Peru 8/11

Home Up Chile 12/14 Iguaçu Falls 2/09 Peru 8/11 Rio 2/09

A week's trek in the Andes: Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Cusco & Lima...

Machu Picchu 3 shot stitched panorama from above the Guardhouse

Peru isn't an "easy" trip, but the effort invested was so worthwhile. What's hard about Peru? The altitude, steep climbs and the remoteness of the locations. Planning ahead is key. I spent almost a week here starting in the Sacred Valley (including Machu Picchu), continuing on to Cusco, then finishing up in Lima. I had excellent weather throughout my stay and found Peru beautiful, safe and welcoming.

Sunday, July 31st - Ollantaytambo

I arrived at Cusco after my 1 hour flight from Lima and was met by my driver Raul, who took me on the winding 90 minute drive down to the Pakaritambo Hotel (first picture below) in Ollantaytambo, which at 9000ft altitude is almost 3000ft below Cusco - a good place to get altitude acclimated. After a quick turnaround at the hotel, I walked up to the town square for lunch, bought my Buleto Touristico and headed up (and I do mean up) into the Ollantaytambo Inca ruins (second and third pictures below). The views from the top terraces back toward the town were excellent (fourth picture below). I learned that all Inca sites have three things in common: they're built on steep cliffs, they're terraced and they have a quarry nearby.

Lima's Basilica Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas

Pakaritampu Hotel

Ollantaytambo base

Ollantaytambo trail

Ollantaytambo town

Monday, August 1st - The Sacred Valley of the Incas: Písac, Salineras and Moray

I woke early, grabbed breakfast at the hotel and met my driver Raul for a full day tour of the Sacred Valley ($60US - cheap!). We started at the Písac Incan ruins, which was about 90 minutes away. Travel books don't have a lot of information about Písac, which is why I was surprised at how huge this complex was. It includes two large terraced areas (first two pictures below), each with a set of Inca ruins (third picture below). My guess is that the whole walking circuit that I did covered ~5 miles. There's a famous market in the town of Písac which we visited briefly - I'm not much of a souvenir shopper when there's more to see ahead. From Písac, we headed back down into the Sacred Valley toward the town of Maras, outside of which is Salineras (fourth picture below), which is a huge working salt mining operation that uses the original Incan subterranean spring irrigation system to deposit salt on the terraces, which are then dried and processed.

Pisac front terraces trail

Pisac back terraces trail

Pisac inside the ruins

Salineras salt mine terraces

From Salineras, we headed through Maras (an ugly, nothing town) to Moray, which was a large Incan agricultural laboratory (first two pictures below). Because of its unique location and wind currents, the different terraces vary dramatically in temperature and humidity, making Moray its own compact set of micro-climates, ideal for crop experimentation. We returned to the hotel in the late afternoon. After some picture processing and emailing, I walked back up to the town square where I enjoyed a leisurely dinner at the Pachamama Grill before retiring for the night.


Tuesday, August 2nd - Machu Picchu

Although it's a famous tourist destination, it takes some planning and determination to visit Machu Picchu. There are no roads to get there and no airport nearby. Access is via a narrow gauge railway from Cusco through Ollantaytambo or from Urubamba, ending up in Aguas Calientes pueblo, followed by a bus ride up a winding mountain road. UNESCO limits the total number of visitors per day to 2500 and the new on-line ticket system is contrived. My approach was to use an early (7:15am @ Ollantaytambo) "Special Service" option from PeruRail on the inbound trip that accomplished most of the busywork for me, albeit at a somewhat higher cost. I opted for the last train outbound (6:10PM @ Aguas Calientes) to maximize my time on-site.


Things got off to a somewhat bumpy start when I arrived at Ollantaytambo station, which was a 5 minute walk from my hotel. The inbound train from Cusco was delayed by a hour with no explanation. Once it did arrive, I was ushered into the wrong car of the train, which required a quick run to the right train car at a brief train crossing stop. Credit to the PeruRail folks onboard for acknowledging the problem and working quickly to fix it. Once that was worked out, things went smoothly. The Special Services car was pure luxury (third picture below) - uncrowded, with a great breakfast and attentive service. The view from the train as it made its 90 minute journey through the Urubamba river valley was beautiful (fourth picture below - taken through the train window). My guide for Machu Picchu, Carlos Alberto Yepez ( 51-084-9399122), whom I highly recommend, rode in the same train car.

Moray Inca agri-lab

Moray Inca agri-lab low tiers

PeruRail Special Service car

View from the train

We arrived in Aguas Calientes around 10:30am (first picture below - about as flattering a shot as I can imagine of Aguas Calientes, which in my opinion was most accurately described as a "touristy dump") and headed through the market that surrounds the train station to the center of town, where buses were lined up 10 deep taking passengers up to Machu Picchu. The bus boarding process was quick and efficient. After the 20 minute ride to Machu Picchu's main entrance, we headed up the often steep trail to the summit above the Guardhouse, passing by some locals enroute (second picture below).


A note here to serious photographers: there's information on travel blogs about unpublished restrictions on what type of photography equipment is allowed into Machu Picchu, resulting in $300US fees for >200mm lenses, tripods or "professional-looking" equipment. I don't doubt the accuracy of those accounts, but when I entered no one was checking anything or opening any photo backpacks. My advice is to keep your best camera and lenses in the bag until you pass by the entrance turnstiles. So what equipment do you need? More than anything else, you need the widest angle and sharpest lens that you own. Also useful is a haze cutting filter and a circular polarizer if you plan to shoot mid-day. If you're discreet, I can attest to the fact that you can also use a non-tripod looking tripod like the Joby GorillaPod Focus.

Aguas Calientes pueblo

Llama along the trail

Takin in the view

Machu Picchu sun temple

Above and to the left of the Guardhouse is Machu Picchu's "postcard" view (third picture above), which despite its familiarity was truly awe-inspiring. It was at this point in time that I knew that Machu Picchu was going to more than live up to its considerable hype. Carlos took me through the entire site with good, brief explanations of the history and meaning of what we were seeing. The main gate and Sun Temple (fourth picture above) were followed by the lower urban (first picture below) and agricultural areas. We paused from 1 to 2pm for a good, but not great lunch at the very expensive Sanctuary Lodge near the site entrance before I headed out on my own for the remainder of the afternoon. On Carlos' advice, I headed up and away from the site on the steep Inca trail to the Sun Gate (second picture below), which is where Inca trail hikers first view the complex after their 4 day trek. With the crowds disappearing in the late afternoon, I returned to the main site to relax and take some panorama shots, which I stitched together in PhotoShop for the large picture, top of page left, and the wide picture below. At 5pm I headed for the bus to Aguas Calientes and my train trip back to Ollantaytambo. After an alpaca steak dinner at my hotel and some picture processing, I retired for the night.

Machu Picchu lower urban

The sun gate 

Cusco's Cathedral on Plaza de Armas

Cusco Pumacuro Rd.

Machu Picchu 4 shot stitched panorama from the end of the Inca trail

Wednesday, August 3rd - Cusco

After a leisurely breakfast at my hotel, my driver Raul picked me up for the 90 minute ride to Cusco. I checked in at the Aranwa Boutique Hotel in Cusco around 11am. This hotel was excellent - service, food and decor - one of the best hotels I've ever stayed at. Cusco on the other hand, was a disappointment. A typical big city dotted with McDonalds, chain stores and tourist traps. I walked 5 minutes from my hotel to the Plaza de Armas (third picture above) where I grabbed a quick lunch before walking up the ~1 mile, often steep Pumacuro Road (fourth picture above) to Sacsayhuaman (first picture below). I thought that I was well acclimated to the altitude by that time, but this climb, coupled with 40% less oxygen at 14,000ft was exhausting. Sacsayhuaman is a huge 15th century Incan complex of ruins overlooking Cusco that was mostly harvested by the Spanish in the 17th century to build cathedrals, government buildings and homes in Cusco. While the large scale stonework was unique, in my opinion not enough remains to be interesting. Returning to the city mid-afternoon, I headed down Av El Sol to Qorikancha, the Sun Temple, which was another disappointment. Little remains of the original Incan Sun temple and the Cathedral built on top of it was unremarkable. After a snack for dinner I headed back to the hotel and retired for the night.


Thursday, August 4th - Cusco Cathedral and Lima at night

After an excellent breakfast at my hotel, I walked back to the Plaza de Armas to visit the Cathedral of Cusco. The cathedral interior was worthwhile, including important artwork and intricate architectural details. After a walk around the plaza, I headed back to my hotel to finish packing and then take the hotel's van to the airport for my afternoon flight to Lima. LanPeru as an airline on this route leaves a lot to be desired. Their boarding process is a mess, the seats are way too small for human beings and the price (charged to foreigners only) is sky high, especially given the short 1 hour flight. I arrived around 4pm at Lima's airport and was met by my driver Eduardo of Lima Cabs, for the 45 minute transfer to my hotel, the JW Marriott in Miraflores, which was excellent. I could tell during the ride from the airport that Lima was going to be a much nicer place than tour books and web blogs had led me to believe.


After a quick turnaround, Eduardo and I headed out for a nighttime tour of the city. We started at Plaza san Martin and then walked the crowded pedestrian streets to Plaza de Armas (large picture, top of page right). Ornate wooden balconies were a prolific architectural feature, the preservation of which the city encourages. From the central district we drove west to Parque Reserva, home of the largest fountain park in the world. The displays (just one small example in second picture below) as well as the 20 minute show were worthwhile (complete video of the show is in the player at the bottom of this page). My impression of Lima at night was that it is a vibrant city with people everywhere and is nowhere near as dangerous as its reputation. I finished the day at the Sushi Ceviche Lounge in the hotel, where I sampled a few types of Lima's famous ceviche coupled with another Peruvian specialty, Pisco sours.

Cusco's Sacsayhuaman

Lima's Parque Reserva

Lima's Cathedral interior

Barranco Bridge of Sighs

Friday, August 5th - Lima, Pachacamac Sanctuary and Barranco

After a good breakfast at the hotel, Eduardo picked me up at 9am for a full day tour of Lima and its environs. Starting back at the Plaza de Armas, we visited the inside of the Cathedral (third picture above), the San Francisco Monastery along with its massive catacombs (no pictures allowed) and the inside of colonial Casa de Osambela, before heading out of town to Pachacamac Sanctuary. Pachacamac Sanctuary is a huge religious complex with pyramids, temples and plazas dating from long before the Incas. While the scale was large, so much has been removed or damaged that it wasn't very impressive to visit. Returning to Lima along the coast, we did a walking tour and late lunch in the bohemian Barranco district, which has the locally famous "Bridge of Sighs" (fourth picture above) over its ravine. Continuing back to Miraflores, we toured the square and then the cliffside Larcomar complex, which looked very much like an upscale American mall. We finished with a walk to my hotel through the outdoor art along the ocean park. After dinner and some packing, I met Eduardo again who drove me to the airport for my 11:50pm flight back to LAX via IAH. All-in-all a sometimes challenging, yet excellent trip.

Press play below to watch Lima's Parque Reserva fountain show

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