I’m not sure when I contracted the travel bug, but it might have been from a blanket. As a young girl visiting my paternal grandparents, Tommy and Jean, I was deposited in a basement room in the suburbs of Denver – which sounds depressing, but I was surrounded by a lifetime’s collection of Navaho and Central American rugs. I didn’t learn much about that culture, then, but I can still see the patterns and colors, feel the scratchy woven fabric that smelled faintly of horses and hay. I might add that my maternal grandmother, Marion (or “Ganny”) was a professional weaver. Half a lifetime later, traditional Peruvian weavings actually did play a small part in my first trip to South America. (Note: click any photo for larger view)
I don’t weave or knit or make much of anything. I make do with words, gathering them, collecting them, letting them bubble up at odd moments. Words like Zanzibar, Bora Bora, Bimini, Thunder Bay, Cote d’Azur, Mineola, Pelham Bay, Patagonia, and hundreds of other place-names fight with the more prosaic, un-anchored words that have echoed in me over the years. I can honestly say that if I suddenly lost the ability or means to travel ever again, physically, I would still be happy, journey-wise, having been to Peru. And, in particular, Machu Picchu.
My idea of Peru was vague: an arid place with llamas and maybe mountains and dusty towns and big, teeming polluted cities with lots of old VW beatles. Machu Picchu was clearer, from photographs: a misty, spiritual mecca high in the Andes, where I’d probably not be spiritually worthy to appreciate or athletic enough to even get to. All of these descriptions are fairly accurate but come nowhere near the magnitude of the beauty of this country. What I didn’t know: there are beaches and surfers and heart-stopping vistas of snow-capped volcanos, incredible and sacred Incan ruins that defy the imagination in their construction of smooth-fitting, gigantic stones, llamas and alpaca and elusive vicuna (who cannot be domesticated; if captured, they starve themselves to death), world-class cuisine and artisans and the best hotels and spas and… And Machu Picchu. Note: I ate some llama. I didn’t love it.
As one of the seven wonders of the world (and I don’t care which of the many lists we’re talking about) Machu Picchu is worth the trek. It wasn’t even much of a trek, for our group, traveling in relative luxury by air, bus and train, and then a little bus again, up, up, up via switch-backs high up into the Andes, until that last little moment when, after absorbing the indescribably magical vista of lush green impossibly high mountains overlooking the impossible beauty of the ancient stone ruins, one has to do the impossible: climb Waynu-Picchu, the iconic peak that looms over the whole thing, the one in the pictures. Note: I saw my first chinchilla in the ancient Incan village. It looked like a cross between a fat rabbit and a squirrel.
In the interest of ensuring that everyone who visits Machu Picchu will also tackle Waynu Picchu, I’ll say it wasn’t that bad. Seriously. I had read all the travel sites and blogs and was basically petrified and having nightmares about it for months. I definitely wasn’t one of the oldest or youngest– or thinnest or heaviest — woman in line early that morning. When it came to do it, I just did it, step by step. Drink lots of water, bring a camera (for sure), wear comfortable shoes and layers in case you get hot, stop and breathe when you need to and just keep going. It was, yes, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but in retrospect wasn’t really that bad. In fact, I wasn’t sore at all the next day, which makes no sense. The way down requires serious vigilance – one small misstep could cost you your life — but is much less strenuous. I’ll leave it there. PS. A shout out to Philippe Petit, who managed to get me over my fear of heights. Proof positive, below.
I never thought I’d need or be comfortable with a guide but now think it’s essential for places like this. Only a local, native, indigenous person of knowledge and experience can give one a true glimpse of the history and meaning of a place like Peru. I was touched by our guides, who rather than sounding rehearsed (though they had to have been) were passionate about their culture and the history of their land. It’s not a pretty tale: the majesty of the Incan culture vanquished finally by the Spanish, who built cathedrals on sacred native grounds and brought death through smallpox (via blankets? No one knows for sure.) I listened but failed to take notes, so, well, I’ll just have to go back again. It’s that good.
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Lima’s nicest neighborhood, upscale, on the beach, with cliffs and parks, including Parque del Amor
Hotel: Radisson Decapolis
Sites: Parque del Amor (by the ocean, a brief walk); Terecita de Blanca (sp?) restaurant, Inca market
Peru’s second most populated city. Located in the Andes at ~7,660 feet. El Misti, a snow-capped volcano, provides a breathtaking backdrop to the old city. Highlights included the enormous Santa Catalina Monastery.
Hotel: Casa Andina Private Collection
The world’s deepest canyon (more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon). Early in the morning, giant condors wheel in the sky on warm thermal air. Not to be missed. Our hotel, Colca Lodge, was a dream: natural hot springs to soak in, llamas wandering the hillsides, warm, inviting lodge with fireplaces (not in rooms, but the rooms are fine). Decent spa, hiking trails, views of farming terraces. The perfect place to acclimate before Cusco. At this point I’ll recommend the coca. Coca helps with altitude sickness and comes as leaves for tea, or in hard candy and toffee (widely available). It works. You don’t really feel it, but your headache and dizziness dissipate quickly. Every hotel had coca tea prepared and available for free at all times.
Colca Lodge, Spa and Hot Springs
An amazing city, World Heritage site, and “historical capital” of Peru, up in the Andes at 11,000+ feet. Much to do and see, including Incan ruins at Sacsayhuamán. Local artisans (and the factories of Lima – beware of imitations) produce a miasma of things to buy: textiles and clothes of the finest alpaca (look for baby alpaca!) and vicuña, if you can afford (and if you can, we need to talk!). We needed the two days in Colca Canyon (~7000 feet) to acclimate in preparation for Cusco. Highly recommend that step…
Between Arequipa and Colca Canyon we drove by bus up up up into the altitude of the Andes. At our highest point (maybe 16,000 feet??) I definitely felt the thin air making me woozy. I had intermittent headaches and definite dizziness. It was interesting but the coca leaves helped a lot. At one point, our guide, Carlos, had us wrap the leaves around a piece of ash and suck on it. Apparently, the ash speeds the (mildly stimulating) effects of the coca. Brilliant, really. Around that point, we stopped near a dead volcano in a space that felt like the end of the earth, a moonscape of sorts, in a flat expanse covered with little mounds of rocks, deposited by countless travelers and locals, in an array of otherworldly creations as far as the eye could see. They’re called “Apacheta” meaning something like “the source where the flow begins.” That certainly resonated, as we were about to approach, near the Continental Divide, the site of the source of the mighty Amazon River. Oh – and no. I won’t tell you what I wished for. Please note: High altitudes will make you look puffy and addled.
Lv New York (JFK) 11:15 PM on LAN #531 (non-stop, coach)
Ar Lima 06:10 AM
Hotel: Radisson Decapolis Miraflores (Lima’s nicest neighborhood, on the beach, very safe)
Dinner at Astrid y Gaston
Tour site(s): Old Lima, Inca market, Larcomar, a shopping center built into the cliff overlooking the ocean
Transfer to airport
Leave Lima 08:50 AM on LAN (non-stop, coach)
Arrive Arequipa 10:15 AM
Depart (by land) for Colca Canyon
Colca Lodge, Spa and Hot Springs 2 nights
Tour of Colca Canyon
More than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. An early morning trip to the canyon affords spectacular views of giant condors wheeling on warm air thermals. The continental divide is nearby and the Andean mountains,
Depart (by land) for Arequipa
Tour of Monsterio de Santa Catelina and Old Arequipa
Hotel: Casa Andina Private Collection
Leave Arequipa 10:45 LAN #2124 (non-stop, coach). Arrive Lima (LIM) 12:15 PM. Leave Lima (LIM) 1:35 PM LAN #2043 (non-stop, coach). Arrive Cusco (CUZ) 2:50 PM
Novotel Cusco – 3 nights
Restaurants: La Casona, Fallen Angel (the funkiest restaurant ever. Good food, too)
Thursday, September 01
Leave Cusco by train early morning. (Vistadome first class)
Arrive Machu Picchu Puebla
Hotel: El Mapi. Lunch at the Sanctuary (adjacent to Machu Picchu)
Frequent buses leave nearby to Machu Picchu (about 20 minute ride)
Friday, September 02
Leave Machu Picchu Puebla by train, late afternoon
Arrive in Cusco, stay one night
Saturday, September 03
Transfer to airport
Leave Cusco 15:25 LAN #2042 (non-stop), Arrive Lima 16:45. Taxi to dinner in Miraflores (Maita, excellent restaurant. Get the octopus!)
Leave Lima 23:55 LAN #530 (non-stop, coach). Arrive JFK, Sunday 8:35 am.
If the two leaders weren’t already my friends, they certainly would have been after this trip. They are hands-on travel experts who find the very best accommodations, tours, transportation, restaurants and more at the very best value all over the world. They’re also funny, warm, smart and choose who they travel with selectively (people who appreciate adventure, culture and the joys of discovery). Highly recommend.
Radisson Decapolis Miraflores – +51 1 625 1200
Colca Lodge (Colca Valley, Peru) – +51 5 453 1191
Casa Andina Private Collection (Arequipa, Peru) – +51 5 422 6907
Novotel Cusco (Cusco, Peru) +51 84 581 033
El Mapi (Machu Picchu, Peru) +51 84 211 011
JFK-LIM-LIM (LAN #5VAKVL, Amadeus #5VAKVL)
LIM-AQP-LIM-CUZ-LIM (LAN #5UKVSZ, Amadeus #5UKVSZ)
All transfers by Lima Tours +51 1 619 6911