Peru travel tips

1. The buses in Peru take security more seriously than their neighboring countries. In fact, multiple times we had to show passports, be searched for weapons, have a photo taken, and a video of where we sat on the bus. It was weird.

2. Northern Peru is cheaper, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it that much. It was worth the trip we made, but we ended up leaving the country about four days earlier to get to Ecuador. Everyone has their personal tastes, but the desert and lack of development in northern Peru made it not as welcoming as we had anticipated.

3. Expect changes in temperature, from the altitude of Cusco and Puno to the desert in Arequipe and Ica, to the foggy Lima.

4. We did the overnight stay on Amantani island, and though it was more expensive, I think the trip wouldn’t have been worthwhile unless we made that little bit of extra effort to get to know a local family and see what real local life is like.

5. Bring lots of cash or, at least, really try to limit your ATM withdrawals. Fees were around six or seven dollars a use, especially in Cusco (Colombia, however, is even worse).

6. Just as a warning: Cusco is a different world, particularly for backpackers who have spent most of their time in local or less-developed areas. Cusco is all about catering to the rich American/British tourists that come through, from highly expensive Coach stores to 4- or 5-star hotels. Budget options can be found, but it was some of the strangest culture shock I’ve ever experienced.

7. Machu Picchu really is worth the small fortune required of you. And all those people commenting on the Lonely Planet threads? When they say get on the first bus at 5:30 in Agua Calientes to see Machu Picchu before hordes of tourists descend on it, do it. It’s so worth it, even though we had to wake up at 3:50 am. So worth it.

8. We found the cheapest deals on tours (especially in Puno) to be at the tour offices downtown. Don’t pay too much attention to the online prices. I thought we would have to pay around 80 USD per person to do the Amantani/Taquile/Floating islands overnight tour, but we booked through the hostel for about 45 USD apiece. Later we discovered that if we had gone straight to a tour office, it would have been about 35 USD a person.

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Before the Incas: culture in Trujillo

We rode about nine hours overnight up the coast to Trujillo, a Peruvian city in the desert known for its ancient history. It was a rough night. The TVs on the bus played until about 2 am and none of us got any sleep. We also hadn’t booked a hostel in Trujillo because we couldn’t find anything online.

So there we were at 7 am, a taxi having dropped us off in the middle of downtown, surrounded by luggage with no idea of where to go. Two men approached us, one selling tours and the other selling a hostel for good prices. We discussed it amongst the three of us, and said yes to both. We booked a full-day tour of the temples of the sun and moon and Chan Chan, which started at 10:50 am and completed at 6:30 pm for 50 soles a person (the English tour guide made it a little more expensive). Then we followed the other guy four blocks down to a decent-ish-looking hostel (El Mochilero) for around 20 soles apiece in a nine bed dorm.

The hostel had a hairless Peruvian dog, which we later learned was native to the region. The desert is (obviously) sandy and hot, so it naturally has no hair and is one of the ugliest dogs I have ever seen. Because of that, the breed fell out of favor for many years, until a national heritage movement is pulling it back into popularity. Most of the dogs now are mutts, because they have odd patches or stripes of hair.


The Trujillo region was the site of two pre-Incan civilizations: the Moche and the Chimu. The Moche, which came first, flourished roughly 100 BC to 800 AD. They were a deeply religious society, even more so than other similar civilizations, and this area was the base of their religion. The ruins of two temples, Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna, are near the base of Cerro Blanco, and the village was nestled between the two temples.


The names, Sun and Moon, are arbitrary. Archeologists named the larger, more ruined temple after the sun and the smaller after the moon because that was what they always found in Central America: two pyramidic temples, the larger always dedicated to the sun god and the other to the moon god. We weren’t able to enter Huaca del Sol because it was too much in ruins and there are several excavations underway. When the Spanish conquered the area, about seven hundred years after the Moche civilization disappeared, they rerouted the river to search for gold. The river cut right through the temple and destroyed almost three-quarters of it.


The temple of the moon, although smaller, is pretty large in its own right. We are still piecing together what the Moche culture looked like, but by the devotion in the temples we know they were deeply religious and the town economy was completely based on the temples. Although it was built with adobe bricks, the reliefs and carvings are still well-preserved and some even colored! It was very beautiful. The moon temple has about five layers, each layer built whenever the bottom layer was full of religious imagery, burial chambers for warrior priests, and the like. In one corner of the temple was a courtyard used for human sacrifice. They only sacrificed warriors, and only when the weather was acting badly. To appease the gods, a large boulder had to be stained with human blood. Warriors came in pairs to the temple, and the priest picked half of them to be sacrificed. Then the warriors would dress up and enact a battle sequence, the goal being to wound the human sacrifice. When that warrior was wounded/incapacitated, he was bound, given some herbal thing for nerves, and led to the top of the boulder. They were usually decapitated or their throats slit, then toppled down the boulder. All the gods we learned about were very violent. It seemed like a very intense religion.

We had a small group at that point, only six English-speakers, and returned to Trujillo for lunch and to pick up a larger group of Aussies. These guys had chosen to drink beer all morning long instead of doing the Moche culture tour, and at the beginning of the tour most weren’t really hydrating themselves for the long walks in Chan Chan. Probably not the best example of Australians that we have met. The first three, from our morning tour, were Aussies as well and were wonderful people.

Chan Chan is a UNESCO heritage site and absolutely ginormous. It is the ruins of an adobe brick city by the Chimu culture, which came directly after the Moche. While we don’t know what happened to the Moche, we do know that the Chimu were eventually conquered by the Incans. Until then, the city was 20 square kilometers and had a population of at least 30,000 people. The rulers often built citadels, which were combinations of temples, small shrines to lesser-known gods, and graves for themselves and their household.


We visited one of the citadels, as you can see, and learned about how the Chimu people used creative designs in their architecture, often drawing from the scenery around them. Waves, wings of birds, seaweed, and all sorts of things inspired their wall designs. The burial chamber was underground, and in this citadel the remains of around 40 women were found, so we assume they were his concubines. We don’t know if they died of natural causes over time, or if they were all killed and buried with the ruler when he died. The Chimu also used human sacrifice, sparingly and only in times of great need, but they would sacrifice anyone–babies, elderly, common people–but rarely warriors.


This is an example of the shrine-portion of the citadel, which really was a huge complex and practically a small town in and of itself.

We stopped off at the beach to see the sunset, then returned, exhausted, around 6 pm. We had no sleep the night before, on the bus, and had walked about six miles during the full-day tour. So we collapsed in bed and decided to head on up to Ecuador, not stopping in other cities, then immediately all fell asleep.

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Lima, Pt. 2

Our last day in Lima turned out sunny! We were all so surprised! We celebrated by spending waaay too much money at Starbucks and watching Pitch Perfect 2 that evening.

The only thing we did that day was visit two museums, which we both thought was worth out time; Museo Larco and Peru’s national anthropological museum.

Museo Larco is basically a ceramics museum. Exciting, right? But we heard of a particular exhibit that tends to draw crowds, and morbid curiosity overcame us. We went. The ticket prices, I thought, were kind of expensive: 30 soles for an adult. Thankfully, Sarah Ann and I were able to get student discounts for 15 soles apiece. The museum was the prettiest building we had seen in a long time, complete with gorgeous garden and flowers. We received complimentary orange water (so good!) and went to see the pottery on display in glass cabinets:

IMG_5564Seriously, there were around seven rows to a room and three rooms of pottery. And this isn’t a permanent exhibit. They rotate out the jars. Can you believe there was that much pottery?

There were also textiles on display as well as gold and silver artifacts, which great display (in English, French, and German!!) on human sacrifice, gender roles in ancient Incan culture, and more.


Can’t you just see us pulling off all that nose jewelry and gold hats?

The infamous exhibit, of which I shan’t be sharing photos online, was of erotic pottery. Yes, that’s a thing. Apparently you can learn a lot about a culture’s views of sex from looking at pottery. A lot of the jar’s handles were shaped in a a you-know-what, while the opening of jars were shaped in a feminine you-know-what. And there were plenty of figurines of all sorts of positions between men and women, with varying degrees of acrobatic ability. And then there all the extra-curricular sex stuff (just use your imagination and it was there), with lovely examples of necrophilia. My favorite ceramic though, was of a woman in bed nursing a child on one side with a man behind her. Talk about multi-tasking! I was impressed. And we learned all about how non-procreational sex was associated with necrophilia because the seed dropped into the earth, which was the realm of the dead. I didn’t really get all of it either. I don’t think the guy who discovered all this pottery really got their whole sex culture either.

Moving along to PG-rated topics, we went to the anthropological museum, which is about a 20 minute walk from Museo Larco. We literally followed a blue painted line on the sidewalk until we found it. While it wasn’t the best museum any of us had been to, but they did have mummified bodies from the Peruvian desert cultures (pre-Incan) and the skulls of Incans, showing their elongated heads.


Sometimes trepanning, which is cutting holes in the skill, usually for brain surgery, was also used for cosmetic practices. This dude had part of his skull removed, then replaced it with gold to look powerful and rich.


At some point in time this bilobular modeling was also a beautiful, popular look among women. The shaping of the skull began during toddler years, and depending on the shape intended, wooden boards were tied to the head to make flat places, or strips of cloth/ropes were tied tight over the head. In this case, ropes were used. While the children may have worn them all the time, it was definitely used at night.


This lovely specimen used the wooden boards on the forehead and the back to elongate everything. You can see a little more explanation in the sign above the skull. Fascinating stuff. I find it rather ugly, but before I judge, I have to remember that we stuffed women in corsets for hundreds of years. And plastic surgery isn’t a whole lot better usually.

That night, we boarded a bus (Tepsa company, 35 soles apiece) to head to Trujillo, a large city in northern Peru. Slowly but surely, we are getting closer to the US!


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Lima, Pt. 1

We showed up a little wilted from the desert heat, but Lima was a welcome sight to us. Although a large cloud covers the city during the month of May, it was still warm enough to walk around in short sleeves. We had been told by multiple people that Lima is only good for a day or two, and that city center and the neighborhood Miraflores are fun and safe, but the rest of the city is a little sketchy. While I think “sketchy” is a little extreme, it is certainly true that downtown and Miraflores are the nicest parts of the 8.4 million-peopled city.

After we checked into our hostel and realized we would be up most of the night due to very loud Israelis, we explored parts of Miraflores in the evening. We just about fell on the ground when we saw a Chili’s and Starbucks three blocks from our hostel. Poor Sarah Ann, who has just left the States, had to put up with Jordan and I making plans to eat as much American food as we could in the two days we were there. We also were able to see Age of Adeline and the next day Pitch Perfect 2. After watching the first movie, Sarah Ann suggested we walk through the nearby park, Parque Central de Miraflores, which we have renamed The Cat Park.


You know how you go into some parks and there are pigeons everywhere, looking for crumbs? Well here it was cats. Neither of us had seen so many cats in one place in our lives–in a fifteen square foot area would be five or six cats, and it was a large park. Sarah Ann and I had lots of fun petting kittens and Jordan succumbed to dropping a few crumbs for the purring cats.

We really didn’t sleep that much that night because a bunch of other hostelers smoked outside our dorm and made lots of noise past midnight. The next morning, our first full day in Lima, we embarked upon the Lonely Planet blue line tour detailed in their book. We don’t own a guidebook, but we crossed paths with people that do and let us take a photo of the route.


Sarah Ann in front of the presidential palace on Plaza de Armas.

Lima was founded in 1535 by a Spaniard named Pizarro. While it wasn’t named that at first, shortly after the construction of the city it was renamed to Lima, which is most likely the Spanish version of the Quechua word Limaq for “talker.” The city is very near an ancient oracle site, hence the pre-Incan name of “talker.” Over the centuries, Lima has been the place of revolts, drama, and political intrigue. There were pirate attacks in the 1680s, then a series of earthquakes into the mid 1700s. The Spanish Inquisition wasn’t just related to Spain, but spread to many of its colonies, including the city of Lima. More on that later. Peru declared its independence from Spain in 1820, and Lima remained the capital of the region. There were a few more earthquakes, the largest being in 1940 and 1973. The 1940 one destroyed most of Lima because it was still built using primarily mud bricks. The 1973 one while destroying some buildings, actually removed layers of plaster and walls from colonial buildings, revealing even older artwork and construction design that is still be restored and studied today.



The Plaza de Bolivar, full of old buildings and fancy hotels, was crowded with a political rally while we were there, calling for a more democratic process that included the people of Peru, not just politicians.


Up the walking/shopping district road a block or two is a beautiful, old church Iglesia de la Merced, built in 1541 and housed the first mass in Lima. We weren’t able to peek inside, but Lonely Planet assured us it was beautiful.


The Plaza de Armas, the absolute center of old Lima, has a beautiful fountain (as you can see) but also has a cluster of beautiful colonial buildings around it. The cathedral of Lima, which is the final resting place of several conquistadors, is behind the fountain. Next door is the archbishop’s palace. It had very Moorish balcony windows (tastefully preserved) for discreet people-watching. We saw many of these in the Middle East, so it was a little bit of a surprise to find them in Latin America. But artistic and architectural culture does blend across geographical boundaries, so it was cool to see the influences so far from the origin of the styles. The plaza also has Palacio del Gobierno, the presidential palace, which was shown above with Sarah Ann in front of it. The plaza was the site of many things in history: execution place, market, bull rides, and more.

The blue line tour took us by the Monastery of San Francisco, which was consecrated in 1673 and completed in 1774. We highly recommend a tour of this place–only seven soles a person and there are English tours! The place is under restoration currently, due to an earthquake in the 1970s which showed older artwork hidden behind walls. But what we did see was beautiful! No photos were allowed inside, unfortunately, but the link I provided shows a couple of the inner courtyard and a few painting I believe.

IMG_5544Their library was worth the seven soles–everything still in its original place, books opened to choral passages for the Franciscan monks, and most things from the 1700s. It houses over 25,000 books, the oldest from the 14th century. It was breathtaking. Our guide passed us along many paintings and murals, explaining the significance along the way. The monastery is still in use, as 48 monks (not all Peruvians) live and work there today. The most interesting (read: creepy) part of the tour was the catacombs. After 45 minutes of looking at gold leaf furniture, 16th century artwork, and such, we descended under the church into the crypts.

This church was the first public cemetery in Lima, so the brick-and-mortar crypt has around 25,000 bodies in it. Although there were family graves (bodies laid on top of each other, up to six deep), there wasn’t enough room. So eventually after the bodies were decomposed they moved the bones to mass graves deeper in the maze of walls and pillars, then reused the family graves. By 1808 a city cemetery had opened, so it was no longer needed, and when the crypts were “rediscovered” after an earthquake in the 1940s, most of the smaller bones had disintegrated already. So we saw a lot of femurs and skulls. I mean, thousands. I did see a few pelvises half buried in one mass grave, though. Most of the graves have been excavated and studied, and the bones put back to rest. A few have been artfully arranged in geometric designs.


photo by quinet, from flickr

With that fascinating/gruesome tour, we ended our walk. The trail leads on into Chinatown, but we had already walked three miles and had to backtrack the same three to get back to our hostel. So we just called it a day and left the other museums for the next day.

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Huacachina: oasis in the desert

The desert of Peru stretches from Chile almost all the way to Lima, and one of the few cities in the desert is Ica, a colonial Spanish city known for its wine and a cool museum with pre-Incan mummies with elongated heads.

But where you really want to be is Huacachina. It’s a true oasis town, with around 100 residents, about 4 kilometers from Ica. We hopped off the bus in Ica, got a taxi for 10 soles, and arrived at one of the several hostels in Huacachina by 10 am. Legend states that a young Incan princess was bathing when stumbled upon by a hunter. Shocked, she ran away, leaving her cloak in the bath. It grew until it became the oasis. For many years Peruvians visited the oasis, believing it had healing powers. Now the secret is out, and backpackers come to enjoy the sand dunes, paddle around the small oasis, and enjoy the hot climate.


Jordan was terribly sick and spent the whole day in bed recovering from a virus and fever. So Sarah Ann and I explored the tiny town (five minutes walking and you’re done) and booked the most popular tour: sand buggy and sandboarding. We were advised to take the 4 pm tour by some backpackers we met, because it ends with the sunset at 6. I’m so glad we took their advice!


We walked into a random tourist office, talked about pricing with the guy, and got our two-hour tour for 12 USD apiece! For perspective on price, our hostel was selling the tour for 16 USD apiece, and it included boot bindings for the sandboarding.

I had done sand dunes in Dubai with Jordan, but this was more fun because it was an actual dune buggy (rather than a 4×4) where you could feel the wind in their face and see the sand flying past.



Our driver gave us ample time to take photos in the desert. Then we went sandboarding! Wow, that was intense. We stuck to laying on stomachs or just sitting on the board.

IMG_2984Our driver took us to three or four different dunes, ranging from small to large. By the end, at the largest one (easily 70 feet tall I think) several of the passengers didn’t want to risk it. I had already wiped out on a medium-sized hill, so I thought my dignity was gone, so I might as well. I whizzed down that thing at around 40 miles an hour–and I’m not exaggerating! At the bottom the sand had been swept into ridges, which knocked the air out of my chest when I went over them. Before I had regained my breath, the dune buggy flew down a shallower slope and the driver said, “Vamanos! Now! The sunset!”

I wasn’t sure I would ever catch my breath again. Did you know running up sand dunes is really difficult? But the sunset was more than worth it.

IMG_3020We were both very impressed. I hadn’t seen such a spectacular sunset in a long time. The clouds looked like crushed velvet and the sand below like brushed satin.


By the end of the night, Jordan’s fever had dropped to a low-grade, which made all of us sigh in relief. There was no pharmacy in town, so we had been giving him ibuprofen and tylenol, hoping that the heat and lack of air conditioning wouldn’t make his fever worse. He made a full recovery by the next morning, even though he was still tired, and we left Huacachina behind (it really is good only for one or two days) and headed for Lima, a five hour bus trip.




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The lost Incan city

There are many reasons not to take the train to Machu Picchu. There is one good reason, however: if you’re sick. And Sarah Ann was, so we changed our plans from the adventurous, back-door route to do the easier-on-the-stomach PeruRail. It took us from Ollantaytambo to Agua Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo.


We enjoyed lovely views of the countryside and even spotted a few more Incan city ruins before heading into the jungle.


While the owner of the hostel we stayed at in Ollaytantambo said that the train takes two hours, it only took about one hour and 20 minutes. We assume it was because we traveled downhill, from 9,000 feet down to around 7,000. Once in Agua Calientes we strolled through town to find a hostel. We decided (based on other backpackers’ experiences) that it was cheaper to just wander into one when we got there rather than make a reservation. Agua Calientes is designed for tourists: overpriced hostels and restaurants. We were able to find a private room with two twin beds for 70 soles, which we thought was a decent deal. We had been cold the past couple of nights (particularly Sarah Ann) so we pushed the two beds together and all slept under the same covers to stay warm.

We woke up bright and early at 4:15 in the morning to get to the bus stop. At least among backpackers, it is common knowledge passed along to get to Machu Picchu when it opens, at 6 am, to avoid the tours buses that arrive around 10. None of us wanted to be up that early, especially to stand in line for a bus up the mountain while it drizzled, but we thought it would be worth it.

IMG_5319This was the line for the buses at 4:30. When we arrived there were already about a hundred people waiting. Jordan stood in line while Sarah Ann and I went to the other line to actually buy tickets to get on the bus. The prices go up every year. In 2015 a roundtrip ticket on the bus is 24 USD per person for foreigners.

At a little past 5:30 five buses started their engines, and we got on the fourth bus. It is about a 20 minute drive up the mountain, or about an hour hike. We passed hikers going up the mountain and I was impressed at how early they had started to be the first tourists at the top!

20150517_055216Once at the top we were able to see the clouds begin to clear and the sky lighten. The gates to Machu Picchu open at 6 am sharp, and you can’t buy tickets there. They must be bought in advance in Cusco. We were probably one of the first 50 people through the gates, which was fantastic, and we dropped off our backpacks at the luggage storage for only 3 soles apiece.

Once we had everything where we wanted it, we took a big breath and walked down the path into the ruins.


Even though we had been told how amazing it all was, we were still very impressed with how huge the site is. As one of the ancient wonders of the world, it is incredible even today! Called “the Citadel” in Quechua, it was built at the beginning  the Incan empire expansion, around 1450, and was one of the only cities the Spanish did not find and destroy. We don’t know how long the Incans lived here until they left permanently. Actually, we still don’t really know what the city was used for. An American explorer, Hiram Bingham, was hiking through the Peruvian jungle in 1911 and spent some time with the jungle locals. They showed him bits of pottery that they found in the mountains, and he asked them to show him the way. When he reached the top of the mountains, he could see the Urubamba river and the jungle below. Then he turned around, and much to his surprise, discovered Machu Picchu. He even found a nice Quechua couple living next to the ruins and farming on the ancient terraces.

After probably picking his jaw up off the ground, he found the end of the Incan trail, and followed it down the mountains, out of the jungle, and into what we call the Sacred Valley now, arriving in Ollaytantambo. By going backward, he was able to discover the Incan trail most people hike these days to get to Machu Picchu.


There are over 200 structures in the ruins, from homes to temples to astronomical centers to perhaps a palace for the Incan rulers. And lots of farming terraces and drainage ditches. I think we passed by six different tour guides who waxed eloquently about how amazing the Incans were with irrigation.


Look! Almost no tourists! This was one of the very first photos we took as we walked along the path. And look at all those stairs! Sarah Ann’s step counter said we walked about 13 kilometers that day, which included 78 flights of stairs. And I think it only counts stairs when you go up them, not down them.


We had lots of fun roaming around the ruins, imagining what the houses were like and how many people may have lived here at one time. Officially, the city was never lost. The locals knew about it, but they never told the Spanish rulers or passed along information until 1911, with Mr. Bingham, III. But the rest of us still like the romantic idea of a lost city high in the mountains. Currently, many archeologists believe it was built at a summer estate for Pachacuti, one of the Incan emperors. They are also restoring some of the outer buildings, even putting thatched roofs on, to show us how the city would have looked in its heyday. This is a photo from Bingham in 1912, after a lot of rubble was cleared away but before restoration and digging began.


This is the center  of the ruins, near some temples. Far up the hill was a cemetery.


I don’t want to bore anyone with too many details of Machu Picchu, so I’ll just leave the link to Wikipedia, which actually has a very nice, fleshed out description of the history and current theories of the site.


We explored the ruins for about two hours, climbing lots of stairs, and felt pretty satisfied. We went by ourselves, without a guide, which I thought was nice because that meant we could do whatever we wanted and take whatever photos we preferred.


When we went to the bottom of the ruins, near the base of Huana Picchu (the mountain peak in every famous photo of the place), we saw alpacas!


While we have met backpackers that stayed in the park for six hours (maybe they got the extra ticket to climb Huana Picchu), we thought two and a half was enough. We took the bus back down to Agua Calientes and got breakfast around 9 am. Our train left at 11, so we would have plenty of time to get back to Cusco for an overnight bus to Ica.

On the train ride back we were treated to a fashion show by the staff. PeruRail is…an interesting company. But the fashion show was hilarious, especially when we realized they were selling alpaca coats for 300 USD.  And somehow I got caught in the aisle with a costumed staff member dancing some mischievous, traditional dance to traditional music.


That is my “let me  down now, please,” face. Sarah Ann and Jordan thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen.

And so concluded our trip to Machu Picchu: an extremely expensive tourist spot, but totally worth every penny and every early morning hour.


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Sacred Valley tour

Jordan and I arrived in Cusco and awaited the arrival of our friend, Sarah Ann, to continue onward. She landed in Cusco on May 13th, the day after our wedding anniversary, and we made our plans for Machu Picchu. Latin Americans are so laid back that it is easiest to make plans a day or two in advance, no more. Machu Picchu requires quite a bit of planning and forethought, so it was a little jarring to all of a sudden be planning weeks in advance. We did not buy tickets to Machu Picchu online or far in advance because I wanted the student discount, which I believe you can only get in person at the government office in Cusco.  So we did that and then wandered around Cusco. IMG_2583 Sarah Ann brought some sort of virus or bad reaction to vaccines with her, and flying into Cusco is difficult for most people, so she unfortunately didn’t feel good for several days. Cusco is around 11,000 feet, which is not fun when everything is built up the hillside (which means lots of stairs!) However, we did enjoy the free Choco museum, where we got to try chocolate tea, chocolate jam, and chocolate chips, all grown and produced in Peru using fair trade practices. It took about 45 minutes and was fun–we recommend it. IMG_2584 The rest of our plans were delayed due to a strike in Cusco and down in the Sacred Valley. I think it was about how to locals don’t like the trains that take tourists to Machu Picchu–they are loud, bump up against the locals’ property, and don’t help the local economy at all because the trains are owned and managed by a multi-national company. We planned our trip toward Machu Picchu to coincide with a day-trip into the Sacred Valley, which is on the way to Machu Picchu. We chose Llama Path as a tour provider because it was 20 USD a person and still seemed respectable. I think we made a pretty good choice. On our way out of town on the beginning of the tour (at 8:30 am) a nice, black car backed into the tour bus. It was just a fender-bender, no one was hurt, but the black car was very angry, even though it was all clearly his fault. So we waited around for about 30 minutes watching the whole exchange grow. Multiple police showed up, but only some where helpful. One just stood there and picked at his gloves while the other two tried to look interested in the argument between drivers. Then local people came up and offered their opinions. It was quite the attraction, so we moved to a different bus and resumed our tour. We began the descent into the Valle Sagrada, or Sacred Valley, with some beautiful views of the Andean mountains and the villages below in the valley.


The first ruins we visited were near the town of Pisac. High on the hill, because Incans loved living on mountain sides, was the  ruins. In the mountain above were tombs cut from the stone. There are more graves in the mountain than what people suspect lived in the town (4,000 graves to around 400 townspeople), so some of the graves were possibly for workers that helped build the terraces or town. There was no value of gold or silver to the Incans, so it was better to offer flowers or food to Mother Earth or place in burials chambers. however, they still used gold and silver in the burial process. The Incans dried and mummified their dead bodies, which helped when they hauled the bodies into the chiseled caves, although we still don’t know for certain how they got the bodies into the cliff. There aren’t any trails or signs of suspension ropes.Tomb raiders (or Spanish conquistadors) saw the silver glinting in the sun and stole everything. By the time archeologists arrived during the modern era, almost everything was gone.


The terraces are probably the most impressive part of the town. Because the fields are built at different altitudes, they could grow different vegetables. Potatoes and herbs tended to be at the top, corn and quinoa nearer the bottom of the Urubamba valley. The Incans were very careful builders. They often scoped out a potential construction site for a year to see how the are changed with the seasons before actually building and moving there. They were also excellent at drainage, since they were farmers on a mountain.


We stopped for lunch an hour later, and the three of us ate lunch with a nice Belgian couple. They told us their native language was Flemish, which was similar enough to Dutch that they can understand one another. I had never met anyone who spoke Flemish before! They old both speak five languages and told us about Brussels.

Our last stop was in Ollaytantambo, where we would stop for the night before heading on to Machu Picchu. There are fantastic ruins there on the mountainside that we climbed. It was a great leg workout! At the end of the sacred valley, just before the Urubamba river and the hills dip down into the beginnings of the jungle, this was more of a military fortress than a rural farming community, based on the amount of storage buildings on the mountain opposite the edge of the valley. The suncatcher was, as always, higher on the mountain top, and below were the temples, military barracks, and homes of the wealthy. Almost everyone that lived in this town would have been well-to-do. It was the last stop on the Incan trail before Machu Picchu. The photo below is of the storage buildings on another mountain.


No one is sure what happened here when the Spanish came through, but the current theory is that when they heard the cannons echoing through the valley they pulled back, perhaps leaving some soldiers behind, and escaped along the Incan trail to Machu Picchu, destroying it as they went. The Spanish did not find the Incan trail, as they never discovered Machu Picchu, and probably went parallel along the trail, paddling downriver, until they hit the jungle and never saw the other Incan cities. Any poor Incans that escaped the Spanish also went into the jungle.


The town was primarily made of granite, which was cut down a valley, up a mountain, and each block was up to 10 tons each. They don’t believe several of the temples were completed by the time the Spanish arrived, so the town was never officially finished. The Incans constructed their large buildings, like temples, by placing the large granite stones over smaller stones, also wedging the smaller ones in between the large ones to prevent the large stones from cracking during earthquakes, which happened regularly.


A view from the top, down where the reconstructed grain buildings at the base of the mountain greet visitors.IMG_2685

We enjoyed the view of the ruins, caught our breath, and then descended again into the current town and found our hostel. We enjoyed our tour, our guide, and thought that the price was reasonable. We paid 20 USD per person for the tour and 24 USD per person for the boleto touristicos to get into the ruins (a one-day pass for route #3).

Next up: Machu Picchu!

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The Route of the Sun

There are three ways to get from Puno to Cusco: rail, local bus, or tourist bus. Rail is outrageously expensive, local bus leaves Puno at 9 pm and arrives around 5 am, and the tourist bus is around 50 USD a person. We weren’t a fan of any of the options, but we decided to splurge and buy a trip on the tourist bus. It is about three time the prices of a local bus, but it stops at archeological sites along the way, includes lunch, and is a much nicer bus. So we found the cheapest option we could (46 USD per person) with WonderPeru.

The trip between Puno and Cusco runs through a long valley and is called the Route of the Sun. It is growing in popularity because of the archeological sites and the beautiful valley we travel through.


This is La Raya pass, a lookout point along the way and the highest point of the ten-hour trip.

Our guide, fluent in English and Spanish, talked about the history of the valley and what different people groups lived there over the last two thousand years. Our first stop was Pukara, the place of an ancient temple site just a few miles away from Lake Titikaka. There is a small museum there with stone statues and pottery from the pre-Incan period. The first people group there were the Tiwanakus, who also lived near La Paz. They built a temple and important religious center near the base of a mountain, and when they were conquered by the Aymaras people (around 1000 AD) the stone structures were repurposed and used again. When the Aymaras civilization disintegrated, some people left and went through the sun valley, closer to Cusco, and established the Incan civilization. Inka in Quechua means “lord” or “ruling class,” and the Spanish took that word to mean the entire civilization and ethnic group.


We hopped back on the bus and went on to the next archeological site, which was a little more impressive, called Raqch’i, or “Temple of Wiracocha.” The ruins are holding up pretty well here, where we could walk under doorways, through gates, and look up at the remaining temple walls.


An Incan settlement from around 1400, Raqch’i guarded part of the Incan trail with high walls on the hills surrounding it and the population within the town. The temple, pictured above, and the town was dedicated to Wiracocha, their creator deity.


The Incan trail stretches from Colombia all the way to the beginning of Argentina–much larger than the two- or three-day trek people hike to get to Machu Picchu. We were able to walk along the reinforced area within the ruins, so now we can say we’ve hiked the Incan trail! Although the Incan civilization was short (because of the abrupt end brought on by Spanish conquistadors), it was mighty. A large part of the reason it expanded so quickly was the genius of the road, which helped trade, military movement, and flow of culture between other people groups.

We stopped for lunch next at a touristy restaurant off the main road. Two or three other buses had stopped there also. When Jordan and I walked in, we were greeted by a sea of very pale faces. It was really weird to see so many gringos at one time. And to hear so much English. We were both kind of uncomfortable with the demographic–we had gotten so used to being the only gringos around. It all felt a little fake to us. But the food was good, so we didn’t complain too much!

Our guide took us on a short detour off the normal tourist drive to go through a small Peruvian pueblo to look at a colonial bridge. Built in the 1500s or 1600s, it is still in use today. “You can go across it,” our guide assured us.

IMG_5127.1 I thought, well, here’s a chance to be brave and daring. I know how to swim, so it can’t be too dangerous. So I was the first to cross the bridge. I grasped the rope handles tightly and tried not to focus on how the bridge swung. I crossed to the other side intact, quite proud of myself, when I looked down and saw that the rope handles were actually steel cables with ropes and leather strips wrapped around them. So…not quite so daring or brave as I thought. Though the floor was just sticks tied together. And part of the railing was broken in the middle….

We ended our tour near the bus terminal of Cusco and got a taxi to our hostel for 10 soles. In a couple of days our friend Sarah Ann will join us and we will go on to Machu Picchu!

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Amantani and Taquile

After the floating islands we went on to Amantani, one of the more famous islands of Titikaka. The local population speaks Quechua and some Spanish. About 8,000 people live on the island, in two or three communities, in pretty simple conditions. While most/all have electricity, it is primarily through solar energy and limited. There are no roads on the island, so no cars. Or tractors, for that matter. Subsistence farming is the bulk of their economy, supplemented by tourism, and they do everything by hand. My host mother told me that she only goes to the mainland once or twice a year to buy necessities, like rice or some flour. Everything else she needs is here on the island.


We both thought the island was absolutely beautiful. After we landed our guide passed us along to our host family. We and another couple went with Flora and her family for the night. She led us along a path, mostly uphill, to get to her home. I was told that there were basic, basic conditions on the island, so I was pleasantly surprised when she stopped in front of a relatively large home with a dish bolted to the roof.


Their indoor bathroom was tiled, and the beds we slept in weren’t terribly uncomfortable. It really wasn’t bad at all. Flora, the mother of the family, was sweet and made sure we had a good lunch (quinoa soup) and then took us to the base of  the large hill on the island, which our guide said we would climb. I wasn’t very excited about the climb in high altitude, but I soldiered on.

IMG_5019The view really was great from the hill (we were at 13,000 feet up there) and we got to watch the sun set behind the clouds on the other side of the lake. Along the hike up local women had set up shop. It was a little embarrassing to be huffing and puffing halfway up the hill, only to find all these Quechua women sitting on the side of the path with all the luxury items she had lugged up by herself (beer, water, candy, coke) and will have to bring back down.


At the top of the hill was an ancient religious site dedicated to Pachamama, the mother earth goddess. Every year the community gets together and celebrates her by offering a llama sacrifice and throwing a party because spring/summer is coming. We wandered back down the mountainside before rain fell, and made it back home just in time for supper. Finding our way through the dirt paths and across the wheat fields in the dark was very hard. We kept stopping and asking locals for directions. Eventually, our “mother” Flora found us and led us the rest of the way home.

Dinner was rice and potatoes, with some cilantro seasoning, and afterward we went outside to look at the stars. What little electricity is used at night is used indoors, so the sky is almost completely free of light pollution. We were able to see the Milky Way, Orion, and a host of other constellations we were not familiar with because it is the Souther Hemisphere. It was jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

IMG_5065 At 8 pm the community hosted a little party for the tourists. I asked Flora how often this happened and she said whenever tourists stay overnight, the party happens. This week it was three times. I think I would get pretty tired of the same party happening three times a week, but I guess they do get paid to make it happen.

Flora dressed both of us in traditional garb, which was a lot of fun. I put the clothing on over my own, which kept me warm in the cold lake air. Jordan wore a poncho and a hat over his clothes, and we shuffled off after our host mother and our fellow homestay couple.

The get-together was in the multi-purpose building a few minutes’ walk away, so we followed Flora and her flashlight. We were the first to arrive. Flora is the first Latin American person we have met that is not only punctual, but early! As other gringos and locals trickled in, a few bought beer while the others sat and talked until the music started.


A few teenage boys played local songs for us (we all tipped them later) and a few of the locals showed us simple line dances. We had no idea really what we were doing, but the dances were simple enough that we got the hang of it. The Peruvians could dance all night long if the wanted, but after a five-minute song most of us were winded and needed a break.

Our host family had two little girls, a six-year-old and a four-year-old. The younger one came to the fiesta with us and was the life of the party. She danced and played to the music, her formal outfit making everyone laugh.


The next morning we had breakfast and left pretty early, going on to Taquile.

Taquile is similar to Amantani in that the people are mostly indigenous and speak Quechua. The people (around 2,000) live according to the ancient Incan way of life and practice Catholicism, though they also worship Pachamama. On Taquile the men knit (not the women!) and they have very precise clothing and hats. On the island we got treated to a 20-minute discussion on what the different colors and types of hats mean. Unfortunately, I can’t remember it all. They also live very simply, just like those on Amantani.

IMG_5083Lunch was included in our tour, and Jordan ate an omelette while I ate lake trout. While people on Amantani are used to tourists and don’t mind photos, the people of Taquile do. They believe that the flash from the camera disturbs their children, causing them to sleep poorly at night, or even stealing parts of their soul. So we didn’t take many photos of the island here.

After hiking across most of the island to get a look at the beautiful scenery of the farmland and the lake, we got back on our boat at another island port and made the return voyage to Puno.


All in all, the two-day/one-night trip cost the two of us 250 soles and included all meals. We booked through our hostel, and later I found out just walking into a tour office will get you a better price, like 200 soles total. However, the experience was great, and I’m glad we paid the extra amount to spend the night on one of the islands. That made everything worthwhile.

We spent one more day in Puno, resting, before moving on toward Cusco.


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Puno and the floating Uros islands

After another horrible bus journey we arrived in Puno, Peru.

We will never ride with Trans Titicaca again. They double booked the bus and refused to give a discount to the people (like us) stuck riding collectivos the whole way to Puno. We also had to change buses at the Peru border and take our luggage with us. Jordan and I had a skype interview in Puno at a specific time, so we were worried about missing it. Because of course the bus was also 30 minutes late. And they lied about how long it would take at customs.

I’m really not sure what the whole business practice culture is in Bolivia/South America, but to us Americans it seems incredibly dishonest. When I asked questions and asked for a refund, I was told by the ticket woman that it was my fault I would miss my interview and I should have left for Peru this morning if I wanted to arrive on time. When I asked the men outside at the bus when we would be leaving, they ignored me. Literally ignored me, as if I did not exist. Because I am a woman and they are machistas. That made Jordan angry. Usually I do most of the business transactions because I know more Spanish, but they refused to deal with me. Whenever someone would make eye contact with me, they walked away while I was mid sentence. And tried to misdirect me. When I told the ticket woman that I was angry, she gave away our seats to someone else. So yeah. Never using that company again.

On to happier subjects.

Puno is a city on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titikaka. Located between the lake and Andean hills, it is also in high altitude. I am getting very tired of high altitude. It is about 12,000 feet, and although we have been at that level for several days (like La Paz) I woke up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. Twice. It’s not pleasant–your body kind of freaks out because it can’t get enough air and your heart is beating fast, until you can force mind over matter and control your breathing again. Not sure why it’s taking so long to get used to 12,000 feet. We were at 10,000 for five weeks in Sucre, and you wouldn’t think 2,000 feet would make that much of a difference.

The next day we went on a two day/one night tour of the islands of Titikaka. I had wanted to do this for several months now, but wasn’t sure if we could afford it. All the prices online were at least 60 USD a person, which was too much for us. I asked at our hostel, and they booked the tour for us for 125 soles per person or about 40 USD. I went walking through the tourist district later and asked how much the tour was at a random tour office, and they quoted me 100 soles per person. So if you’re doing research on the cheapest/best way to see the islands, just wait and book the day before–and not through your hostel.

We were picked up at our hostel, driven to the Puno port, and boarded a small boat at 8 am to visit the floating Uros islands, our first stop. As of now there are 87 islands, with about 2,000 inhabitants. All speak Aymaras. People under 40 also speak Spanish. The islands are built from woven reeds and were originally designed for defense, as the islands can be moved farther away from shore.

Their ancestors have lived here for around 2,000 years. The islands usually have two to four families living on them, and each has a chief. A few years ago they built an island for soccer, which is more permanent. There is a primary school and a local health clinic. On Saturdays they go to Puno for market and every few months go to other towns farther away, in reed boats like what is pictured below.


The islands are built on thick chunks of roots submerged in the lake. These roots are up to six feet deep, and they last for 25 to 30 years. On top of that they lay reeds, crisscrossed, over and over, and keep the blocks of roots together with rope. They have special pieces of wet dirt under their ovens to prevent fires. The reeds last a couple of months before new ones must be put down. Atop the reeds they build their homes, also from dried reeds. Hundreds of years ago the homes were round and only one room, but now they are square and slightly larger. I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like each family had more than one reed hut. One was the kitchen, one was the bedroom, and so forth. The Uros people eat primarily fish from the lake, rice, potatoes, and the reed stalk. We tried some, and it reminded me a little of cucumber except it was more spongey and had less taste.IMG_4968After a very long explanation of the construction of the islands in Aymaras by the chief (translated then into Spanish and English), we were able to look around the island and even try on some of their clothing. A local woman grabbed my hand and pulled me into her bedroom and helped me into a skirt.



The Uros islands have recently become very touristy. We could tell because they had a convenience store on another island that sold snickers bars and name brand crackers–things we hadn’t seen in months.

I thought the Uros’ combination of adapting to the 21st century yet maintaining their traditional life was really interesting. I’m sure the money made from tourists helps. A common sight on the islands is the tradition reed house with solar energy.


After visiting the Uros, we hopped back on our boat to go to Amantani, our next island stop.


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