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More than six weeks after landing in Cartagena, Colombia, we finally found ourselves only six kilometers away from Machu Picchu. We hopped off the train with our guide and a small group of fellow hikers at kilometer marker 104 of the Inca Trail and took a footbridge across the Urubamba River.

After checking in at the closest trail station (one must register weeks or months in advance to get permission to be on the Inca Trail) we congregated with our guide at a small set of ruins to review some pre-Inca and Inca history.

Then we were off.

Along the way we encountered dozens of different types of orchids and other flowers that bloom during Peru’s wet season. The hike was relatively steep, but Kristi and I found it relaxing compared to our previous battle in the Colca Canyon. We also came across several waterfalls and mind-boggling views of the Andes.

Just before lunch and the final push to arrive at Machu Picchu, we emerged from the forest at Wiñawayna, a beautiful archeological site on the mountain adjacent to Machu Picchu. This site was discovered by a biologist searching for rare orchids and is named for the orchid, wiñawayna, which means “forever young” in Quechua.

Wiñawayna

Our bag lunch was enjoyed at the confluence of two trails where hikers doing a 4 or 5 day trip camp the final night before descending into Machu Picchu. From there, we were less than an hour away from the Sun Gate. We finished up lunch and trekked on and before we knew it, we were there.

View from just below the Sun Gate

The entire day had been overcast and our guide was sure we’d be rained on. However, little by little, throughout the day the clouds thinned and minutes after arriving to the Sun Gate, the sun itself made an appearance. It was our lucky day, I suppose.

Our postcard (except for the dude trying to sneak in on the left side!)

We took it all in. Machu Picchu is famed not only for its beautiful Inca architecture, spared from destruction by the Spanish who never found it, but also for its dramatic location, on a mountains ridge, with the roaring Urubamba snaking through the valley below.

The next day we returned early in the morning with our guide for a tour. That day the weather wouldn’t be so kind as the previous day. It was pretty magical, however, to be standing and listening to the guide with nothing but fog all around, then all of a sudden turn around to see the ruins slowly emerging out of nowhere.

Poncho type of day

The lore and history that applies to Machu Picchu has filled many books so I won’t say much to that. But the coolest thing we learned was that Machu Picchu was not an abandoned city at the time of its rediscovery by Hiram Bingham in the early 1900s. When he was taken to the site by a local Quechua man in 1902, there were at least a couple of families living within the overgrown ruins. The implication being that Inca and their descendants have inhabited Machu Picchu since the beginning.

Waka Kuntur (Temple of the Condor)

Inca Princess

Machu Picchu was more amazing than I had hoped, and I had very high hopes for it. The cliché that pictures don’t do it justice is of course 100% true.

But we tried anyway

Cuzco

By now you may have noticed some spelling variations, like Cusco/Cuzco, Inca/Inka, Titicaca/Titikaka, etc. In this case the difference is Spanish vs. Quechua spelling. Quechua was the language of the Incas and is still spoken in the Southern highland regions of Peru. Cuzco was the capital of the Inca empire and is now the top visited tourist site (with Machu Picchu) in all of Peru.

There are many reminders throughout the city of Cuzco's Inca heritage

The city itself is absolutely breathtaking. The historic center, or Plaza de Armas, is a literal fusion of Inca and Spanish history with massive Inca stones forming the foundations of Spanish colonial buildings. There are many attractions in and around Cuzco including archeological sites, museums, convents, parks, markets, churches, etc. We had a couple of days in Cuzco before and after our Machu Picchu trip so we tried to see and do as much as possible!

Coricancha, "Golden Temple". The Spanish destroyed this Inca temple to the sun god, Inti, and used the foundation to build the Convent of Santo Domingo.

Carved metal idols used as offerings from the Incas to their gods.

Stone weapons lashed with rope made from llama hides used by the Incas for fighting and hunting.

Flowers for sale at the Cuzco municipal market.

The 12 angled Inca stone - famous as an example of the quality of Inca stonework and often used as a symbol for Cuzco.

View of several churches

On our last full day in Cuzco we set out to see several archeological sites that lie a few kilometers outside of town. We caught a local bus in town and got dropped off at the furthest site, Tambomachay, noted for the aqueducts and canals that run through the site.

The water is still flowing!

From there we walked through the beautiful pastures stopping at various other sites along the way all leading up to the “big one”, Sacsayhuaman.

Cool bird at Tambomachay.

Walking through the Andes

Sacsayhuaman is the situated on a hill overlooking Cuzco below and is considered to have been a military complex. It was also scene to the last bloody attempt by the Inca to regain control of Cuzco from the Spanish in 1566 (spoiler alert: the Spanish won).

Massive stones at Sacsayhuaman

Cuzco was designed as the imperial city to the Inca in the shape of a puma with Sacsayhuaman as the head. The puma was a sacred animal to the Inca and is represented in many of their artifacts.

Puma paw!

Small view of the zig zag walls of Sacsayhuaman

We had a great time in Cuzco! Visiting the museums and various sites really helped us get a glimpse into Inca history before we headed off to the most famous Inca site of them all, Machu Picchu!

Rainbow over Cuzco

The last, and climactic stop on our post-PC journey would be Machu Picchu near the city of Cuzco. The trip from Lake Titicaca to Cuzco is a beautiful bus ride of between 7 and 10 hours. The 7-hour trip is a non-stop tear through the Andes. Another option offered by a couple of bus companies is the 10-hour tour that makes several stops along the way to take in various sights.

Our first stop was the town of Pucará. Pucará is a typical small pueblo but what sets this town apart from others is its cultural history. Artifacts from various pre-Inca cultures are housed in the museum in town and on the edge of town there are pre-Inca ruins. Not much is left of the original structures because the Spanish conquistadors used the stones from the ruins to build their Catholic Church (which itself was very beautiful).

Church built from stones from nearby pre-Inca ruins

Next we stopped at the highest elevation on the highway from Lake Titicaca to Cuzco. At over 4,000 meters, there wasn’t much at this stop except local crafts, a bathroom, and these beautiful mountains.

Next stop, Racchi, another Inca archeological site. The site contains an amazing defensive wall that is largely still intact, agricultural terraces, a residential center, dozens of circular storehouses, and the Waka Wiracocha (temple). This temple is believed to have been the largest roofed structure from the Incan Empire until it was destroyed by the Spanish.

Central columns from the temple still stand today

Storehouses for grains and other crops

After Racchi, we hit a popular lunch spot. The food was so-so, but at least there was a baby llama to occupy our time.

yep

Our final stop was another famous Catholic church known as the Sistine Chapel of South America. San Pedro de Andahuaylillas was pretty I suppose, but I’d seen heaps of churches by this point. The more interesting thing in this town were some deformed skulls on display. The Incans practiced various forms of skull elongation in order to make their royal children smarter by increasing brain volume… Genius!

Hope it worked, because it sure is ugly.

Next up… Cuzco and Machu Picchu!

Lake Titicaca

With the beautiful mountains of Arequipa in the rearview mirror we headed further south to Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world! (Altitude 12,500 ft above sea level)

Beautiful clear skies on the way to Puno

Puno is the port city of choice for most travelers although many folks find the town a bit…lacking. Upon arrival we wandered around with our Aussie mates looking for an inexpensive place to eat only to be greeted by nothing but “tourist menus.” We were also surprised that of all the places we´ve been on this trip, Puno was the most crawling with tourists! The town is nothing special but there are tons of tourist companies running boat trips to various islands on the lake.

The typical full day tour includes a stop at Uros, the floating islands. The islands are just as the name suggests – floating! The history goes that the original settlers fled the violent tribes of the mainland and set up shop on the lake. The islands are made of a reed native to the area and must be constantly maintained by the locals. There are around 70 floating islands and the particular island we stopped at was home to 10 families.
Uros floating islands

The island was very squishy underfoot and the thought of merely floating on the surface of the lake was kind of freaky! There are also various types of boats made from the reeds that the people use for transportation to and from school, the mainland, and for taking gringos on overpriced rides around the lake.

The boat ride with the island in the background. This kid said his name was Michael Jackson (I think he was serious).


The people also use the reeds to make handicrafts for added income. I loved these mobiles but feared they wouldn´t make the journey back to the States!

The mobiles depict a typical Uros wedding ceremony


Next to one of the houses. They stack extra material under the houses in order to avoid too much moisture in the living space (for health reasons).


The next stop on the tour was the island of Taquile. This is a regular island and is home to 2200 Quechua speaking inhabitants. The Taquileños are noted for their distinct native dress and their fine textiles. Male taquileños learn to knit at the age of six and female taquileñas make yarn and weave. UNESCO proclaimed the Taquile textiles some of the finest in the world!

The island is covered in Inca terraces that are still utilized for farming and grazing. The locals have distinct dress and use knit hats as a means of identifying marital and social status. For example, community leaders wear very brightly colored caps with colored tassles. Men carry a knit satchel containing coca leaves that they exchange when greeting other community members. Ladies wear long black shawls and their marital status is identified by the size of the tassles on their shawl.

Men in customary dress - the solid red knit cap signifies that the wearer is married. The man in front with the brightly colored hat is a community leader. Note also the bright satchel containing coca leaves.

On the day of our visit the islanders were having a grand party with dozens of bands and dance troups all playing their music as loud as possible at the same time! There was also plenty of imbibing taking place!

Taquile on Lake Titicaca


Dance group at the party

Overall it was a unique experience and we enjoyed the trip, even though the boats were painfully slow! The guide book notes that some people find the tours exploitative. We wouldn´t go that far because it seems to be the main source of income for the people but it was kind of cheesy to have the people of Uros singing pop songs and sending us off by saying “Hasta la vista baby!” In the end it was an enjoyable experience and a nice stopover on the route to Cusco.

More than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US, the Colca Canyon in southern Peru is well over two-miles deep at its deepest point.  And, although it is located around 6 hours from the major city of Arequipa, it is Peru’s third largest tourist attraction.

Second deepest canyon in the world

Kristi and I, and our new Australian mates, Ali and Tim, met up in the small town of Cabanaconde with hopes of descending into the canyon.  Cabanaconde is the best place to set out for treks into and around the canyon.  It is also famous for it’s Andean condor viewing.

We had stopped earlier on our bus at Cruz del Condor where the condors are supposedly most spotted, however, the visibility this day was only a few meters.  So, as soon as we arrived we set out for a short hike to the canyon’s edge in order to try to see the condors.  From the rim of the canyon we were treated to perfect visibility and three amazing condors soaring in and above the canyon.

Two Andean condors

At the canyon rim

After the short hike, there wasn’t much to do in the tiny town except for a quick nap (our day started at 2:30 am with a 6 hour bus ride).  With our batteries recharged we settled in at our hostel for a few beers and some brick oven pizza.  We all decided it was best to turn in early because the next day we were to descend 1,200 meters to the bottom of the canyon.

Pizza chefs with their oven

The hike down wasn’t all that bad, but our knees were definitely a bit exhausted after the descent.  All along the way there was beautiful scenery and views of the canyon.  The hike was only about two and a half hours but the sun at that elevation was brutal.  We were glad to find that the simple lodging at the canyon bottom offered a very nice pool to rinse/cool off in.

Tim and I next to the pool which was built into existing rock walls

Foot-bridge over the River Colca

Our accommodations next to the Colca River were simple but the set meals were delicious and the air-temperature beers, refreshing.  Like the previous night, bedtime was early because the next day we knew we’d be in for a challenge.

View from the bottom back towards where we were headed the next day

We set out around 7 am for the roughly three or four-hour hike back to Cabanaconde where we had to make a 2 pm bus back to Arequipa.  I think we were all kind of nervous about the hike and the possible added difficulty of altitude.  The river at this point was about 2,700 meters above sea-level and Cabanaconde, about 3,900 meters.  Despite our trepidation, we all conquered the canyon.  Of course, the canyon would have the last laugh the next day when the muscle soreness hit.

Kristi headed to the top

We made it!

We made it back to town just in time to see their Easter celebration which involved street music, dancing, and chicha (fermented corn beer).  The music was especially enjoyable with simple percussion, trumpets, and tubas.

All the locals breaking it down in front of the church

I would’ve loved to have had another day or two to hike to other areas in the canyon, but while planning the trip, we had no idea what to expect.  The Colca Canyon was the perfect mix of physical challenge and visual beauty.  Our quick trip was just enough to appreciate the rugged and amazing topography of southern Peru.

Arequipa

The next stop on our trek south was the 2nd largest city in Peru, Arequipa.  The city is famous for it´s distinct architectural style and also the use of volcanic stone, sillar, in almost all of the buildings.  The stone is a beautiful white color and glimmers in the sun giving Arequipa it´s nickname, The White City.  Arequipa lies at 7,661 ft above sea level and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the famous volcano, Misti.

We arrived in Arequipa around 1:30am after a 13 hour bus ride from Ica.  The next morning we woke up refreshed and ready to explore the city.  It was a bit overcast so we didn´t see the mountains or Misti but the city scenery was pretty spectacular on its own! Over the course of a few days we toured several of Arequipa´s many attractions including museums, a convent, and the Catholic church.

Plaza de Armas and the Cathedral on a cloudy day

While wandering around we stumbled upon a free museum set in a 15th century colonial house.  A guide led us through several small but very interesting exhibits including a history of Peru´s coins and print bills, pottery exhibits from all of the major native groups spanning from 1000 BC – 1500 AD, and a tour of the house in general.  David´s favorite part was the 500 year old original pine doors!

500 year old door, 28 year old doork

Courtyard in the old house

Another don´t miss attraction in Arequipa is the Santa Catalina Monastery.  The monastery houses nuns and is known as the “city within a city” because it is a huge walled complex with little streets, plazas, and it´s own church.  Santa Catalina was founded by a rich widow and built in 1580.  At that time the custom was for the second son or daughter to enter a life of service to the Catholic church.  Santa Catalina only accepted girls from upper class families and the girls were expected to bring a dowry of sorts equivalent to $150,000 USD in today´s currency!  The part of the monastery open to the public consists mainly of the old living quarters of the early nuns.  When you think of nuns you think of a sparse life but these ladies had beautiful tea sets, gold and silver articles, and other expensive belongings in their quarters as well as servants and slaves!  It was for this reason that in 1871 the Pope called for a reformation and the dowries were sent to Europe (interesting) and the slaves were set free. The nuns also had to give up their individual quarters and embrace communal living.  The living quarters were very interesting and almost all of them included a kitchen with large adobe ovens and even cage areas to raise guinea pigs (for food).

Courtyard in the monastery

Blue

Photo of one of the nuns' quarters

One clear morning David woke up early with hopes of viewing Misti and the surrounding mountains.  He lucked out and ran all over town taking pictures before the clouds rolled in. After seeing the city only in clouds it was pretty surprising to see these monsters hovering in the distance!

Cathedral with Chachani in the background

Misti

Chachani y Misti

Our view during breakfast

Chachani

Later that morning we decided to take a tour of the Catholic church hoping to get a better view of the mountains from the bell tower.  The sanctuary was huge and very beautiful including a huge Belgian organ which is said to be the largest in South America.  We also saw the ceremonial outfits and jewels that date back to the 16th century, some of which are still used today.  The Cathedral has a disaster riddled past including a massively destructive fire in 1844 in addition to many earthquakes.  An earthquake in 2001 caused one of the bell towers to topple and fall into the main sanctuary, barely missing the organ!

Belgian organ

Booong!

Finally, we debated visiting the Museo Santuarios Andinos mainly because the entrance seemed a bit steep at 20 soles (around $8) and we were a bit burnt out on guided tours.  In the end we decided to go because it is highly recommended and I´m guessing we won´t be passing back through Arequipa anytime soon.  There are tons of museums all over Peru (and the world) which display Inca pottery and artifacts but this one is unique because it is dedicated solely to Inca tombs found on nearby mountains, Ampato and Misti.  A volcanic eruption in 1995 caused the glacier on Mount Ampato to melt and revealed the frozen body of an Inca girl to later be named “Juanita” for the anthropologist who found her, Johan Reinhard.  Further investigation on the mountain uncovered several marked graves.  The graves held the bodies of human sacrifices made by the Incas to their gods dating back to the 15th century.

The museum displays the contents of several tombs which in addition to the human sacrifice also included material offerings such as pottery filled with corn beer, or chicha, woven bags filled with coca leaves, small gold and silver figurines depicting llamas and Inca leaders, as well as the woven clothing that wrapped the bodies.  One of the most fascinating and unbelievable aspects of Juanita´s story is that not only did she make the long trek from the Inca capital of Cusco to Ampato, but then also climbed 20,000 ft to the summit and her impending death. During our visit Juanita was in the laboratory for preservation and another frozen body, Sarita, was on display.  The bodies are displayed in semi-dark, glass case which is kept at a specific temperature and humidity level to preserve the bodies.  Considering all of the items on display are over 550 years old they were in remarkable condition!  The quality and intricate designs on the hand-woven textiles were unbelievable and the tiny silver Inca figures were incredibly detailed and well made.  We also thought it was very cool that the items remain in the region where they were found.

There are no pictures allowed in the museum and some of the artifacts haven´t even been photographed by National Geographic!  Here is a photo of Juanita we found on the internet.

In addition to all of the set activities, we also thoroughly enjoyed Arequipa for it´s dining options – amazing empanadas at La Alemana, the first good coffee we´ve had in a while (besides Starbucks) at Cafe Olé, and the various lunch spots we visited.  We would have been content to stay longer but the theme of this trip is go-go-go so we had to head out to our next stop, the second deepest gorge in the world – Colca Canyon!

Our second stop on the way from Lima down to the southern city of Arequipa was a desert oasis called Huacachina.  The tiny town is really just an offshoot of the larger city nearby, Ica.  Huacachina isn’t really a town at all, more of a tourist destination for people seeking adventures into the desert.

Desert Oasis

We spent two nights there and basically one full day.  There wasn’t much to do during the mid-day heat except take in some sun and enjoy the pool at our little hotel.  Not until the sun gets a bit low is it recommended to head into the actual desert.

Ica beyond the desert in the background

Desert at sunset

Some people climb the dunes, but the best way to take in the desert is via a buggy tour.  When Kristi told me about the buggy tour I figured a little dune buggy like I’d seen at various North Carolina beaches.  The monsters used to tackle the dunes in Huacachina are hiiighly modified 3/4-ton American made pickup trucks.  Our particular ride was a 1980 Dodge Ram.

Buggy and Driver (sweet-ass job)

One way to take in the desert might be a low-speed cruise up and down some dunes.  Our guide didn’t want to waste any of the HP his truck had to offer so our tour was more… aggressive.  The best way to describe the experience is like a rollercoaster without a track to confine the excitement.

Another buggy out there with us

Various stops were made along the way so that we could go sandboarding.  I had imagined snowboarding on sand, that is, until I stood at the top of the first dune.  The vast majority take the slide down the dune on the stomach.  In order to avoid a trip-ending tumble, majority ruled.  It seemed dangerous either way but even the five-year old on our trip boarded down on his dad’s back.

Our group and another group about to head down the dune on sandboards

Is that a mirage?

The tour ended with the sun setting over the horizon and one last high-speed tear through the desert back to the oasis.  Tons of fun and also tons of sand in our pockets, hair, and teeth to remember the trip by!

Zoom!

Endless dunes

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