<< markandrupa


june 2009

We cemented our second trip to Peru when we realized that our families were both interested in visiting Machu Picchu, one of our favorite places. We ended up booking a small-group tour with REI Adventures because they offered a complete day at Machu Picchu (most tours only offer an afternoon and the following morning). We also extended our trip a few days with a custom itinerary booked through Mystery Peru, a Peruvian travel agency that offered an extensive three-day round-trip tour of the coastline south of Lima, including the famous Nazca Lines.


Check back in March...

Trip itinerary

  1. Seattle to Lima - june 8

    For once our trip didn't start at the crack of dawn - instead we spent a composed morning packing our gear before catching a cross-country flight to Miami. Although it's probably the most convenient southbound gateway, the Miami airport is one of our least favorite airports anywhere in the world. A patchwork of dated, poorly-lit terminals is linked by a labyrinth of corridors and ramshackle trams. Bag re-check (after customs) is confusing and deposits you outside security, food choices are limited within the terminals, and many of the shops close up hours before the final departures of the day. Fortunately out stay was brief and we were soon on our way to Lima.

    We arrived in Lima and stepped into a bright and airy modern airport, and I couldn't help but wonder what kind of sad impression the Miami airport must have on Peruvians visiting the States. Precautions against swine flu were prevalent. In addition to the health declaration we were required to sign on the plane the gate agents handed out warning pamphlets and everyone working in an official capacity wore a surgical mask, making their heavily accented English more difficult to decipher. We exchanged a few hundred dollars (the change desks offered a surprisingly good rate), claimed our luggage and waded through a sea of taxi drivers and porters and over to the airport hotel. Clean, modern, and spacious, the Costa del Sol wasn't my first choice, but considering our 4:30am arrival I figured we'd just want to crash, and that's exactly what we did.

    Ramada Costa del Sol, Lima

  2. Lima - june 9

    Today amounted to what was probably the least interesting day of all our travels. Eleven hours in the air yesterday and an early morning arrival conspired to shorten our day - we didn't crawl out of bed until three in the afternoon. By then it was really just too late to venture into town, a 30-minute taxi ride away, so instead we grabbed dinner at the airport food court. A local restaurant chain had set up shop, serving authentic empanadas (meat turnovers), aji de gallina (a tasty chicken curry) and chicha morada (a sweet punch made from purple corn and spices). We also browsed the bookshop, where we flipped through Peruvian photo albums as we waited for our parents to arrive.

    Rupa's parents (Anil and Mana) and my dad and brother (Keith) all arrived on the same plane, which didn't land until 10:30pm. We joined them for a quick bite to eat, downed our Pisco Sour "welcome drinks" at the hotel bar and then rushed off to bed.

    Ramada Costa del Sol, Lima

  3. Ballestas Islands, Paracas National Reserve & Huacachina - june 10

    We had a long day ahead and it began with an early morning pickup. After only 2.5 hours sleep we were up again at 3:30am - which made us glad we'd slept so much yesterday. Rupa and I rushed over to the airport and picked up coffee and donuts for the family, which we ate in the car during the three hour drive to Paracas. Our ride was a seven-passenger van that was a bit of a squeeze but not wholly uncomfortable, and our driver Sandro was a helpful, friendly chap who didn't speak much English. Freshly laid pavement for much of the ride allowed us to catch a few zzzs on the way, and we arrived in Paracas with just enough time to hit the toilets before boarding our boat.

    We'd barely cleared the marina when our 45-passenger speed boat met up with a pod of dolphins. We spent ten minutes with them as they darted back and forth and played around at the bow of the boat. We continued on to just outside the bay and paused briefly to view the "Candelabra", a mysterious 600-foot-tall design etched into the seaward side of a large hill. Although built in a fashion similar to the Nazca lines, this 2000-year-old figure was likely constructed a few centuries earlier.

    From there we had a 30-minute ride out to the Ballestas Islands, a collection of rocky islets off the Paracas coast. Our first contact was actually the stink of guano, a pungent aroma that envelops any large avian colony. It was also our first indication of the size of the colony. Thousands - probably hundreds of thousands - of seabirds lined the rocky crests and filled the sky all the way to the horizon. Peruvian boobies, pelicans, Incan terns and three species of cormorants (red-legged, neo-tropical and guanay) were the more common residents, though we also spotted a fair number of Magellanic Penguins. Sea lions and spider crabs were also fairly abundant.

    We spent close to an hour circling the islands at a slow enough speed to take photos (my previous experience photographing from small boats was invaluable) while the guides pointed out unique species and interesting behaviors. Even the guano was notable, having been continuously farmed as fertilizer since before the Spaniards arrived. In fact, the guano was so prized by the Incas that it became a capital offense to harm any of the nesting birds. What we learned later was this - that the west coast of South America, and Peru in particular, lays claim to some of the best fertilizer-grade guano anywhere. The cold-water Humboldt Current that slips up the coast teams with delectable little fish that the seabirds gorge on and subsequently deposit on the rocks. The current also dries out the air, minimizing rainfall that would otherwise wash away the guano. When full scale "mining" picked up in the 1800s some of the islands sported guano deposits hundreds of yards deep. The guano trade became so important that wars were fought, including an 1879 war that left Bolivia landlocked. Today, guano collection on the Ballestas Islands is a government-run activity that only takes place once every six years when the guano has reached a depth of two-feet and can be profitably shoveled out.

    Luciano met us on the dock and introduced himself as a trained naturalist and our guide for the Paracas National Reserve. He hopped in the van with us, and Sandro drove us around the arid seashore desert while Luciano described the environment and pointed out features. The "gravel" roads winding through the barren park were actually made of compacted salt, which is environmentally friendly and holds up surprisingly well in the dry conditions. The desert landscape had the softened look of wind-blown sand, but upon closer inspection the "dunes" were solid earth worn smooth by millennia of erosion. With just 2mm of rain falling each year the compounding grind of time was easy to appreciate. We made a number of stops along the way, including a viewpoint to see the ruins of La Catedral, a formerly impressive vaulted sea arch that collapsed during a 2007 earthquake that devastated the surrounding countryside, killing 430 people, including 138 who perished when the roof of their church collapsed during mass.

    Further along we hiked a scenic stretch of shoreline with a beautiful red-sand beach and were able to get an up-close look at the compacted sand, seaweed and pebbles - a rare flash of color in an otherwise bleak landscape. We also stopped at an inland salt pan to visit a flock of feeding flamingos. We weren't allowed to get very close, but Luciano had a pair of binoculars that we passed around for a closer look. We concluded our visit in Lagunillas, a rusty fisherman's port with a trio of shelter-house style restaurants serving up the day's catch. El Che was our guide's favorite, so we sat down and lunched on perfectly seasoned grilled or fried sea bass.

    The next stop on our day-long adventure was an artisanal Pisco distillery (El Catador) in the city of Ica. Pisco is a grape liquor popular in Peru and Chile and is commonly used to make Pisco Sours, a cocktail that Rupa and I often enjoy back home (though Pisco is sometimes difficult to come by in Seattle). Although we'd toured many wineries and breweries, this family-run operation was a real treat as they still relied on traditional methods to create their liquor. Our tour began out back where a young English-speaking employee showed us into a seemingly deserted sandlot where the grapes are processed. First the grapes are dropped into a large cement pool where they are ceremonially stomped (the recently crowned Miss Peru "kicks off" the annual festivities). The juice is then filtered and hand poured into traditional ceramic casks, fermented, distilled into liquor and aged. The hand-worked process takes time but the family is proud of the result. We finished the tour with a sampling of the various Piscos (strong, regular, and aromatic) as well as a Pisco wine and a Pisco cream (similar to Baileys). We ended up taking home a bottle of the cream.

    After thirty more minutes on the road we arrived at our last stop of the day - the oasis village of Huacachina. We immediately transferred to an amped-up nine-passenger dune buggy for a thrilling ride across the towering sand dunes. The ride was akin to a free-wheeling roller coaster with steep banks, blind crests and stomach-churning descents. Thirty minutes into our ride the driver stopped atop a tall, steep dune and pulled out a few sandboards. Dad was all ready to go, standing atop the board as if he were about to hit the powdery slopes at Vail or Whistler. Belly-on-the-board was actually the proper orientation for us newbies, and we rode it more like a head-first sled than a snowboard, using our outstretched legs to control direction and speed. We soon found out that the smaller boards went faster and further than the wider boards (less friction), but they were all a real hoot. And, unlike our previous sandboarding experiences, we didn't have to trudge back up the hill for a second run since our driver brought the buggy down to us. We stopped at four or five different slopes before the darkness crept in, and we even got Rupa's mom to give it go.

    We were famished and tired by the time we arrived at our Nazca hotel, a two-hour drive south of Huacachina. The hotel was gorgeous, almost resort-like with a large art-filled lobby, a spa, an infinity swimming pool and a lush eight-acre garden. We quickly chose from the Italian-themed menu, skipped desert and staggered into bed.

    Hotel Cantayo, Nazca

  4. Nazca Lines & Cantayo Aqueducts - june 11

    We awoke to a cloudy morning, but our local guide Leo assured us that the clouds would burn off before our noon flight over the Nazca Lines. In the mean time, Leo had a comprehensive morning planned, starting with the 1500-year-old Cantayo Aqueducts. The Nazca Desert is one of the driest on earth and has changed little over the past 1500 years. So how is it that an entire culture thrived here with no obvious access to water? It turns out that they were able to funnel Andean spring water through an elaborate irrigation system organized into narrow stone-lined tunnels, ditches and spiral wells. Portions of this highly engineered system are still used today, though some of the better-looking wells at Cantayo are reconstructions.

    Nearby, Leo showed us a cactus farm - or at least, what appeared to be a cactus farm. The cacti themselves looked to be infected by a powdery white mold, but upon closer inspection the white areas were actually colonies of tiny cochineal beetles. Leo scraped one of the peppercorn-sized bugs onto a piece of paper and unceremoniously squashed it - a dark crimson blot stained the paper. This was carminic acid, produced by the beetles as an ant deterrent and used by the cosmetics and food industries as a non-toxic natural dye (labeled as "cochineal extract", "carmine", "natural red 4" or just "E120"). The beetles are so saturated with acid that entire insects are boiled, dried out, and pulverized into dye - it takes some 70,000 of them to generate one pound of dye.

    Next on our schedule was a brief stop at a site known as Las Agujas ("The Needles"). From the car park we could see only a small hill rising above the desert floor, but as we walked around to the other side a relatively simple Nazca Line lay before us. From ground level we had a good look at the construction method - a triangular patch of rock-strewn desert had been swept clear and the rubble piled up and formed into lines. With little wind or rain to disturb them the patterns have survived intact for over a millennia. The same sweep-and-stack technique was used for all of the Nazca Lines, large and small, and it was informative to see the work up close before our fly over.

    We still had some time left before our flight so Leo snuck in a visit to a local gold mining refinery and shop. More often than not these craft excursions are nothing more than thinly-veiled sales pitches, but this stop turned out to be rather enlightening. Gold mining is a dirty, ad-hoc business here in southern Peru, where local prospectors roam the desolate hillsides in search of trace deposits of gold in the mineral-laden rock. Here at the shop, a graying, rough-cut miner demonstrated the field techniques used to locate gold, including how to mix finely ground rock with liquid mercury to create an amalgam (under pressure, gold particles bind to mercury). He donned rubber gloves to handle the noxious blend, but he wasn't particularly careful and most certainly suffered frequent exposure. More unsettling, though, was the large scale extraction process taking place in the dusty courtyard behind us. A makeshift refinery had been assembled where quarried rocks were ground into powder and then muddled with pools of mercury by enormous mortars and pestles. Each pestle was actually a large boulder, rocked across the toxic mixture by the tireless legs of teenage boys. Eventually, if they were lucky, a gram or two of gold would emerge from the crushed rock - just enough to make the entire operation worthwhile and provide a meager living for all involved.

    Finally it was time for our highly anticipated flight over the Nazca Lines. We opted for a longer one-hour flight covering both the Nazca Lines and the older, less expansive, Palpa Lines. We boarded a 5-passenger Cessna (Anil and Mana remained behind) and accelerated down the runway, and within minutes we were dipping our wings over the Nazca Plateau. One of the first images to appear was a stylized whale that sat isolated on the plateau. There was nothing in our field of vision to set the scale, though we were told that at 213ft long the whale was one of the larger images. The pilot did a fantastic job offering everyone aboard a first-rate view, banking sharply to the left and then to the right in wide arcs around the whale. Though slightly uncomfortable, the maneuvers did not warrant concern.

    The plateau was vast (over 200 square miles) and the figures were spaced further apart than I had expected. In all the pilot showed us a dozen or so images, including famous ones like the monkey (180ft long), the spider (150ft), the hummingbird (164ft), the condor (443ft) and the flamingo (918ft - over three football fields long). Geometric trapezoids, triangles and long lines (up to two miles long) spilled across the plateau in seemingly random directions, often cutting through the elegant figures. By now the pilot had banked around a dozen or so figures and both Rupa and I fell victim to a bit of vertigo, though I was the only one to toss my breakfast.

    Our last sight on the Nazca Plateau was the Pan American Highway, which cuts an immutable line of its own across the plateau. The roadside observation tower was clearly visible, as was the dry drainage puddle that has partially destroyed two neighboring pictographs. From there we passed over the lush Rio Grande Valley to the Palpa Lines. Different in theme, the Palpa Lines uniquely depict a variety of human figures (known as Llipata Figures) in comic fashion and are often etched into the side of a hill rather than lying flat on the plateau. "Long Coat", "Old Woman", "Mr. Top Hat" and "Sun God" are but a few of the names used today to distinguish these figures.

    We returned to the airport by way of the Cantayo Aqueducts and posed for a picture upon our successful landing. It was a real treat to view these figures first hand, as they face threats both manmade (water runoff, trash, unauthorized driving, etc) and natural (changing weather patterns could bring wind and rain), making their survival far from certain.

    The rest of the warm and sunny afternoon was ours to enjoy, and we spent it back at the hotel napping and wandering the manicured grounds. Bougainvillea, pink hibiscus, lantana, mimosa and frangipani colored the garden while trees sat laden with limes, figs, pink peppercorns and green cherimoya fruits. Colorful birds such as vermilion flycatchers, mockingbirds, hummingbirds and peacocks flitted about while captive parrots and parakeets squawked from behind bars.

    Dinner was an interesting affair tonight. A French tour group had arrived and the hotel had arranged for a local folk group to play a few recognizable tunes (e.g. El Condor Pasa) on a trio of mini-guitar, drum, and pan-pipes.

    Hotel Cantayo, Nazca

  5. Chauchilla Cemetery & Chicchitara Petroglyphs - june 12

    Argh. Last night was a disaster. I spent six hours in the bathroom returning my dinner and more. Apparently the Creole soup was not up to my usual hygiene standards and left me with flu-like chills, nausea, abdominal cramps and more. Although the most dire symptoms would fade by the end of the day, the cramping and nausea would linger for more than a week.

    Today would be another full day of sightseeing as we made our back to Lima. We started at the Chauchilla Cemetery where we toured a few of the dozen or so reconstructed tombs. The 1500-year-old tombs were basically open pits lined with mud bricks and covered from above. Unfortunately, the tombs suffered extensive looting during the past century, and of the thousands of tombs that once lay buried only a handful survived for archeologists to properly excavate. Recovered mummies, bones and artifacts positioned in the tombs gave us an idea of their original layout, and a small one-room museum housed well-preserved adult and infant mummies. Nearby, burrowing owls dotted the desert landscape, warming up in the morning sun after a cold night.

    We had another handicraft shop on today's itinerary - this time a pottery shop where the master artisan recreated traditional Nazca-style pottery using local clay, natural pigments and fine brushes. Hundreds of reproductions lined the shop walls, including stylized animals, strange drinking vessels, large plates and flamboyant erotica. Rupa ended up with a relative tame piece - a painted mask to add to her growing collection.

    We drove north out of Nazca on the Pan American Highway and paused to climb the observation tower for a closer inspection of The Tree and The Hands pictographs. Sadly, from such close proximity the damage imparted by excess runoff, off-road vehicles and an irresponsible army tank maneuver was plainly visible. Further along we stopped at a second tower near Palpa that overlooked a family of appealing Llipata Figures scraped into the side of a hill.

    Just beyond Palpa our final adventure of the day began with a seven-mile road trip up the lush Rio Palpa valley. The winding dirt road skirted the valley floor, rising up the dusty hillsides to a small community named Chicchitara. Not far from there we left the van for a short hike through a field of boulders to a large smooth rock covered in 4000-year-old petroglyphs. The seemingly misplaced rock - there were no other of any significance nearby - appeared to portray three important people (priests?) dressed in ceremonial gear and sitting on blocks. We'd seen plenty of petroglyphs in our travels, but they usually appeared in caves or other naturally distinctive formations. Finding a single carved rock amid a hillside of boulders was quite surprising and led me to wonder what the site must have looked like 4000 years ago and how many other symbols might lie hidden beneath the rubble.

    A short drive later we parked again for a second hike. This would be a much longer hike across rough terrain and began with a hands-and-knees rock scramble. Rupa and Mana elected to stay behind, but Anil was already working his was up the hill in an effort to scratch another item off his bucket list. For the next hour we worked our way up a dusty hillside, weaving among boulders and threading a thin path along a steep scree slope. It was exhausting work but the petroglyphs were more impressive along this trail. We stopped a couple of dozen times to admire the ancient handiwork, which included more priests, various animals (llamas, snakes and Andean cats) and geographic patterns. From the top of the hill we had a fantastic view down the river valley before beginning the steep descent back to the van.

    Before departing on the long five-hour drive back to Lima we stopped for lunch in Palpa at what looked to be a roadside fruit stand but opened up into a lovely garden and dining patio out back. We had a nice lunch, said goodbye to Leo, and entrusted ourselves to Sandro's driving skills as we napped our way to Lima.

    We pulled up to the airport hotel around 10pm and promptly set off for a late dinner at the airport food court. Rupa's sister (Nina) arrived from Los Angeles a couple of hours later to join us on the REI-guided portion of our trip (the seven of us would comprise nearly half of the fifteen-member tour).

    Ramada Costa del Sol, Lima

  6. Cusco - june 13

    Our official REI tour began with a short morning flight to Cuzco. We passed high over the jagged peaks of the snowcapped Andes before banking sharply into the bowl-shaped Huatanay Valley - revered by the Inca as the navel of the universe. Although the air was thin (Cuzco's elevation is 10,800 feet) it was sunny and comfortably warm, a marked improvement over the foggy, damp climate on the Lima coast. An agent from TrekPeru (REI's local tour operator) met our group at the airport, directed us into a small tour bus and whisked us away through the narrow, stone-paved lanes of the ancient capital. It wasn't long before we arrived in the downtown core and hauled out at the unassuming door of our hotel. Inside, the hotel revealed its charm as a converted 16th century colonial building wrapped around a paved courtyard, which was sealed from above by a massive skylight that kept it cozy both day and night. Just a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas, it was an excellent location from which to explore the city.

    A quick lunch at the hotel restaurant gave us an opportunity to meet the other folks on our tour. We also took advantage of the hotel's complimentary coca tea. The tea, made from the same leaves used to refine cocaine, acts as a stimulant and supposedly helps to mitigate altitude sickness. We weren't at any risk of addiction though - it takes more than 35 cups of coca tea (over 2 gallons) to match the amount of coca in one snort of cocaine.

    We also met Ana, our TrekPeru guide for the next six days. Ana spoke excellent English and had extensive experience guiding tours throughout Peru. It wasn't long before she had us all back on the bus and heading outside the city walls to the impressive hilltop fortress of Sacsayhuaman. Perched 2000ft above the city, three parallel stone walls seal off the crest of the hill where a trio of temples once rose. The 20ft high walls stretch for 1200ft in a repeating zigzag pattern and are nested just a few feet apart, creating quite a formidable structure. In fact, archeologists believe that the walls once rose an additional 10ft, but beginning shortly after the Spanish Conquest these smaller blocks (along with those of the three temples) were repurposed for the construction of colonial buildings such as the Cuzco Cathedral.

    As an engineering feat, Sacsayhuaman ranks as one of the most impressive structures of the ancient world. The largest of the massive limestone boulders in the outer wall is 28ft tall and weighs perhaps 140 tons (nearly twice the weight of an M1A1 tank). The effort and skill required to construct a wall of this magnitude verges on the mythical, yet some how thousands of Incan or pre-Incan laborers quarried these stones in Yucay, transported them 10 miles to the top of this hill, carved them with extreme precision and fit them together like pieces of an enormous 3D jigsaw puzzle. The mortarless wall is so sturdy that centuries of earthquakes have failed to topple it. The construction was not without its failings though - according to legend 3000 laborers were killed when a large boulder broke lose and tumbled down the hill.

    Nearby to Sacsayhuaman we stopped briefly to visit the ruins at Q'enqo. The former temple was an excellent example of Incan rock worship, in which interesting rocks and rock formations were revered for their spiritual powers. At this particular outcropping a semi-circular wall with embedded seats was constructed and may have been used by the nobility during celebrations. Meanwhile, intricate channels cut into the rock may have been used as a form of divination in which animal blood or chicha (corn beer) was poured into the maze so that the ensuing flows could be analyzed. Around the corner and tucked behind a small crevice was a dark cave that featured a smoothed out altar and some wall niches. Such a cave may have been used for ancestral (mummy) worship. Our visits to both Sacsayhuaman and Q'enqo were shorter than I had hoped for and Rupa and I were feeling a bit rushed, but such is often the case when touring with a group; our natural exploratory pace is generally slower and more thorough.

    Cuzco's main plaza was our next stop. The large Plaza de Armas has marked the center of town since the time of the Incas, when it served as the religious and political center of a 3000-mile long empire. Back then it was twice as large as it is today and was surrounded by dozens of city-block-sized buildings and palaces, many of which were built by Incan kings and subsequently maintained by their descendents. Sadly, all that remains of these once-great palaces are a few scattered stone walls - the cumulative effect of looting, war and religious habituation. Many of the temples were torn down and the sites and stone repurposed in the construction of churches, including the Cathedral (atop Inka Wiraqocha's palace), the La Compania Church (atop Inca Huayna Capac's palace), the Chapel of the Triumph (atop the Suntur Wasi armory) and the Santa Catalina Convent (aptly built atop the Acllawasi - the "House of the Sun Virgins"). Today the plaza is a pedestrian respite and the center of the city's thriving tourist industry - the encircling colonial-era arcades are packed with handicraft shops, tour agencies and restaurants, including a deftly concealed McDonald's.

    Ana led us into the large Renaissance-style Cathedral and gave us a tour of the Cathedral and the abutting Chapel of the Triumph (the first church built in Cuzco). A highlight was the collection of Cusquena-style paintings, with one of the more famous being a Marcos Zapata painting of the Last Supper in which Jesus and his disciples are sharing a roasted guinea pig! Another highlight was the mid-church choir, an elaborate 64-seat semi-circle carved by local artisans from cedar wood. The primary imagery consisted of 80 or so Catholic saints, but the sneaky artists embellished it with bits of native imagery as well.

    Two days prior to our visit Cuzco celebrated the festival of Corpus Christi. Although this Catholic holiday is celebrated throughout the world, it is particularly colorful and lively here in the streets of Cuzco. Every year fifteen large wooden statues are paraded through city streets as neighborhood residents accompany their patron saint to the Cathedral. The heavy, larger-than-life statues are cleaned, dressed in luxurious garments, adorned with opulent jewels and placed atop a massive litter. Upwards of 50 men at a time haul the statue up to six miles through town and around the plaza as thousands of partying residents enjoy the carnival-like atmosphere. Interestingly, the celebration has its roots in an ancient Incan festival called Inti Raymi ("Festival of the Sun") in which the mummies of past kings were paraded around on their royal litters during the summer solstice. The Spanish usurped this celebration in their bid to convert the natives to Christianity, replacing the various kings with patron saints. Fortunately for us the statues of the saints were on display in the Cathedral (before being returned to their respective churches in five days) and we were able to spend time during our visit admiring them.

    We had one more stop on the day's schedule and we barely made it there before closing time. Underneath the Church of Santo Domingo lay the remains of the most important temple complex of the Incan Empire - the Qorikancha ("Golden Courtyard"). The ancient compound was built of the finest quality Incan stone work and featured temples dedicated to the most important gods as well as a large garden filled with life-sized plant, animal and human sculptures crafted in gold and silver. It was the impressive Sun Temple, though, covered in sheets of gold that gleamed under the bright equatorial sun, that caught the attention of the first three Spaniards to arrive in Cuzco. With the Incan king held hostage and with direct orders to bring back as much gold as they could muster, the Spaniards immediately went to work removing the gold sheathing plate-by-plate. Each plate was about two-feet long and weighed 4.5 pounds; the Spaniards collected 700 them, which in today's market would be worth about $50 million.

    Though the Sun Temple must have been quite a sight 500 years ago, today's visible remains are limited to a bit of the garden terracing, a circular exterior wall and a few subsidiary rooms complete with niches, windows and trapezoidal doorways. Interestingly, the walls of these rooms were hidden for hundreds of years behind the plaster walls of the colonial-era convent, only to be revealed during a violent 1950 earthquake.

    Back at the hotel we dropped off laundry at a small shop across the street (overnight service for $1.50/lb) and then joined the group for a respectable buffet dinner. The only item I could stomach was the quinoa soup, but it was quite tasty and I went to bed content.

    Novotel, Cusco

  7. Pisac - june 14

    This morning we set off for the Sacred Valley of the Incas some 20 miles outside Cuzco. We crossed a high mountain pass and stopped at Awana Kancha, a local weaving cooperative and camelid farm. Though we'd seen llamas, alpacas and vicuna many times before it was a great experience to see them up close and to learn about the various breeds, which included both sponge-haired (Wakayo) and long-haired (Suri) alpacas. We were even allowed to pet and feed the animals, though they all seemed to prefer Mana's food, apparently sensing her nourishing ways (as anyone who has sat at her dinner table can confirm). Further along we were shown the natural dyes the weavers use to color the wool, including cochineal dye, and how mixing the dyes with various clays can produce a variety of shades. Nearby, native women dressed in traditional skirts, shawls and sombreros demonstrated the technique of weaving with a hand-held loom. The large on-site shop was stocked with an incredible variety of wool products, including blankets, mittens, hats, sweaters, scarves and rugs. One particularly impressive queen-sized bedspread cost $2000, which actually seemed like a bargain considering that it took one lady eight months to complete it.

    We continued on to the ruins of Pisac, an ancient Incan city perched atop a ridgeline above the Urubamba River Valley. The flank of the mountain was stepped with agricultural terraces from valley to peak, except for a rocky outcropping with a small collection of stone ruins. The apartment-like buildings were built of stacked, uncut stone (similar to the terraces) and protected behind a thick precision-cut defensive wall. Beyond the ruins rose a series of pockmarked cliffs overlooking a shallow valley. A close inspection (via a telephoto lens or binoculars) of the cliffs revealed hundreds of small caves that Ana explained were Incan burial chambers. Apparently some 10,000 tombs were once hidden in the cliffs, but most had been looted by Spanish conquerors in search of gold and jewels.

    We continued to hike the rocky ridgeline above the terraces, following an old Incan trail through a narrow cave, past a guard tower and into a well-constructed, compact religious center. Typical of Incan religious sites the stonework here was impeccable and integrated seamlessly with the rocky terrain. At the heart of the complex a pair of curved walls concealed large in situ rock altars, one of which was carved into the shape of a sun dial. Impressively, a 500-year-old aqueduct was till supplying water to the temples fountains.

    We continued hiking out to a promontory that once served as an ancient lookout. From here we could take in a fantastic 270-degree view of the valley below, including the broad lower terraces near the river that were still being cultivated. From there we wound down the hillside and past a line of small stone huts that despite all odds retained their original adobe walls (protected now by reconstructed thatch "roofs"). Down among the terraces we also passed by a collection of storehouse foundations before finally working our way back up a pair of long stairways to the bus. In all we'd hiked for a little over two hours, and given the uneven terrain and meager oxygen at this altitude we were exhausted. It was a wonderful hike though, and something Rupa and I hadn't had the opportunity to see on our prior visit.

    We'd all earned our lunch and we were treated to a tasty buffet at a charming river-side restaurant outside modern Pisac. I still wasn't able to eat solids, but between quinoa soup and potato and coconut curries I had my fill. After lunch Ana gave us an hour to shop the Pisac market; with hundreds of stalls crammed into the city's narrow streets it's one of the largest markets in the Sacred Valley. We were fortunate to be here on a Sunday because the weekly "Indian Market" added a bit of authenticity to the tourist-centric handicraft market. Household necessities, common fruits and vegetables, knobby potatoes (Peru is home to some 2,800 variety of potato), colorful cobs of maize and fresh meat traded hands as locals stocked up for the week. In the handicraft market Rupa and Keith managed to bargain for souvenirs while Dad and I roamed about photographing the colorful collection of tourist wares. Mittens, hats, blankets, flutes, bangles, dolls, stick puppets, carved idols, nativity scenes and chess sets all combined to create a festival of color. Shopping was generally hassle-free and the shop keepers were all-too-happy to let us take photos. All told it was one of the more pleasant market experiences of our travels.

    By the time we arrived back in Cuzco it was starting to get dark, but our chance timing allowed us to catch an elementary-school parade passing outside our hotel. Children and teachers were dressed in a coordinated assortment of traditional-looking outfits and laughed and sang as a lively band compelled them onward. The first class to pass dressed in cowgirl/cowboy costumes, the next donned shawls (girls) and furry "capes" (boys), a later group were draped in tasseled skirts, and still others sported pajama-like outfits. It was all great fun and an unexpected bonus.

    Rupa and Keith did some pre-dinner shopping in the plaza while Dad and I conducted a brief self-guided tour of the streets around the square. Though only a few original Incan walls remain, a number of colonial-era buildings had clearly repurposed the Incan stones. It was easy to tell them apart - the Incan walls leaned slightly inward to counter the toppling force of earthquakes while the colonial structures stood perfectly upright. One of the walls we inspected even had what appeared to be battle damage, perhaps from Spanish guns.

    Dinner was on our own and we took a recommendation from Ana to eat at a funky second-floor restaurant named La Coccilina. We ordered a small "Causa de cuy", which ended up being a casserole made from potatoes, caramelized apples, herbs and spices, and topped with shredded cuy - commonly known as guinea pig. Guinea pig is a special dish for Peruvians and it was actually quite tasty - the little bit we had on top of the casserole reminded me of tender pork.

    Novotel, Cusco

  8. Moray, Maras & Ollantaytambo - june 15

    I woke up feeling good this morning for the first time in three days and managed to put down some breakfast. Nina, however, had a rough night and skipped breakfast altogether, while Mana and Anil perked up with a complimentary dose of oxygen. After breakfast Dad, Keith and I got an early start and walked a couple of blocks to see the surviving walls of Inca Roca's former palace. Inca Roca was a 14th century Inca king and only the second to build a personal palace outside the Sun Temple. Though the block-sized palace was destroyed during the conquest, the lower walls and royal entryway survived when a Spanish marquis built a mansion atop them (today the building hosts the Museum of Religious Art). The entryway featured a royal double-jam doorway with regular stone courses, though a couple of multi-faceted blocks broke up the pattern and added some interest. The real attraction though was the intact polygonal-stone wall facing a narrow pedestrian boulevard. The blocks were large, seamlessly pieced together and "pillowed" out from the joints, casting deep shadows to highlight the distinctive contours. The wall is especially famous for its "twelve-angle stone", which was justifiably interesting given how much effort it must have taken to shape it.

    We returned to the Urubamba River Valley today for more sight-seeing, this time in the direction of Ollantaytambo. We paused to take in a panorama of rolling farmland and distant mountains before crisscrossing the countryside towards Moray. Moray was unique among Incan sites in that it wasn't a palace, temple or fort. Instead, it appears to have been an agricultural research center where Incan scientists studied the effect of temperature and humidity on crop yields. By constructing a series of concentric terraces in a large natural depression the clever scientists were able to exploit natural microclimates in which the temperature variance from the top terrace to the bottom was up to 20F. By simultaneously growing specific varieties of corn, potatoes and other staples on different levels the scientists could determine the optimal growing conditions and help maximize crop yields throughout the Incan Altiplano.

    Nearby we had an opportunity to visit another engineering curiosity: the salt pans of Maras. Millions of years ago the surrounding hills were at the bottom of the sea. As the Andes pushed upward the water retreated and large salt deposits were left behind and eventually buried. Today, an underground stream flows through the deposits and absorbs the sea salt, carrying the salt to the surface and then draining into the Urubamba River. For over 1000 years local peoples have been "farming" the tiny stream by diverting the flow of water through a cascade of artificial terraces carved into the hillside. Open an irrigation channel, fill a terrace with an inch or two of water, wait a week for the water to evaporate and then repeat. Once the salt has accreted to about four inches thick the farmer scrapes it up, packs it out on the back of a mule and begins the whole process over again. Although each family owns one or two terraces with which to make a living, the entire community works together to share the water supply and ensure their mutual success.

    Our first glimpse of the terraces from atop an overlooking ridgeline was incredible and nearly blinding; thousands of small white pools cascaded down the side of a narrow valley. The top-down view gave us an excellent feel for the scale of the operation, but it was our walk through the terraces that was truly fascinating. While most tour groups simply roam about the top of the terraces, Ana led us on a hike through the middle of the terraces and on down to the Urubamba River. Though the ledges of the pools were sometimes narrow, the salt encrusted on the surface provided excellent traction. Up close, we could follow the web of irrigation channels that fed the pools and observe the texture of the salt in various stages of collection. Bizarre salt formations piled up in overflow ditches and unused terraces like miniature mountain ranges or piles of fluffy snowballs. After thirty minutes wandering among the pools we continued our hike down to the river where we met our bus for the short drive to a lovely buffet lunch in a charming countryside hacienda (complete with a red macaw). The highlight of meal was the purple corn pudding with plum desert, which was overpoweringly sweet and syrup-like on its own, but when paired with rice pudding made for a fantastic treat.

    No tour of the Sacred Valley would be complete without a visit to Ollantaytambo. We pulled up in the late afternoon when the iconic religious sector was in shadow, but across the river the old Incan granaries once used for storing food and weapons glowed in the light. The town itself featured some of the original Incan streets, canals and buildings mixed in among more recent constructions. It might have been nice to spend a day poking about, but our tour was focused on the imposing religious sector perched atop a jagged ridge at the back of town. Steep, manmade terraces ascended the ridge to its peak, creating a formidable defensive position from which Manco Inca was able to defeat the Spaniards during his brief uprising.

    The religious center on top of the ridge was incomplete, perhaps only half finished when the Inca hastily abandoned the site and retreated into the jungle. Consequently, it offered a superb opportunity to study the ancient construction techniques. Enormous blocks of red porphyry (pink granite) weighing up to 90 tons each were transported across the valley and up a manmade slope to the summit, where interlocking joints were carved and the stones were hoisted into position. The Inca had successfully erected one wall of the temple before leaving, but a number of other monoliths lay incomplete. Some were being chiseled smooth, others were being lifted into position, and still others, we were told, lay abandoned in the valley between here and the quarry. Seeing the workmanship in such intimate detail gave us a new appreciation for the engineering prowess of the Inca.

    After a brief stop in Urubamba to visit the Seminario Ceramic studio (which I can highly recommend given the quality of the work) we checked into our lovely hotel in downtown Yucay. Keith, Dad and I had drinks in the bar before joining the group for dinner at an attractive hotel just up the street. It was colder here than in Cusco, so I enjoyed a hot shower before settling in for the night.

    Posada del Inca Hotel, Yucay

  9. Machu Picchu - june 16

    Excitement tinged with anticipation was the mood all morning as we journeyed deep into the Sacred Valley in pursuit of the crown jewel of the Andes and the highlight of our trip: Machu Picchu. The adventure began in Ollantaytambo where we caught the train for a scenic ninety-minute ride through the Urubamba River valley. The single-car train looked like a large trolley with comfortable seats and a small conductor's cabin at either end. Large windows and arching skylights offered panoramic views of the lush valley. Incan terraces lined the river banks, ancient ruins dotted the slopes and a slender suspension bridge spanned the gorge just as an Incan bridge did some 500 years earlier. By the time we arrived in Aguas Calientes we had dropped more than 3,000ft into a cloud forest, not far from where the Andes thrust defiantly out of the jungle.

    Our first stop was the Inkaterra Pueblo Hotel, our home for the next two nights, where we freshened up, enjoyed some tea and wandered the grounds while the staff readied our rooms. Despite the close proximity of booming Aguas Calientes, the hotel's wood-beamed cottages were nestled amid an oasis of tranquility on the bank of the Urubamba River. We strolled the overgrown pathways and enjoyed the waterfalls, orchid gardens and flitting hummingbirds. Near the back of the property I was investigating a little-used side trail when a large red bird took flight not ten feet away and soared across the river and into the forest. With an extended look at it, and in complete disbelief, I immediately identified it as a male Andean Cock-of-the-rock, a distinctive and magnificent bird best known as the national bird of Peru. They are generally shy so it was no surprise that I unwittingly flushed it.

    Finally, around 11:30 we boarded a bus for the twisting 1200ft ascent to the ruins. Unlike Hiram Bingham, who scrambled up this slope in 1911 and "discovered" the site, we knew what lay ahead, though our experience was delayed a bit while we enjoyed an expansive buffet lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge. The ruins weren't visible from the lodge or the ticketing booth, so when Ana led us up the trail to the guardhouse our first view of Machu Picchu was a classic panorama with Huayna Picchu towering overhead. After posing for the requisite family shots and self-portraits we assembled on a terrace while Ana recounted the history of the site.

    The best available evidence suggests that Machu Picchu was built in the mid 15th century as a royal estate for the emperor Pachacuti. It likely housed a small population of up to 1000 individuals who were responsible for serving Pachacuti even after his death - Incan emperors were mummified and their remains revered indefinitely. Despite its beautiful and highly-defensible location, Machu Picchu was too remote to remain relevant as the Incan empire crumbled under the weight of a nasty smallpox epidemic, a divisive civil war and the swift advance of the Spanish Conquistadores. By the mid 16th century, less than 100 years after its construction, Machu Picchu lay abandoned.

    Over the next 350 years the Peruvian jungle retook the city and Machu Picchu faded from memory. Known only to local villagers and subsistence farmers (who utilized the fine terraces), it is likely that the occasional adventurer stumbled upon the ruins but it wasn't until Hiram Bingham arrived in 1911 that the full scope of the site was uncovered and brought to the world's attention.

    Location. Location. Location. Thousands of Incan ruins litter the Peruvian landscape but none is more perfectly situated than Machu Picchu. Perched 1200ft above a sharp bend in the Urubamba River and cradled by towering peaks to the north and south, the city rests upon a natural throne with unrivaled views of the mighty Andes Mountains. A lush cloud forest blankets the slopes for miles around, preserving the natural vistas that inspired the Incas more than 500 years ago.

    After the history lesson Ana led us on a two-hour tour of the ruins. The city's agricultural terraces lay behind us, cascading down the slopes of Machu Picchu Mountain, while the urban center spanned the ridge ahead, split down the middle by a wide ceremonial plaza. Our tour began at the quarry, where a jagged collection of boulders underscored the manual labor required to fashion the city's granite building blocks. From there we wandered onto the Sacred Plaza where three large, unfinished buildings were likely being fashioned into temples when the city was abandoned. Also, in a rare case of faulty Incan engineering, the east wall of the Principal Temple settled shortly after being erected - the weight of the immense blocks had apparently been miscalculated.

    Behind the Sacred Plaza we climbed an impressive stone stairway to the urban zone's highest point. Stacked atop a pyramid of steep terraces the platform at the top featured a pair of interesting carved stones. The first was an "image stone" shaped to mimic the profile of the mountains across the valley. The second was the Intiwatana Stone, an in-place boulder at the peak of the pyramid that had been whittled into a series of smooth planes with a large rectangular protuberance in the middle. The quality of the workmanship was almost sculptural; this must have been an important ceremonial spot, though the inspiration for the design remains a mystery. Perhaps it functioned as an unusual sundial, or maybe it was simply an abstract representation of Huayna Picchu Mountain.

    We crossed the plaza into the lower sector of the city where a pair of reconstructed buildings demonstrated the style of thatched roofs employed by the Incas. We continued exploring the sector's many buildings, which were arranged in kanchas, or households, each with a primary entrance and two-to-four rooms arranged around a patio. Interesting sights in this area included a room with a pair of embedded "mortars" of unknown purpose, a couple of two-story storehouses, a shrine with a small stage, graceful in situ stairways and fantastic mountain views.

    The Temple of the Condor was our next stop. The triangular religious complex was arranged around a peculiar natural rock formation that resembled the wings and head of an enormous condor. Incan stoneworkers completed the imagery by carving a beak and adding a ruff, while Incan engineers massaged the complex terrain into a collection of irregular buildings, distinctive shrines, underground caves and a private fountain. The stonework here wasn't as elegant as in the Sacred Plaza, but 500 years ago the walls were probably plastered over.

    From the temple we climbed a long, straight stairway back to the upper sector. The stairway ran parallel to a network of 16 simple fountains that served as the city's water supply. By locating the city half way down Machu Picchu Mountain the ingenious Incan engineers were able to divert stream water from the mountain top through shallow canals and into the city. The topmost fountain was considered the "purest" and was located in the venerable Temple of the Sun. The stonework of the Temple was the most impressive in the city and included one particularly striking wall with regular courses of perfectly cut stone that Bingham described as "the most beautiful wall in America". The focal point of the Temple was a circular room enclosing a creatively shaped stone designed to catch the light of the summer solstice sunrise as it passed through an open window. Across the stairway from the Temple was the Royal Residence, a carefully crafted kancha where it is believed the Incan emperor resided.

    That was pretty much the end of the tour. On the way out we got our passports stamped (for fun - not required) and once back in Aguas Calientes we split up - Anil and Mana took a nap, Dad had a look about town and the rest of us explored the large handicraft market. We all met back at the hotel for dinner where the group celebrated Mana's birthday with a small cake and a round of Happy Birthday.

    Inkaterra Pueblo Hotel, Aguas Calientes

  10. Machu Picchu - june 17

    One of the reasons we chose REI Adventures for this trip was that they offered a full day to explore Machu Picchu - most itineraries only allow for an afternoon and the following morning. After a hearty buffet breakfast we took advantage of our extra day by joining the group for a strenuous climb to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain. Meanwhile, Anil and Mana opted for a less demanding adventure by hiking to an Incan bridge on the opposite face of the mountain.

    From the top of the southern terraces we followed a faint but well-trodden Inca trail into the forest. Almost immediately we began an unrelenting uphill climb. Dad partnered up with Nick, who was an experienced hiker and was kind enough to offer Dad one of his hiking poles. The rest of us hung back a bit, pausing frequently to admire the striking vegetation (colorful orchids, mosses and other tropical species) and to peer through gaps in the foliage for amazing views of the Urubamba River gorge and the increasingly distant ruins of Machu Picchu. It was a difficult climb by any standard - something like 3000ft over three miles - and especially so with the equatorial sun beating down on us. We huffed and puffed our way up though, aided occasionally by 500-year-old rock-cut stairways, and we achieved the summit in about two and half hours.

    We all had the same thought at the top and made straight for the gazebo where we rested up and enjoyed a snack. It was cool and breezy up there, which hastened our recovery, and it wasn't long before we were taking in the incredible view. All around us the snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountains gleamed brilliantly while below us the Urubamba River curled around Machu Picchu like a silver ribbon. With a zoom lens we spotted tourists exploring the steep ruins atop Huayna Picchu - Rupa and I had done our own exploring up there four years ago, but nowadays you have to queue up before sunrise to be assured a visit. We all took turns having our photo taken with Machu Picchu spread out below and then began the long descent back the way we came. As expected the descent went far more quickly, and we were back on Machu Picchu's southern terraces within an hour and a half.

    Most of the group went back to the hotel after the hike (the Patel's had arranged for a 3pm nature tour), but Nick, Dad, Keith and I joined one of our guides for a short hike out to the Inca bridge. It was an easy hike, flat and level, thanks to the engineering prowess of the Incas. The trail hugged the sheer cliff face along the backside of Machu Picchu Mountain out to a narrow man-made ledge with a 20-foot-long gap cut out of it. The Incas used this gap as a type of drawbridge. Lay some logs down and you have a bridge, pull them up and the path becomes impassable. The precarious bridge was off limit to tourists, but from our vantage point on the near side we could trace the path of the overgrown trail as it weaved its way across the vertical wall.

    After some late-afternoon photography at Machu Picchu we joined the group for dinner back at the hotel. Exhausted, stuffed and facing an early morning wake-up call we called it a day.

    Inkaterra Pueblo Hotel, Aguas Calientes

  11. Machu Picchu - june 18

    We were up and checked out of the hotel by 6:15, and we arrived up at the ruins just in time to catch the sun's rays peek over the mountains and light up Huayna Picchu from the top down. While the Patels and most of the group took off on a three hour hike to the Sun Gate, Dad, Keith and I remained behind to explore the city on our own terms. The morning light was lovely, particularly on the tourist-free terraces below the lower urban sector - a wonderful area to slow down and soak up the beauty and spirit of this ancient estate.

    Before departing Aguas Calientes we all did a bit of shopping in the town's large handicraft market and stuffed ourselves with a buffet lunch. We then boarded the train for the return trip to Ollantaytambo, and from there our bus driver returned us to the Novotel in Cusco. Although we were free to find our own dinner we all decided to join Ana at the restaurant she owns with her boyfriend. The barrel-vaulted ceiling and earthy tones created a cozy atmosphere where we enjoyed the finest sit-down meal of the trip. My grilled alpaca fillet with pan sauce was especially tasty, while Dad couldn't get enough of his sumptuously creamy mandarin sorbet. It was a wonderfully relaxing way to spend our final evening in the heart of the Incan empire.

    Novotel, Cusco

  12. Lima - june 19

    Today was the last day of our trip and we were finally able to enjoy an easy, relaxing morning. We didn't wake up till 8am and we still had two hours to pack up, check out and grab a hearty breakfast before leaving for the airport. The flight over the Andes was spectacular, and as we flew north along the coast we could easily make out the dense sea mist (called the garua) that often obscures Lima but leaves the rest of the coast bright and sunny - Pizarro would have been better advised to place his "City of the Kings" a little to the north or south.

    A whirlwind tour awaited us in Lima. Unfortunately, it involved more driving around town than sightseeing. The highlights were the city's Plaza de Armas (a very brief photo stop) and the impressive Museo Larco. Our guide gave us an informative and well-thought-out tour of the museum, but given the museum's expansive collection of pre-Columbian artifacts I had hoped we'd have more time to explore on our own. The museum had an incredible collection of ceramics with some of the more iconic pieces out for display. Most were used as drinking vessels and fashioned into animal shapes - cats, dogs, owls, monkeys, etc. The museum also had a nice collection of woven textiles, including two astonishing feathered shawls/blankets.

    Another unique piece was an authentic quipu (only 600 are known to exist), which was a type of recording device used by the Incas. Quipus are quite simple looking - arrays of knotted strings - but with dozens of strings and hundreds of knots the complexity allowed them to be used as either bookkeeping ledgers or as pneumonic devices to assist in storytelling. Also impressive was the museum's collection of Inca gold and silver. Though very few artifacts remain (the conquistadores melted them all down into bricks), the small assortment on display here helped us appreciate the importance that gold played in Incan religious rituals.

    The Larco also featured two special exhibits. The first was a large storage room filled with tens of thousands of ancient ceramic drinking vessels. The vessels ranged in size from a few inches to over a foot in diameter, most of them shaped to represent animals and ceremonial figures. Dozens of wooden shelves were stacked two-deep, floor-to-ceiling with the colorful artwork, which was grouped according to shape - a flock of owls here, a pack of dogs over there, and an army of frogs across the aisle.

    The second special exhibit was the erotic artwork gallery. The ceramics here were a mix of drinking vessels and statuary, and most left little to the imagination. Taken together they represented a sort of three-dimensional pre-Colombian Kama Sutra. Various erotic positions and acts were on display, and not always of the human kind - cats, mice, monkeys and camelids also joined in the fun. Suitable body parts were often exaggerated, and in one case the artist even portrayed a particularly nasty STD. I suspect that many of these sculptures were the pornography of the day, hidden away and only brought out for inspiration.

    After the museum we drove back across town for a nice goodbye dinner and then returned to the airport, where we said goodbye to Anil, Mana and Nina who were departing on an evening flight. The rest of us weren't leaving till the morning, so we checked into the airport hotel, relaxed in the bar with pisco sours and retired to our rooms for a short night's sleep.

    Ramada Costa del Sol, Lima

  13. Lima to Ohio - june 20

    We were up at 3:45am for our return flight home, which wasn't really a problem since we proceeded to sleep the entire six hours to Miami. We had a long layover, but internet access was cheap and we were able to entertain ourselves by catching up on news and email. Our connecting flight to Detroit was uneventful, and by 2am we were crawling into bed at my parent's house in Ohio.

    Findlay, Ohio