Peru Vacation – Lima & Home

Catch up on days 1 & 2
Catch up on day 3
Catch up on day 4
Catch up on day 5
Catch up on day 6
Catch up on day 7
Catch up on day 8

Catch up on day 9

Day 10 & 11: Thursday, June 2 & Friday, June 3

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.

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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!

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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.

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Next the driver took us to the city center, which was very historic, with cathedrals on every corner dating back to the 1600s.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Photo courtesy my parents

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.

Peru Vacation – Sacred Valley

Catch up on days 1 & 2
Catch up on day 3
Catch up on day 4
Catch up on day 5
Catch up on day 6

Day 7: Monday, May 30

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.

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The best part, of course, was feeding them!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

Peru Vacation – City of Cusco

Catch up on days 1 & 2
Catch up on day 3
Catch up on day 4
Catch up on day 5

Day 6: Sunday, May 29

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.

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Christo Blanco

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.

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Sacsayhuman ruins

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.

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Paw print formation in the ruins

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.

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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.

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Pukapukara ruins

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.

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Tambomachay ruins
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12,352 feet elevation

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.

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Temple of the Sun
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Temple of the Sun grounds

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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.

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Photo opp
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Beautiful view of Cusco from San Blas

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.


Peru Vacation – Amazon & Cusco

Catch up on days 1 & 2
Catch up on day 3
Catch up on day 4

Day 5: Saturday, May 28

During the night, we had a steady rainstorm – the first and only rain during our entire time in the rainiest place on Earth. Robin had agreed to take us back to the canopy tower on our final morning, so we woke up around 5 to get there a little after sunrise. A cold front from Patagonia had blown through, so it was slightly breezy and chilly(ish) – possibly down to the mid-60s in the morning. (I think it typically ranged from mid-70s to mid-90s while we were there.) The four of us had the canopy tour all to ourselves, and we got to observe a lot more birds than last time. We saw toucans, gold and turkey vultures, three kinds of macaws, parrots, black-capped parakeets, golden pendulum birds, and more. The best part was seeing the colorful backs of the macaws as they flew around the canopy.

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Looking down from the top of the canopy
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Back at the lodge, we packed our luggage, ate breakfast, caught our Rainforest Expeditions transfer to the airport, and said good-bye to Robin and friends. I should note how awesome Robin was – we thought he was the best guide at the lodge. He joked with us, told stories, told us about his family and his ambitions (wants to learn Chinese), spoke great English, and was extremely knowledgeable. At the airport we ran into Tripper and Mary – two of our friends from Robin’s group. They’d left the Amazon early for a day in Puerto Maldonado, and they had the same flight back to Cusco as us.

Naturally, STAR Peru was late, but we made it to Cusco with no issues. Upon arrival there was a large bowl full of coca leaves (the same leaf cocaine is made out of) to chew on to help with altitude sickness. The leaves are also known to provide energy and help with digestion. Porters along the Inca Trail rely on them heavily. Although chewing the leaves was less than tasty, coca tea and coca candies were delicious! We got our bags, met our driver – Juan – who navigated the busy, narrow streets to Andenes Al Cielo hotel in Cusco. The hotel was beyond our expectations – very fancy with a big room and a nice view of the city. There were about three floors with rooms in a square around open foyer in the center and a beautiful rooftop deck. We checked in, enjoyed some coca tea, and spent a little time taking in the location.

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In the afternoon, Vanise, our travel agent’s wife who lives in the Sacred Valley in Peru and leads yoga travel tours, met up with us to pick up a couple of items we’d delivered from the States. She gave us a little impromptu walking tour of Cusco, and helped us exchange money at the money exchange shop with the best rates.

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We ate a delicious meal at Greens – Vanise’s recommendation – an organic restaurant – beet/cheese gnocchi and alpaca. (Guess who ate what?) It was about 150 sol ($50) for the three of us, which was one of our most expensive meals. Everything is so inexpensive in Peru. Vanise took us to the local market, and we walked through a beautiful Spanish cathedral covered in gold. We had to walk through a hotel lobby and outdoor square to get to it.

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After Vanise headed home with a giant VitaMix blender stuffed into her backpack that we’d brought to her, we walked around some more, taking forever to pick an inexpensive dinner spot. We settled on El Meson, which had a delicious salad bar and pizza. Our entire meal with two salad bars, a large eggplant pizza, and two bottles of water, was 40 sol ($12.50). Unfortunately tap water is not safe to drink, so you must buy bottled water everywhere. Juice was about the same price as water, and beer and Pisco sours weren’t much more.

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Back at the hotel we enjoyed coca tea and the rooftop terrace. Since we were at 11,000+ feet in the Andes Mountains in their winter, it quickly cooled down to the 40s.

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