Treasures of Peru
8/3/14 - In June we traveled with Odysseys Unlimited to Peru. This travel agency specializes in small-group travel experiences. Our tour was a 10-day trip to Lima, Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Cuzco & Lake Titicaca. There were 23 of us traveling & we had an outstanding tour director, Ophelia Larco. She was extremely considerate & accommodating, & took excellent care of all of us for the duration of the trip.
We had been to Peru in 2012 when we visited the Amazon but this experience was very different. In the Amazon we dealt with the humidity of the rainforest, but reveled in the assortment of birds, monkeys & sloths, as well as the generous nature of the "ribiñeros" (river people). In the Andes we dealt with the altitude, but marveled at the Incan ruins, villages built on floating islands made of reeds & the variety of cultures of the people of the region. We started our adventure with a few bumps, due to greatly delayed flights & lack of sleep, but we started to get to know our fellow travelers during our Lima city tours. Our group included people from CA, CO, AZ, OH, TN, FL, NY, CT & MA and we had some great times with them over the 10 days.
In Lima we visited a museum, a palace & a mansion. At a 16th century Convent of Santo Domingo we saw beautiful libraries & shrines to the patron saint, Saint Rose of Lima (BTW, when my (Kathy) family lived in Short Hills, NJ we attended a church by the same name...).We flew from Lima to Cuzco (11,000 ft) & drove to the Sacred Valley (9000 ft), where we stayed at a converted monastery. At these elevations we first started feeling the effects of the high altitude. It ranged from as mild as a slight headache to as bad as severe headaches & nausea. Many of the hotels at high altitudes keep oxygen tanks near the front desk so guests can get a "hit" of oxygen if they need it. I was able to keep the headaches at bay with the coca tea that was offered everywhere (made from the leaves of the coca plant) & Candy had prescription meds from the doc that kept her comfortable. One of our travel companions suffered so badly towards the end of our trip that they had to call a doctor to administer to her.
Another local guide, Miguel Vergara, joined us at this point in the trip to provide deeper insights for the next 6 days. He gave us lots of information about the customs of the region and the Quechua people, descendants of the Incans. During our first evening in Sacred Valley we participated in an "Offering to the Earth" with a local shaman. He included many symbolic items in a packet that we later burned as an offering to Mother Earth.
In Chinchero we visited a community of weavers, all related women who carry on the traditions of spinning alpaca wool, dying it with natural materials & weaving it into gorgeous such as shawls, scarves, tablecloths, hats & gloves. They held a demonstration for us, showing the sources of the dye & the ways they are able to create subtleties in the colors using other natural additives. They also told us about how they swaddle their children & carry them on their backs. The kids are actually carried that way for up to 18 months, leaving the mother's arms free.
We visited the ruins of Ollantaytambo, which was once the royal estate of an Incan ruler & later the stronghold for the Incan resistance against the Spanish conquerors. We got our first experience with climbing up through high agricultural terraces in the high altitude. We were left breathless, in large part due to the lack of oxygen, but also due to observing the marvels of engineering enormous granite stones into walls & structures without the use of mortar.
We were now primed for our visit to Machu Picchu (8000 ft). We took a train from Sacred Valley to Aguas Calientes & then a bus through many switchbacks up to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. We did not hike the Inca Trail; it is a 3 day hike & requires camping out. The "Lost City of the Incas" is set high in the cloud forest & our first sight of it left us speechless. How was it possible to build this city with its many terraces, rooms, temples & walkways way up in the peaks of the Andes? It is a UNESCO World Heritage site - there are 1007 sites across the world; and at this point, we have only seen about 2 dozen of them. This site encompasses five square miles, linked by 3000 stone steps. The vistas were gorgeous & we hope you can get a sense of the enormity & splendor of the place through our photos & videos. The light at different times of the days allowed different perspectives of the ruins & the surrounding peaks. We returned to Cuzco for a longer stay. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, as the Inca Empire's former capital & the continent's oldest continuously inhabited city.
We visited cathedrals & churches, several built on the foundations of Incan temples. There happened to be a huge celebration going on while we were there & we saw children & adults decked out in many costumes with cultural significance. While we ambled around through the parades & happenings in the main square, we visited some of the many markets dotting the city, where the number of alpaca wool items was astounding. We were very fortunate that Odysseys always arranges a lunch with Peruvian families for their tour groups. We divided up into groups of 7-8 people to visit the homes. Our group's family had a matriarch named Amanda who welcomed each of us to her home. Her adult son & his wife served the meal while Amanda sat & ate with us & chronicled her life in the Andes. The family described each course, including how the dishes were prepared & the spices they used. What a great way to learn about a different culture.
The final leg of our journey was by coach to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We stopped at several sites along the way, including the ruins at Raqchi, the Llama & Alpaca research center & Raya Pass, the highest point of our trip at 14,232 feet.
When we arrived at Puno (12,500 ft) we could easily observe the altitude changes. The air was incredibly clear & it seemed we could see for greater distances. We spent a day on Lake Titicaca, one of the world’s highest navigable lakes, with deep clear blue water where we first visited the floating islands of Los Uros. The inhabitants showed us how they make the islands, starting with reed root blocks tied together then topped with many layers of reeds. They make everything with the reeds - their huts, their boats, their handicrafts. We stopped in at the island that housed the kindergarten for a rare look at the lives of the children. Even the swing sets were made of reeds! We were able to play a bit with the children, who were dressed in traditional garb & delighted in having their pictures taken.
Also on Lake Titicaca we visited Isla Taquile with its stunning views of Bolivia just across the lake. Climbing up the road to get to our lunch location took enormous effort, as our lungs struggled to suck in oxygen. The views were worth it though, as were the opportunities to learn about the island inhabitants. On our last day in Peru our guide, Ofelia, surprised us with a visit to a local market, teeming with fruits, vegetables, rice, and meats. It was such a hoot to walk through the market, talking to vendors & observing their everyday life. One of the things we enjoy most about traveling the world is learning about different people & cultures. Some things are so different but others are remarkably similar, connecting us all in so many ways.