It has been almost two years since I wrote about a vacation. In the interim we have traveled to the Pacific Northwest, visited Hilton Head twice and done a Midwest Road Trip that took us to Pittsburgh, Chicago, Lake Michigan, Detroit and Niagara On The Lake Ontario for the Shaw Festival. While each of these was enjoyable, none seemed novel enough for a blog post.
In February 2017, my wife and I took a 10-day guided tour of Peru. The trip was sponsored by two universities, my alma mater Johns Hopkins and North Carolina State University, and was operated by Odysseys Unlimited, well known for its small group tours featuring very good hotels and excellent guides. While the tour was limited to 24, we only had seven in our group, perhaps because others realized February is the rainy season in the Andes. The name of our trip was Treasures of Peru and you can find the detailed itinerary and hotels listed on the Odysseys Unlimited website https://odysseys-unlimited.com/tours/central-south-america/treasures-peru .
The tour covered five parts of Peru – Lima, Cusco, The Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, along with less significant sites along the road from Cusco to the Lake. Machu Picchu is obviously the big draw and, as described below, it did not disappoint. But the beauty of the mountainous country of Peru, the colors of its abundant textiles, fruits and vegetables, its ancient art (what’s left that the Spanish did not carry off) and architecture, and the character and warmth of its people were benefits we had not expected. The photo below at La Raya Pass is the one that I believes best captured the color and physical beauty of Peru.
Peru is the third largest country in South America, with a population of 30 million, a third of whom live in Lima. The country has an amazing range of climate and topography, from coastal desert along the Pacific Coast to the high peaks and plateaus of the Andes to Amazon jungle.
The Andes are the second highest mountain range in the world behind the Himalayas, with a number of peaks ranging over 20,000 feet. Many cities and towns in Peru are at 8,000 feet above sea level or higher. The climatic and topographic diversity within Peru is great for crops and scenery but complicates packing for travel because in the summer the temperature can be in the 80s or higher in Lima and in the 40s or lower at night in the highlands with bright sun at altitude during the day. As noted above, winter in the northern hemisphere is summer in the southern hemisphere, which means warmer weather but more rain in the Andes highlands. We packed rain gear every day but were very fortunate to have only a few instances of daytime rain affecting our trip.
Reaching Peru is relatively easy from the U.S. with 6 – 6.5 hours direct flights to Lima from Miami and other southern cities. Our tour used Latam airlines, a Peruvian carrier, from our flight from Miami to Lima and for flights within Peru from Lima to Cusco and Lake Titicaca back to Lima. Latam flies modern Boeing and Airbus planes with fine service in coach but connecting to Latam in Miami requires travelers to exit the domestic airline terminals and go through security again to check in for Latam. If going to Peru again, I would consider using American Airlines, which also has multiple flights to Lima, to fly from Miami to Peru in order to eliminate one very long walk with luggage and a second security screening in the Miami airport from the trip.
Lima is a large, diverse city, with a road network and transit system that has not kept pace with the city’s growth. Lima was developed beginning in 1535 by the Spanish after their conquest of the Incas. Today, you will see a lot of gritty one and two story concrete buildings around the city along with some very attractive upscale neighborhoods (Miraflores) near the Pacific, and historic areas with attractive colonial era buildings and parks.
Lima is a great food city and has a number of historic buildings and museums worth visiting but everything takes time to get to because of the congested traffic. We particularly enjoyed the Museo Rafael Larco Herrera, which features an extensive private collection of Incan and pre-Incan art including a large ceramics collection. The museum also has lushly planted grounds, a very nice restaurant that opens the its gardens and two high quality museum shops (See photo below). We had hoped to try one of Lima’s world-class restaurants while in the City but just did not have the time or energy between our late night flight in and very early flight to Cusco on our second morning.
Cusco is a city of nearly 500,000 people that was the historic capital of the Inca Empire. It is located near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range at an elevation of 11,200 feet. To ease our acclimation to high altitude our itinerary moved us quickly through Cusco and onto the Sacred Valley formed by the Urubamba River, which is below 10,000 feet, and returned us to Cusco after our tour of the Sacred Valley and visit to Machu Picchu.
We took Acetazolamide/Diamox starting a day before we were flying to Cusco to ease our transition to high altitude and did not have any significant problems. Most hotels also offer supplemental oxygen for guests that request it, which I used one night, and coca leaves and coca tea are freely available, which is also supposed to help with altitude sickness. Coca leaves are used to make cocaine but it takes a very large quantity of the leaves to make a small amount of cocaine, so you are getting only trace amount of cocaine and mild stimulant by sucking on the leaves or drinking the tea. Our travel doctor warned of one patient who had a heart attract after drinking coca tea but most of our tour group use leaves or tea in limited quantities with no ill effect.
The historic core of Cusco (see below), which is likely where you will stay and tour in the City except while entering or exiting, is quite charming and includes colonial era scale and charm, in many cases built over earlier Inca foundations and first floor walls. Notable sights in Cusco include: the Church of Santo Domingo built on the site of the former Inca temple called Qorrikancha (Golden Courtyard), Sacsayhuaman (an immense Inca ruin of religious and military significance, and a number of churches, museums and shopping areas in the City center.
We had an excellent dinner in Cusco at restaurant called MAP, which is located in the courtyard of the Museo de Arte Precolumbina just a few blocks off the main square. A neighbor who lived in Peru for nine years recommended MAP. In Cusco we visited and had lunch with a local family and during the meal we tried guinea pig (cuy), which is consider a delicacy in the Peruvian Andes and tastes a lot luck duck.
The Sacred Valley (see below), less well known to tourist than Cusco or Machu Picchu, is very scenic and contains a number of sites including Ollantaytambo and the village of Chinchero with its women’s textile cooperatives. We particular liked our hotel create from a former monastery in Yucay, the Sonesta Posada del Inca, which has extensive gardens. We also found the textile making demonstration at one of the woman’s cooperatives in Chinchero to be both interesting and fun and a good place to buy right from the makers (See below).
Both the train and inca Trail to Machu Picchu leave from Ollantaytambo and run to Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu. Belmont operated the train we took, the same company that runs the Orient Express, and the ride on the narrow gauge railroad along the Urubamba River is very picturesque. We stayed over one night in Aguas Calientes at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu, an excellent and eco-friendly hotel. The advantage of staying over is you get two opportunities to visit Machu Picchu, one in the afternoon and one in the morning before most of the tourists arrive by train. Because the site is crowded and the weather and fog can be very different day to day, two opportunities to visit the sight are much better than a few hours one crowded afternoon.
No matter how many photos you have seen of Machu Picchu, it is much more impressive in person than in the photos. The site is reached by a 20 minute bus ride on a switchback road from Aguas Calientes or by a hiking trail up 1,600 feet from the river valley floor. Separated by surrounding peaks by steep ravines, Machu Picchu itself includes two peaks (Machu Picchu – old mountain and Huayna Picchu – young mountain and fills a saddle of land between the two. The site itself includes agricultural terraces, religious buildings, a central plaza for ceremonies and a residential portion. It is best to see it with a guide because it is something of a warren of trails and stairs and individual buildings with the site are not marked or interpreted for visitors.
After leaving Machu Picchu and doubling back to Cusco, our tour took us by bus from Cusco to Puno and Lake Titicaca. There are a number of sites along this seven hour route including: Andahuaylillas featuring a remarkable church (Inglesia de San Pedro), Raqchi featuring interesting Incan ruins, and the 14,330 feet high La Raya pass shown in the opening photo above. We saw little of Puno, or the even grittier and more congested city of Juliaca. We stayed at the very nice Hotel Liberator that sits on a peninsula jutting into Lake Titicaca and has its own boat dock. The Floating Islands of Uros are a popular stop for tourists (see below) and we also visited Isla Taquile. Lake Titicaca is interesting but less so than many other sites we visited.