Peru: The Andes to the Amazon - Part One

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August 17th 2011
Published: September 9th 2011
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Our trip to Peru had been on the back burner for about a year. Every time we thought we had narrowed down a date something came up, and we delayed it for another couple of months. Finally, we decided to take a "now or never" approach, and booked a flight for two weeks time. And are we ever glad we did! Peru was amazing - everything turned out to be better than we had hoped for - the breath-taking mountain scenery, the exotic Amazon rainforest, the kind people with their colourful culture and wonderful food. It was our first travel experience in South America, but I'm sure we'll be back!

Before the trip, we had a busy couple weeks - travelling last minute in "peak" season made for some difficult (and expensive) planning. Peru is a large country with a lot to offer, but we had less than two weeks of travel time so we narrowed our interests down to the Andes area of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, the southern region of Peru's Amazon rainforest, and the coastal capital of Lima, our arrival and departure city for international flights. From our previous travels, we have learned the value of packing light, and decided to bring only small carry-on size backpacks.

We left Tuesday morning for our flight to Lima via Chicago and San Salvador. After about ten hours of flight time (plus connections) we arrived in Lima and went straight to an airport hotel to catch some sleep before our early morning connection to Cusco. We were back at the airport for 4:00 am for the hour long flight to the mountains. We were pleasantly surprised to discover throughout our first flights that most of the travelers were South Americans (in the end, we did not meet any other Canadians throughout our whole trip!). Despite the unearthly hour, their was an excited chatter as we boarded the plane from the tarmac, and several people asked us to take photos of them. Once aboard, there were screams of excitement from several young girls in the back as the plane began to take off - it seemed to us that it was perhaps their first flight. The screams continued as the plane left the ground, and once again as we passed through the heavy cloud layer. These young girls proved a refreshing reminder to appreciate the little things involved with travel - like the joy and amazement of flying - and as deeply appreciative that we are to be able to travel, sometimes we forget these small things. As we flew over the dense white cloud layer, it appeared that there were dark thunderclouds rising through the white clouds in the distance. As we got closer, we realized that these were not clouds, but mountain peaks! We were filled with awe as we flew over the enormous Andean mountain range and descended into Cusco - and we had once again found the joy of flying.

Cusco sits at an elevation of 3300 meters above sea level, so we had planned to travel straight to the lower Sacred Valley for three nights to ease ourselves into the high altitude. We had arranged for airport pickup from our hostal - normally we would find our own way, but after a day and a half in transit is was nice to be able to sit back and relax. The drive to the small village of Ollantaytambo took almost two hours. The scenery was spectacular as we crossed mountain ranges and small villages, but we both had trouble keeping our eyes open for the whole trip! When we arrived, we were extremely grateful to be able to check in to KB Tambo Hostal (even though it was before 9:00 am) and get some sleep. We awoke refreshed, to an amazing small village with cobblestone streets and ancient ruins nestled into the mountains. We had a wonderful lunch in a sidewalk cafe overlooking the activity of the Plaza de Armas. Our plan was to take it easy as we adjusted to the altitude, but the ruins built into the mountainside were beckoning for us to explore them. Slowly making our way up the mountain on an abandoned pathway, we found the ruins. They were incredible - it's absolutely amazing how the rocks fit together so perfectly and have held up for centuries without any cement or mortar. Our location halfway up the mountain provided a beautiful panoramic view of the village and the large Incan fortress presiding over it. We stayed up there for hours taking it all in, and only came across a few other people the entire time. Back in the town, we perused some of the markets and then made our way to the large fortress. Some of the rocks used are so large that the Incans diverted the river to push them downstream from the quarry six kilometers away.

The next day we decided to travel across the length of the Sacred Valley to the village of Pisac. We enquired at the hostal as to how the local bus system works - the collectivos are basically just vans that wait at certain areas of town until they fill up with people and then travel to a predetermined (but unmarked) location. We found the "bus stop" and managed in our broken Spanish to find out where they were going and confirm the price, and we piled in the van with the locals. It took about an hour and a half to reach Pisac, and we had to transfer in the main town of Urubamba along the way. Unfortunately, the collectivos don't continue past the town to the ruins seven kilometers away, so we had to take a taxi for the last portion of our journey. The five minute taxi ride cost more than the hour and a half bus ride, but we didn't have enough time to walk. As a contrast from the other ruins we had seen thus far, the ruins at Pisac began at the very top of the mountain. We were told as we entered that the site is actually larger than Machu Picchu, and we weren't disappointed! Every time we rounded a corner, we exclaimed "Oh, there's more!" and this continued the entire climb down the mountain. Peru is not a place for those afraid of heights. We walked across narrow pathways and even up ancient staircases as we looked down the plummeting cliff ledges below. We also had to pass through a cave in the mountainside to continue along the pathway. The further we walked, the less people we encountered. We followed the pathway all the way back to the town in the valley. There were a few locals along the way, making crafts or playing wind instruments which echoed magically across the mountain range. We got back into town late in the afternoon and we were famished from our hours of walking around the mountain ruins. We had lunch in a cute little cafe called The Blue Llama before making our way back to the bus area. Along the way, we encountered a funeral procession. We had heard church bells chiming when we were in the mountains, so we later assumed this was related. The casket was carried through the streets high above the men's heads, with the widow and family and friends following behind. It was all very emotional, and everyone in the town seemed to take the time to pay their respects. We took the same route "home" to Ollanta, and throughout the hour and a half bus ride, we were the only foreigners - what a great way to truly experience the local Peruvian culture!

The next day, we traded our hiking boots for mountain bikes. This is the part of the trip that Andrew had most been looking forward to. The ride going to the sites we wanted to see was listed at an intermediate level, so we had first checked with the guide (conveniently at our hotel) to see how difficult it would be. Unlike Andrew, I have zero downhill or technical biking experience, so I told him this. We were told that the trail wouldn't be too difficult, and there would just be a few rocks. I have now learned to take difficulty ratings with a grain of salt when they're coming from a professional biker!

The starting point of our bike tour
If I had of known the trail would be half as difficult as it was, I never would have signed up. In the end, however, I made it down unscathed and greatly improved my biking skills so I am glad I was tricked into it! We started our tour with an hour bus ride up to the top of the mountain. Our first stop, and starting point of our bike tour was at the incredible archeological site of Moray. Circular terraces rising out of the mountain floor, this place could easily be mistaken for an alien artifact rather than an Incan ruin. Interestingly, the site was once used as a research area for the Incan people. Using the agricultural information that they learned from this site, they were able to master the art of growing and harvesting crops in the Andes, using solar energy reflected off the mountain sides and the patterns of wind and rain to their advantage. After taking some time to explore the terraces, we got to try out our bikes. Andrew was thrilled to have a Kona bike, and luckily when the chain broke before we began our descent, he was given another one of the same kind. And so we began.

The first half of the trail was the "easy" part, and it was apparent that things were much more difficult than expected! Luckily one of the guides, Tomas, stayed at the back with me and taught me how to mountain bike as we went. We were so fortunate to have him with us, because not only did he help me to make it down the mountain alive, but also Andrew was free to go ahead and enjoy himself! We rode through the spectacular scenery along narrow cliff-side trails and over large rocky sections that wouldn't have been possible without our full suspension mountain bikes. Eventually, we made it to the small mountain village of Maras, where we stopped for lunch and a break after an arduous uphill section to get there. After lunch, we continued on narrow single track to the Salinas Salt Mines. A huge area nestled into the side of the mountain, the brown, white, and pink squares of salt were quite a sight! I had thought this was a relatively new area in Peru, but amazingly the Salt Mines are pre-Incan! Still used today (there were even some people harvesting salt while we were there!), it supplies much of Peru with it's salt. From here, we continued down the last, steepest part of our descent. There were a lot of rocky switchbacks here, so I had to get off and walk a good portion of this last part. Unfortunately, on the very last switchback of the day, one of the guys that was with us wiped out and dislocated his finger in two places (he was able to get them back in place right away). He was disappointed to have done so well the whole mountain and wipe out at the end, but at least he didn't have far to ride with an injured hand. It was quite an accomplishment to make it down the mountain. Andrew was fantastic and managed to ride the entire trail. That night we celebrated with a wonderful steak dinner.

In the morning we were off to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu mountain. We had grown to love the little town of Ollanta, so we were sad to leave but decided we would stop in our way back. The only way to get to Machu Picchu is by train.
Andrew & CassAndrew & CassAndrew & Cass

Machu Picchu
The train ride was only about 50 kilometers, but it was amazing how the scenery changed along the way. In an hour, we went from a dry arid landscape to lush green mountains. When we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the town was bigger than we expected, so we spent a while touring the place while we tried to find our Bed & Breakfast. Once we checked in, we set off for a hike. The mountain of Putu Cusi is across from Machu Picchu, and we had been told you could see across to Machu Picchu from the summit. Unfortunately, part way up the mountain there was a 100 foot ladder scaling a cliff as part of the trail, but part of the ladder had been washed away by a mudslide earlier in the year. We decided we would probably be able to climb up without too much difficulty, but coming back down would be dangerous without any kind of harness or climbing equipment. Not worth the risk, we turned around and spent the rest of the afternoon soaking in the hot spring pools the town is named after.

We had stayed the night in Aguas Calientes to allow us to get to Machu Picchu before the trains arrived with passengers from Cusco and the Sacred Valley in the morning. There is a bus service that runs from the town up the mountain to drop people off at the entrance to Machu Picchu, but to us, something about taking a bus to a mountain top ruin dubbed "The Lost City" seemed anti-climatic. Instead, we decided to hike up the mountain. Headlights on, we were off at 4:30 am. It was a half hour walk to the base of the mountain, where we had to cross a bridge before beginning our climb. The trail was technically not challenging, mostly consisting of large stone steps, but very difficult due to the steep incline and the thin air. Amazingly, it seemed there was only about a dozen other people making the climb, and we saw full buses driving by every time we passed the road. After the long but rewarding climb, we reached the entrance gates with a sea of people making their way into the ruins. It was a big change, not only from the climb up, but from the many other ruins we had visited in the Sacred Valley - and
Sun TempleSun TempleSun Temple

Machu Picchu
it wasn't even 6:30! We found a guide and another couple to share our tour with and set off to explore the wonders of Machu Picchu.

As we rounded a corner, the full view of Machu Picchu came into sight. It was incredible! After looking at hundreds of photos as we prepared for our trip, it was hard to believe we were seeing it with our own eyes! Our guide took us through the different areas of the ancient village, explaining that the top was reserved for the royals, nobles, and temples; and the bottom for the peasants. The larger the stones and more intricate the masonry, the more important the area was. All temples and ceremonial areas were built without mortar. The details and thoughtfulness that went into building the site are simply amazing; and that the Incans had this knowledge and foresight 600 years ago is absolutely mind-blowing. The intricacies of Machu Picchu are endless, from compass stones, to rocks shaped like the surrounding mountain ranges, to ancient "showers" in the villlage; and one could spend days exploring it all. Once our tour through the village was complete, we continued our hike up to the Sun Gate Temple, which provided awesome panoramic views of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountain range. Along the way, we were excited to see our first llamas! We spent the day taking it all in before heading back down the mountain to Aguas Calientes - in all, we had spent about 11 hours hiking - and we treated ourselves to Incan massages once we showered and ate. Machu Picchu was a truly majestic place and certainly seems deserving of it's title as one of the New Wonders of the World!

....Part Two coming soon!

Additional photos below
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Plaza de ArmasPlaza de Armas
Plaza de Armas


9th September 2011

Great trip guys! Yet again you two never cease to amaze me! Ezequiel was on the same trip just 2 weeks before you! (He says to tell you that they aren\'t Llamas - they are alpaca\'s!) He wishes you both well too! Talk to you soon and hope to see you at Thanksgiving! xoxo ~Janet

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