Andrea & I in Cusco

Being in South America has way more perks than I would have expected, and being so close to so many unique and amazing countries is definitely one of them. On July 12th my friend Andrea and I met in the metro to head to the airport to catch our flight to Peru. She had invited me to tag along with her to meet two of her Colombian friends in Peru for a week-long vacation so of course I said yes. We got to Cusco later that evening and Andrea negotiated a cab ride to our hotel for 1/3 the initial offer. And that was my first lesson of many in haggling for things from cab rides to souvenirs. In the US we don’t have the option to pay a lower price most of the time, but in Peru and other South American countries haggling is the norm so I needed a few tips and tricks on how to get a lower price for things, but more on that later. We checked into our hotel and met up with the other two Colombianos, Andrea S. and Miquel (Mike). We walked together through the Plaza de Armas of Cusco, bought some snacks for the next day, and had supper at a restaurant.

Day #2 consisted of a full day tour of the Valle Sagrado, or Sacred Valley of the Inca’s. It is N-NW of the city of Cusco and there are literally ruins all over the place. Cusco was the center of the Incan Empire, being constructed in the shape of a puma. Our first stop after leaving Cusco was Pisaq, an incredible example of how advanced the Incan’s were in agriculture. This site was a seasonal growing area for Incan crops such as corn, quinoa, and potatoes. The agricultural terraces were accompanied by huts for the workers to stay in while they tended the fields during the day. The next stop was the site at Ollantaytambo. This is where the Inca trail begins to Machu Picchu and is the site of the Temple of the Sun. There were many houses built here and not as many terraces. We stayed here the 2nd night as the train to Machu Picchu leaves from here. The next morning we explored the city, which still has the Incan water channels running through the streets, and did a short hike to get a view of the valley along with other ruins. Later that day I took my first train ride through the stunning valley to the city of Aguas Calientes, the last stop before Machu Picchu.

The ruins of Machu Picchu 

Aguas Calientes is a city of literally only hotels, restaurants, and gift shops. Thousands of tourists stay here every night en route to see one of the seven wonders of the world, so this town is the most touristy town I’ve even been to in my life. We heard French, English, Spanish, Portugese, German, and who knows what else being spoken in the streets. There was always some sort of band or music playing, and a small parade of elaborately dressed children made their way through the central plaza at one point in the night. I have come to notice that this is a common occurrence in South American cities, as music and traditional dances are a very important part of the culture. We went to bed early after shopping for snacks to eat while up at Machu Picchu because we planned on getting in line for the buses (which start at 5:30am) a little before 5am to make it up in time to join our tour group. The morning of our Machu Picchu day we waited in a huge line of people who were all hoping to see the sunrise from the top of the mountain and catch the first bus up. The air was very humid and it wasn’t very cold. The dark mountains seemed eerie as the fog moved around them. We finally got on a bus at 6am and were at the entrance gates by 6:30am, along with a gigantic crowd of people waiting to get in. When we finally got through the gates and saw the ruins for the first time, all the waiting and crowds were worth it. The fog was slowly lifting from the ancient Incan city and Huayna Picchu, the famous mountain you see in pictures behind the city, was becoming more clear. We listened to the guide talk about the history of the ruins and then did a short walking tour through a small part of the city. The Incan’s had divided the city into an agricultural sector (again with the terraces) and a living sector (with temples and homes). Machu Picchu wasn’t actually finished yet, however, and the quarry where they sourced the stones is still located on the mountain.

After the guided tour we had tickets to hike to the top of the mountain named Machu Picchu, which means “old mountain” in the Incan language Quechua. It was an hour and half hike of stairs, and by the end we were all extremely tired and baking in the sun. The view made the Incan city look miniscule and the surrounding jungle and Andean peaks look endless. The hike down was more challenging, however, due to the very steep steps, lots of people, and the lack of railings. Back at the bottom we explored the rest of the city and saw the Puente de Inca, or Incan bridge, built into the side of a huge rock face. We took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes after an exhausting and amazing day at Machu Picchu. That night we took a train and bus back to Cusco to do more tours and sight-seeing the next day.

Ruins of Tipon

When Andrea and I woke up the next day, we both felt feverish from the changes in altitude and swings in climate but we still went on the half-day tour of the Valle del Sur, or Southern Valley. On this tour we saw the ruins of Pikillaqkta and Tipon and also tried the bread at Peru’s national bread capital. Pikillaqkta means “City of fleas” and is actually the ruins of a city that existed 300-400 years before the Incans. This ancient city of the Wari people is also bigger than the city of Machu Picchu. They are known for their good urban planning, although the Wari people had to trek down to a lake to get water everyday, something the Incan’s never had to do as they chose their city locations based on water availability. Tipon is another Incan ruin, and focused entirely on agriculture. Here the Incan’s tapped into the groundwater supply and fashioned an irrigation system so effective and perfect that water still flows through their channels today after hundreds of years. These terraces were built with channels around the edges and as the water flowed downhill they could blockade the terraces to periodically flood the fields to grow their crops. Tipon is also known as the Temple of Water, as there is a small temple built where the water originates from the mountain. Tipon was one of my
favorite stops. The 2nd half of the day we did the city tour where we toured the archeological sites around Cusco. The main stop of this tour were the ruins at Saqsaywamen, located right outside Cusco. These are thought to have been made in the Inca’s military-style, made with gigantic stones. Other stops included Qengo, Pukapukara, and Tambomachay.

Lago Titikaka from the top of Taquile Island

That night we took a 6 hour bus from Cusco to Puno, a Peruvian city on the edge of Lago Titikaka, the highest altitude lake in the world on the border between Peru and Bolivia. We were all extremely tired but did a boat day tour on the lake to visit two islands: one real island and one man-made island. The man-made islands are made by the Uros people and are made out of reeds that effectively float the island. We stopped at one of them to learn about their culture and took a ride on one of their reed boats. It was crazy to think that people really live there, with only a few belongings in the middle of a lake. The 2nd island we visited was the 2nd largest island in the lake: Taquile Island. It is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site because the Taquilenos who live there still honor their old cultural traditions. These people wear the traditional dress and honor very old traditions like weaving the hair of deceased ancestors into their wedding gifts. It was a beautiful view of the lake and the Andes from the top and a great way to top off the lake tour. We took the bus back to Cusco that night again and the next morning Andrea and I visited some museums and the craft markets before catching our plane back to Santiago. I never thought I would have the chance to travel to Peru and see all the amazing things I did, but I am so glad I did. Every part of the trip was amazing and I still can’t grasp the beauty of Machu Picchu and the other ruins in my mind. Definitely an amazing trip that I was able to share with my great friend Andrea.

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