Reaching New Heights and World Wonders in the Preserved Culture of the Incas [Peru]

Hello all!

It feels wonderful to write again after a long absence. Over the past couple months, my life has taken some detours, but travel always seems to bring everything back into perspective and is a breath of fresh air. During the summer, my friend Robyn and I searched for our next Chicago winter escape. At first, we were looking at Morocco, but the long flights and travel package weren’t as attractive as our eventual destination, Peru.

You might remember Robyn from my last international trip to Costa Rica. She is a fellow Kansan-turned-Chicagoan and is the perfect travel companion: adventurous and logical. We share similar traits – intermediate Spanish fluency, independent personalities, rational-minded, and the need for SPF 50 sunscreen. We booked the Peru trip through Valencia Travel Cusco, a 13-day Peruvian experience showing the best of Peru and Machu Picchu.

Before the Trip
Last year, I knew that Costa Rica would be a relaxing, beautiful and warm trip that required T-shirts, shorts, sunscreen and a rain jacket. Packing for Peru was a different story. Our itinerary suggested packing a gamut of clothes ranging from T-shirts to sweaters, sandals to hiking boots and sunscreen to bug repellent. Our trip in November would be during Peru’s short “spring” season, with temperatures heating up as the northern hemisphere cools. Its location near the equator would indicate scorching temperatures, right? Well, if you’re familiar with Peru at all, it is located on the northwest side of South America, where the longest mountain chain in the world, the Andes, exists down the Pacific coast. Not only were we dealing with temperature variation, we were dealing with elevation, which I’ll get into much more detail later.

On Halloween, I attempted to pack for the two-week adventure. I did end up packing the full range of clothes and also checked the temperatures in Peru on my Yahoo! Weather mobile app. The temperatures seemed pretty consistent, ranging from 40-70 degrees.

November 1, 2014 – Flight to Miami
Our trip actually began domestically with a flight from Chicago to Miami. In the afternoon, we boarded the American Airlines flight to Miami. During the flight we played a game on Robyn’s iPad that made the trip seem like only one hour. After arriving in Miami, we retrieved our luggage and eventually found the LAN Airlines international check-in station after about a mile of walking. We were all set for our trip outside the country; just had to play the waiting game until boarding time… which was about two hours later.

November 2, 2014 – Stepping Foot in Lima, Peru
The agony of no leg room and terrible airline food ensued soon after. I sat in the middle of the large commercial plane, and given the time of departure (1 a.m. EDT), I found a position to sleep and did so for most of the flight. We arrived in the capital Lima at 5:40 a.m., went through customs and immigration, and looked for our guide Victor. The remaining folks in our group were as expected, older and dressed in fanny packs and baggy cargo pants. We boarded a charter bus that took us to our hotel to drop off our things, and then set out to explore Lima.

Our first stop was at an ancient ceremonial and archeological site called Huaca Pucllana. The site is a pyramid made of adobe and clay bricks that are settled vertically. The pyramid in the Miraflores neighborhood served as a religious and administrative center for the Lima culture in the early 100’s A.D.

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The city is cloudy about 300 days of the year, and we experienced one of them. Our next stop was the historic center of Lima, where natives asked us to take pictures with them. Maybe it’s because we’re tall… or white… or because Robyn has striking red hair.

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On the ride to the next stop, we traveled by Peru’s National Team Football (Soccer) Stadium and a cat park, which as you guessed is a park full of stray cats. Robyn loves cats and wanted to stop, but a full schedule and the fear of catching foreign diseases kept us moving… Our next stop was the Plaza Mayor, the city’s center including the government palace, the archbishop’s palace, the cathedral and city hall. When we arrived, we noticed a marching band and ceremony going on near the palace, so we went over to check it out. The city had its weekly changing of the guard event, where officials rode in on beautiful horses in formation.

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We walked down a narrow street to the central bank museum and the San Franciscan church where we received a guided tour of the church. Because it was Sunday, we could hear the hymns and scriptures being read during our tour. The courtyard in the middle of the church was beautiful, with naves covered in frescoes and ornate tiling that dates back centuries. We then explored a cave under the church where catacombs house human skulls and bones of important church members. It is thought that the spirits of the deceased live within the current life of the church. While interesting, it was nice to escape the eery part of the church and into a place where I didn’t have to duck from hitting my head!

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After quite the morning of touring, we headed to a restaurant for lunch. Peru is known for its seafood, especially ceviche, so I stuck with the seafood theme and ordered a delicious plate of grilled octopus and potatoes. After lunch, we wanted to see some of the ocean since most of our trip was inland. After a long trek down hills, we reached the shore, where a herd of surfers were taking advantage of the wind and waves. Even though the “beach” was made of large rounded rocks, we posted up next to some surfers and took in the beautiful sights and smells of the Pacific Ocean.

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Back at the hotel, we finally were able to take a shower (last shower was almost two days before!). We headed to a dinner nearby, where I enjoyed braised chicken, beet salad and potatoes. To wash it down, I order a camu camu smoothie; this fruit is native to the Amazon and is similar to guava (bright pink in color!). We scurried back to the hotel after a long first day in Peru, knowing that the next day would include another flight.

November 3, 2014 – Down South in Arequipa
It was another early morning for us, but we returned to the Lima airport for our domestic flight to Arequipa, which is a city on the south side of Peru. Our flight had breathtaking views of the Andes Mountains, as the terrain turned more rugged and dry. A Polish lady sitting next to us on the flight spent more that half the flight taking videos of the window view, but I didn’t care because I was in the front row with more leg room than I’ve had in years.

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Arequipa was warm, dry and rugged. The city is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes with a river splitting the city in half. The city is known for its white buildings made of volcanic stone. This second-largest city in Peru was bustling with business on a Monday, with lots of people in the streets enjoying the weather. After arriving to our hotel, we took a quick walking tour down the narrow beautiful stone streets. Again, the main square in the city is always full of life and action. Arequipa’s main square is enclosed by the Cathedral of Arequipa and two-floored buildings with balconies. It was a beautiful day on the plaza, so we grabbed lunch on the second floor of the west side of the plaza, where I had rocoto relleno (my favorite dish of the trip). The dish is a beef stew-stuffed red pepper with scrambled eggs and potatoes on the side. To wash it all down, I treated myself to an Inca Kola, which tastes like cream soda and is Peru’s favorite soft drink.

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Following lunch, we took a lot of time to walk around. The streets were full with vendors, selling anything from pencils, to scarves, to chicken feet. We went into a large city market of crafts, clothes and food. We first walked down an aisle of plants. We then walked down an aisle of cheese. We then began down the next aisle, only to bolt the other direction and find refuge in the fruit aisle. The aisle we had avoided was the meat aisle – an compilation of chicken, beef, fish, guinea pig, llama, alpaca and other foreign meat smells. Not only did I question the sanitation of the market, I questioned why people would eat their lunch there! Throughout our walk that afternoon, we noticed that the vendors seem to group themselves together – the cleaning supply vendors were clustered together, same as the egg vendors, and same as the fire extinguisher vendors. Yes, there were about 3-4 stores that were selling fire extinguishers.. not exactly sure how often these people expect fires, but I guess they’ll be ready!

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At the end of a long day of walking and getting lost, we ate dinner at a speciality potato restaurant. There were six different types of potatoes in my dish, ranging from buttery, to purple, to sweet. Covered in chicken and curry sauce, the dish was a nice end to a great day full of a typical Peruvian lifestyle.

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November 4, 2014 – Elevation Takes Its Toll
An early morning? You guessed it. Driving back through Arequipa, we were able to take in some lasting views of the beautiful city. Knowing that it would be a long road trip through high elevation, we stopped at a convenience store and picked up some water and coca candies to assist in the ascension. Yes, leaves that produce cocaine (in moderation) are legal in Peru, but no mom, I was not doing full-on lines of cocaine! The coca leaves have been used for centuries to alleviate the ailments of altitude sickness. It would take tons of those candies to even make the effect of a line of cocaine.

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Alongside the road as we exited the city, folks gathered in groups waiting for someone to provide them with work, such as construction or manual labor jobs. Beneath the mountains on the outskirts of the city were small, boxy homes with no sign of humanity. According to a local Arequipan, people created a community outside of the main city and are staking claim to ground should there ever be a chance the government issues permits to allow citizens to live there. People visit their “boxes” every weekend if possible to make sure someone hasn’t moved or interfered with their area. Arequipa is becoming expensive, and the people of the city are hoping for a better life outside the city should the government ever grant these dreams.

We headed for Chivay, a small town in the valley of the mountains. It was a long day of drinking water and sucking down coca candies. Our first mid-highway stop was to view vicuñas, beautiful white and cinnamon-colored animals that are relatives to llamas and look similar to deer. Their furs are the finest of all wool in South America; a blanket made of vicuña fur would probably cost more than $10,000. After snapping some photos of the animals and the views, we continued up the mountains, and after a nap (or two) we hit our next pit stop, a small shack stop in the middle of nowhere called Fundo Chapioco. We ordered what they call, “Triple Tea,” a mixture of coca, nuña, and chachacoma teas/plants, which help with the altitude. We sat outside at a small table, with nothing in sight besides a winding road and mountains. It felt like we were stranded in the middle of New Mexico, with no gas stations for 100 miles and no cell phone service to even hope for. After consuming the concentrated tea, I rolled up eight or nine of the coca leaves into a joint and chewed them next to my cheek (again, it supposedly helps with the whole experience of being “high”). Quickly after we departed, we saw a herd of llamas and alpacas. They are peaceful, harmless beings, and even have gotten the hang of taking the selfie photo pose with tourists!

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Others on our bus at this point were getting sick, looking tragic, and peeing every five minutes. I couldn’t judge them though, because the elevation was affecting us all, except for the 80-year-old from Denver who never lost a step the entire trip! After 15 minutes chewing my “cud,” I thought I felt okay, but the elevation was finally getting to me. We were headed to the highest point of our trip, Pata Pampa. We stopped there at the outlook; I rested and took in the views from the bus due to my lightheadedness, but before you call me a “wuss,” let me put the elevation of this trip in perspective for you:

Here are some familiar places and their elevations above sea level, compared to points on this trip (in italics):
Denver: 5,500 ft.
Kansas City: 910 ft.
Chicago: 594 ft.
Mexico City: 7,380 ft.
Lima: 5,090 ft.
Arequipa: 7,761 ft.
Chivay: 11,926 ft.
Puno: 12,556 ft.
Cusco: 11,152 ft.
Pata Pampa (near Chivay): 16,109 ft.

Do you see Pata Pampa on the list?! Over 16k feet above. sea. level. To put that in even more perspective for you, I was a) higher than all but six mountain peaks in the U.S., b) 2,000 feet higher than ANY point in the contiguous 48 U.S. states, and c) higher than any point in 49 out of the 50 U.S. states (exception Alaska). And as you can see from the pictures, this isn’t a peak of sorts. This is just a point alongside the road that is the highest we hit. No. big. deal.

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Okay, I digress. In as much breath as that took me to write, I would have died if I was writing this on top of that hill.

We continued down the hill on a switchback, a fancy word for a road that zigzags up or down a steep hillside. When we got to the “bottom,” still at 11,ooo+ ft., we were welcomed to the city of Chivay, population 4,500. We had a nice buffet lunch, including the favorites of potatoes, alpaca and quinoa. After lunch, we got to the hotel, which were small wood cabins with stucco walls. We took our time to recoup after an exhausting day and then went to dinner a couple blocks away at a pizzeria (did I mention Peruvians love pizza?) I had a quinoa soup for dinner and listened to live music while eating. A young girl and boy did several dance rituals for our viewing. Little did I know, I would be the first participant chosen from the “crowd” to join the pair. It was a dance where the boy gets poisoned and the girl whips him to wake him up and then dances over the boy with her skirt (it’s a little hard to explain, and I’m probably still bit confused by what went on myself). It was fun to be involved and experience the dance with the locals. After watching a couple more dances, I was chosen AGAIN to participate in a different dance, where the girls dressed as boys and the boys dressed as girls. We danced in circles, holding hands and created a chain link of arms around the restaurant. At least I know my dancing is appreciated somewhere! (or painstakingly being ridiculed!) Returning to the hotel, I bundled up under the blankets to adjust to the cold nights in the valley of the mountains.

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November 5, 2014 – Indescribable Views

We woke up early enough the next day to catch the sunrise and watch the green valleys soak up the morning sun. Within the valley are crop terraces, some still existing from the days of the Incan Empire. From afar, the views look like a patched quilt of green rags. The ancestors and modern day inhabitants utilize 100% of all land that is arable, planting crops like maiz (corn), quinoa, potatoes and other vegetables. We stopped a few times along the way to take in the views of the valley (and of course posed once again with an alpaca). After a short while, we made it to our morning destination: Colca Canyon at the point of Cruz del Condor, which means Cross of the Condor.

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From one stance, you could see the top of the mountain range and peek down over the edge to see water carving the bottom of the valley. Due to the great weather, we were able to spot a few condors in action. Condors are the largest flying birds in the Western Hemisphere and are sacred to the Peruvian people, despite their vulture mentality. Robyn and I hiked down to a lower vantage point to take some macro photos and made a “rock pile” along the way (it is custom in Peru to stack three or more stones and to make a wish). I can’t put into words the beauty of this site and the breathtaking views it provides. Personally, I’ve never felt so enclosed but so free at the same time.

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On our way back to Chivay, we stopped a couple more times, once at another viewpoint (where we saw a condor close-up), and next, to a small village.

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Back in Chivay, we had a quick lunch near the city square. Luckily we ran out of time before I was tempted to eat the ice cream that was being sold in the market (I heard it was not safe and that I’d get sick!). A group of us boarded a bus and headed to Puno, our next stop in this long journey. I slept most of the way, but I woke up in time to see the sunset and the city lights of Puno.

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Upon arriving to the hotel in Puno, a marching band took over the street next to us and took over my nerves, too! We walked a few blocks away to grab dinner; as we were walking, a local artist stopped us to show us artwork. It apparently was Puno’s art festival that week, so Robyn and I bought a couple of paintings off of him to support the trade and to bring back an authentic souvenir.

November 6, 2014 – Cruising Lake Titicaca and Unconventional Lodging

I looked forward to this day’s activities the most when we booked the trip, so of course I woke up not feeling well and with a temperature that was all over the place. I HAD to stick it out, though, because I wasn’t going to miss a day on one of the most recognized lakes in the world.

After throating down some unwanted breakfast, I pulled it together and walked a block from our hotel to a line of pedicabs waiting for us. The pedicab took us through insane morning traffic (there are few traffic rules in Puno), where we potentially lost our lives about four times. The pedicab driver took us to the port of Lake Titicaca, where we purchased household items at a shop that we would later give to our host family. Oh shoot, I forgot to mention that WE ARE STAYING IN THE MIDDLE OF LAKE TITICACA WITH A LOCAL HOST FAMILY!!! We purchased some sugar, margarine, fruit, rice, pasta and children gifts that would essentially serve as our payment for staying there. After gathering our goods, we boarded a boat that would take us out on the largest lake in South America.

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The lake is so crystal clear and fresh, a lot more sanitary-looking than my neighbor Lake Michigan. You could see water grass and plants growing through the lake and fisherman trying to bring in the day’s catch. About 40 minutes into the lake, we stopped at the Uros floating islands. Yes, there are floating islands in the middle of the lake where people actually live. The islands are made of dried reeds that grow in the lake and are anchored in the water. Stepping off the boat onto the island, our feet sank about a foot into the reed piles. We sat on some reed “couches” and learned a bit more about the islands from a guide. Here are some more interesting facts about the islands and the people that live there:
– the islands last about 20-30 years, after which they have to work on creating a new island nearby
– there is a specific school for the floating island communities that is hosted on one island; the kids take small boats and paddle there each day
– there are about 4-5 small huts on each island; inside they keep their clothes, blankets, crafts and utensils
– the island we were on has one small TV powered by a solar panel
– the inhabitants are heavier-set, likely due to little mobility
– women cook, make crafts and usually help with any extra manual work
– men fish, collect reeds, build, and make necessary trips to Puno

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We took a quick reed boat ride on the lake, which was calming, smooth and unbelievable; Robyn’s favorite part of the trip.

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We said goodbye to the natives and took our modern boat to Taquile Island. At the dock, we were greeted by the natives, and began a walk up a steep hill while checking out the agricultural habits and land. At this island, they grow potatoes, wheat, corn and different types of fruits. One kind of weed on the island actually helps with altitude; you take a few leaves and rub it in your hands and it releases a pungent flowery smell that you take in through the nose. (Again, I was just practicing custom, but not actually sure if it helped or just made me woozy). It was a long walk across the island. At the top, we took in the views of whitecapped mountains in the distance, which actually lie in Bolivia. Scaling down toward the shoreline, we stopped to have lunch: omelette, bread, coca tea and quinoa soup.

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The men on this island actually are well-versed in knitting and sewing, as they have to create a cummerbund made of their wives’ hair and thread. Men wear different colored hats depending on their marital status, although, it is not considered a good thing to be single on the island. Outside, a man showed us how to make homemade soap using plants and water, and a group of people performed a local dance to our liking. We learned a few words in the island’s native language, Quechua, an ancient indigenous language similar to Spanish.

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Down a small hill, we encountered our first sand beach and took some time to rest amongst a beautiful lake and mountain backdrop.

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We re-boarded our boat and headed to a peninsula called Chucuito, where we would be greeted by the people of the small community of Luquina Karina. It looked like a small farm community on a hill that might not be totally certain that we’re living in the 21st century. We walked up a hill to the local school building, where we rested on the benches of the soccer/basketball court. Five or six local boys came out and challenged us to a soccer match. We had three guys under 30 years old in our group, and the rest were probably over 60, so I was not confident, to say the least, that we’d last five minutes without quitting. Soccer was one sport that I did not play growing up, not due to interest, but due to time and the sport’s unpopularity in Kansas. After about five minutes of giving decent effort, none of us could breathe. In the back of our minds, we knew that the next 36 hours or so were going to be spent at this altitude of 13,500+ feet, so it was definitely hard to give much effort. The natives scored a goal to lead 1-0 at “halftime.” Toward the end of the second half with hands-on-hips and wheezing breaths, we had somehow remained only down 0-1 despite being attacked the whole game. With about a couple minutes left, I was able to break past one of their defenders and slotted a low shot past the goalie to tie it at 1-1. Never had I scored a soccer goal of any kind on American soil, so why not wait to score one in clutch time on a peninsula in the middle of Lake Titicaca against a country who lives for soccer? A couple of teammates carried me around like a kid who just finished a race in the Special Olympics, but hey, it was a proud moment in my dismal sports history.

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I think I made the locals a bit competitive after my goal, as they wanted to continue in a rematch, but we agreed to take them on in one of our nation’s sports, basketball. We had the height advantage for sure, but the lack of a referee didn’t keep the natives from hanging on our arms to prevent a score. We won 4 goals to 3, and here’s a shoutout to my dad for all the countless basketball practices, as I scored 3 of our team’s 4 shots. Following sports, the natives taught us a couples line dance, which I’m sure was both laughable and tragic for anyone watching.

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We paired off with host families, who took us to their homes for the night’s stay. Our host father was Jesús, a soft-spoken short man with a welcoming heart. We saw others quickly arrive at their homes, but I’m pretty sure Jesús has the penthouse on that peninsula because we climbed nearly to the top. The incline on the peninsula is incredibly steep, so walking at elevation and after an hour of sports was unfortunate. Upon arriving at his “settling,” he showed us around. There isn’t one central house, but rather rooms that are not connected to one another. Our room was small with two small beds and tons of blankets. A bathroom was connected to it; to flush, we had to scoop water out of a bucket and pour it down the toilet. No shower; no sink water either. We rested a bit and then joined Jesús and his wife Natalia in the kitchen “room,” which includes a wood fire stove and a small table to eat. <Of course none of the facilities were built for anyone above 5’10”, so we had to watch our height most of the time. For dinner, Natalia cooked us some potato soup with quinoa, vegetables and rice. I am ever thankful that Robyn and I know decent Spanish because we were able to communicate with the family and learn more than we would without language skills. The locals usually go to bed around 8 p.m., so we joined in their custom and passed out early. The area gets really cold during the night (around 35°), so we smothered ourselves with blankets to avoid the cold air seeping in from the novice insulation. Nothing could keep out the whine of the family’s dog Chato and his donkey friend.

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November 7, 2014 – Working during Vacation

Robyn and I both woke up with the look of, “Where the f*ck am I?” I believe I muttered something like, “No problem, just waking up in a mud brick hut in the middle of Lake Titicaca!” We woke up around 7 a.m. and walked over to the kitchen for a breakfast that included fry bread, hardboiled eggs, peaches and hot tea.

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Right by the living quarters is a similar “room” that the sheep are held in. It is a makeshift structure of tin, tarp and old signs. We were set to help Jesús and Natalia with their typical morning of herding sheep and leading them out to eat in the pasture. Jesús unlatched the sheep gate, and sheep of all sizes started pouring out; each one had a rope tied to its collar. The sheep started in a direction together, as it is likely engrained in their minds of where to go. Remember that steep incline we climbed to get to Jesús’ house? Well, we had to run after the sheep down that incline all the way to a grass pasture near the lake. Jesús and Natalia were quick to run after them, but Robyn and I took extra caution of the rocks and mounds that were bound to twist our ankles.

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We made it to the pasture soon after and helped keep the sheep in one general area. Jesús took a couple sheep and tied their ropes to a metal post that he inserted in the ground. After all the sheep were settled, we walked all the way back up that incline to the house (and hoped we never had to do another lap!). We rested for a bit in the sun and watched people walk their herds of sheep, pigs and cows down the road. Jesús returned and let out his pigs and piglets <so cute!> so they could eat, too.

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Robyn and I said under our breath, “We better not have to go down that hill again and get those damn sheep and then come back up again!”

Well, it was only half as bad. We walked halfway down the hill to an area of land that Jesús owns and where his newborn crops live. I saw a field infested in weeds, and in a flashback to my grandma’s gardens, I was pretty sure we were going to weed the field. Well, instead, he took us to an area nearby where we saw a huge rock pile that separated fields. Jesús instructed us to pick up all of the stray rocks that were displaced in the area and throw them on the pile. While we did that, he chopped down two or three woody shrubs that were going to be used for the stove fire. Nothing is more thrilling than throwing rocks onto a rock pile… but if it was to help out Jesús and his family, we were all for it.

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We returned up the hill to the living quarters and took a walk down a road to get a better view of the lake. Again, it was nice to know Spanish so we could communicate our thoughts to Jesús. Lunch was ready for us when we got back. I had run out of bottled water the day before, so my thirst was dependent upon the hot tea. We were instructed not to drink anything non-bottled that wasn’t boiled, but I was so dehydrated that I had to drink the cold purple-colored drink offered by Natalia. It was sugary in taste, and she said it was made from maiz, water and sugar. Robyn looked at me as if I was crazy to drink it, but I had to have something! I ended up just fine, luckily.

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What goes up, must come down, and so we did. We said farewell to Jesús, and Natalia took us to the dock, where we went as a group back to Puno via boat. The rest of the day was pretty much dedicated to rest, rehydration, TAKING A SHOWER and looking for something other than Peruvian food to eat. We eventually found “American” food, but as expected, it did not taste close to the original. Once my head hit the pillow that night, I was out.

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November 8, 2014 – A Road Trip Full of History

We departed from a bus station in Puno and began our journey toward Cusco. The trip included several stops along the way where we’d visit a few of Peru’s historical landmarks. While boarding the bus, we prayed that we would not be sat next to the notorious man who avoided the application of deodorant. Luckily we had decent seating in the back, away from the stank.

Pukara – our first stop. After seeing no towns for about an hour or so, we arrived at a decently-sized town in the middle of the altiplano (land at high elevation). Near the middle of the city center is a museum that houses several interesting Incan sculptures and tombs. Here we learned about Pachamama and Pachapapa, sacred characters created by the Incas. Pachamama is the fertility goddess who presides over planting and harvesting. Pachapapa embodies spirit, for which the condor represents heaven, the puma represents earth and the snake represents hell. We also saw several pairs of bulls at the top of buildings, which are meant to bring good luck and safety to the home.

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La Raya – stop number two. The drive from Pukara to this point is very beautiful, with yellow-green plains surrounded by the Andes mountain range. At a pit stop along the road, we reached La Raya, a view of a snow-capped mountain called Apu Chimboya. This was the highest point of the road trip at 14,200 feet and is the geographical border between the Quechua and Aymara cultures.

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Sicuani – Our stop for lunch. A large touristy restaurant sat in the valley of the mountains.

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Raqchi – church in the woods. Now mostly in ruins, this Wiracocha God Temple is an Incan church of monumental dimensions; 100m long, 26m wide and 14m high. The stone portion, as you can see in the pictures, is still original from the Incan time period. The roof has been renovated since, but depicts something similar that would have covered the church. While a lot of the scene included just pieces of what used to exist, a lot of the surrounding rock walls still lie intact. Earthquakes mostly have affected the site’s stability over the centuries. Nearby, at the top of a large hill, stands a rock border wall still intact since its construction. The Incans created the wall to keep invaders out and for privacy.

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Andahuaylillas – yet another church. Our last stop before Cusco boasted a large Sistine chapel, which is one of the most beautiful depictions of Andean religious art. While the church has an amazing view on the outside, the inside is just as breathtaking. Heavily influenced by the Spanish who invaded Peru centuries ago, the church tells stories of heaven and hell through frescoes on the back walls of the church. The front of the church has a large display of religious figures made of pure silver. Scenes of the Bible on the sides of the church are made of wood but painted with gold leaf. While every town has its own church, this small town has something to be really proud of!

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Cusco – our final stop. Our first glimpse of the city indicated that it was the most modern of places we had seen on the trip. Digital billboards, completed architecture and clean public facilities make it a pleasant place to walk around. A lot of people were outside and active when we arrived at 5:30 p.m. The streets are made of cut stone, and the narrow city streets create a “villa” look and feel. After getting settled at a hotel near the city center, we found a nice Chinese place for dinner and then the local McDonalds for some soft-serve ice cream. The city center square is vibrant, flanked with large churches and two-level commercial buildings.

November 9, 2014 – A Day to Ourselves

This was the first day we stayed in a hotel for consecutive nights, so it was nice not to wake up, re-pack and head out. It was also the first day we slept in, which those who know me, I am not a morning person! For brunch. we ate at Jack’s Cafe, where I had huevos rancheros and a nice cup of South American coffee. We waited until Cusco to buy our souvenirs, so Robyn and I spent the rest of the day in several markets and put our bartering skills to the test. At San Pedro market, we found some ceramics and textiles to buy. The Peruvian currency, called a “sol” for one or “soles” for plural, got us pretty far when purchasing goods. About 3 soles equalled $1 USD at the time. Within these markets, we ran into some foul smells, and after seeing fresh meat hanging near the textile aisle, we quickly went out for fresh air.

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It was mostly sunny out that day, so we spent a lot of time walking. Later in the afternoon, we ran into a street market full of people, and full of chicken feet, eggs, fresh meat, and snack vendors. Needless to say, we stuck out like a sore thumb, but knowing we likely wouldn’t find any non-perishable souvenirs in the area, we headed to the largest souvenir market. Here, vendors solicit their goods, many of them selling the exact same thing. We were able to go to one place, check out the price of an item, and then go to the next place and check out the price of the same item. From there, we leveraged the pricing of one vendor to get the other one to lower the price. Smart, right?! We thought so, too. Robyn purchased pots, vases and some scarves. I found a painted/carved gourd for a gift.

We stopped in a bar for a drink around happy hour. Pisco sour, a famous Peruvian drink made of bitters, lime juice, egg whites and pisco liquor, was our first drink choice. Our second drink was a called an “extintor” a bright green mixed drink made with maracaya juice. After a couple of drinks combined with the elevation, we were a bit “toast” but continued to peruse the city looking for souvenirs. We ran into a carnival, where Robyn played a ring toss game (with rules made up by a 10 year old); needless to say she “lost” even though she threw the ring over the target. Nearby, we saw a large crowd watching a live skit, so we used our height to peek over and watch for a bit. Following dinner later that night, we got lost a little bit in the dark, but managed to make our way back to the hotel after nervously “fast walking” through city alleys.

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November 10, 2014 – Trek to the Rainforest

This day we would head toward the famous Machu Picchu landmark. We took a bus from Cusco to a small city where we would catch a train called the Inca Rail, a small traditional coach train where you sit at tables facing one another. Along the way, the terrain gradually changed from dry land to a vegetated green rainforest.

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Upon arriving in the town of Aguascalientes, we grabbed our things and headed to our hotel, a brand new hotel at the bottom of green mountains. At the beginning of our trip, I assumed Machu Picchu would be one of the highest elevation points in our trip, but believe it or not, it was actually one of the lowest at about 8,000 ft. Later that afternoon, Robyn went to get a massage. I took my time to walk around the hilly town, going through markets and small stores. The skies opened and downpoured for about four hours or so that afternoon. I took shelter in a small cafe and made some friendly conversation with a couple of Germans over a cup of cappuccino. That night, we went to bed quite early, given that we had to be up super early to head to a Wonder of the World, Machu Picchu.

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November 11, 2014 – Machu Picchu, in All of its Glory

Despite the 5:30 a.m. departure, I was SO excited to finally see Machu Picchu. Over the years of learning about it in class, seeing it on TV and reading about it in magazines, it became something I hoped to someday see. We waited at a bus stop in Aguascalientes for the first group of buses to depart to the ancient site. The drive up the zigzagged roads to the top took some time, but we eventually arrived, waited in line to be checked by security, and then hiked up steep hills to a vantage point. The sun was peaking through the mountain range, and when I got my first glimpse of Machu Picchu, I gave the biggest smile and felt emotionally overwhelmed that I was actually there. I had to pinch myself! Our guide talked more about its purpose and construction by the Incas, but we took more time taking pictures to savor the moment than we did listen. We continued to walk down through the ruins. Structures with high-precision stone masonry were for higher-class individuals and ceremonial sites, and structures with jagged rocks and novice masonry were homes for the middle class and animals. I could go on and on about the history of this place, but I’m sure you’re pretty familiar, so I won’t bore you! Our guide took us to see several caves, aqueducts, corrals, and a sun dial. Across the way is Huayna Picchu, another mountain that is steep and climbable (only a couple hundred tourists are allowed to go up it each day).

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We had a couple more hours to look around the site. We first went to get our passport stamped with a Machu Picchu “I’ve been here” stamp. We contemplated going on an optional hour-long hike to Inti Punku, a site that sits atop a mountain overlooking Machu Picchu. We first lathered ourselves in sunscreen and mosquito repellent and set forth up a gradual incline. We were both exhausted on the way up, as the “stairs” and incline were made of stones that were not necessarily flat. It was certainly rough on the shoes! We eventually made it to the top, feeling like we just climbed Mount Everest, but hey, we can say we made it to the Sun Gate. The views are outstanding; from the outlook, Machu Picchu just looks like a pile of rocks.

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As we started to head back down, we passed some makeshift stairs with a railing. As I looked back, Robyn was struggling with the fear of heights, as these stairs had a drop-off cliff. I had never seen her struggle with heights before, but I think she noticed the drop-off when we made our way up the mountain. This certainly wasn’t a place where we could take a taxi back home or call mom and dad to help out! After a few tears and deep breaths, Robyn conquered her fear and made it down those stairs, clinging to the inside. Even though she was super embarrassed, I was so proud of her for getting past that moment of fear. I can totally relate to similar situations where you envision the worst possible outcome and then you can’t get your mind past it.

Once we made it back to the bottom, we caught a bus back to Aguascalientes for lunch and wasted some time until our train departed back to Cusco.

In Cusco we treated ourselves to a nice dinner near the city center at a placed called Greens. We had some delicious colorful potato gnocchi with a fresh fruit smoothie. SO good – and only about $10 USD (30 soles). What a great day filled with a World Wonder and beautiful weather!

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November 12, 2014 – Goodbye Cusco, Hello Airplanes!

We had until the afternoon to spend more time in Cusco. I had been looking for authentic souvenirs, so we found a legit place that had an assortment of ceramics. I purchased one of the aforementioned sacred bulls for my grandparents, coffee mugs, an Incan calendar cross, and a Pachamama statue for my “mama.” Robyn’s boots were a bit beat up after herding sheep and climbing mountains, so she got a high quality shoe shine from a street vendor; they looked like new! We made our final purchases before heading to the airport for a flight back to Lima that night. We said farewell to our main guide Victor and made the quick plane ride back to Lima.

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November 13, 2014 – Return to USA, Lower Elevation

At the Lima airport, we had a few hours to burn before our international flight back home. It was wonderful looking at the tourist stores and how much they were charging for similar items we had bartered for. We got our souvenirs for about 75% cheaper than those places! We then boarded the LAN Airlines flight and headed back to Miami. We had a long layover in Miami before returning home to Chicago, but with our mobile phones reactivated, we had plenty to catch up on!

Upon arriving in Chicago, we waited for our luggage at the turnstile. Robyn retrieved hers. I waited, and mine never came out. I thought, “Just my luck!” I checked with the baggage claim desk, and they said to check other belts for it, but I didn’t find it. A woman then came after me and said they actually had it in their office! Apparently it was put on a different flight to Chicago that came earlier in the day! Phew. I spent the rest of the day scrubbing the layers of filth off of my skin that the sun, wind and dirt had applied. I was then home, but had accomplished my goal of every trip: come back more cultured than before. Check. Thanks, Peru!

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2 thoughts on “Reaching New Heights and World Wonders in the Preserved Culture of the Incas [Peru]

  1. WOW! What an experience and well written story! You might need to put all of these trips into a book called “Michael’s Travels”.

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