Sunday, July 26, 2009


DAY ONE It was the end of May when my friend Emily from Atlanta, Georgia, and I boarded a LAN flight from Lima to Cusco. I was excited for her because it was her first visit to Peru and for me because (even as a native Peruvian) I had visited Cusco only once and that had been in 1968!

I envisioned landing in Cusco and thought how exhilarating it was going to be to see the city from above, but what a disappointment! We had been assigned seats on the last row of the plane and we didn't have a window! We eventually took a taxi ride up the hill of Cristo Blanco (the white statue of Christ that stands guard over Cusco with open arms) and on the way up we took this panoramic photo of the city.

Cusco is located at an altitude of over 11,000 feet. My sister Connie had instructed us to request coca tea before landing to avoid soroche (altitude sickness). We did that and continued drinking coca for 9 days! It must work because we felt nothing of the kind. In fact, we were quite content.

After we checked into the hotel, we walked to the main plaza where we both were "persuaded" to buy a wide brim hat. They turned out to be a great purchase as we wore them constantly. (Well, Emily had bought it for her dad so she only borrowed it twice.) With our hats on we wandered about some more until, all of a sudden, lo and behold a pizzeria appeared in front of us. We went in for pizza!

That afternoon our tour bus took us to the Convento de Santo Domingo built over Koricancha, the Inca's Temple of the Sun, where two drawings caught my interest.

In the center of the first one, Cusco resembles the sun from where roads irradiate like sunrays connecting towns represented by dots. The second drawing shows secondary roads linking those dots. Undoubtedly, a remarkable road network that covered thousands of miles from Ecuador, through Peru to Argentina and Chile. Chasquis, or runners, acting as the postal messengers of present day, transported through those roads messages and supplies at extraordinary speed

We continued to the outskirts of Cusco to visit the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, Quenqo, Pucapucara and Tambomachay. By the time we arrived in Sacsayhuaman it was around 4 p.m. It was almost 12 hours since we had left Lima. At the site of the first flat stone Emily decided to rest her feet. I explored a little further to see the biggest piece of stone in the compound which is said to weigh 361 tons!!

When we arrived in Tambomachay, some people decided to stay in the bus. I followed the walking group instead. At that point I wasn't sure that I would had the stamina to complete the visit but I decided to try. It began to mist, it was getting dark, it was windy, I was cold and I couldn't even see the finish line. It was then when I retreated and walked back to the entrance to have my picture taken to have it documented that I had made it that far, 3765 meters above see level or 12352 ft.!

That evening we indulged in a steak dinner at a local restaurant. It wasn't the best of meals but it was enough to fortify us and with the included pisco sour we were ready for bed!

DAY TWO We woke up at 6 the next morning rejuvenated. We took a hot shower, got dressed and went down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. We were greeted with a hearty breakfast buffet that consisted of eggs, cold cuts, cheese, fruit, a variety of bread, hot milk, juices, espresso and tea. After breakfast, we boarded the bus that was to take us to the Sacred Valley of the Incas. With such a romantic name it was no surprise to find that the ride through the mountains to the valley gave me a sense of peace. It is not until one sees the terraces which were built for agriculture purposes, that one can assess the strength, vigor, determination and the superb architectural ability of the civilization that built them. We saw some from the bus but I was overwhelmed when I saw them at close range at Pisac. In the words of Hiram Bingham: "Terraces are found in many countries.. but is very doubtful whether any equal those constructed by the Incas."

As we were leaving Pisac, I met a little girl and her baby pet (sheep?). It was love at first sight.

The furthest northwest point from Cusco of our excursion was Ollantaytambo. Here we saw the face on the mountain across the ruins. There are two versions of it. One describes it as a natural rock formation and the other one as man-made. I am trying to find out which of these two versions is true. If you know, let me know.

We ended the day with a visit to the picturesque village of Chincheros and a session on the art of dyeing. By the way, did you know that the color red is obtained from the cochineal insect that lives on cactus? It is used to dye yarn, foods and for cosmetics. Supposedly it is kiss proof!

After this educational session, we walked to the main plaza where Emily bought an alpaca blanket.

DAY THREE Today we were scheduled to take the train to Aguas Calientes but a demonstration disrupted transportation and train service was cancelled. We spent part of the day roaming the streets of Cusco on foot and later hired a cab to drive us around for a couple of hours.

One thing that I must mention is that the streets of downtown Cusco are immaculately clean and free of any debris. There are no beggars, instead, everyone is a merchant and there are all kinds of clothing and artifacts to buy on the streets.

In the evening we dined at Nonna Trattoria located "exactly" 52 steps from our hotel (we know it because Emily counted them). It was a delightful dinner. It included an appetizer of tomato, basil and mozzarella cheese followed by spaghetti with pesto, garlic bread and one pisco sour each at the cost of approximately US$12.00 for two. What a bargain!

If you remember, on our first day in Cusco we had pizza. Now, on our last day we find ourselves having pasta. Maybe we should've gone to Italy!! Tomorrow to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.


Our excursion to Machu Picchu began early in the morning of May 28 by van from Cusco to Poroy's railway station and by train to Aguas Calientes for overnight. Because our travel arrangements did not include transportation from Aguas Calientes' railway station to the hotel, I was a bit concerned about how to get from the station to the latter. My concern quickly vanished when the train pulled into the station and I looked out the window. The hotel was right across the railroad tracks!

"Aguas Calientes" means "hot waters" and the town got its name because of its natural hot springs. Emily and I went to take a peek at their outdoor thermal baths but it makes me sad to confess that they didn't attract me in the least.

However, the town is so enchanting that for a moment I considered moving in. I was fascinated by the charming bridges, the quaint atmosphere and particularly by this vendor with four legs. What intrigued me most was all the construction activity that was going on. Emily surmised that what these construction workers were doing was manufacturing sand and concrete from scratch! We had found them cutting stones (maybe splitting describes it better) in the river and also noticed some of them operating machines that were probably crushing the stone pieces and converting them into sand. We were so enthralled with the whole operation that Emily bought each of them a bottle of water and they all cheered! After all this excitement, we walked towards the plaza and had lunch across from the cathedral. In this next picture, notice the partial view of the statue to the left of the cathedral. It is that of Inca Pachacutec. Pachacutec, conqueror and builder of Machu Picchu, was the ninth Inca who devoted his entire life to spread the inca civilization beyond the boundaries of what Peru is today and made Cusco the center of the great Inca Empire, Tawantisuyo.

Aguas Calientes is not only popular because it is so enchanting but because of its proximity to Machu Picchu. It is about 6 kilometers away (3.7 miles) and offers two ways to reach Machu Picchu. One can either walk or take a bus. It is about a 30-minute bus ride on a zigzagging road through the mountain or (and I read this somewhere) about 1.5-hour on foot. We decided to take the bus as we were in a hurry. Honest!

One important factor about this bus trip option though was that in order to see the sunrise, we had to be at the station at 5 a.m. and take the first bus. We went to bed early and requested a wake-up call for 4 the next morning.

Next, Machu Picchu.


The phone in our hotel room in Aguas Calientes rang at 4 in the morning. That meant that it was time to get up and get ready to walk to the station to take the bus to Machu Picchu.

Normally when I am in unfamiliar territory I check directions thoroughly beforehand, but we were so confident that we could follow the map that this time I didn't. Wrong! We ended up at the train station instead. Conveniently though, Aguas Calientes is a small town and one cannot get lost for long. A guard at the train station pointed the way and we hurriedly walked over the bridge to the other side. Soon after, we were standing in line in the darkness of the morning.

The idea behind taking the first bus was to arrive in Machu Picchu in time to see the sunrise. As you can see, that same idea had been in the mind of many. There were at least a hundred people and it took a while for all of us to board the buses. After the 30-min ride, we had to stand in line again to go through the entrance gate and by the time we all went through it, the sun had already risen. So much for that idea!

During the bus ride to Machu Picchu I had been absorbed by the view of the forested mountains and they were still surrounding us as we proceeded up the path to the ruins. I cannot get over what happened next. All of a sudden as we turned around one side of the mountain, there it was Machu Picchu presenting itself to us in all its might. It was like an apparition and my heart almost stopped!

At this point I must mention that what we had in front of us may very well be Vilcapampa, "the lost city of the Incas". The one Inca city the Spaniards never reached and never destroyed.

When in 1911 Hiram Bingham was in the Urubamba region searching for Vilcapampa, he got word that there were some "very good ruins" on the ridge between Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. He writes: "The Ruins ..are called the ruins of Machu Picchu because when we found them no one knew what else to call them.... even though no one now disputes that this was the site of ancient Vicapampa."

As we explored the city, I noticed that the architects of Machu Picchu did not build many windows. As it's human nature, whenever I saw one I found myself looking out.

From the inside out, it is indeed a dramatic contrast between the solid stone construction and the untouched world on the other side.

There are many stairways (over a hundred I understand) and we climbed as many as we could. Not all of them, obviously, because if we had I wouldn't be here now writing this.

One of those stairways took us to the Intihuatana Stone, 'the place to which the sun is tied'. My mind must have wandered during the explanation as I didn't clearly understand what was said so I resorted to the Internet (where else!) to help me make sense of it.

The best explanation I found was at:

"One of Machu Picchu's primary functions was that of astronomical observatory. The Intihuatana stone (meaning 'Hitching Post of the Sun') has been shown to be a precise indicator of the date of the two equinoxes... At midday on March 21 and September 21, the sun stands almost directly above the pillar, creating no shadow at all.. At this precise moment the sun 'sits' ... upon the 'pillar' and is for a moment 'tied' to the rock."

Our guide also emphasized the Inca's knowledge of physics and he brought to our attention one of the corners of the nub that protrudes from the stone. He said that it points directly to the earth's north magnetic pole and if we had a compass we could try it. We did and it worked!

What I find so amazing about this place that we call ruins is that is so intact.

Our guide showed us a picture of what Machu Picchu City might have looked with thatched roofs. I thought, the only thing missing here are the roofs! I seriously believe that if roofs are placed over the structures, one can probably reenact life in Machu Picchu as it was back then.

At midday we returned to Aguas Calientes for lunch and I took a moment to stand by the side of the river lost in thought reliving the experience I just had.

In a previous section I mentioned that I went to Cusco in 1968. Machu Picchu had been the primary reason for that trip. Before then and after I have seen so many photographs of it that I couldn't imagine discovering anything new. True indeed. What I wasn't prepared for was the emotion I felt as I saw the ruins once again. It was a combination of pride, amazement and disbelief. When one considers the tremendous human effort that must have required to build this city, one cannot possibly stand there without feeling great respect for its architects and its builders. If it weren't because it exists, I would've said that it was impossible to build it.

That afternoon, we left Aguas Calientes on the 3 o'clock train to Cusco to spend the night and leave the next morning to Puno and Lake Titicaca.

See you then!


When we first reviewed the itinerary, a 9-hour bus ride from Cusco to Puno seemed an incredibly long trip. We considered taking the train as we presumed it would be faster but in fact it would have taken a bit longer. Thus, we rode the bus. It turned out to be an enlightening experience.


Our first stop was in Andahuaylillas, home of The Church of Saint Peter Apostle built by Jesuits in the early XVII century. Because of its unpretentious exterior, I was stunned when I stepped inside. The church is filled with art treasures and ornamental woodwork covered in gold leaf. Due to the magnificence of its interior, the church is also known as the Sistine Chapel of the Andes.

This is a photo of the inside of the church from a postcard that I bought in the church.


The Temple of Wiracocha, in Racchi, was built by Inca Wiracocha, the 8th Inca ruler, in honor of the God Wiracocha from whom he adopted his name.

Even now after its destruction by the Spaniards one can still assess, by what's left, the temple's enormity. The design consisted of a central wall (estimated at 54 ft. in height) and 11 circular columns on each side of the wall. These were toppled by a sloped roof that is believed to have been the largest roof ever built by the Incas. Still present, are the living quarters and storage barns.


We made a stop for lunch at a restaurant (whose name escapes me) located right on the side of the road. It was an attractive restaurant with impeccable restroom facilities of which everyone took advantage. Before leaving, I took this picture of the road we had travelled. At the far end is Racchi, the town we had just left.


La Raya, literally translated means "The Line", probably because it is the dividing line between Cusco and Puno regions. At an altitude of 4,338 meters (14,150 ft. above sea level), it was the highest point of the trip. Here we saw the train going by in the opposite direction en route to Cusco.


This is the town where the famous "Toritos de Pucara" (little bulls that represent prosperity) are manufactured. Our guide told us that for good luck one should place two of them plus a cross on top of the roof of the house. As we rode along, he pointed them to us and we saw them on many roofs. At home I have this one. I will have to get another one to make a pair even though I will probably not put them on the roof.


Juliaca is the largest city in the region. Our guide described it as an important commercial capital but also referred to it as a center of contraband and counterfeiting. From the bus, on the way across the city, we could see multitudes of people doing business at open fairs, markets, shops. Everywhere everyone appeared to be engaged in some commercial activity or busy going from one place to another on foot or "taxicholos".

It was evident that taxicholos are a popular mode of transportation. We saw so many of them to attract our curiosity. Don't quote me, but I think our guide said that there were about 25,000 around the city (...or maybe 15,000?) something like that.

There are two types of these taxis. One is the taxicholo operated by pedals and the other is the mototaxi which is the motorized version. I couldn't take a picture of them from the bus but I took a couple in Puno to show you.

After thousands of years in existence, Juliaca was finally named a city in 1908. Today, however, it looks as if the city is still in the the process of being built. As the bus was reaching the outskirts of the city, we could see outgoing construction everywhere and aside from the main road all secondary roads were unpaved or in need of repair.


No soon we checked into our hotelroom, we headed out to the main plaza and the business district few blocks away. It was already dark and the wind was blowing. And the more we walked we got colder and colder. We were freezing!

I remembered that when we were in Lima packing, I had had in my hand two pairs of gloves to take with us. I don't know what happened between my hand and my luggage but I didn't bring them! At the sight of the first street vendor, we each bought a wool hat and gloves. Emily also bought a medium-size knitted duffle bag which proved to be ad hoc for the situtation that was to come up later.

We didn't have much luck with our choice of restaurant that evening. The service was terrible which I thought strange because there were only a couple of tables occupied. I ordered "anticuchos", a popular Peruvian dish made of pieces of marinated meat, skewered and grilled. lt was by far the worst anticuchos I've ever had. Emily, had ordered pasta and she wasn't too pleased with it either. Meanwhile, the restaurant had been filling up with several tourist groups. I guess that was the answer. They had been so preoccupied getting ready for them that we were more of a bother than anything else.

After this fiasco we returned to the hotel and turned in for the night.

Lake Titicaca follows, first thing in the morning.