  They used a number of essential oils – and one was snake oil!  I hope they never got around to using that one on me. For lunch, we all had pasta; I tried the Peruvian pesto with linguine. We continued to walk around town and people watch.

At Museo Inka

At Museo Inka

View in Cusco

View in Cusco

Cathedral of Santo Domingo

Cathedral of Santo Domingo

At night, the larger group went to dinner, where I ate Aji de Gallina – a rich, velvety stew made with chicken and condensed milk and thickened with de-crusted white bread.  There’s a hard boiled egg thrown in there too.

Aji de Gallina

Aji de Gallina

Distance walked: 5.4 miles

Day 7: Swimming with Sea Lions

On our last day, we boarded a domestic flight to return to Lima.  A Peruvian agent confiscated my (United States TSA approved) Leatherman Multi-Tool which has NO KNIFE on it!  I couldn’t believe it.  The Peruvian airport authority owes me $27.85 USD or S/. 90.06 PEN.  They can choose the currency.  I’ll be waiting with PayPal reimbursement instructions.

Back in Lima, we went to the port and boarded a small boat bound for the Palomino Islands.  One of the islands, El Fronton, was used as a prison until a series of riots in 1986.  Now what remains is like our Alcatraz.  The next island was home to birds and even penguins!  (The white on the rocks in the photo below is all bird poop.  The aviary guano is collected and sold as fertilizer.)

As we approached the final island, we heard what sounded like a crowd cheering at a sports game.  What we saw was a mountain that was moving!  It wasn’t until we got up close that we saw the mountain was covered with hundreds of barking sea lions!  When I first read in the tour itinerary that we’d be swimming with sea lions, I immediately looked it up.  How could that possibly be safe?  They are lions…of the sea! To my surprise all the reviews on Trip Advisor were positive and it wasn’t long before I was putting on a wet suit and jumping in.  The water was seriously cold, but this was a once in a lifetime experience.  It was truly unique and amazing!  I stayed towards the back of the group and let the animals approach me.  They were definitely in charge.  Everyone enjoyed the experience and left with all appendages still attached.

Penguins

Penguins

Look Close - Sea Lions!

Look Close – Sea Lions!

I'm Closest to the Camera

I’m Closest to the Camera

Distance walked: 3.8 miles

Day 8: Trying to Get Back to Miami

What a day.  I got up at 3:30 AM, for a 4:00 transfer to the Lima airport for my 7:00 flight. (I never book a flight before 8:00 AM – not sure what happened here.) I boarded for the first leg of the trip (Lima to Panama) and the plane left the gate. Soon after, there was a long announcement (in Spanish) and we returned to the gate. Something was malfunctioning, but being a non-Spanish speaker, I never figured out what it was. 2.5 hours later, the problem was fixed and we were allowed to take off. Sometime during the maintenance, I came down with what I think was the flu. I had intense chills and stomach cramps. I don’t remember most of the flight.  When we landed in Panama, I had missed my noon connection to Miami and had to wait for the next flight, which wasn’t until 7:00 PM. The wifi was down in the entire airport, so I bought an international calling card to tell Kayak Chris about the flight change. Then, I bought a day pass for the Copa Airlines lounge and shivered in their comfy chairs until 7:00.

When I arrived in Miami, I found out Chris had never received my message and was worried when I didn’t arrive at 4:30 as expected.  He spent his whole afternoon and evening at the airport trying to find out what country I was in and who had abducted me.   Lesson learned:  get international phone service for the next trip.  If I didn’t still have that international phone card, I might have thought the message I left was only a flu-induced delusion.  I was finally home by midnight.

Distance walked: 4.1 miles

Conclusion: Peru is a wonderful place to visit.  The people are friendly, helpful, and either also speak English or will try to accommodate your horrible Spanish skills.  The city and the towns always felt clean and very safe.  You will encounter persistent adults and children trying to sell crafts, but a simple “no, gracias” or two (or three) will have them moving on to the next tourist. While there’s a lot of traffic and mixed vehicle use the roads are very well maintained.  I feel you can tell how well a country is doing by looking at their roads, their children, and their stray animals.  By all accounts, Peru is doing very well.  They thrive on tourism dollars exchange rate makes this an affordable location to visit.

Do carry your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  Do drink bottled water constantly.  (Make sure to buy the “sin gas” version if you don’t want carbonation.)  I stayed away from uncooked foods and tap water and had no problem with the food.  (One group member did get sick however, but he wasn’t being as careful.) If your visit includes high elevation locations, you need to do your research on altitude sickness.  If your visit includes an Inca Trail or mountain hike, you need to train before traveling.   Prepare to do a lot of uphill and downhill walking wherever you visit.  The ruins, ancient and modern architecture, colorful landscapes, history, and charming town squares make for a destination worth exploring.

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