Saturday, February 6, 2016

January 2016 Trip: Peru Recap

After spending 10 days in Peru and Bolivia, I'm already plotting a return to South America. Sourabh and I both loved our trip so much, and we cannot wait to explore more of the incredible continent.
Since Sourabh and I weren't sure if we'd be able to take a vacation until early December, we used a travel agent who'd been recommended to me. If anyone is looking for someone to plan their next vacation, please reach out -- I'd wholeheartedly recommend her. It was $75 per person, and the peace of mind it gave us and time it saved us planning was completely worth it. If we'd had six months to plan it, I would have done it on our own (although having someone who could pick out wonderful guides was great), but on such a short timeline to plan, it was great to have it taken care of for us.

Although guides aren't necessary in Bolivia or Peru, since neither Sourabh nor I are fluent in Spanish, it was really helpful to have someone who could translate signs and descriptions, help us check in to our hotels, etc. Plus, whenever I had a question, I could just ask our guide. (For example, in Peru: "Why are there sticks with different colored bags hanging outside buildings?" "That indicates what they serve." "Why do women wear flowers on their hats?" "To demonstrate that they're single and looking to get married.") A huge part of my joy in traveling to another country is learning about the culture, and having guides made that much easier, especially since we didn't speak the language.

As a side note, summer (since Peru and Bolivia are below the Equator) is actually the rainy season, but we had great weather the whole time. We were worried about rain on a few days, but the only day it really rained was the day we traveled from Peru to Bolivia. We were so lucky!

We flew out from LAX to Lima on Friday, January 8. We had a nonstop flight and got in past midnight. We spent the night in Lima, then boarded a flight early the next morning to head to Cusco. We were picked up from the airport in Cusco by our guide, Holber.

Flying over Cusco.
You actually get snacks on domestic flights in Peru and Bolivia! 

We drove out of Cusco and through the Andean highlands to the Sacred Valley. The highlands were just stunning -- Holber mentioned that tourists say they look like Switzerland, and I while I haven't been there, the views reminded me of Bavaria in Germany. The difference, of course, is that farming is done by ox instead of by tractor, and the women were wearing much more colorful clothing.

On the way to the Sacred Valley, we took a slight detour and stopped at the ruins of Moray. The circular terraces were used for agricultural experimentation. There is a difference of over 25 degrees Fahrenheit between the top level and the bottom level, enabling the agriculturalists to study in what climate different vegetables and plants grew the best.

Additionally, when the bottom terrace filled up with water, it was used as a mirror so that astronomers could analyze the stars.

Next, we drove past the salt mines of Maras. Salt mines aren't normally in the mountains, but this area used to be under the ocean. Over thousands of years, the seabed was pushed up by tectonic plates to become the Andes, so, incredibly, at over 10,000 feet, you have sea salt. A spring filters out the salt and the terraced ponds capture it.

Late in the afternoon, we drove down past Urubamba and into the small town of Yucay, where our hotel was located. We stayed at the Sonesta Posadas del Inca Sacred Valley, which is a monastery that was converted into a hotel. It was absolutely gorgeous, and was probably my favorite hotel we stayed at in Peru.

We had a late lunch and then a snack at the bar for dinner before heading to bed early since we had an early pick-up to head to Machu Picchu the next morning.

Sunday morning, our guide picked us up and we headed from our hotel to Ollantaytambo, with Holber pointing out ruins along the way. The Sacred Valley is dotted with Inca food storehouses, guardhouses, and even some temples. In Ollantaytambo, we boarded a Peru Rail train that took us to Aguas Calientes, with some snacks on the way. (I was a huge fan of all the snacks on transportation.)

One fun part of having a guide is that they are always taking pictures of you. Sourabh and I are terrible about taking pictures of us -- I think the number of pictures our guides took of us was higher than the number of pictures we've ever had taken of us together. It was kind of hilarious how insistent both Holber and our Bolivian guide, Grace, were about taking our pictures!

Aguas Calientes
Once we got to Aguas Calientes, we boarded a bus that took us up the windy dirt road to Machu Picchu.

This is from the hike we did the next day but it shows you how windy the switchbacks are.
You have to wait in line a bit to get in to Machu Picchu, but it was a fairly short wait (I'd say about 15 minutes at most). Also, there are only bathrooms outside the ruins, and they cost 1 or 2 soles, so be prepared for that if you're visiting!

Llamas wander around the farming terraces on the southern side of the ruins.

The Sacred River winds around Macchu Picchu.

Our guide, Holber, and us.

Originally all of the buildings would have had thatch roofs like the above.
The Sun Temple is on the left -- it has the finest stone work. Note that these stones were split off from huge rocks by using chisels and water. These rocks were fit together incredibly tightly, and they had nothing but chisels and water to do it. Most of the structures did not have such fine stone work, but since the Sun Temple was the most sacred site, it received the best work.
After exploring the ruins for four hours, doing a full tour of the site, we had lunch at Belmont Sanctuary. It was a large buffet of different kinds of Peruvian food, and it was all delicious. Once we'd stuffed ourselves, we took a bus back down to Aguas Calientes and checked in to our hotel, explored the market and bought some souvenirs, and then had another great meal at our hotel.

The next morning, we took the bus back up to Machu Picchu to hike Huayna Picchu, the mountain you can see below:

Since we got to the ruins so early (we had the 7 a.m. hiking slot), there were few people wandering around, and I got a lot of neat shots of empty ruins with mist curling around them.

As you can see, the farming terraces on the southern end of Machu Picchu account for a huge portion of the ruins.

The terraces of the Inca civilization were incredible. They utilized different kinds of soil, sand and gravel to create a filtration system so that no matter how much it rained, the terraces never flooded.

The Sacred River winding through the Andes. 

As a word of caution, only 400 people are allowed to hike Huayna Picchu per day, and you have to book the tickets far in advance if you're going during the high season (which is June through August). Also, it is steep. It's basically stairs all the way up with no flat portion as a break. You're at about 8,000 ft., so air is thinner. I'm still in pretty good cardio shape and I was definitely breathing heavily hiking up, so I would just caution everyone to be careful if they do this hike (our guide said people have had heart attacks and it's hard to get medical care at this remote a location).

After the hike, we took the bus back to Aguas Calientes where we had lunch and learned more about Peruvian politics with Holber.

Our lunch wasn't that great, but the view of the main square of Aguas Calientes was nice.

After lunch, we took the train back to Ollantaytambo, where we were picked up by car to go back to Cusco.

The drive was just incredibly gorgeous. I was basically glued to my window the entire time.

We arrived in Cusco around 5:30 p.m. and wandered around the main square for a little while before we headed back to our hotel and had another delicious dinner. We had to get to sleep early since we were being picked up at 4:30 a.m. for our flight to La Paz the next morning!

It would have been nice to have a bit more time in Cusco, but we were more excited to explore the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, and since we only had 10 days (which became 7 with travel), sacrifices had to be made. Guess we'll just have to go back!

Next up: Bolivia!


  1. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh. Your photos are incredible! It's also really nice you and Sourabh enlisted a guide--obviously having someone who speaks the language is helpful, and like you said too, they can truly talk about the culture and answer questions.

  2. There is no comment to do justice to the photos. Simply amazing. What a lovely trip and glad you lucked out with the weather!

  3. Looks like an amazing trip! Thanks for sharing!