Passage Note #50: Peru I: The Gringo Trail
Part I: The Gringo Trail
We LOVE Peru - it definitely makes it into our Top Ten Favorite Countries list - that is, if we had such a list. The Peruvians are warm and welcoming, the food is fantastic, the glories of its grand past astonish, and the country’s mega-diversity (i.e. beautiful landscapes, environments, ecologies and bio-diversity) amazes. Add to that an ease of travel and a high degree of tourist infrastructure and you have an exceptional travel experience in the making.
Is Machu Picchu worth it? You bet!!! As one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World”, it doesn’t disappoint and is definitely the apex experience of a first trip to Peru.
Our Peru travel plan mushroomed into a wonderful family trip as Chuck and I were joined by 4 strapping young men aged 18 to 30 - our two sons and two nephews (sister Louise’s two sons). My oldest son David and oldest nephew Gary (both veteran independent travelers); my youngest son Joe, and my youngest nephew Evan (first time abroad). You just couldn’t get a “funner” bunch of guys with great senses of humor and outgoing personalities -- we shared so much laughter, adventure, and good times on this trip. It was certainly a different way of traveling than we are used to being a small crowd of six people, especially since I am a DIY travel planner.
The Gringo Trail is a well-worn “path” that begins in Lima and includes the Peruvian trifecta of Cuzco, Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu, as well as Lake Titicaca. The boys were with us for almost two weeks before returning to the US. After they left, Chuck and I went on to Arequipa. The second half our Peruvian trip was spent exploring the Northern Highlands but that is chronicled in the next Passage Note.
Lima (elevation: sea level; Miraflores District: 259 feet)
Lima, the capital of Peru is the size of Rhode Island and contains 1/3 of Peru’s population. Chuck and I flew in from Guayaquil, Ecuador (Jacaranda was left in Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador for all our inland travels), Joe and Evan flew in from New York City, Gary from Seattle, and David, who had been surfing for a week with friend Adam in Chicama, flew in from the northern Peruvian coast. We all converged on one of the best hostels I have ever stayed at - 511 Lima Hostel in the Miraflores district.
Billing themselves as a new type of “boutique hostel”, we felt right at home with the young owners Humberto (a lawyer by training) and Gonzalo (a chef) extending our family group....also joined by Alejandro (night staffer from Colombia), Claudio (the resident Bike Tour Company operator) , and Gonzalo’s girlfriend, Anunziata, who could have been a model.
Our stay in Lima - a large sprawling metropolis plagued by air pollution, street congestion, and “garua” - a grey-day marine layer not unlike June Gloom back in San Diego - was made truly wonderful because our 511 Lima Hostel family gave us a personalized experience. We love walking tours and went with Humberto and his friend Ronald Elward (Dutch tour guide from Lima Walks) to do an off-the-beaten-track walking tour of Lima’s colonial historic center (and even got scolded by a taxi driver and a policeman for walking in that part of town which they perceived as too dangerous for camera toting tourists). A 5 hour bike tour with Claudio through the appealing Miraflores, Barranco, and Chorrillo districts along the elevated malecon on Lima’s waterfront showed us the beauty of the immediate neighborhoods. The malecon is a must see for stunning views, surfers below, paragliders, and a lovely green necklace of parks.
Lima is rightly considered the Gourmet Capital of South America and has an excellent dining scene so we ate like royalty at fabulous restaurants (see the Peru Trip Report for some suggestions). There was an outing to Humberto’s favorite hole-in-the-wall for an introduction to anticuchos (grilled beef hearts) downed with Inca Colas, and finally a goodbye dinner with 9 of us at a wonderful restaurant of chef Gonzalo’s choosing (Danina Restaurant).
Add to this a conventional city bus tour (mandatory for orientation in a large city like Lima), a visit to Museo Larco with its Incan artifacts and erotica collection (where we experienced a slight earthquake), shopping the best artisan collections, and just chilling at the hostel with a lot of great people from all over the world - and we had ourselves a ball!
But here is where our opinions diverge - I enjoyed Lima but advise giving it a few days visit to do it justice. Chuck would advise skipping Lima in favor of more time in other places along the Gringo Trail. The fact that Lima’s airport is inefficient with long lines and is an expensive million miles away ($40 cab ride) from Miraflores or the City Center (best places to stay) influences Chuck’s opinion. Of course, that would mean missing Peru’s No. 2 tourist attraction (eh!) after Machu Picchu - Miraflores’ Larcomar Shopping Mall - a mundane collection of stores and restaurants but with a fabulous vista on the cliff overhanging the Pacific Ocean.
Cuzco (elevation 11,152 feet)
Next stop on the Gringo Trail was our first foray into the Andes - the extraordinary colonial town of Cuzco. A quick one hour flight from Lima brought us there, where gingerly stepping off the plane, we definitely felt the higher altitude and colder climate. Shortness of breath was common and some of us prone to headaches experienced some doozies (here and in Puno too). Altitude sickness is a random thing - there is no correlation to any personal characteristic about you. There are some things you can do to prevent and deal with it though: sorochi pills, no alcohol, stay hydrated, don’t overexert yourself, eat light meals, and get enough sleep. We drank a lot of coca tea (mate de coca) offered by hotels and restaurants everywhere, ate coca candies sold by street vendors, and we tried doing like the indigenous do and chew the leaves (take the stems off first). Note: you will test positive for cocaine so best not to do anything requiring a drug test like a new job or the Tour de France. Read more here: http://goperu.about.com/od/healthandsafety/a/Altitude-Sickness-In-Peru.htm.
Our hostal, Ecopackers, was centrally located a few blocks from the magnificent Plaza de Armas, the heart of the city (both now and in Inca times) making it easy to explore the massive Incan walls (like at the pedestrian alleyway of Loreto), cobblestone streets, and colonial buildings. We enjoyed walking the steep streets of the San Blas neighborhood. Oh, and Sexy Woman too! (impressive Incan ruins at the edge of the town pronounced that way but spelled Sacsaywamán).
Aguas Calientes (elevation 7,953 feet)
With our altitude acclimatization under way, we left Cuzco the next day and took a bus to Ollantaytambo in order to catch the famous scenic train to Machu Picchu - well actually to the small town of Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo).
Aguas Calientes, located in a deep gorge with a gushing river, is the gateway to Machu Picchu and is named for the hot springs at the upper end of the main walking street. We scheduled three days here - one day to relax, explore the place, and dunk in the hot springs, the next day to go to Machu Picchu itself, and the third day to return to Cuzco by train. Our hotel rooms at the Hostal Mistico were cantilevered over the river and the sound of the water was, well, mistico. It was also near the pools at the hot springs so we did not have far to walk. As luck would have it, the day we arrived was the Virgin of Carmen festival with colorful parades of musicians and costumed participants snaking through the streets of the town.....with Mamacha Carmen defeating the demons climbing on rooftops and balconies. Even the festive water jets sprouting from the bridge that spanned the gorge below were turned on for the celebration!
Cuzco was an important Incan center and contained one of their most important temples; when the Spaniards conquered it in the 16th Century, they built churches and palaces right on top of the ruins making today’s Cuzco an interesting juxtaposition. The indigenous artisans who did the bidding of the Spanish to build magnificent religious edifices often put in a few touches and insider-jokes of their own. Thus, in the cathedral, the painting of The Last Supper showed guinea pig (or cuy pronounced cooo-eeey) as the dish being served. If it was good enough for the apostles, it was good enough for us so we ordered it for dinner one night, along with a round of pisco sours, at Chicha restaurant, owned by Peru’s premier chef, Gaston Acuario. Guinea pigs are an ancient food source, often reserved for special occasions - not at all considered the cute pets which we know them as.
From here we hired a van and took a day tour of the Sacred Valley (Valle Sagrado) with its multiple Incan-era ruins, ancient terracing, mountain villages, and crafts markets. Yes, it is a Valley, and a really beautiful one, but not that much lower in elevation than Cuzco. The Sacred Valley could really be a destination in and of itself, deserving much more time and exploration. But like too many others, we did not have the time so we did a whirlwind tour of some highlights which included the market at Pisac, the ruins and charming town of Ollantaytambo, lunch in Urubamba, and a weaving and wool dyeing demonstration in Chinchero (the birthplace of the rainbow in Quechua lore). Definitely a place I’d like to go back to.
Machu Picchu (elevation 7,970 feet)
Excitement was mounting when we awoke at 5 a.m. the next day - Machu Picchu Day had finally arrived! We had an early breakfast and walked in the dark down the road to catch one of the first buses up to the famous ruins. We wanted to get there at sunrise to see the sun’s first rays peek over the saddle of the surrounding mountains and slowly, dramatically, illuminate Machu Picchu - just as the Incans might have witnessed it.
We hired a guide at the entrance to the site and walked up the stairway to the left - over to the place where everyone gets those iconic shots of Machu Picchu - - and stopped to stare - open-mouthed -- the first time you see that stunning setting is a jaw-dropper. There we took off our jackets, exposed our “Best Day of My Life” T-shirts (see note at the end) and took the photo that will live forever in family acclaim. As the sun rose, we walked through the terraces, the ancient stone buildings, the sacred sites, past the grazing llamas, and spent the next two hours listening and learning in awe. You can easily do a self-guided tour but we enjoyed our guide. It was astonishing to recognize that the Incans built the settlement layout in the shape of a condor, a creature they revered. “It was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height” the UNESCO World Heritage description reads; and it survived so intact because the Spanish never found it concealed in its extraordinary mountain hideaway. The boys split off to climb to a higher overlook at the Sun Gate entrance while Chuck and I wandered around on our own. The crowds, which are thick by mid morning, start to dwindle after lunch and you have the place almost to yourselves if you stay late enough into the afternoon. We took a bus to return to Aguas Calientes at about 4:30 p.m. while the boys walked back.
The next day we had a long leisurely lunch at The Treehouse Restaurant (a surprising gourmet treat in a town full of bad pizzerias) where we reveled in our shared experience of Machu Picchu, hardly believing it was over after such prolonged anticipation. Afterward, we boarded the crowded afternoon train to Ollantaytambo and made it back to Cuzco by bus in spite of the train breaking down before reaching our destination.
Puno and Lake Titicaca (elevation 12,500 feet)
We took an all day tourist bus to travel from Cuzco to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in order to take advantage of some of the sites along the way, including several more Incan ruins. It was even higher and colder in Puno and we were glad the Punyipampa Inn was well heated. We were a block from the Plaza de Armas and walked along a nearby pedestrian street, choosing a restaurant for dinner that almost had us running out because of the Peruvian Muzak - hearing “Hotel California” and any Beatles song adapted to the pan flute and pipes can get a bit unpalatable after a while.
Arequipa (elevation 7,740 feet)
Chuck and I poked around Puno for another day before we decided to seek a lower elevation and warmer climes. Sunny Arequipa, a five hour bus ride away, was our new destination. We had heard about the The "White City" (because of the white volcanic stone called "sillar" that the colonial buildings are constructed of) from friends who had loved it enough to spend 10 days there. We loved it enough to spend 2 weeks. Our hostal was in one of these old thick-walled white stone colonial mansions just at the edge of the center with its lovely Plaza de Armas. Several volcanoes sit like giants looking down on the town. Arequiapans have such a strong sense of pride and assertive autonomy that they joke that you need a separate passport to visit here.
We became familiar with the city through our daily exploratory walks, visiting such landmarks as the fascinating historical Santa Catalina monastery, a "city" wthin a city which still harbors a small order of nuns today, and the beautiful cloisters-cum-shopping center for exquisite vicuña and alpaca woven goods, past the courtyard bakeries and shops and fine restaurants. You can't miss going to see famous "Juanita the Ice Maiden", the mummified Incan girl who retains her hair, skin, and nails, retrieved by archeologists from her glacial sacriificial grave at the top of one of the nearby volcanoes. It was in Arequipa that we celebrated Peruvian Independence Day with the pomp and circumstance of military horse parades, music, and red and white banners. A Gastronomic Fair and Chicha (local alcoholic drink made from corn) Festival also took place during our visit.
But perhaps one of the most interesting tours we have ever taken was with Miguel, an economist by training, who offers a "Reality Tour" to the "other" Arequipa that tourists don't see. After walking through a food market for the everyday poor on the outskirts of the city, we visited the sillar quarry where huge blocks of white stone are still mined and cut - by generation after generation of men who toil in the hot sun for long hours with no safety equipment, shaping them with primitive hand tools owned by the companies who buy the blocks for $1.00 each. They earn $10 a day - the lowest paying job in Peru. It is a very dangerous and back-breaking job done by men basically kept in servitude. Miguel bought a large sack of potatoes in the market to give to Jose, a wizened and weatherbeaten 60 year old man who had been working in the canyons of the quarry his whole life, like his father before him. His son had been killed while working in the quarry when the towering walls of raw rock shifted, so Jose had to now care for his young grandchildren as well as the rest of his family. He couldn't buy his own tools because the company wouldn't buy the blocks. Sad and eye-opening. Also on the itinerary: (1) a cemetery where working-class and poor are buried, (2) the home of a woman who provides day care for young poor single mothers who came out of the surrounding mountains looking for work in the big city, whose children were often the result of rape by rebel forces, and (3) a Comedor Popular, a community restaurant run by a cooperative of women who feed the indigenous migrants from the surrounding countryside. And the best part - a portion of our tour fee went to supporting the people/programs we visited.
Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, is famous for the amazing Uros Floating Islands. Artificial islands, made from piling the local totoro reed into an anchored pad, have supported the indigenous communities here for centuries. Their houses, buildings, boats, furniture, crafts, and almost everything they have are made from this same reed material and it is fascinating to get a demonstration about how their “land” is created (accompanied by a bouncy perambulation around the neighborhood). Careful not to take a wrong step and sink in! From here, our tourist launch sped for two hours to one of the large “solid” islands called Isla Taquile where the men have a tradition of knitting. Everywhere you go you see men sitting around with their knitting needles and yarn! You can tell from the color and style of their knitted hats, which look like long night caps, whether the men are single or married. All supplies on the Island are brought by boat and portered by foot up the long steep winding road to the town. We had a delicious traditional lunch picnic-style consisting of quinoa soup and local fish. It was a long trip back but the sun and our full stomachs made us sleepy and those who didn’t sleep socialized with the young women travelers from foreign countries who were passengers on our boat.
Back in Puno, we lamented the fact that it was our last night together and that the four boys were flying to Lima the next day to connect with their flights back to the U.S. We had a fancy Farewell Dinner with multiple pisco sour toasts, reminiscences, laughter, and Linda and Chuck's gift of individual Incan-style dreamcatchers to celebrate the trip and the boys' upcoming ventures: Evan's birthday and commencement of his college career, Joe's continued success in his musical career with Operation Ben Harper and a new musical video, Gary's recent college graduation and imminent departure for China for his outdoor leadership career, and David's attainment of his Masters in Education and teaching credential (he was returning to a job hunt). In addition both Joe and David were going to be launching their "Best Day of My Life" lifestyle T-shirt business (see the iconic Machu Picchu photo above of all of us wearing our shirts). Get your own T-shirt and join the party HERE.
could take a cooking class...listed as a popular activity on Tripadvisor. The class was preceded by a guided tour of the Arequipa Market - one of the nicest markets we have been to in Peru - light and airy and clean. It was divided into sections according to the products for sale and there were a lot of new things to see, among them dried frogs, colorful crabs, bread in the shape of babies, tropical fruits, herbs for remedies, and dried llama fetuses used as an offering to Pachamama. The potato originated in Peru and there are more than 3,000 varieties. It seemed that all of them were found here for sale - pink, purple, orange, yellow corkscrew shaped, even the little white freeze-dried disks created today in the same way as the Incas: by putting them in airy huts at the top of the mountains so the cold dry winds would desiccate them.
Returning to the lovely garden kitchen of Casa de Avila a few blocks away, Lady Milagro and her assistant chef were preparing the ingredients for us to learn to make Peruvian cebiche, Chorrillana style fried fish, sweet potatoes, and a quinoa desert. Oh yes - and we didn't forget the pisco sours - the famous Peruvian drink made with clear pisco liquor from grapes (kind of like a grappa). Afterwards we contentedly basked in comfy oversized chairs in the sunny garden, mingling with others sitting at tables under umbrellas who were there to attend Spanish classes. Very interesting people including Danish Lety ( a woman's empowerment facilitator) and her Peruvian husband living in California and Dutch Willy and wife Susan, a PhD student investigating the effect of climate change on small coffee plantations and the practices of indigenous growers.
Two weeks had passed since we arrived in Arequipa and it was time to move on. After debating whether to continue along the Gringo Trail to Nazca to see the famous Nazca Lines, we decided instead to get off the beaten path and explore the Northern Highlands.....kind of taking a long way back to Jacaranda in Ecuador. We booked a flight to Tarapoto via Lima and there began another whole adventure for the next Passage Note.....
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #50
TRIP REPORT: For the details of our trip
Colca Canyon Side Trip (elevation 12,500 feet)
From Arequipa we took a popular overnight side trip to Colca Canyon - the home of the condors - the magnificent enormous vultures revered by the Incan culture and now terribly endangered in our world. On the way to the hostal in the little town of Chivay, our bus took us through a paramo environment (high altitude grassland and our highest point of elevation at 16,269 feet) where herds of wild vicuña were grazing. These endangered relatives of the alpacas and llamas are protected by the Peruvian government but are rounded up annually in the fall by the locals who sheer their coats for the wool. Vicuña wool is highly prized and woven vicuña garments are very expensive.
We awoke at 5 a.m. the next day in order to eat breakfast and arrive early at the condor view area in Colca Canyon - the timing is important since the big birds ride the air currents overhead only until noon. The view area, at the lip of the deep canyon, was already crowded with
spectators and a loud collective "oh and ahhh" could be heard as the condors buzzed right over our heads. There was a family of 8 and they flew low enough that we could see them cock their heads and eye us closely. We often wondered who was looking at who exactly.
When we returned from Colca Canyon, we moved to Casa de Avila so Linda