Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Peru, The Sacred Valley and Machupicchu

 There are so many beautiful places in the world, so many places to visit. If you are looking for breath-taking beauty along with incredible history and lots of walking and hiking (of course, there are sites for all abilities), then you have to go to Peru.

Probably the most expensive part of the trip is the airfare, so if you have a mileage credit card, definitely start building up the miles!  If you belong to an airline that travels to Peru and have miles already, even better!!!!

I just came back from an incredible journey to the Sacred Valley and Machupicchu with a group totalling 8 people. This was the perfect number. We had a private tour bus as well as our own private guides who were knowledgeable, fun and passionate about their jobs.

The initial travel is directly to Lima. Most flights get you there late at night, so you can sleep at the airport hotel and the following morning start your adventure! The best way to do this is to work with a travel agent (Vacation On Your Mind!) who will coordinate with a local tour operator to create a custom vacation. This is exactly what we did! You need at least 5 days for the touring, but my suggestion is not to do less than 6. There is so much to see in this area that at the end of 5 days, you will be disappointed that you didn't stay longer!

We left Lima and flew to Cusco, which is known as the archaeological Capital of the Americas. It is a beautiful city where you will find a mix of indigenous styles and modern western influence. It is a vibrant city, alive from early in the morning through late nite. The elevation is high - about 12,000 feet, so many tour operators opt for a day there and then to continue on to a town with a lower elevation so that you can become accustomed to the change.  This is exactly what we did.  Cusco has a long and very interesting history dating back to 1200AD and linked to the first Inca ruler, and by the 15th century there was vast Inca expansion. lI'm not going to give away any more of its colorful history!

The Sacred Valley is home to many indigenous people, the Quechua. They speak their own native language, but most have learned Spanish. This was a big help to us because, since it is their second language, they spoke Spanish slowly and we were able to understand a little more!!!

We visited incredible ruins, including Sacsayhuaman, Tambomachay, Q'uenko, Puca Pucara and the "Koricncha", one of the most important building in Inca times (the Temple of the Sun) directly from Cusco and then were taken directly to the Sacred Valley (9100 feet).

In the Sacred Valley we visited the colonial villages of Pisac, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. In Pisac we hiked for 2 hours to an ancient religious sector of the archaeological site which was hidden high in the mountains.  Don't worry - it's not all hiking! We went to a very unique local market in Pisac to begin our souvenir search!

In Ollantaytambo, we visited a major ruin that is known as the best surviving example of Inca urban planning and engineering. It was amazing. And, Ollantaytambo is still a living, breathing Inca city!

In Ollantaytambo,  we boarded the train to Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters), also known as Machu Picchu village. The town is about 30 minutes from the Machupicchu archaeological site. In Aguas Calientes there are hot springs, lots of shopping and restaurants galore.

There are two ways to see Machupicchu. One way is to stay at the only hotel that is just outside the gates of the site. They have a restaurant. You can get up pre-dawn and watch the sunrise. However, by the time you can go into the site, it is already light out. The sun hasn't come up over the mountain yet, but it is definitely light! A more affordable way is to stay in Aguas Calientes and take an early morning (they start at 5:30am) bus up to the site.  Again, you can be in the site before the sun comes up over the mountains and shines on the incredible ruins.  There is another way for those who are in great shape and love hiking. You can hike from Aguas Calientes up to Macchupicchu. It's between 1 1/2 and 2 hours to hike. It is steep and the air is a little thin, so this is only for those who prepare!!!

There are really no words to describe Machupicchu. It is defiinitiely the most incredible of the ruins. The beauty, the history, the llamas, the sanctity, the tranquility, the energy . . . you just need to be there!!! It is at the beginning of the Amazon Jungle (rain forest). You can wander around the ruins all day! There is a hike to the Sun Gate ("Intipunku"). For those who are in the best of shape, are not afraid of heights and have great balance, you can climb to the top of Waynapicchu mountain. It is a steep path up to the top and there is a limited amount of people allowed to climb it each day. It is also an additional fee, so if you are interested, you need to purchase those tickets in advance.

Back in the Sacred Valley, you can see more sites. You can go to Moray to see ruins that are a great example of the agriculture of the Inca civilization, to the Maras Salt Mines which are in the valley. You start high above and can see the 4000 salt beds in this Inca area. Once there, you can walk out and watch the locals working their "salt pools" and even taste some of it. It's something different and really interesting.  Chinchero is another example of Incan ruins with a city that is still alive and with rich culture  in the textiles. You can watch a really interesting demonstration on how sheep, llama, alpaca, etc. wool is created, dyed and weaved.

To shift gears, let's talk about the food. It's icredible - and it's not expensive.  You can get beef, chicken, pork and fish at just about any restaurant. And you can also get lamb, alpaca and guinea pig as well. We never had a bad meal. Most hotels include breakfast for their guests, which is great since you want to eat and leave to go to your next site!  They have coca tea, which is made from coca leaves. Yes, this is the plant that is used to produce cocaine, but no worries - you need to process it with other chemicals for that to happen. Locals say that the coca tea helps you with elevation adjustment, although those of us who drank it didn't feel any different!  Wine, beer, alcoholic beverages, juices, soft drinks - you can get it all. The Peruvian local drink is made with Pisco, an alcohoic beverage that I can only equate with tequila and vodka. Pisco Sours are a favorite there. If you have one and don't like it, try it some place else - everyone makes them slightly different!

We stayed at beautiful boutique hotels. Depending on your budget, you can go three, four or five star.  All the hotels were extremely clean, comfortable and the staff was some of the best we have ever encountered!

Again, using a tour company is the best way to see this part of Peru. Driving is absolutely crazy there, there are narrow, steep roads with cliffs galore. And even in town, there are these "taxis" which are motorcycles with compartments built over them to carry people! Speed bumps are very common - it's the only thing to slow down the drivers.  Using a tour company, once you've decided on your tour, they handle all the transportation tickets, site tickets, hotel arrangements, everything. All you have to do is show up!

Interested? Call me!!!! We're going again. Once is definitely not enough for me. It's magical, beautiful and I guess it stays in your blood!!!