DAY 1Apr 28 2015
Our first "day" in Peru was actually a night; we arrived at nearly midnight after traveling all day, which is around the same time most international flights appear to arrive. Peru and Nashville happened to be in the same time zone this time of year (they don't do Daylight Savings, so they bounce between CDT/EST) which was a HUGE help for us in avoiding jet lag. Our guides met us after baggage claim and walked us just across the street to our hotel; we only spent one night in this hotel, basically to shower and sleep before flying to Cusco in the morning.
DAY 2Apr 29 2015
After a continental breakfast at the hotel the next morning, we were ushered to the airport's domestic terminal for our flight to Cusco. The airport was easy to navigate, security was fast, and there were announcements and attendants speaking in English given so many tourists take the domestic flights from Lima.
At the airport in Cusco, we met our awesome driver, Fausto, and Edgar who took us into the city for a delicious lunch at Pachapapa in the San Blas neighborhood.
After lunch, we were introduced to our guide for the week, Jimmy. Since we were visiting during Holy Week, we were taken to tour the Qorikancha because it would be crowded later in the week.
The Qorikancha, also know as the Convento de Santo Domingo. It was the site of the Inca Empire's most important temple, until the Spanish conquest in the 1500s. At that time, the site was "given" to be a convent, part of a trend we noticed of the Spanish placing Catholic or government buildings on top of important Inca sites to assimilate the cities under conquest rule and order.
We didn't get to see the panoramic view of the outside, but the inside was stunning. It reminded me a bit of the Mezquita in Cordoba, where a cathedral was placed in an old mosque. The mix of architecture was unique. Due to a major earthquake, the Inca foundations and "rooms" withstood the damage and test of time while the colonial architecture has required reconstruction.
After the Qorikancha, we hit the road, heading away from the higher elevation of Cusco and down into the Sacred Valley. On the way, we stopped by the "Living Museum" of Awana Kancha. When people think about Peru, they often think of the famous camelids including llamas and alpacas. This small roadside "museum" features corrals where you can see a number of camelids that are important to Incan culture. Our guide described to us the differences between llamas and alpacas (mainly you can tell by size and ears) as well as the types of wool. For example, baby alpaca is the first shearing of an alpaca, NOT wool from the baby animal. The texture of the wool changes after the first shearing, which is why baby alpaca is more expensive since you can only get it once.
Awana Kancha also exists to help preserve the traditional methods of dyeing wool and weaving by hand. It looks/feels like a small village where these techniques are being handed down even to the very young. There were old women on down to toddlers present, all observing and weaving. It was really cool to see their methods in action!
There is also a wonderful store there filled with the amazing textiles and works. We didn't buy anything because it was our first day, but if you want to invest in the best quality and authorized/certified good stuff, it's worth checking out! Then we hit the road again.
Before heading to our hotel for check-in and dinner, we stopped briefly to see the beautiful panoramic view of part of the Sacred Valley. It was the perfect snapshot to treasure the memories of our first full day in Peru. We definitely enjoyed the beautiful tour of the countryside on our way into the Sacred Valley, inching closer to our trip's climax at Machu Picchu.
DAY 3Apr 30 2015
Our travel agency was smart to take us out of Cusco and into the Sacred Valley, which is actually lower in altitude and easier for acclimatization. We spent two nights in the Sacred Valley, with one day spent touring the area to see some of the surrounding archaeological sites. Our first stop was a morning spent at Ollantaytambo, called a "living Inca city" as it has been continuously inhabited since the 13th century. It is positioned on a hill, navigated by very narrow, cobblestone streets, and is an example of Inca city planning. It is a popular tourist spot, not only for the Incan ruins, but as a starting point to journey to Machu Picchu via either the Inca Trail or by train.
At the top of the terraces is the Temple of the Sun, honoring one of the most important deities of the Incan religion. It's an uncompleted structure, with a wall of six monoliths. The city was also the site of one of the few Incan victories against Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s, though they later withdrew those forces.
After Ollantaytambo, we headed to another Sacred Valley town, Písac. In the hills above town are old Incan terraces and buildings, which once served military, religious, and agricultural purposes. Some researchers believe Písac was the southern "gate" of the valley and possibly served as a strategic location for the whole area, with Ollantaytambo to the north.
We did not walk up into the structures at Písac, after climbing Ollantaytambo earlier and not having had lunch yet. We decided instead to head into the town to shop at the large souvenir market, as well as head to lunch at Tres Keros restaurant. From there, we relaxed in our beautiful hotel (the grounds were gorgeous, as I will share in a later post) and re-packed our belongings for the trip ahead to Machu Picchu.
Overall, I was happy we got to see these examples of Incan architecture before heading to Machu Picchu. Seeing it in reverse order might have been a little ho-hum, you know? We were blessed with wonderful weather, and the Sacred Valley allowed us to get used to the altitude in the country.
DAY 4May 01 2015
This is probably the post a few of you have been waiting for... MACHU PICCHU. It was definitely the #1 reason we went to Peru in the first place, our big "bucket list" item. Ever since I can remember, I've been fascinated by history and old cultures. My Dad is a history buff, so maybe I got it from him, as well as my history professors in college.
Our driver took us in the morning to Ollantaytambo, where we boarded one of the trains to Aguas Calientes. We were on one of the nicer trains (though not the most high-end, the Hiram Bingham) and received a beverage service and plated snack along the way. The ride was along the river, with awesome vistas that showed some of the different microclimates in the area. After nearly two hours, we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu, which is the mountain on which the Incan site was built.
Aguas Calientes is a tourist town filled with hotels, hostels, stores, restaurants, and shanties that house the people who work there. You need tickets for the bus up and down the mountain, as well as tickets (and your passport) to enter Machu Picchu and to hike Huayna Picchu, the adjacent steep peak.
Our guide accompanied us on the train ride, then went with us to the site. (If you don't have a guide, there are plenty for hire standing outside the gates!) From there, he introduced us to this "new" wonder of the world.
According to Wikipedia, "The Incas built the estate around 1450, but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was not known to the Spanish during the colonial period and remained unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since then, Machu Picchu has become the largest tourist attraction in South America."
Our guide gave us an extensive tour of the property, explaining some of what historians and archaeologists have guessed about the structures over the years. What's interesting is how little we truly know about the place, as much of it has been exaggerated, assumed, and distorted over the years. For example, at first it was supposed that the majority of residents were women, as the skeletons were smaller than American and European archaeologists were used to; as it turns out, it was a pretty even split when you factor in the relative smaller size of the Inca people at the time! Having a guide help explain the history of the place was fascinating, but you definitely have to step back and just accept a lot of it as unknown, and appreciate it for its sheer magnitude of size and effort on behalf of whoever built it hundreds of years ago.
After our tour, we ate lunch at a restaurant just outside the gate, then said goodbye to our guide until the following evening. We went back into the site (your entry is good all day), to enjoy it at our leisure.
It wasn't just Machu Picchu that was dizzying and impressive... the entire environment and views seem surreal! It was kind of like watching the movie Avatar or something, you felt like it was another planet or some kind of dream world.
Our favorite spot in the complex was up past the guard hut, on the terraces that overlook. As you can see from the photos, we had some rain and fog, but that just added to the mystique of the place!
Finally reaching Machu Picchu was the climax of our trip, hands down. It was just invigorating and moving beyond description. We sat, relaxed, and soaked it in. We took our time. We savored it. And then we decided to head back to our hotel for the night, knowing we would have the opportunity to come back in the morning to pursue one of the hikes.
Tip: Near the gate exit, on the right you can stamp your passport... we both decided to do it, to commemorate our visit. It felt so gratifying to do so! We were finally there, and we couldn't have been more happy.
DAY 5May 02 2015
On our second day at Machu Picchu, we decided to hike to Intipunku, the "Sun Gate" at the end of the Inca Trail.
The Sun Gate provides those doing the Inca Trail hike their first view of the Incan city. We chose the Intipunku hike for two reasons: 1) I am afraid of heights and did not want to deal with the crowds on Huayna Picchu, and 2) Dan wanted to see where the Inca Trail ends.
The hike was steep, but we took our time with photo and water breaks on the way up. I think we took 90 minutes to get to the top, with those generous stops.
The way back down was much faster, and we did not stop for any breaks. I was admittedly tired with the altitudes in the country and all of the walking/uphill climbs, so we didn't spend too much longer exploring the city afterwards before heading back to Aguas Calientes for lunch.
After a lunch, we boarded our train back to Ollantaytambo.
This voyage featured a fashion show (to convince us to buy fancy alpaca clothing) as well as a scary-looking traditional dancer taking over our car for a bit.
DAY 6May 03 2015
We were only in Cusco briefly at the beginning of our trip, so after two days at Machu Picchu we were excited to explore more of the city. Cusco is actually at a higher elevation than Machu Picchu, so it was strategic to spend time there towards the end of our journey.
After waking up at our adorable boutique hotel Casa San Blas Boutique, we walked up the hill with our guide to the Plazoleta de San Blas where we had our very first lunch in-country. It was Holy Thursday at the time, so the churches were packed with people as schools and officers were closed.
We toured the Iglesia de San Blas, a Catholic church circa the 1500s. Like many churches from the time, it was built on top of a former Incan religious site. While the church is small, it has intricate woodworking, beautiful paintings, a one-of-a-kind pulpit, and other decorative features that are truly beautiful. Our guide explained to us that the Spaniards had art "schools" (perhaps more like sweatshops, depending on the situation) where Peruvian/Andean artists were trained in European styles. These artists were responsible for the art in the churches, though the pieces are largely uncredited.
After the church, we walked down to the main Plaza de Armas, to see the beautiful square and its churches and university.
We walked from there to the busy Mercado Central de San Pedro, a bustling market where you can get fresh foods and other eats.
It was as packed with locals more than tourists, doing their daily market shopping. It was awesome to see the piles of caviar, meats, and special Easter pastries.
I must mention how safe I felt in Cusco. I did wear my camera around my neck and my bag slung in front of me in the crowded areas. We saw lots of policemen around, and even a soccer "parade" of fans marching through with security to help them cross safely.
One of the highlights of our trip was our afternoon spent at Marcelo Batata Cooking Class with Chef Ebelin. I looooooove food, and when I saw a cooking class on my friend's old Peru itinerary I had to add it to ours too.
The class begins with an introduction to Peruvian food. Ebelin introduced us to the native ingredients and techniques of the area, described what Peruvians eat, and more. I was surprised by how much I didn't know that I didn't know... about food in general! (Did you know the quinoa trend started in Peru? Or that the country doesn't permit GMOs? Superfood!)
Throughout the class, the restaurant brought us little bites of hors d'oeuvres, including delicious ceviche, a popular offering in Peru.
Next, we had a fruit tasting, focused on native fruits that Americans don't see every day. We tried aguaymanto, tumbo, and passion fruits, and more.
Not like a fruit at all, which means it's a great healthy sweetener that can be used in ice cream and other things.
The first dish we actually prepared ourselves was a mahi mahi ceviche. I'm not into seafood, but this was really tasty! Chef Ebelin walked us through everything step-by-step, including reminding us not to touch our faces after de-seeding hot peppers. I totally would have forgotten that! (You let them know your dietary restrictions before class starts, by the way!)
After enjoying our appetizer, we then went into a history of pisco, a brandy famous in the region. We tasted three varieties of pisco (woo! It's like sipping vodka or something, a clear liquor around 40% ABV) and then learned to make two cocktails: pisco sour, and chilcano. I really liked that Ebelin incorporated some creatively-infused piscos; it made me want to infuse alcohol back home!
After getting sufficiently tipsy on pisco, I got to play with fire. Kidding! But there were flames and smoke, as we kicked off our main event: alpaca saltado. We'd been eating lomo saltado during our trip, and this stir-fry version replaced the beef with alpaca. Alpaca is very lean, and low-fat... it's kind of the perfect red meat without the unhealthy stuff. Ebelin demonstrated the technique for us first.
Then, it was our turn! Ebelin gave us each step, and we made our own stir-fry. The climactic moment was when we tossed some pisco into the pan, creating big flames for effect.
Overall, I had a lot of fun with the wok. I wasn't as good at flipping stuff in it as Dan, but I had a good time nonetheless. We plated up the alpaca saltado with the requisite fries and rice, then headed to the dining room to eat it.
Our dessert was prepared for us, a death by chocolate platter with truffle, mousse, and molten cake. Incredible. I ate soooo much throughout this class. You don't really need to eat anything beforehand, because you basically never stop eating. (I didn't even include photos of everything we ate, because I was too busy stuffing my face to take photos.) It was such a cool experience! I really enjoyed getting to know Peru's gastronomy via the class, and I'm glad we were able to spend the afternoon learning from Ebelin.
DAY 7May 04 2015
Since international flights tend to leave Lima very late at night, we had a day to enjoy Lima after departing Cusco. We bid farewell to our Cusco guide team and were met at the airport by our Lima driver and guide. First, we were driven to the beautiful Miraflores neighborhood on the coast, to enjoy lunch and the view.
Then, we were driven to downtown/historic Lima to view some of the architecture and main sights.
It was a Good Friday, so the city was jam-packed with people celebrating and walking between churches. We were able to see the main plaza with their large cathedral and Presidential palace, both built on former Incan sites of importance by the colonial powers.
We also visited a very special old house, Casa de Aliaga. Reputed to be the oldest Colonial mansion in Lima and possibly South America, it is a stone's throw from the Presidential palace with an unassuming entrance. Definitely a hidden gem you wouldn't even know about unless you read or heard about it! It has a beautiful interior and has been continuously occupied by the same family since it was built.
After the house, we visited another church, the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco. We did not go inside due to the crowds, but I loved the color and architecture
We then set off on a driving tour through Lima, back towards Miraflores. We saw an old archaeological site that is still being excavated, and finished at a seaside park, El Parque del Amor, a romantic spot that signaled the end of our Peru adventures.