Peru is a developing country in South America where Spanish and Quechua are the official languages. It is also the home of the Pervian Andes with many peaks over 6,000 meters. It is known as the Land of the Incas. It is also known for its potatoes—over 300 varieties have been developed around Cusco alone. While terrorist activity has declined significantly in Peru, crime is an ongoing concern. The transportation system along this beaten path is absolutely first class with less expensive options available.
- Cusco (bustling colonial town)
- Sacred Valley (Indian villages and markets; outstanding views)
- Inca Trail (starts at kilometer 88)
- Machu Picchu (lost city of the Incas)
- Puno and Lake Titicaca (floating islands on the highest navigable lake in the world)
- Arequipa (delightful colonial town and gathering place)
- Cola Canyon (3,400 meters deep for more than 100 km)
- Nazca Lines (drawings made by the Incas viewed from the air )
- Lima (for flight home)
Lima airport is one of those places where mobs seem to surround you when you arrive so be prepared. It also is a city with an unsavory reputation so if you need to stay here (as we did) you may ask your hotel to send a driver to pick you up. We stayed in Miraflores, a suburb on the ocean that is a short distance from the downtown.
Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire and later a major centre for the Spanish, is a beautiful colonial town in the Andes close to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. The flight from Lima to Cusco takes two hours and is spectacular so try to do it when it’s light outside. You fly very, very close to the jagged Andes and if you could stretch your arm out of the airplane you’d swear your hand could touch the peaks.
Cusco has an altitude of 3,326 meters and anyone who heads up quickly to over 2,400 meters is at risk of soroche, the name for mountain or altitude sickness. So you have to be careful. If you have trouble acclimatizing in Cusco you can head to the Sacred Valley for a couple of days, which has a lower altitude.
Cusco has outstanding architecture and terrific atmosphere. It features ruins, narrow cobblestone streets, museums, churches, visitors from all around the world and well travelled ones at that.
Find a hotel within easy walking distance of the square. You may want to do this from home because it is a very popular destination. There are local tour operators around the square who can arrange a five-hour tour of the Cusco area as well as your travel to the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Puno.
There is a 10-hour bus tour that leaves Cusco around 9 a.m. for the Sacred Valley. You can also arrange to stay at one of the hotels in the valley. People who have problems with Cusco’s altitude often go to the valley for a couple of days to acclimatize. I didn’t know much about area until I arrived and I must say the scenery is out of this world, the Indian markets are fabulous, the ancient villages interesting, and the Inca ruins incredible. With hindsight I would have spent more time there.
We didn’t do the Inca Trail although it is probably a highlight for those who take it, at least those in good physical condition. Years ago I trekked in the foothills of the Himalayas and still treasure my Nepal trekking permit!
How difficult is the Inca Trail? One woman told me she and her eight-year-old daughter found it relatively easy. Another young woman (who seemed to be fit) was in tears when she recalled how hard she found it. I suspect you “get what you pay for” and recommend shopping around for the right outfitter. Ask how large the group will be; the number of porters; what you will be expected to carry; how long it will take; how frequently you’ll stop to rest; where you’ll sleep; what the menus will be; the availability of water and other beverages. Don’t forget to bring a flashlight and toilet paper.
The trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas, is one of the best. A car picked us up at our hotel at 5:30 a.m., which was reassuring for it was totally dark outside and the area has a bit of an ‘iffy’ reputation. Our first class train was modern with almost floor to ceiling windows. I felt very secure. There is also a second class train that many foreign tourists seemed to take (although it broke down and the passengers were stranded for awhile and they held up the train we were on until help came). The train climbs through the Cusco Valley through a series of switchbacks. It follows the Urubamba River, past Indian village after Indian village, past kilometer 88, which is the start of the Inka trail, until it reaches the Puente Ruinas station.
Just across the bridge from the train station there are buses waiting to take you up the zigzagging road to the ruins about six kilometers away. I had to close my eyes going up the mountain and put my trust in the Inka gods and the bus driver for the road is steep and narrow. If you want to spend the night (and I would recommend it) and can’t afford the Hotel Machu Picchu Ruinas (I certainly couldn’t) then stay the night in Aguas Calientes (I recommend booking a room in advance).
Machu Picchu is all that I had imagined and more. Like Tikal in Guatemala, it is not only historically important but in an awesome setting. It escaped ransacking by the Spaniards and is well preserved for it was lost in jungle undergrowth until rediscovered in 1911.
The temples and the Royal Palaces are built with the utmost precision. It would be difficult to stick even a pin between the joints where the stones meet. The walls of the buildings slant inward and the doors and windows are trapezoidal in shape, which means that the buildings are almost earthquake-proof.
When the bus left the ruins for the village below, a young boy dressed as an Inca warrior started running down the mountain ahead of us, but when we got close he left the road and took the Inca stairs. Each time the bus completed a loop the boy warrior was there waiting for us. And each time we were about to pass him he would be off down the next set of stairs. Soon everyone on the bus was cheering for him, hoping he’d make it to the village before we did. He succeeded in doing that and his efforts were well rewarded.
Cusco to Puno
Tourists have traditionally taken the train from Cusco to Puno but we decided to take a first class bus along the newly built road. The road meanders through the valleys of the Andes through landscape that is barren yet beautiful. You pass the occasional Indian village with adobe brick homes and steeply terraced garden plots. There are fields of llamas, alpacas and vicunas. Goats are perched on cliffs.
Puno and Lake Titicaca
The altitude in Puno is 4,335 meters and I found it harder to breathe there than in Cusco. At times it felt like I was under water and running out of air.
Puno is off the well-beaten path although it is on the overland route to Bolivia. There were not many foreign tourists, few hotels, and the place seemed to be unfriendly, at least after dark. We got the last room at the Best Western Hotel Colon Inn and I certainly felt sorry for those in line behind us for there did not seem to be many options.
Puno is famous for its floating islands in the highest navigable lake in the world. It’s easy to visit the floating islands, just catch a rickshaw to the dock and hire a local boat. Our three hour tour cost U.S. $3. The islands are made of reeds interwoven to prevent water from seeping to the top. The Indians built these islands to get away from the Incas who lived along the shoreline. The islands themselves are about two feet above the waterline and very spongy to walk on. People live on them and probably depend on tourist dollars to survive but I felt rather intrusive wandering about.
Puno to Arequipa
The first class train from Puno to Arequipa takes about 12 hours. The countryside is rather dusty, barren and poor. We saw an occasional shepherd tending a flock of llamas and little else although the scenery is more interesting as the train climbs to Arequipa.
Arequipa is located in the south of Peru at the foothills of the Andes, 1,020 kilometers from Lima. It is the second largest city in the country. Some people stop there to acclimatize before moving on to Cusco. Arequipa is called the “white city” because many of its buildings are made of white volcanic rock. The square is a lively place with many artisans. The Santa Catalina Monastery is very peaceful and worthy of an unrushed visit.
We took a three-day tour to the Colca Canyon that we booked through a local operator in Arequipa. The road from Arequipa rises from 2,300 meters above sea level (desert) to 4,800 meters above sea level (Andean plateau) before descending along the Colca River to 3,000 meters. There are marked changes in vegetation along the way. At the highest elevation when you can look out on Volcano Misti (5,825 meters) and Volcano Chachani (6,075 meters) the landscape is lunar-like. At each stop there were Indians, often in colourful dress, with items to sell.
The canyon itself was formed by an enormous fault in the earth’s crust between two huge volcanoes. It is 3,400 meters deep for more than 100 km. This is the territory of the Condor, the mystic bird known for its three meter wingspan.
A first class bus took us from Arequipa to the Nazca Lines and on to Lima. The Nazca Lines or drawings are said to be made by the Inca between 300 BC and 700 AD. Seen from the air they resemble a hummingbird, spider, condor, monkey, parrot, and so on. Taking a flight over the lines is considered a “must do” but I felt a little stupid searching for images that everyone else seems to make out with no difficulty!
The Hotel Nazca Lines was worth the splurge and has a great art shop.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2010