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Published: April 7th 2019
Lima: Parque de Amor
This is the perfect quote to start the trip with my colleagues. "You on this side and me on the other, like two oars." We were four oars, but I am so thankful how well we worked together. That makes all the difference when guiding a group of students! A sunny day in Lima with the blue Pacific behind us was a very auspicious way to begin the trip.
The magic of Peru grows stronger every time I visit. The kindness and warmth of the people, the sublime beauty of the mountains, the depth of Incan history and Quechua culture. I love it all. It makes Peru exciting and mysterious on the one hand, but also comforting and familiar on the other hand.
It’s hard to not compare my three times there: 2013 on my own traveling around to several places in southern Peru; 2017 guiding a group of 20 high school students around Cusco and on the Inca Trail, and this trip guiding another group of high school students. Each time I have fallen hard for Peru.
This trip started out with a visit to the Parque de Amor in Lima, which I visited in 2013 alone, under a cloudy sky. This visit on a beautiful sunny day, with colleagues I respect, students I enjoy and a friend who was our guide for the trip, was so different. The mosaic quotations are just as meaningful but now my photos of them also contain people I care about. The bright colors of the mosaic stand out so much more in the sun. Our guide was Gaspar Sihue and
Every time I am astounded by the scale of this Incan site looming over Cusco. Everything about the place is mind-boggling.
I can’t recommend him enough. His contact information is at the end of the blog.
After Lima we flew to Cusco, my third time going from sea level immediately up to just over 11,000 feet of elevation. Somehow adapting to the altitude was easier this time and I felt so much better than the other two times. The first full day in Cusco we took the students on tours of Saksayhuaman, Puca Pucará, Tombomachay, Q’enqo and Koricancha. Each site was just as beautiful and mysterious for me as the first time. We hired excellent guides who brought the places alive for my students and taught me even more than I already knew about each place.
If you are looking for guides in Cusco, I highly recommend Giovanna Hermoza Cuba and Liliana Vargas. They are experts in every place we visited and were great at answering all of my students’ questions. Their contact information is at the end of this blog.
After our whirlwind tour of Cusco, we set out for the Sacred Valley, on our way to Ollentaytambo to start the Inca Trail. Moray is a site I had missed on my other two trips and I
What I wouldn't give to see this place before it was partially demolished to make a Spanish church! Do some research on this one, and get a guide as well. It is endlessly fascinating!
was excited to finally see it. The meticulous Incan construction is evident, even in what is essentially a terraced pit. Underneath they have installed some kind of drainage system so that the bottom never floods. Each terrace has soil brought in from different parts of the Incan Empire and there is evidence of many different crops being grow there. Each terrace is one degree Celsius different from the ones above or below, so they could also simulate different elevations for each crop. The place is massive and a beautiful example of the scientific crop studies that gave so much stability to the longevity of the Incan Empire.
No tour of the Sacred Valley is complete without a trip to Chinchero. The students loved feeding the llamas, alpacas and guinea pigs. They also enjoyed the demonstration of how to clean wool and make yarn. I loved the demonstrations of how to make natural dyes using local leaves, purple corn and the famous cochineal bugs. They grow as parasites on cactus, making a white powdery covering on the cactus they inhabit. Their bodies are about 20% carminic acid and they produce a bright red carmine dye. Roll a bug around in
One of the many things you can learn about ancient Incan civilization at Korikancha: I absolutely love how it's the dark "clouds" between the stars that make up the Incan figures in the Milky Way. Looking up at night from our campgrounds along the Inca Trail it was easier for me to see the llama, partridge and toad than any of the constellations of the zodiac.
your fingers, if you give it a little squish the dark red blood will stain anything – so be careful with your clothes!
We also took the students to the Maras Salt Pans, which I thought was fascinating. The springs in the hillside are full of natural salt which flows into little ponds that look like terraced rice paddies. Each salt pan is passed down in the family with restrictions on selling the inheritance to anybody outside the Maras community of families. We gave the students a little time to get out of the vans to buy chocolates, salt and little souvenirs.
The next big discovery was Ollentaytambo. Before the trip I tried to prep them for the experience with some history of Incan civilization and the book “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” by Mark Adams. At the very least I hoped that when we were visiting places the names would sound familiar. I wanted them to have an appreciation for Incan history pre-colonization and to know some of the names of the Incan emperors.
Ollentaytambo is just as architecturally impressive as Sacsayhuaman. The huge stones at the top of the site were carried from a quarry
Giovanna at Chinchero
Having a good guide is priceless considering how many places we went before we even started the Inca Trail. Giovanna is worth her weight in gold!
several kilometers away in both vertical and horizontal distance. Climbing the stairs from the bottom of the valley I always picture Manco on a horse, looking down on me. Mark Adams writes about the Incan rebellion against the Spanish which used Ollentaytambo as headquarters. During an attempt at a sneak attack “the Spaniards were dumbfounded by what they saw when the sun rose: Manco Inca, holding a spear and issuing commands to his troops as he rode a stolen horse atop Ollantaytambo’s highest terrace.” Considering what the Spanish did to and took from Peru, I always relish the image of Manco leading a rebellion from Ollentaytambo’s majestic heights.
We spent the last night before the hike in a hotel in Ollentaytambo, an easy walk from the entrance to the historic site. It was one last night of hot showers, soft beds and dinner in a restaurant. It’s not that the trail is long. We only spend three nights in tents. What made me enjoy the shower and bed even more was knowing how punishing the trail itself is. Our guides for the trail were Carlos Ccolcca, Deivid Huacac and Melchora. As with the others, their contact info is at
The scarves and sweaters made in Chinchero are beautiful, but by far my favorite part is learning about how to make natural dyes. The colors are so bright it's hard to believe that they come from things found in nature. Another of the wonders of Peru!
the end of the blog.
If you have read that the Inca Trail is hard, you were reading an honest account. The number of miles each day is relatively short, but for those of us who live at sea level the altitude and the sheer number of stairs is daunting. Even for people who live at altitude, there is just a lot of stairs on that trail. No amount of running stairs in Seattle could have prepared me for the Inca Trail, and believe me, I tried. I ran a lot of stairs.
As I encouraged my students, the trick is going slow and steady. Trying to hike at the same pace they’re used to in Washington would leave them exhausted. Many in the group had a hard time with the altitude and we all were exhausted when we arrived at the first camp. I didn’t know if it was encouraging or discouraging to tell them that the first day is just a low elevation warm-up for the second day.
Day two on the Inca Trail brings two passes: Abra Warmiwañusca at an altitude 13,829 feet and Abra Runkurakay at 12,829 feet. It was a long day
It's much bigger in person than a photo can convey. You'll just have to go there and see it for yourself!
and I tried to focus on the flora and fauna we passed to keep my mind off the altitude and the burning in my quadriceps. Deivid was kind enough to give me a little folded guide of birds of the Inca Trail made by the Peruvian Ministry of Environment. I counted hummingbird species and looked for tanagers. I admired mosses and ferns and looked for flowers still blooming at the end of the rainy season. Eventually I made it to camp, knowing that the third day is much shorter.
Day three on the Inca Trail is by far my favorite. There are fewer miles to cover and more of the trail is original stones laid during the Incan Empire. In some areas the stairs are carved into the bedrock. It’s not an easy day, there are still a lot of stairs and it’s all up or down. What really makes it my favorite is the ruins we see that day. I love Phuyupatamarka and Intipata. You can just tell that you’re getting closer to Machu Picchu. But the real reason I love the third day is Wiñayhuayna. It’s spelled differently on ever map and sign I see, but that’s
Another auspicious start to the trip. We had sun and hummingbirds at the beginning of the Inca Trail hike.
just because our alphabet isn’t very good at imitating Quechua sounds.
Wiñayhuayna is majestic. Its terraces reach out in a wide amphitheater, facing both the Urubamba river below and the glaciers of Wakaywillka (also called Veronica) above. The remains of buildings cling to the hillside, poised on an impossibly steep incline that drops to the river. The curving terraces reach out, encompassing the slight hollow in the vertical slope. That sense of space, suspended between river and mountain tops, gives Wiñayhuayna a feeling of also being suspended in time. Whatever happened earlier in the day is too long ago to bother remembering. Tomorrow is so far off it seems theoretical. Only the present matters. The present in Wiñayhuayna is also strongly linked to the distant past, to the people who built this place and who used its fountains to purify themselves on the way to Machu Picchu.
The series of fountains that have flowed for hundreds of years, and that were flowing when I was there in 2017, have recently been blocked. A landslide last year disrupted the source, although the fountains at Wiñayhuayna itself are intact. I hope that the park service puts some money into restoring
Best guides ever!
Like having the right guides in Cusco, having the right guides on the Inca Trail makes all the difference! We were so lucky to have Gaspar, Carlos, Deivid and Melchora with us. Their contact info is at the end of the blog.
the source of the fountains. It’s such a shame to see perfectly intact Incan fountains not flowing because of a landslide that didn’t even touch the ruins.
That really is one of the most admirable qualities of Incan architecture. Despite the many earthquakes that shake Peru, despite the constant landslides due to heavy rains and steep slopes, Incan buildings remain largely untouched. Of course, part of the reason is the construction itself: the locking stones that fit together like Legos and the smaller stones laid below to absorb the tremors without damaging the larger stones above. Another part is the meticulous engineering of each site before building: the retaining walls and drainage to keep the terraces from becoming too heavy in the yearly rainy season. Landslides may happen around Wiñayhuayna, but the terraces and buildings remain.
The next morning our wake-up tea was at 3:30. It felt more like night than morning and none of us got enough sleep. It’s a cruelly early morning due partly to the train schedule for porters, partly to the tourist desire to be at the Sun Gate when the sun rises and partly to the porters’ desire to get home that day.
Subimos, bajamos, subimos, bajamos. The stairs on the Inca trail feel endless. The parts of Peru I have visited are more vertical than anything else, making me wonder about the actual surface area of the country.
Regardless, getting up in the dark leaves us sitting in line to enter the park when the gate opens at 5:30. Another hour or so of hiking brought us to the Sun Gate where we did get to see the sunrise over the mountains, touching the top of Huyana Picchu and spreading down over all of the ruins of Machu Picchu. It is one of those sublime moments that makes the stairs and getting up in the dark worth it.
After the solitude of much of the trail, the crowds at Machu Picchu are a shock. At least getting there early in the morning the crowds aren’t as bad as in the afternoon. People who take the bus and train from Cusco in the morning arrive at Machu Picchu in the afternoon. People who took the train in the day before and spent the night at Aguas Calientes can take an early bus up and be at Machu Picchu’s gate almost at sunrise.
Machu Picchu really is worth a visit. The Inca Trail clearly isn’t for everyone, but the easy access to Machu Picchu makes it feasible for anybody. I only hesitate to sing its praises because of
Hummingbirds accompanied us along the trail, keeping my spirits up despite the punishingly steep stairs. Two other species I saw were the Amethyst-throated Sunangel and the Shining Sunbeam.
the exponential popularity it is already experiencing, and therefore the increasing crowds and the impact on the site of thousands of feet pounding the stairs and terraces. It’s not one of those places I’d say to visit before it’s “too popular,” but each time I visit there are more restrictions due to the sheer numbers of tourists who arrive there every day.
Our guides Deivid and Carlos split the group into two smaller groups for the visit of Machu Picchu, which made it much easier to navigate the narrow paths and squeeze in by the most famous places that were also crowded with other groups of tourists. After the buildup of months of planning and days of hiking, I always hope that the site will meet or even exceed the expectations of my students. From what I saw they really appreciated the beauty and the engineering marvel that it is. I am always impressed when I visit, but I can’t predict the reactions of my students. We were all tired from getting up at 3:30 but they said it was worth it.
From Machu Picchu we took the bus down to Aguas Calientes where we had lunch, got
This is absolutely my favorite place along the Inca Trail. I love it's location as the last place to visit before arriving to Machu Picchu. I love its' series of fountains. I love the sweeping majesty of the terraces, creating an amphitheater.
our gear that the porters had brought down for us around 5am and had a little time to explore the markets before the train. This time we took an earlier train than two years ago, which gave the kids less time in Aguas Calientes. It was a good change though, since we arrived in Ollentaytambo before dark and got to see the sunset from the bus back to Cusco. We also arrived at Cusco earlier and were able to get the students dinner at a more reasonable time. Two years ago we had dinner after 9pm, which after getting up at 3:30 was just too late.
Our last day in Cusco we got Giovanna back for the tour of the San Pedro market. It’s not always on tourists’ lists of places to visit in Cusco, but it should be. I loved how the students got to see all the different breads, cheeses and fruits for sale. There are plenty of clothes and tourist souvenirs around the edges of the market, but the center really is for locals to buy food and other necessities. It feels more authentically local than touristy.
Since this day was April 1, I couldn’t
Looking down to the Urubamba
Far below Wiñaywayna is the Urubamba river, linking this site with other sacred places along the river valley.
help playing an April Fools’ joke on the group. Giovanna played the part perfectly, telling the students that at the end of the tour of the market they would have the opportunity to choose their own guinea pig to kill and have for lunch. I told them that as a vegetarian I wouldn’t eat my guinea pig, but that I was still going to take part in the important cultural tradition of killing one. I was surprised that none of the kids called me on the April Fools’ joke, but it’s hard to keep track of the date when you’re on the Inca Trail and every day is so full. True to her word, at the end of the market tour Giovanna took the kids to a place that had live guinea pigs for sale. She let other teachers and I yell April Fools’ before the joke went any farther.
Leaving Peru is always hard. I feel so sad on the flight from Cusco back to Lima, despite the amazing views of mountain peaks on the way. I can’t help thinking about my next trip to Peru, with or without students. There is so much more I want to
From whence we came
It seemed like we were forever looking up to high passes where we were headed or which we had just passed through. Gaspar is pointing to the pass from which we descended what felt like interminable stairs to arrive at Wiñaywayna.
see. I would love to visit every state of Peru, like Gaspar. I would love to spend more than a few days in Cusco. I’m already planning my return.
A note on our guides: I highly recommend all of these guides and hope that this blog brings them more business. Contact Gaspar for guiding anywhere in Peru; he has been to all 24 states in Peru and knows an incredible amount about his country. Contact Carlos, Deivid and Melchora for guiding on the Inca Trail. Contact Giovanna and Liliana for tours of Cusco and the Sacred Valley. Most can be found on Facebook or you can call them directly.
Gaspar Sihue +51 993 482 153
Carlos Augusto Ccolcca Huaman
Deivid Vizcarra Huacac
Giovanna Hermoza Cuba +51 984 740 685
No large group travels the Inca Trail these days without porters. While the concept is strange for those of us who grew up shouldering our own packs when backpacking, it does work in this context. Hiring cooks and porters provides a lot of employment. For a group our size, thirty jobs, to be exact. We had 25 porters and
This would be my pilgrimage spot. If only I could visit here every year. Wiñawayna is the best spot for thinking, reflecting and planning.
5 cooks, plus the guides.
One thing I really appreciate about how guiding companies hire porters is that they generally contract with a community. We got to meet them on the third morning, learning their names and their relationships to each other. The porters in our group were neighbors and often family. We had father-son teams, brothers and cousins. Our team didn’t include any women, although I know that some guiding companies do hire teams of women.
This particular group was from the village of Accha Alta, located in the Sacred Valley in the Cusco-Calca province. The community is starting to organize their own eco-tourism with homestays and cultural events. It is an area very rich in textiles, although farther off the beaten path than Chinchero. It is just as beautiful as other mountain towns, but far enough off the main road to prevent most tourists from getting there easily. The community offers homestays and demonstrations of traditional dances, such as the dances for certain times of the growing season. If you are interested in seeing this side of Peru, contact our head porter Fredy Mamani Huallpa on Facebook or at +51 989 964 335
The name of this orchid, wiñaywayna, means forever young in Quechua. It merits its' name by flowering all year, in every season. The last Incan site on the Inca Trail before Machu Picchu was named for the proliferation of these orchids in the immediate area.
more photos below, so scroll down.
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I love reading about your travels, Heather. Looks fantastic and I can't wait to pick your brain. Mohamed and I may go to Peru next spring!
I want to go to Peru!!!!!!!!
It is so beautiful there. Peru is one of the places to see on my "Bucket List". The culture and history is amazing. The pictures are fantastic. I love your blogs because they tell a easy to follow story of your trip. Thank you so much for sharing with me.
Return to Peru
Wonderfully informative blog of the Cusco to Sacred Valley to the travail of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu...makes me want to return as well. Great photos of your highlights but I wanted to see more! How lucky were your students to have you to take them there. It is exciting to see the ingenuity of the Incas in so many places and sobering to see how the Spaniards built over some sites to impose their religion on the locals. How wonderful that Machu Picchu remained undiscovered by the conquistadors and has been preserved for you and I.