Having traveled throughout a good portion of most other continents of the world, I was anxious to get to South America. I’ve had very few opportunities to put my two years of high school Spanish to the test and this was the perfect chance for it! I found a great deal on Groupon Getaways to visit Peru & Bolivia with flights included from Miami for around $1200US per person. My mom, Lisa is always on board for international travel so her and I picked our travel dates and booked the trip. Our flight from Miami to Lima was about 6 hours and relatively painless. We got off the airplane to get our bags and were immediately surprised to see the amount of guards and drug sniffing dogs in the airport. Even with as much travel as I do/have done, this is a somewhat rare sight. Many South American countries have very large industries based on the sale of illegal drugs and while I knew this going into the country of Peru, I wasn’t quite prepared for what that would visually translate to.
We picked up our bags and caught a bus into the city center of Lima where we were going to stay the night. We spent the afternoon eating lunch, doing a little souvenir shopping, visiting the Catacombs and walking down to the ocean. We stood near the ocean and watched people paraglide from the tall cliffs surrounding it -not something I’d ever want to do, but quite entertaining to watch others! Before settling in for the evening, I looked up a restaurant close by which had vegetarian options. We walked down to it and were quite pleasantly surprised with how delicious the food and drinks were! I had the local staple, Cuy – although mine was made of soy products & vegetables instead of actual Guinnea Pig. It was served in some sort of mole sauce with roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes. It was amazing. My impression of Lima was that it has all the hustle & bustle of a very large city, but being right on the coast it has that calming, relaxing feel to it. A paradox of beach life meets city life – and I genuinely enjoy places like that. I’d definitely go back to Lima someday to do more exploring.
Having flown into Lima the previous day, to pack up our bags for another flight this morning was a bit rough – but we managed. We took the short flight from Lima to Arequipa where we were greeted by our tour guide, Mauricio who turned out to be wonderful! While in Arequipa I treated myself to the hotel spa for a massage. Actually I treated myself to a massage in the morning and another in the afternoon – each for around 90 Soles, at the time being about $30US. These were damn good massages too, well worth the financial investment. In the afternoon I took a taxi from the hotel (Yikes! This town either doesn’t have or doesn’t care about traffic rules and riding in a taxi is an adventure all on it’s own). We walked around Arequipa visiting the town church, eating gelato and buying handmade crafts from the local street artist. The next morning we woke up at 430AM and drove the 3.5 hours up through the Andes Mountains/ Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reservation to Chivay where we spent the night.
After spending the night in Chivay, we woke up the next morning at 5AM to drive the few hours to Colca Canyon where we sat and watched Condors (GIANT birds) fly overhead and all through the canyon. These birds can weigh up to 35 pounds and have a wingspan of between 3-5 feet. They are massive. Adding to this experience were the gorgeous mountains surrounding us, covered in lush green vegetation. It was impossible to not let your mind wander a little while sitting there, thinking existential thoughts and contemplating life and love. It was an incredible experience. I listened to the Simon & Garfunkel song: El Condor Pasa the entire drive back to Chivay.
Driving to Chivay from Arequipa we were surrounded by gorgeous scenery and it was impossible not to just enjoy the moment for what it was. The drive between Arequipa and Chivay is a long, winding trek up steep mountain passes but with gorgeous landscapes to look at. We were able to stop at a lookout near the top of the mountain which is one of the highest peaks in Peru at over 16,000 feet above sea level. Everywere you travel in Peru in between these small towns you see people chewing on bright green coca leaves. After seeing them at every rest stop we visited and a brief google search, I decided to invest the $1US for a bag of them to see what the fuss was about. You basically take a small handful of the leaves and wrap them around a small rock (included in the $1US fee) and then start chewing on them. The rock helps break down the leaves a little bit and the juices are supposed to help ward off hunger, thirst, pain, etc. I chewed on them for about 30 seconds but wasn’t accustomed to having leaves and a rock in my mouth so I shared the rest with my co-travelers, some who enjoyed them, but the majority who weren’t fans of it either. We stayed the night down in the valley at this beautifully understated hotel surrounded by lush mountains and local people out walking around the cobblestone roads with their llamas and el paca’s. Word to the wise however, people here are so incredibly friendly – but also are used to tourists and are not afraid to ask for money. If/when you ask to take a photo of them, they will expect you to pay them in return. Comply with these customs as this is how they support themselves. It’s fairly rare to see “beggars” as we do here in the US. Instead, you’ll see people selling tea for $1 Soles, or charging you to take pictures of their animals or their family.We spent the afternoon in Chivay bathing and relaxing in the geothermal swimming pool situated on the hillside of the canyon with views of the river flowing through it. You cannot picture a more serene setting in your mind if you tried.
Puno was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It is full of beautiful things to look at and experience – things you simply just wont experience anywhere else in the world. I took a ferry from Chivay to Puno and then another smaller boat to visit the Uros Islands. These are floating islands whose underbrush is made of reeds and brush. The locals use every inch of these reeds: building homes, boats, clothing and other necessities from and then they pull the immature ones straight from the water and snack on the soft bulb portion. It was an absolutely crazy experience to see what these people have been able to make using only the resources available to them on the islands. These are not like the Hawaiian Islands or industrialized islands – these are basically small floating jungles of reeds which Peruvians have inhabited and somehow made a life from. Tourists come to these islands and can purchase handmade items such as baskets, skirts, toys, etc. I purchased a pillow case which had been hand embroidered with the story of the Puno Islands. It was difficult to think about all of the luxuries I take for granted at home while these incredible people live such a beautiful life, utilizing only the physical materials they have at their disposal. The few short hours I spent on this island of Uros was enough to change my perspective on the things I deem important in my own life. I’m thankful to the people who opened their homes to us here and grateful for what they taught me in such a short period of time. As a reminder, these people survive off of the lands and the tourists who pass by. If you want to take a photo of them, or their homes, make sure you ask permission first and offer them a little bit of cash for doing so, as is customary.
Cusco was the second to last stop on my tour of Peru so while I was looking forward to the activities I had planned, I was a little sad at the prospect that this amazing trip was coming close to an end. Cusco is an interesting mix of city and countryside – old and new, clean and dirty. For my time spent in Cusco we found a horseback riding operations which was an hour bus ride outside of the city to the town of Ollantaytambo. We arrived in this town square and after walking around and doing a little souvenir shopping and a little coffee drinking, we walked down the hill to meet up with our horseback riding guide. He had 4 horses ready for us: 3 for myself, my mom and our new friend Paige who had been on the rest of the trip with us and one for himself. We got horse saddled up and began our journey through the outskirts of town. Winding paved roads roads led to gravel roads which led to forest. We (our horses) climbed up about 5 miles of mountain side switchbacks before emerging in front of these beautiful ancient Incan ruins. Two old structures which still partially stood erect in front of a gorgeous view of the valley and river running through it. We hopped off the horses to give them a much needed break and treated ourselves to a picnic of fresh fruits, vegetables and maize the guide had brought for us. Sitting on the side of this mountain, horses grazing next to me, in front of Incan ruins and looking at the gorgeous landscape is not something I will soon forget. The photos don’t do my memory of this proper justice, but you still get the point. If you ever find yourself in Cusco, Peru, do yourself a favor and sign yourself up for a horseback riding
This town will forever hold a special place in my heart. I can very vividly recall where I was in the town of Aquas Calientes when I was notified my grandma Isabel was in the hospital, where I sat in the hotel lobby on the borrowed cell phone talking to her, telling her I love her and I was going to pack my bags and try to get to San Francisco to say goodbye, and where a few hours later I sat as I was notified of her death. My grandma and I have always been extremely close so, I would say closer than most grandma/granddaughters so this news was probably the most devastating I’ve ever had in my life. The fact that I was a solid 3 days of traveling away from her made things even harder as I sat weeping into the phone in the lobby of this tiny hotel at the base of Machu Picchu. The morning after hearing this news, we woke up unsure of how to go about our day. It had rained heavily throughout the night – the first unpleasant weather we’d had since touching down in the country of Peru more than two weeks earlier. There is only one train in and out of Aquas Calientes a day and the next flight leaving from Cusco to Lima to Miami was two days away. After talking it over, we made the decision to go ahead and tour Machu Picchu as planned – otherwise we had come all this way to leave Peru with only sad memories and not having seen this incredible landmark. We pulled ourselves together, purchased ponchos for $1 Sol and headed out into the rain. We treated ourselves to shelter and hot coffee at one of the many café’s littering the town before walking down to the bus depot to get tickets up to see Machu Picchu. I believe tickets were about $15US each round trip for the 45 minute bus ride up and down the mountain. We took the very first bus of the morning, arriving at the gates of the ancient Incan ruins around 9AM. We stepped off the bus and stood in the pouring rain waiting for the gates to open. Walking through the gates, down the winding path before turning the corner you kind of have to mentally prepare yourself for what you’re about to experience. You literally turn a sharp corner and then are greeted by acres and acres of ruins situated within the confines of beautiful mountains. Every direction you turn you see walls and ruins of homes which once housed an entire population of Incan people. As I mentioned previously, this was the first day it had rained in quite some time and my mom and I were some of the very first people of the day to walk through those gates so we more or less had the entire landscape to ourselves. We spent a few minutes walking around, taking photos and lost in our own thoughts before deciding we’d had enough and were ready to head back to town. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the large open air market which takes up nearly half of the town before settling into our hotel for the evening. The next morning we woke up and hiked about 5 miles down the gravel road, following the train tracks through town to reach the Mandor Gardens and Los Jardines de Manor waterfall. This is quite the trek through the jungle to reach, but worth the effort to experience it in person. After this we turned around, walked back to our hotel to compare bug bites and scratches from walking through the jungle with shorts on before turning in for the evening. The next morning we woke up, took the first (only) train out for the day headed to Cusco to begin our journey home. I would say if you are going to make the effort to get to Peru, you need to make the effort to get to Aquas Calientes. It’s a beautiful town on its own, but the fact that it’s the gateway to Machu Picchu is its own reward and reason enough to go.