A few weeks ago I traveled to Portland, Oregon for a work conference, and I took advantage of the opportunity to visit the Northwest by renting a car on the last day to drive the Columbia River Gorge scenic drive. Not only was Multnomah Falls as impressive as expected, that drive in autumn was one of my all time favorite drives. And all of the waterfalls along the route were gorgeous!
Despite the pouring rain, I explored much of the area, almost in complete solidarity at times, and I loved every minute of it. Here are a few of my favorite shots – most with a new wide-angle lens, which proved to be perfect for waterfalls and scenery.
Last month we traveled to Ft. Worth to visit some of our best friends. Our oldest kids are only two days apart in age! It was my kind of trip (I love animals) – we visited both Fossil Rim Wildlife Center and the Ft. Worth Zoo. It was so nice to be able to wear short sleeves – something we still can’t do back in Kansas! Here are a few of my favorite photos.
Back in Cusco for the final day of the trip, we didn’t have to get up early, so we walked to the local market to explore. We walked around the streets surrounding the market in search of a supermarket, so we ended up seeing parts of Cusco most tourists don’t see – locals on their way to work, people selling food on the streets, etc. Absolutely everything was sold on the streets, from food, to clothes, to blenders, to trash bags and elastic. We finally found the supermarket and bought food to take home for souvenirs and for ourselves – chicha morado, coffee, Brazil nuts, chocolate, creamy chili sauce, and inexpensive quinoa.
Back at the market we had fresh-squeezed juice at a stand recommended by Vanise earlier in the trip. We bought two juices for 10 sol (~$3) – they were served and refilled in glass cups. Delicious!
Lots of Peruvians were eating breakfast in the market at little stands, too. We ate an early lunch (even though we weren’t remotely hungry) at Jack’s – a popular tourist spot serving breakfast food. We had an amazing mocha milkshake, pancakes with caramelized banana, and sausage. It may not have been Peruvian, but it was incredible!
We meandered back to our hotel and grabbed our bags to fly to Lima for our return flight home, surprised our driver was already there waiting for us. He said he’d been waiting an hour and mentioned something about a flight change, but we thought he was mistaken. We got to the airport at 12:15, and the lady at the STAR Peru counter (who luckily spoke English very well) told us that our flight had been moved up an hour. We thought we still had 45 minutes, but she said they closed the gates 2 hours early – which we’re still perplexed by. She told us not to worry, scurried off, and came back a few minutes later with boarding passes for a 1 p.m. flight to Lima on Avianca. She told us not to tell them we came from STAR Peru. Although bizarre and a little nerve-racking, everything turned out ok. This was one of those moments where I wished we’d bought a chip to use our phones internationally, vs. relying on sporadic wi-fi. Our travel agent had tried to contact us a couple of hours prior about the change, but we didn’t know anything about it. This incident confirmed our belief that airlines in Peru are not reliable.
The Avianca flight left a little late as usual, but we landed around 2 p.m., and Juan (our 3rd Juan?) was there waiting for us. We had about 8 hours to kill before our flight out of Peru, so we’d planned on having a driver take us around Lima to sightsee on our own. We ended up with a full-on tour guide. He took us to Miraflores first, an upscale area near the beach with shopping and restaurants. We’d originally planned on eating there, but we just walked a few blocks and hopped back in the car to our next destination. It was extremely foggy, so we couldn’t even see the beautiful views of the ocean.
Next the driver took us to the city center, which was very historic, with cathedrals on every corner dating back to the 1600s.
We walked through a modern shopping district that reminded me of a less fancy version of Milan, but we weren’t given time to shop. Juan did buy us some tasty ice cream with three unique fruit flavors. Next we went to a tour of a cathedral with catacombs. We went below the church and saw thousands of bones, which had been dug up and organized – so there was a huge section of femurs, another of skulls, etc. Although fascinating, I found it to be slightly creepy and disrespectful.
After that, we had to make our way back to the airport in crazy rush hour traffic. I’ve been to a number of countries with scary driving, but this was by far the craziest. Drivers didn’t abide by the laws at all, cutting across traffic, butting in, driving at high speeds, etc. The driver and Juan were even nervous, which is what made me nervous. That must be why you have to be 30 years old to get a driver’s license in Peru!
We made it to the airport around 7, checked in, and ate at Perro’s chicken at the airport. It was surprisingly delicious – I had a salad with lots of chicken, veggies (huge corn kernels), and avocado.
Everything was overpriced at the airport. We spent 56 sol for our meal, then burned the rest of our money on two bottles of water and a tiny bit of chocolate at a gift shop. When we got to the American Airlines terminal, we were forced to throw away our water before boarding, even though we’d bought it after going through security.
The flight went smoothly – we slept for several hours of it, which made the time go by fast. We were only awake for drink service once, so I was thrilled to land in Miami and be able to fill up water at water fountains – free and safe to drink! Since we landed at 5 a.m., customs was almost empty, and everything went smoothly. We grabbed some yogurt to hold us over, flew to Dallas where we got McDonald’s breakfast, then had our last leg home.
By that point I was getting so antsy to see Lil Miss K! We landed around noon, and Mom, Dad, and K were there waiting for us – K holding a “welcome home” sign with a very solemn look on her face.
I swept her up in my arms and started bawling – so happy to be home. It was hard to be away from her, but it was such an incredible trip! I can’t wait to visit South America again some day.
We woke up around 4 am, had a tasty hotel breakfast at 4:30, then lined up before 5 to take a bus up the mountain from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu entrance. We saw tons of people walking by the hotel, starting a hike up the mountain in the dark to save $12 (or for the thrill of it). By the time we arrived at the bus stop just down the road, the line was already several blocks long.
The buses started up the mountain at 5:30, but despite the crowds of people, it didn’t seem to take long to make our way to the Machu Picchu entrance.
We, along with 20ish other people, met up with our English-speaking guide for a 2-hour morning tour. There were hoards of guided tours just like ours, bumping into and talking over one another. Around 7:30 the sun peeked over the adjacent mountain and shone right onto Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu – the iconic mountain next to the ruins. It was breathtaking!
The tour was really interesting – we saw the terraces, a garden, the lookout tower, sundial, sun temple, king’s house, many buildings, etc. Researchers think it took over 100 years to build Machu Picchu, holding 400-500 people. It might have been part of a pilgrimage. Despite popular belief, it is not the Lost City of the Inca. Hiram Bingham III was led there by a native boy when searching for the Lost City in 1911. According to our guide, because several thousand people walk on the ruins every day, it is slowly sinking. (I’m not sure if I believe this) He said there is talk of limiting the time guests can stay there, or even building a cable car so people just view it from above while crossing between mountains. If that’s true – I’m glad we made the trek when we did!
After the tour we decided to take a hike to the Inca Bridge. Unfortunately Machu Picchu tourism is designed to be one-way, so we had to go all the way down the steps and back up to get to the trailhead. (We’re talking many, many flights of steep, rugged steps.) Once we signed in at the entrance of the trail (to make sure everyone makes it back alive, I suppose), it only took us about 15 minutes each way. The scariest part of the bridge has been barricaded off since someone fell to his death a while back. It’s an extremely narrow section of the trail carved into a sheer cliff, connected by a wooden plank. If you follow the trail with your eyes, it goes up the mountain and disappears – never uncovered.
Even the last section of the hike prior to the cutoff point had a cable to hold on to, being quite narrow.
It was still late morning when we returned from the Inca Bridge, so we headed to the top of Machu Picchu and hung out on a terrace, watching a few llamas graze on the grass. The crowds were starting to die down a bit, so it was as picturesque and serene as you might imagine … until the guards ran all of us tourists off the terraces.
We decided to have an early lunch – hungry from all the flights of stairs we’d been climbing. We enjoyed a fancy included buffet at the Machu Picchu Lodge. We tried all kinds of dishes, including ceviche, which we decided we didn’t need try again. They also had ICE! I made myself an iced coffee and we took our time and indulged in way too much food.
After lunch, we went back out to explore on our own.
It was much less busy than the morning, so we visited every piece of Machu Picchu we could find, including some secluded areas on the backside. We took fun photos, ran into a chinchilla, and theorized about the big open area in the middle (possibly an arena?).
We had to pay 1 sol to use the restroom, then we hopped on the bus and made our way back to Aguas Calientes in the late afternoon.
Back in town, we had to kill a few hours before our train left, so we walked through the market, ate overpriced ice cream, bought sandwiches for the train ride home, and hung out on park benches in the town square. (I got scolded by a police officer for lying down on the bench.)
We took the 6:00 train to Ollataytambo, where someone was waiting with our names on a list to take us in a large van back to Cusco. The van sped through the windy, steep countryside, so it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable trip. We walked a few blocks to our hotel, finally arriving around 10:30.
We happily found our luggage waiting for us at the hotel, so we showered and made it to bed around midnight, exhausted after 27,000 steps and over 300 flights of stairs climbed.
Our early morning began with scarfing down some yogurt and fruit right when continental breakfast opened at 5:30, then catching the train literally right outside the hotel at 6:10. Boarding the train was pretty informal – nothing like an airplane – they just scanned our tickets right outside our train car. The train was nice, with skylights, big windows, and tables. We enjoyed a beautiful hour and a half ride, seeing mountains that changed from rocky and snow-peaked to tropical. The tracks stretched along the roaring Urubamba river. At “kilometer 104” we departed for our day hike to Machu Picchu. Some people start a four-day trek to Machu Picchu in Ollantaytambo, most people take the train or bus all the way, and we chose a route in-between, just because we didn’t want to spend four valuable days of our trip just getting to one spot.
We crossed a long footbridge over the Urubamba river to the checkpoint, where you must meet a guide and show a pass for the Inca Trail. At 148 sol (~$50), it was probably our most expensive excursion of the trip. We started to get nervous, as we couldn’t find our guide anywhere. Finally another couple also looking for their guide found ours still waiting for us by the train stop.
Our guide Rossi was sweet and tried very hard, but her English was pretty rough, and she was very quiet, so it was hard to understand her. I felt bad, because she was fighting a cold/cough and still had to guide us along mountainous trails. We took a quick bathroom break and the three of us headed out onto the Inca Trail at a fast clip. I briefly stopped to take photos regularly, but other than that, we only had a few rest breaks.
The first half of the Inca Trail – all the way to our lunch stop – was uphill. For some reason I hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be, because Machu Picchu’s elevation is lower than Cusco where we began. I guess I didn’t realize we’d be going up from the train at the base of the mountain, then have to climb over and around a mountain to get to Machu Picchu. There were a lot of precipitous cliffs and steep steps to climb (sometimes even having to use our hands). Although it was chilly in the morning, we got hot quickly, ready to shed all our layers at the first stop 45 minutes in.
I’m so happy we hiked at least part of the Inca Trail – the views were breathtaking! I guess I never realized how tropical Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains were – nothing like other mountain ranges I’ve seen. We saw beautiful foliage and wide-open views of the Andes Mountains and the Urubamba river below.
A couple of hours into our trek, to our surprise, we came upon a beautiful glacier waterfall. I would guess it to be a couple hundred feet tall! We took a few photos near the bridge in front of it and moved on.
There were a few ruins along the way, including the breathtaking Winay Wayna.
It’s built into a steep hillside overlooking the river and the mountains – so climbing the steps there proved to be almost the most difficult part of the hike. We had to stop and catch our breath multiple times. Once I realized how fast we were moving, I wish we’d spent more time exploring there. The ruins consists of many terraces, probably for growing potatoes and carrots, upper and lower houses that supported about 100 people, and fountains for the elite. There were also a few random llamas grazing there.
A short time later, we came to the day 3 campsite for people who hike the entire Inca Trail, so we stopped there for our box lunch at 10:40 a.m. After a bathroom break at the squat toilets, we continued on. From there, it leveled out for a bit, but we continued to enjoy beautiful views.
After a while, Rossi told us we were getting close, then we climbed some extremely steep steps (the kind we had to use our hands on), and when we reached the top – we were at the Sun Gate overlooking Machu Picchu!
Jerod was so tired he immediately sat down and didn’t even realize we were there. The Sun Gate, which was the entrance to Machu Picchu for travelers, was farther away from Machu Picchu than I realized, but it was still really crowded with both Inca Trail hikers and tourists who hiked up from Machu Picchu.
After sitting to rest and enjoy the view for a while, we began the 45-minute hike downhill on large stones, which proved to be pretty rough on our knees and feet. We approached a couple more ruins, including a cemetery, on our way down. After taking all of the standard obligatory photos of Machu Picchu, Rossi guided us down to the entrance.
I thought we’d get to explore since it was only 1 p.m., but we headed straight for the line for the bus. Each one-way ticket to and from Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu was $12! We finally found the tourist trap of the trip.
Rossi walked us to our hotel and gave us a confusing and contradictory briefing about the next day (telling us we needed to buy bus tickets and meals when we were told they were included), then went on her way. We tried getting ahold of our travel agent, but the wi-fi was horrible, so we finally made a phone call from the front desk. A while later, she showed up at our hotel admitting she was incorrect and asked to take our passports to get our bus passes. It was another one of those moments when I really struggled to put all my trust in our travel company. But sure enough, she got our bus passes for us and everything got straightened out.
The hotel was very nice, and it even included complimentary drinks in our fridge, so we finally tried out the famous Cusquena beer and Inka Cola – neither of which we liked. After lounging around at our hotel for a while, we walked all around the little town of Aguas Calientes. It was quaint with a touristy, yet cute square. Even though Machu Picchu seemed crowded, the town wasn’t too bad.
We had an included dinner that night, and when we showed up, Rossi was there, so we invited her to join us. We tried to make conversation, but she didn’t understand the majority of what we asked her, so she’d answer with a completely irrelevant (yet somehow interesting) story. We did finally get out of her that she was staying the night in Aguas Calientes and going home via train in the morning – we thought maybe she’d had to turn around a couple of times to deliver information to us and missed her train home. Jerod and I ordered stuffed avocado and trout from the price fixe menu, which was pretty good. We went to bed early with another uber-early wake-up call ahead of us.
After a hotel breakfast, a walk to the square to go to the ATM and exchange money, and a stop for water at the drugstore, we met Daniel and Juan outside the hotel around 9 to start a tour of the Sacred Valley. We had some confusion about which bags to take with us for the next couple of days (since we were staying in the Sacred Valley and hiking to Machu Picchu) and which bags we needed to leave at the hotel. We ended up bringing along two backpacks and a duffle bag, only to find out the next day we couldn’t leave the duffle bag on the train to be dropped off at our hotel.
Our first stop down the road was a llama farm. I thought it would be a tourist trap, but Daniel gave us a nice tour – showing us several different types of llamas and alpacas.
The best part, of course, was feeding them!
He (along with some ladies working on the farm) gave us a demonstration about how the yarn is naturally dyed, woven, and made into clothing and blankets.
It was interesting to learn the difference between the llama wool, the soft alpaca wool, and ultra-soft and expensive “first cut” of wool. Although there was a fancy shop with expensive items, there was no pressure to buy.
After that, we traveled on to the Pisaq market, where we were looking forward to exploring and having some time to buy souvenirs. I was disappointed that we were kind of herded around by Daniel. First we were taken to a “personal” demonstration at a jewelry store. After a whole spiel I wasn’t planning on buying anything, but I was really surprised by the inexpensive prices, so I did end up with a pair of pretty silver and mother-of-pearl leaf-shaped earrings for only about $30 USD. Then Daniel took us by an outdoor wood-fired grill and encouraged us to try empanadas. Being an animal lover, I was mortified that they had live guinea pigs in a cage that you could pick out and have roasted on the spot. I was a little leery of eating any meat cooked on the street (we saw and smelled the hot, rotting meat in the market), so we settled on sharing a cheese empanada. After that, he showed us around a bit more and gave us 10-15 minutes to shop on our own. I told Jerod that wasn’t nearly enough time, and I think we ended up taking closer to 20-30 minutes, practically running back to shops we’d seen along the way.
Next was the Pisaq ruins. We walked along the garden terraces (carved out by slaves) and learned all about Inca farming. I’m amazed by the diversity of fruits and vegetables grown in Peru – about four thousand varieties of potatoes, 55 varieties of corn, and most any other produce you can think of. A lot of the success is due to the elevation changes and different climates.
Daniel only gave us a few minutes to hike up to the top of the ruins and check out the dwellings. Researchers think that there were about 500 people living in the city, and that stones used to create the homes were covered in stucco, since they weren’t very smooth.
One other interesting thing to note – all along the mountainsides there were tons of terraces – even up to the very top – which the Incas built to prevent earthquake damage.
As you can imagine, the mountainous road was hilly and curvy – and the driving was pretty wild – which didn’t bode well with Jerod’s motion sickness. By the time we made it to our lunch stop (at 2:30 p.m.), Jerod didn’t feel well at all. We stopped at a touristy buffet, which was so-so, but pretty much empty since we got there so late.
Our final stop for the day was the crowded ruins of Ollantaytambo. The hillside was very windy and a little cooler.
We climbed the very steep steps, stopping periodically for Daniel to tell us about it. At the bottom was a village, along the middle were the farming terraces, and at the top was the sacred Temple of the Sun, which was never finished due to Spanish takeover. At the bottom of the mountain were beautiful fountains, divided for the middle class and the elite.
Interestingly, all of the stones (which were huge) came from another mountain with stronger rock, so the Incas had to build paths along the mountains to pull the stones. Once in location, they were carved to lock in place, and there were both inner and outer walls to withstand earthquakes – which they did!
On the opposite mountain, a face had been carved in the cliff, and there was significance about where the sun rose above the mountain during summer and winter solstice.
After a quick drive to our hotel situated right on the train tracks to Machu Picchu, we bid farewell to Daniel, and were guided through the beautiful hotel grounds to our room. The hotel’s gardens, the room itself, and the mountain view were all spectacular! We couldn’t help but sit and enjoy it for a bit.
We walked down to the city center and decided on a restaurant called Helping Hands Café, which was a restaurant raising money for local children with disabilities. For 72 sol ($22.50) we had Pisco sours and water, and Jerod had an alpaca burger, while I ordered the chicken chili burger. Having tried French fries several times in Peru, these were the first good ones we’d found. My burger also came with a delicious salad. It was one of my favorite meals of the trip!
Back at the hotel, we re-arranged our bags for the Machu Picchu hike so we could take everything we needed for the next two days in our backpacks. The next morning someone from our travel company met us at the hotel to take our duffle bag back to our Cusco hotel. He also gave us a briefing – completely in Spanish – so we caught very little of it! We trustingly handed over our bag, which luckily made it back to exactly the right place.
We got to SLEEP IN this morning! Because Cusco is so much cooler than the Amazon, we were on an opposite schedule – we did everything in the middle of the day when it’s not cold out. Naturally I still woke up pretty early, around 6:15, but it was nice not to rush around. Today we had a private Cusco city tour with our very friendly and knowledgeable guide – Daniel.
We started out at Cristo Blanco which overlooks the heart of Cusco. It’s a smaller version of the Christ statue in Rio de Janeiro. It was built by Palestinians in 1945 as a gift of gratitude for seeking refuge there.
Second, we visited Sacsayhuaman ruins (sometimes called “sexy woman” for fun) built by the Incas. It was in a zigzag shape similar to a lightening bolt. Cusco is said to be shaped like a puma, and Sacsayhuaman represents the head.
When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century they thought it was a fortress, but now researchers think it was a residential area for the wealthy, complete with baths. Everything there is symbolic, including stones in the walls formed to look like puma paws and llamas.
When the structure was built, thousands of Inca slaves moved the huge stones across mountains by building gravel roads and pulling them along rolling planks (tree trunks?). Then they spent an unbelievable amount of time carving the stones to be smooth and fit perfectly into place. They’ve withstood hundreds of years of earthquakes.
Next we visited Qenqo (meaning labyrinth) and Pukapukara. We saw an area where Incas mummified their loved ones after death. All Incans were mummified, but royalty was done so in a very meticulous, long process – bringing the bodies into the sun and coating them with oil every day for a year. When the Spanish discovered the area, it is said that they burned most of the mummies, but people fled with a few of the most sacred bodies and hid them in the mountains. Hearing that broke my heart. On the top of the site, there was also a sundial shaped like a puma. Below the site was a series of man-made tunnels that we didn’t get to explore. The sundials were a very accurate way for them to keep track of days. Pukapukara, according to Daniel, was a hostel for travelers to stay. There used to be a tall tower to communicate using conch shells for sound and bronze discs as mirrors for light signals.
Just down the road we went to Tambomachay, a series of fountains carrying natural mineral spring water to the travelers. The water never stops flowing, and downstream it is bottled for water and beer. It is said that people who drink the spring water will be fertile and have a long life.
After visiting all the ruins, we went back into the heart of Cusco to see the Basilica Cathedral. It was built across a span of centuries from the 1500s-1700s. There were all kinds of European styles of art and architecture with Inca influence. For example, the triangles in the art symbolize mountains, and they had a black Jesus (apparently the wrong one was delivered there), who represented the Lord of Earth. Daniel claimed that when earthquakes occur in the area, they remove the black Jesus from the cathedral, and the earthquakes stop. A large piece of art representing the Last Supper had cuy (guinea pig) and Inca vegetables. The cathedral was very elaborate with gold, silver, a variety of art, and to top it off, they had giant Saint dolls on display for a festival. Although impressive, it was a bit gaudy for my taste. Unfortunately we couldn’t take photos.
From there, we had lunch with Daniel at a place right off the square with a prix fixe menu – 35 sol ($10-11) for stuffed peppers, soup, fish, and small Pisco sours.
Finally, we ended the tour at the Temple of the Sun – the most sacred place for Inca worship. Thousands of slaves helped build it. In fact, it took one person a year to carve one stone. When the Spanish came, they built on top of it, and it became a church and convent. Daniel showed us the grounds and some of the art, then left us to explore on our own.
After the tour (around 2:30), we just walked around some more, because a lot of places were closed on Sunday. We walked uphill to San Blas, but there wasn’t much to look at while we were there. I did take the typical tourist photo with three Peruvian girls with sheep and kids (baby goats). We also bought Jerod and Lil’ Miss K alpaca sweaters.
That night, after choosing between a lot of recommended restaurants, we decided to eat at the Inka Grill. I had a chicha sour (bitter and disappointing, considering how much I loved chicha morados – purple corn juice), and Jerod had a local cerveza. I had a chicken and rice dish (eh, ok) and Jerod had a braised lamb dish that he raved about. After dinner we stopped at an ice cream shop and enjoyed 5 sol ($1.40) ice cream for dessert. It was a long day…we definitely heard more than our minds could absorb.