Soon after I arrived in Peru, I began to regret not having planned to spend more time there. I was instantly enchanted by the country–by its beauty, its charming people, its delicious food, its magical archaeological sites. I tried to cram as much activity as I could into my nine days there, and my nonstop exertion, combined with the altitude and the strong sun, wound up wearing me out. Nevertheless, I was spellbound by Peru and I can’t wait to go back.
I began and ended my Peruvian adventures in Lima, spending my first two nights in the Bohemian neighborhood Barranco, which had been recommended to me by my friend Caty. While in Barranco, I dedicated myself mainly to the enjoyment of ceviche and pisco sours–an activity to which I would gladly have devoted much more time.
For the following day, I had booked an early flight to Cusco, but I was bumped from my flight and wound up spending most of the day in the Lima airport. (This was my second bad experience with LAN Airlines.) I was grumpy when I arrived in Cusco late that afternoon, but the beautiful countryside in the Sacred Valley and the amiable driver my hotel had sent to collect me quickly put me in a better mood.
My driver, a native Quechua speaker, spoke slow, formal Spanish, free of slang and very easy for me to understand. On the two-hour drive to Ollantaytambo, he tried to teach me a little Quechua (though I’ve forgotten every word he taught me), and he asked me to teach him a few words in English. He was the first of several native Quechua speakers that I hired as drivers or guides during my nine days in Peru, and they were all warm, friendly men.
Cusco, capital of the Inca empire and one of the longest continually inhabited cities in the Americas, has an altitude of over 11,000 feet, causing many visitors to experience altitude sickness. There’s a debate in the guidebooks over whether it’s better to adjust to the altitude in Cusco before going to Machu Picchu and other sites in the Sacred Valley or whether it’s better to adjust to the slightly lower altitude in the Sacred Valley before going to Cusco. I opted for the latter, deciding to go immediately to Ollantaytambo, a town with its own celebrated ruins about an hour and a half from Machu Picchu. I spent two nights in El Albergue, a hotel inside the Ollantaytambo train station. All of the good things I had read about this hotel turned out to be accurate. The rooms are spacious and comfortable and many of them have lovely views of Ollantaytambo’s ruins and the surrounding mountains. The hotel’s restaurant serves organic produce from its nearby farm. Best of all, it serves breakfast beginning at 5:30 a.m. to guests who are planning to board the 6:00 a.m. train for Machu Picchu, and after they’ve finished their breakfast, the train is waiting for them just outside the restaurant.
Many people had told me that Machu Picchu is one of the few “must see” tourist destinations that really lives up to the hype, and they were right. It’s a breathtaking place, and its story (to the extent to which we know its story) is fascinating. I arrived early, before the site had become too crowded, and hired a guide named Jose, who escorted me about and explained the mysteries and wonders of the place. He told me all about Inca cosmology, Inca construction methods, and Inca engineering. He also propounded a wacky theory that has been disputed by nearly everyone to whom I have repeated it: that the Incas and the Quechuas were two entirely different races of people, the Quechua being a servant race ruled by the Incas, who were unusually tall. The chief evidence for this is Inca door frames, whose height indicates that they were meant for people much taller than the typical Peruvian of today. The Inca race, he claims, was completely killed off by the Spanish, and because the Quechua people venerated them even after death, the Spaniards burned their bodies, making any investigation of his theory impossible. I tried googling this idea and turned up nothing, so he may be the theory’s lone proponent.
When I bought my ticket to Machu Picchu, I paid extra to hike up Huayna Picchu, the mountain seen just behind the ruins in most photos of the world’s most famous archaeological site. I had read several articles that said that this hike was absolutely not to be missed, so I paid the 50 extra bucks it costs to have access to the Huayna Picchu. And then I began to read articles that said that the hike was dangerous and terrifying, that the descent was particularly perilous, involving narrow stone steps, no railing, and a precipitous drop down the side of the mountain should you misjudge your step. On the train to Machu Picchu, I sat next to a Japanese tour guide who had led several expeditions to Machu Picchu but had never climbed Huayna Picchu. She told me, in barely comprehensible English, that a Japanese tourist had once fallen to his death on the hike and that now no Japanese tourist would dare climb that mountain. (She was wrong. I saw several Japanese tourists making their way up the mountain.) Jose assured me I would be fine, and I when I saw several middle-aged and older hikers doing the climb, including a woman who I would guess was about 70, I figured there was nothing to worry about.
The ascent took about an hour, and though I had to stop and catch my breath frequently, it wasn’t until I got almost to the top that I encountered any difficulties. Not too far from the summit, there’s a nice terraced area with lovely views–views that are every bit as impressive as the ones from the top. I now think this would be a good place to call it quits. But I didn’t know any better at the time, so I pushed on. A little ways ahead, I saw that the 70ish woman had turned around and was heading back. She had apparently run into a challenge she was unprepared for, and I soon discovered what it was: a narrow tunnel with wet, muddy floors that one has to crawl through. I crawled through it, and when I came out the other side, I noticed that my backpack had come open. I thought nothing of it at the time, but when I got to the summit and wanted to take a photo, my camera was missing. In a panic, I headed back toward the tunnel, only to run into a park employee who told me I wasn’t allowed to go back in that direction. When I explained to him that I had lost my camera, he calmly pulled it out of his pocket and handed it to me. The case was muddy, but the camera worked fine. I thanked him profusely, then returned to the summit, and soon afterward, began to descend those narrow, terrifying steps I had read about. I held on to the side of the mountain and edged down the steps, taking the advice that the man behind me was giving to his wife: “Don’t look down. Just face the mountain and go down slowly.”
I obviously made it back to Ollantaytambo in one piece. That night I had quinoa and pisco sours in a restaurant overlooking the town square while all the town’s residents, including the restaurant’s employees, were glued to a soccer match between Brazil and Peru. I was utterly charmed by Ollantaytambo, a pretty little town surrounded by soaring mountains. The nearest mountains are home to the ruins for which the town is famous. There’s a crafts market next to the entrance to the ruins, and there are numerous cafes and restaurants catering to the hippie backpacker types who are drawn to the town. On the evening I arrived, I went to a funky bakery on the plaza and had a chocolate banana muffin and mug of coca tea, which is said to help tourists cope with the altitude. (I wanted to bring a bag of this tea back home with me, but I read online that it’s illegal in the U.S.)
The day after I visited Machu Picchu, I hired a guide to show me around the Ollantaytambo ruins—another affable man, one who was as interested in hearing about my life in California as he was in telling me about Ollantaytambo. Then I hired a driver to take me first to Pisaq, another town with famous ruins, and finally to Cusco, where I was planning to spend four nights. The entrance to the ruins at Pisaq is at the top of a mountain, and the ruins spill down the mountain, leading eventually to the modern town of Pisaq, located in the valley. When we got to the Pisaq ruins, I hired another guide and then agreed to meet my driver in Pisaq’s Plaza de Armas. The guide played an Andean flute as he led me around the Pisaq ruins. After an hour-long tour, he pointed out the path that I would follow to reach the plaza and told me I should hurry because it would take me about an hour to get there. It was another nerve-wracking descent, this time because I was often not sure I was going the right way.
By the time I reached Cusco late that afternoon, I was exhausted and sunburned. I had done much more hiking in the past two days than I am accustomed to, and my knees were really upset with me. And the mild temperatures in the Sacred Valley had fooled me into thinking that the sun was nothing to worry about. The altitude may moderate temperatures, but it also intensifies the impact of the sun. I was shocked by how red I was when I looked in the mirror that evening. But at dinner that night, when I glanced around the restaurant and noticed that it was packed with beet-red gringos, I felt a little less foolish.
Cusco is a lovely city, but the first couple of days I was there, I was so tired I didn’t want to do much. I did wander around a bit with the other sunburned tourists, visiting churches and museums. On my third day there, I was fortunate to befriend Christiam, a Chilean art student who acted as my guide for a couple of days, taking me to the Templo del Sol and to some good restaurants.
As is to be expected in a tourist town in a poor country, the streets of Cusco are full of people looking to make a quick buck. Indigenous women wander around in traditional dress with baby llamas (and fully grown llamas), offering to have their photos taken with tourists for a tip. Several young men sidled up to me and asked, in surprisingly good English, “Wanna smoke weed?” And on almost every street corner, there are young women offering massages to male passersby. “They’re not really massages,” Christiam explained to me, though I had already come to the same conclusion myself.
On my final night in Peru, my husband’s hotel points got me a suite in the Sheraton in central Lima, only a short walk to the Plaza de Armas. I spent my final afternoon in Peru exploring the museums there. My favorite was the Casa de la Literatura Peruana, a fun literary museum that made me want to read more Peruvian literature. (I found the exhibit on feminist poetry in Peru to be especially interesting.)
I was already a little travel weary when I arrived in Peru, and by the time I left, I was completely exhausted. Nevertheless, I really didn’t want to leave. I wanted more time in Peru. And I’m sure I’ll be back.