Peru: Lima and the Sacred Valley

February 04, 2014



I love travelling. Ever since taking off at 18 for 4 months in Europe with a backpack almost larger than me (I learned to pack light after that), I've been the person planning my next trip while travelling. My husband finds this shocking and irrational, but being left without travel plans makes me sad. This time, I dreamed of the Galapagos, Bali and New Zealand. Don't get me wrong, I was also loving (almost) every minute of our trip and looking forward to our next Peruvian destinations. One does not preclude the other.

If you are reading this hoping to find an off-the-beaten-track guide to Peru, you might want to stop here. But then again, would you really want to go and miss the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu or Lake Titicaca? Also, in areas where tap water is unsafe, less visited regions are definitely more challenging. You might want to keep your Cipro prescription in your pocket. Just saying. 

This is not intended to be a travel guide. More a collection of stories and thoughts, favourite moments and places. We met friends from home who were travelling for 4 months in South America, crashing their trip 6 weeks in. They seemed pleased to get company at that point, and we were more than happy to catch up with them. They had great stories of travel so far, and we were excited to share more adventures with them. We were in Peru just short of 3 weeks, and probably packed in too much to do. But it all worked out, despite the many early mornings. We all spoke some Spanish, enough to get by. Graham remained mostly quiet, and every once in a while surprised everyone by letting out grammatically perfect long sentences. Shane was dedicated to Duolingo, although we never found a chance to talk about all the professions he now knows how to say in Spanish.

Lima

We flew into Lima, because it was convenient, despite my almost absent desire to see the city. Tales of mugging and tourist kidnapping had tamed my enthusiasm, and I generally find big cities (with the exception of a few, notably Istanbul) less interesting. We stayed in Barranco, the Bohemian district, which was charming, and explored parts of Miraflores. We were there first on a Sunday, which seems to be the day that all the good restaurants are closed. We settled on a cute pub close to our hostel, and ate an ok meal, dreaming of the renowned fusion food we had been hoping for. After saying goodbye to our friends almost 3 weeks later, Graham and I came back to Lima before a disastrous middle-of-the-night flying experience (but we had no idea at that point). We showed up to Maido in our questionably clean clothes with our backpacks strapped to our backs, and requested a table for two. It is rated one of the best restaurants in Lima, and we hoped not to be turned away based on our looks (and potentially smell). Luckily, they offered us a table for 4, which we assumed was to hide our dirty bags under the table. Food was amazing, probably the best meal of our trip. Service was impeccable, and the presentation of the dishes was exquisite. It is a Peruvian-Asian fusion experience that I would highly recommend. We were a bit scared of the bill, since online reviews described 200$ meals, but we had beer and plenty of ceviche, gyoza and sushi for less than we would have spent at home. We did, however, skip the 18 course meal experience. 


Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu

We did not hike the Inca trail, mostly because January is the rainy season in Peru, and it therefore seemed like a bad idea. Instead, we took cabs and combis between towns, which was great and easy. We flew into Cuzco and right away hopped on a taxi to Pisac, to help acclimatize to the altitude. We had a carbohydrate loaded lunch and drank what became a daily staple for the trip (at least for me), freshly squeezed limonada. We had great plans of taking it easy, because it is common knowledge that you shouldn't exert yourself when first getting to high altitude. We took a cab up the mountain to go explore the Inca ruins and terraces, and ended up spending hours exploring the ruins and hiking down the mountain back into town just before sunset, mostly because it wasn't clear where one would go to catch a ride down. We went slowly because it was steep and sheer cliffs in places, and because of the altitude induced light-headeness and headaches. It was stunning and well worth the effort. We followed the experience by painkillers and coca tea, a nap and dinner, and everyone felt good the next day. Before taking off, we checked out the market and all it's "handmade" machine-knitted goods, ate some oven baked empenadas, and set off for the next adventure.



On wise advice from a friend, we skipped Urubamba and went straight to Ollantaytambo. We stayed at Hostal La Casa del Abuelo, ran by lovely Katie and Henry, and very much enjoyed their hospitality. The rooms are simple and clean, the location is great and the owners friendly and helpful. We explored more ruins, visited the chocolate museum and the Awamaki Weaving Project, a non-profit organization supporting local women. We ate a fancy meal at El Albergue Restaurant, strangely located at the train station, and I mustered the courage to try my first Pisco Sour. The egg white in the recipe seemed gross, but it turned out to be delicious. 


We left our laundry at the hostel, planning to be back in a day, and hopped on the train for Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu. I had been dreaming of going since I was a child watching les mysterieuses cites d'or on Saturday mornings, a French-Japanese anime from the 80s about South American history and archeology. By the way, it is amazing and you should watch it if you haven't. We splurged in Aguas Calientes, staying at Gringo Bill's and eating at The Tree House. Both were amazing, and my only regret is that we got up at 4am that morning, leaving the comfy duvet, to Graham's horror. We had been pretty lucky so far with the rain season, but our luck seemed to have turned. It was a deluge the evening we got to Aguas Calientes, and we got soaked walking up the unfinished stairs on the street leading to the restaurant. Actually calling it a street may be a stretch, I would have to look at a definition. There was a major landslide on the road leading up to Machu Picchu, which meant no morning buses from Aguas Calientes. Not a problem, we thought; we'll set off at 4:30am and hike up. We got up to the sound of the rain heavily pounding on the roof, and Graham looked at me like I was a crazy person, refusing to believe we were actually going. After some gentle convincing, which seemed required given his fragile morning state, we met our friends, made some sandwiches for the day, got our head lamps ready, and prepared to set off. The hotel had actually started serving breakfast by then (it was already 4:45am), so we sat for some instant coffee and a few bites, since it seemed like a fair assumption that the sunrise would be less than impressive that day. By the time we left for the hour and a half hike to the Machu Picchu entrance, there was some day light, and the rain was steadily heavy. We went up countless switch backs, which I was cursing relentlessly and blaming the early hour, my apparent allergy to Peru and the altitude (it couldn't possibly be that I was out of shape). 

We finally got to the base of Machu Picchu, and decided to hire a guide, which seemed more interesting than walking around ruins in the rain by ourselves. It definitely was, and I thoroughly enjoyed the visit, especially since the rain magically stopped, and the clouds, although still thick, at times moved to reveal some of the splendour. After a mid-morning snack, we set off to hike La Montana, higher than Huyana Picchu and with allegedly better views. We doubted we would get any view, since we mostly hiked in a white-out, but went anyway, as I ongoingly cursed the altitude. By some sort of miracle, by the time we got to the top, the clouds were gone and it was a beautiful sunny afternoon, which gave us amazing views of Machu Picchu. It was a wonderfully rewarding hike, and although steep, the down trek was surprisingly easy. We made one more stop to the Inca bridge before declaring our visit complete, and heading back to town for dinner and a train ride back to Ollantaytambo.




In Ollantaytambo, we were welcomed with clean rooms and freshly done laundry, and easily arranged a private car ride for the next day, with a few stops on the way to Cuzco. We visited the Salt flats of Maras, somewhat brown looking due to the rainy season, but still impressive. Salt has been harvested there for thousands of years in the numerous salt collection pans. We went to Moray, an impressive Inca agricultural laboratory, and Chinchero, another less impressive Inca site, where I got to observe yarn dying techniques and purchase some Alpaca yarn.


Cuzco

We finally reached Cuzco, and were shocked to realize which hotel we had booked. It had been a bit challenging to find last minute accommodation, given that we were there over the weekend. The price of Tierra Viva was more than the hostels we had stayed at, but little did we know that we were going to stay in this amazing hotel for half the cost, thank you Booking.com. Unfortunately, this luck did not stick for other aspects of our Cuzco experience, since our friend got very sick, I got hit by a rock rolling down the hill at high speed, and while touring the city, we were caught in a torrential downpour and almost froze to death, a result of the high altitude temperature and being soaked from head to toe. We stopped for coffee and waffles (for those of us who could eat), and I took a minute to pour water out of my waterproof hiking shoes, and squeeze the equivalent of a glassful from my wool socks, which then took hours to not-fully dry under the hair dryer (luxury of our hotel).


Cuzco does look like a lovely city, and if weather had permitted, I would have loved to explore more. But all I wanted there was a long hot shower and to hide under the blankets. Thankfully, Cuzco was the exception to my experience that hot places have hot showers, and cold places have cold showers. Rather fortunate. By then, we were "ruined out," and ready for something different as we set of on a long bus journey to Puno.


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