The navel of Peru

The Incas worshiped the Andean mountains, and as we traveled onward from Chivay to Cuzco, we could see why. This stretch was probably our longest on the road, but the mountains were endlessly fascinating – snow-capped peaks in vivid colours from ochre to deep charcoal brushing the piercingly blue sky.

The road at Mirador de los Andes

We reached the Mirador le los Andes, the highest point in the road, where a lookout offers stunning views of five volcanic peaks, including El Misti, the mountain looming over Arequipa, and Ampato, the final dramatic resting place of the Ice Maiden. Disembarking at an altitude of 4910 metres (16, 109 feet), we were warned to take things very slowly when we got off the overland truck, lest we pass out from lack of oxygen. The air was bright and cold as we stepped down onto the thin gravel surface, and it felt like we’d suddenly aged thirty years.

An artful rock stack framed by the mountains at Mirador

A small lake of rocks surrounds the lookout, and it’s become a tradition for visitors to build little rock stacks as a prayer to the gods for safe travels. My hubby and I shuffled around and soaked in the remarkable feeling of standing on the roof of the world, and I unexpectedly understood what drives the Mt Everest climbers: the exhilaration of both seeing what your body is capable of and experiencing sights so profound we were speechless.

The peaks of the Andes are a world unto themselves, with llama farms in the middle of nowhere, odd little outposts dotting the wide plateaus, small villages where people still carry on in the old ways, entrepreneurial women selling their beautiful textiles along the roadsides, and pockets of shimmering blue lakes.

It was growing dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Cuzco, and when I asked the driver to stop for a bathroom break, we discovered that our ailing passenger had relapsed and wasn’t able to walk. I spoke to our overall tour leader and as soon as we reached our hotel, the three of us made a beeline to a small hospital, my traveler head resting on my shoulder for the ride, while everyone else checked into their rooms.

Plaza de Armas at night

The hospital immediately ran a battery of tests, and confirmed what I’d suspected: more altitude sickness, which had driven my traveler blood pressure sky high, coupled with a reaction to the antibiotic that the doctor in Chivay had prescribed. She was put on IV to get her pressure back under control, and a different antibiotic. I processed the travel insurance information as our tour leader translated for me with her far more fluent Spanish.

Finally, exhausted, the leader and I got back to the hotel around 10pm. My hubby had arranged to get some take-out chicken from a little place down the street so that I was able to have a light dinner. Our traveler would remain in the hospital for two days while we moved on to the Amazon jungle the next morning (see my June 25 blog post for the details from that part of our adventure). A few other people who were planning on hiking the Inca Trail also elected to remain in Cuzco to spend more time acclimating. When we returned to Cuzco, she had recovered well and was able to continue on the journey, and the rest of us had acclimated to the altitude as well and were feeling pretty chipper. But we had picked up some additional passengers while we were in the Amazon (the tour could be joined at different points and carried on beyond Bolivia, which was the endpoint for my little group), and they had just experienced a steep change in altitude in a single day, from about 600 feet to over 11,000. Several of them were setting out on the challenging Inca Trail hike the next morning.

None of my group from Canada had wanted to do the 4-day hike, so I’d arranged for our own little adventure,  exploring Cuzco and the Sacred Valley for two days, followed by a train ride along the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu and two nights at a hotel in the midst of the Andean Cloud Forest.

Pachacuti, 9th Sapa Inca

Cuzco was the ancient capital of the Incan Empire, considered the navel of its civilization, and it shows. Spanish conquistadores captured the city in the 1500s and literally built on top of what they’d conquered, but although the native peoples assimilated into the Spanish rule they remained unbowed, their skilled artisans subtly adding their own stamp to the churches, incorporating their local delicacies into Christian holidays (guinea pig remains the preferred specialty for Christmas), keeping their Quechua language alive to this day. And in a final irony, every time there was an earthquake the elaborate Spanish buildings would crumble atop their superb-crafted Incan bases.

The Koricancha, where a Spanish convent is built on top of Incan walls

The resulting city, set breathtakingly in the bowl of a ring of peaks, is an amalgamation of old Peru sprinkled with magnificent Spanish architecture, narrow streets spreading upward from the pretty central square.

If you pay attention there are bits of the Incans all over the place, like a sinuous little snake carved high on a wall, to an entire wall with stones set in the shape of a puma, one of the sacred animals of the Incas. It’s believed that the original city was built in the shape of a puma. In this wall there’s also a famous 12-sided stone that everyone goes to see for its remarkably-precise fit among its adjacent stones.

The entire area was considered deeply sacred, and is full of smaller but important sites to visit. Cuzco is definitely a tourist centre, and tours can be booked for all manner of sights and activities. Accommodations abound, from hostels to mid-range to luxurious, and services abound for the independent traveler.

There’s a lively food scene. On our first morning we headed for the legendary Jack’s, famous for its full breakfasts and amazing coffee creations.

The next morning we returned to a place we’d had dinner in the night before, a little place with creaky floors on the top story of a building, where we had the best oatmeal I’ve ever had in my life, rich and sublimely creamy with a perfect amount of cinnamon added; I had planned to go back and ask for the recipe but never did make it, sadly. Chocolate lovers can even take classes in making their own.

Shops abound, many with a spiritual vibe channelling the mystical surroundings – I bought a shaman’s rattle at this little shop down the road from the Incan wall and the 12-sided stone.

In the Gallery above I found a tapestry representing the quipu, the series of knotted strings used for counting, and some believe for language transmission as well. Very few of the precious original quipu survive, so I knew I’d never get my hands on a real one, but my small wall-hanging is good enough for me, a tribute to that remarkable ancient culture.

Entrance to the Cathedral

Touring the Spanish constructions is de rigueur, and gives insight into the blending of the two cultures. In the Cathedral, you can see evidence of the subversive insertion of Incan symbology: every image of the Virgin Mary in her robes is in the shape of the sacred mountain, a painting of the Last Supper features guinea pig on the table, and many of the carved wooden seats have startling finials on the arms in the shape of bare-breasted women. Photography wasn’t allowed in the interior, so you’ll have to go and see all this for yourself 🙂

Cuzco also has an excellent museum to learn more about the Incas and their remarkable civilization.

Stunning Sacsayhuaman

Surrounding the city are a collection of lesser-known but important sacred sights. My favourite was Sacsayhuaman, long stacked walls with massive stone blocks undulating under the deep blue sky and showing the astounding expertise of the Incan builders – they found that making the layers rise and fall within each wall rendered them virtually earthquake-proof.

Fountains at Tambomachay

Tambomachay is believed to have been an ancient palace, and is replete with fountains and baths. It’s set in a lovely valley along a stream lined with olive trees and small shrubs. At the end of the valley, even if you’re not doing the famous hike to Machu Picchu, you can walk for a while in solitary enjoyment along the original trail first laid down by the Incas, who created a vast network of paths for their runners throughout the country, one of which ran far out to the coast at Puerto Inka (see this blog post). People live on the slopes above the site, and women in traditional dress bring colour to the scene.

My opportunity to walk a little of the original Inca trail

At Qenko you descend into the Incan underworld, into a deep cold chamber used for sacrifices. It is a huaca, a natural stone site that was believed by the Incas to have intrinsic sacred qualities.

Quenko

As you might have discerned, we loved Cuzco and could happily have spent at least a week there if we’d had the time. My research had shown reports about a high crime rate, but all of us wandered all over the place and had no incidents, apart from one fellow who left foolishly $700 locked up in his dufflebag in the hotel storage while we spent two days in the Amazon jungle and returned to find it had been stolen. (Note to travelers: always carry your valuables with you.) Cuzco is an intriguing and charming city in a spectacular setting with a large amount of history and culture to explore, so give yourself more than a single day there.

On the day we set out for Aguas Calientes, our package included a tour of the Sacred Valley itself, where the silvery Urubamba River winds among emerald-sided mountains until it reaches Machu Picchu itself.

Looking down on the Sacred Valley

We visited the ancient agricultural site of Pisac, where tall terraces step steeply down a mountainside like a massive stadium. Among their many talents, the Inca civilization also included skilled farmers – each level of the terraces had a different microclimate that would support different types of plants. Modern Peruvians still use these ancient techniques to grow food in what would seem some of the most difficult locations.

The terraces of Pisac

We also spent a delightful hour at the Awana Kancha Cooperative, where sixteen families keep alive the ancient weaving and dying techniques. We learned that the four different camelids of South America – the llama, the alpaca, the vicuna and the guanaco, are all related to the camels we’d seen (and ridden) in Egypt. You can pet and feed some of them, if they’re willing, and learn how dyes are traditionally made from different plants. Women in beautifully coloured clothing demonstrate their remarkable weaving. For visitors to Peru, this place should not be missed.

Llamas come in different colours

Following a steady stream of tour buses, we finally reached Ollantaytambo, well-known as the jumping-off point for the Inca Trail hike, but more significantly as the ceremonial centre of the Incan empire, as well as the royal estate for the emperor Pachacuti, whose golden statue dominates the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco.

Llama escapees on the road
Folloiwing the buses

More steep agricultural terraces rise up a hillside, interspersed with grain storehouses, while at the bottom there are houses, baths and fountains.

This photo gives an idea of the sheer size of Ollantaytambo. Storehouses can be seen in the upper right.

This site was chosen because of a natural feature on the mountainside which the Inca believed was the face of Tunupa, better known as Viracocha, the great creator god who rose from the waters of Lake Titicaca high up in the Andes; we would later see that lake itself and more of Viracocha at the remote ruins of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

The town of Ollantaytambo is charming, with a colourful market and the train station where, after a quick lunch in town, we boarded our window-lined Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes.

For me this was one of our best train rides ever, as we were transported along the winding Urubamba River along the same route that Hiram Bingham followed in 1911 when he searched for the lost city of Vilcabamba, instead making one of the most famous archeological finds in history, the lost citadel of Machu Picchu. With soft pan-pipe music playing over the intercom, through the domed windows we watched the river tumble by over a series of rapids, past thick walls of vegetation and clouds rolling in over distant peaks.

I could picture what it must have been like for Bingham’s expedition hacking through the untouched jungle in search of ancient mysteries (see this photo from his journeys of crossing a rough log bridge over the raging river below the mountain on which Machu Picchu sits, and more, on the Machu Picchu Explorer website, about the book written by his son).

http://www.machupicchuexplorer.com/AMBpix-2.htm

As dusk began to fall, we arrived at the station in Aguas Calientes,

A representative from the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel collected our luggage and we followed her through town to the property, set in 12 acres of cloud forest on the edge of town, where we would spend the next two nights in Andean comfort as we explored Bingham’s legacy for ourselves. Check back in November for what we saw and experienced in one of the world’s most famous places.

The Kindling of a Flame

As a kid, I always loved the return to school every September. I missed a lot of my friends who I hadn’t seen all summer. I couldn’t wait to go out shopping for a new outfit for the first day with my mom. I knew that fall colours and Halloween were getting closer. But most of all, I loved the buzz of learning.

I started school a year earlier than most children because my brother, five years older than me, had been going to school for a while and I wanted to go too, pestering my parents enough that they finally gave in and found a private kindergarten run by nuns that was willing to take me on.

By grade one I’d taught myself how to read and was so excited to go to the big school with my brother, who I’d guess wasn’t tickled to have me in tow on the walk to and from. I loved grade one so much that I chattered constantly, until I was reprimanded by my teacher. On the flip side, I was a good reader, and several times during that season the school hauled me around to higher classes to read to them, which I thought was pretty cool but which likely didn’t impress the older kids who had to listen to it.

What I actually remember the most was sometimes going to the factory where my dad was a security guard. I’d do the rounds with him, at night when everything was shut down, and all the machinery, hulking and shadowed, was like an intriguing alien city. Machinery fascinates me to this day.

When I was six we moved to a farm in northern Ontario, where school became a wild adventure. Elementary school took place in a classic little brown one-roomed schoolhouse, heated by a wood stove.

Once paved roads were put in, the school districts were amalgamated and the old schoolhouse torn down – someone bought the property and built a home on it

Autumn was wonderful there, long walks to the school past our friends’ farms, surrounded by gorgeously-coloured trees and goldenrod waving along the roadside, the tang of woodsmoke scenting the cool fall air. I think that’s where I irrevocably fell in love with autumn.

Scenery for walking to school doesn’t get much better than this, still looking much the same as it did when I was a child[ my brother and I used to toboggan down that hlll

There was a crab apple tree flourishing in one corner of the school yard that provided ammunition for friendly wars during recess, and across the road a small hall that the school used for special projects and our annual Christmas ‘play’.

The little old hall still exists, with a fresh coat of paint

Winter presented a challenge, with several feet of snow blanketing the roads from November to April, and temperatures that could drop well below zero. Sometimes our teacher, who lived in a small town about 30 minutes away at the best of times, couldn’t make it to work, typically because ice had knocked out the bridge crossing the river that separated the wider world from our little hamlet, but just as often because we’d had a major snowfall and the roads were impassable from our farmhouses. One of our neighbours had a snowmobile, so sometimes he’d make the rounds picking us all up – I remember huddling in multiple layers of clothing against the extra chill from the wind in my face as we zipped over the snow.

Spring was always welcome, with sugaring season and the first bits of green peeking through the snow, although trips to town for groceries could be dicey with sudden flooding from snow melt. Summers were long and full of wildflowers, whip-poor-wills calling to each other at dusk, and swimming in a local lake.

It was a glorious place to be a child, entwined with nature and wildlife. I missed it desperately when we first moved to southern Ontario when I turned eight, but Halloween saved the day – I was finally old enough to go trick-or-treating without my parents, and we lived in a city where the houses with candy were all next to each other in walkable blocks instead of a quarter-mile apart. There was even a lady who made popcorn balls!

Since then I’ve never stopped learning. Travelling with my hubby, the whole world has become a fascinating classroom. Every culture has had something to teach us, and with each trip we’ve grown both personally and as global citizens. And we’ve had a blast doing it.

My mother-in-law for many years couldn’t understand what the appeal was; as part of the post-war generation, her vision of adult life was to settle down in a big house (with a big mortgage) and fill it with kids. But then she finally came with us to Europe, on a sort of ‘tale-of-two-cities’ adventure to London and Paris.

Houses of Parliament, London England

I still remember the look on her face when we took her to the massive Houses of Parliament overlooking the Thames in London – she was blown away by the age, the history and the incredible architecture. By the time we returned home – after exploring the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, seeing Princess Diana’s gowns at Kensington Palace followed by delectable afternoon tea in the Orangerie, prowling through all the shopping halls of Harrod’s, watching street performers in Covent Garden and eating great home-cooked food in historic pubs, cramming in as much of the Louvre as we could before having afternoon tea in a Paris tea salon, looking at the grim prisoner cells at the Conciergerie and the medieval tapestries at the Cluny Museum, having chocolat chaud Viennoise piled with whipped cream on a blustery day at the Eiffel Tower and chocolate mousse at every bistro we visited, along with a superb cassoulet just down the street from our funky little boutique hotel in the Left Bank – she’d become an utter convert and couldn’t stop talking about the trip for months afterward.

Travel is one of the best educations available, but everything should remain a wonder and a gift to our minds, big or small. Never lose your curiosity and your willingness to invite something new into your brain – it’s what gives richness and stimulation to our lives. Don’t ever let your kindled flame go out.

To celebrate Labour Day this year, even though I’ve retired from full-time work at a local college and this fall have had no need for a new outfit to kick off the academic year (hey, any excuse for going shopping works for me), I cooked something nostalgic for dinner. Memories of food have always been tied to my learning adventures, whether it was trading lunch items in elementary school or sitting down for Sunday roasts on the weekend, dumping our pillowcase full of Halloween candy out on the carpet to sort through in order of desired eating, or having our first Chicken Satay in a little restaurant in the hills of Bali. My mom excelled at making meatloaf, so I tried out this online recipe from Bon Appetit, served with classic fluffy mashed potatoes, basic onion and mushroom gravy and some buttered tender-crisp asparagus. Perfect!

Higher and higher

As we navigate the challenges of the pandemic, it sometimes reminds me of the challenges of the next leg of our Peru journey, and how we weathered those.

I always used to wonder why people would push themselves to physical extremes – to climb 29,000 feet up Mt. Everest into what’s called the Death Zone, where there’s so little oxygen that your body begins to die and you have just a few hours to summit and remain alive even as the majestic mountain hurls wind and snow at your battered body.

I was going to have a small taste of that on our trip to Peru and Bolivia, where we’d be spending more than a week at very high altitudes – and there was no way to discover in advance how each of our bodies would react to the stresses of being so high. I’d been nervous as we embarked on this grand adventure, but I’d done a lot of advance research and our group of travellers was as prepped as we could be.

I’d chosen this tour because it had a decent amount of time for acclimatizing to the high altitudes we’d be reaching as we journeyed up and up toward our final point, the city of La Paz in Bolivia – the highest capital city in the world.

Most people fly into Lima for a week and make a quick trip to see Machu Picchu – their limited exposure to high altitude doesn’t usually require getting acclimatized (although there have been a few fatalities even under those circumstances). High altitude isn’t something to take lightly.

Our journey was a different story, though, and as we left Huacachina to drive south along the lengthy Peruvian coastline to the town of Camana, where we would then turn eastwards up into the Andes Mountains, the coming physical challenge was on everyone’s mind.

High altitude is very different to what most of us are used to. Here in southern Ontario we live a little above sea-level, at around 300 feet. On this trip we’d be going 53 times higher than that, over 16,000 feet at one point.

My hubby and I had already weathered a brief stint at about 8,000 feet when we were in Kenya, and apart from a mild headache we’d been fine. But every 1,000 feet above that puts increasing strain on your body.

Although most people think that there’s less oxygen the higher you go, what actually happens is that the air pressure gets lower, which means that there’s less pressure available to push oxygen into your lungs to then make it available for you body’s needs.

Your body responds by working harder to make up the difference – it speeds everything up, including your breathing, shoving oxygen through your tissues as fast as it can.

This can be rather uncomfortable until your body ‘acclimatizes’ – gets used to the accelerated pace needed to survive. Some people reach that equilibrium state faster than others.

The really interesting thing is that there’s (currently, at least) no way to tell in advance how any individual’s system will react – it doesn’t matter whether you’re an athlete or a couch potato, young or old, in great health or not so much. Essentially you just have to go and see what happens – but there are ways to help your body make the adaptation more easily and to manage the symptoms until it does.

Most people start out with a headache and nausea, and perhaps a little trouble sleeping for a few days, and that’s often as bad as it gets. If you’re one of the few that has more trouble acclimatizing, or you do something unwise, you can wind up in a great deal of trouble, though.

The worst-case scenario is edema, i.e. fluid leaking into places it’s not supposed to. There are two possibilities: HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema, fluid leaking into the lungs) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema, fluid leaking into the brain), and while pulmonary edema is slightly less dangerous than cerebral, you really don’t want to get either of them – if they’re not treated in time, they can be fatal. In fact, a great number of the fatalities among climbers of Mt. Everest are due to one of these two conditions. They make it to the summit, but then are in such bad shape – exhausted, in pain and badly disoriented – that they either fall off the peak or sit down to rest and never get back up.

Although we weren’t facing such extreme conditions, one of our larger group of travellers would find out that choosing to not follow the acclimatization rules can be a very bad idea.

As I’ve mentioned, in Peru the mountains plunge precipitously down to the ocean, making the winding coastal road a rather white-knuckle ride. In places the road clings to the mountainside, a slender groove cut sharply into the steep slopes, with nary a barrier to stop your vehicle from tumbling a thousand feet or so onto the jagged rocks and crashing waves below.

I have a pretty good head for heights, but I took these photos leaning to the left side of the bus with my camera stuck nervously out the window on the right. Luckily the pictures turned out fairly well.

In spots the road would run through narrow cuts in the rocks, where we often saw loads of the ubiquitous potato being transported. We were actually headed nearer and nearer to the potato epicentre of the country.

Other times the coast road drops down to run endlessly away toward the hazy blue horizon, scalloped by odd inlets where the ocean runs inward enough to irrigate small farms that sit in patchwork green quilts amid the long stretches of bleached sand. The Peruvians seem to be expert at both desalination as well as finding ways to grow crops in places that look impossible.

We continued to pass a variety of tiny towns with billboards painted onto walls.

Finally we arrived in Camana in the midst of an All Souls Day festival. After a picnic lunch in an empty parking lot, some of us wandered over to the festivities, where groups clothed in a variety of colourful costumes preparing for a big parade. They were all very friendly and happy to pose for photos in all their finery.

The road began to climb as soon as we left Camana, through more surreal scenery, including some spectacular barchan dunes. These mysterious crescent-shaped dunes migrate across the desert, sometimes calving smaller dune from their horns.

Although many passengers had their heads buried in their smart phones or tablets during the day-long drive, I found the changing landscape to be endlessly fascinating.

We approached the city of Arequipa, our home for the next couple of days, as the sun was setting and painting the rocky mountain ridges orange against the cloud-collared white volcanoes.

Arequipa sits at about 8,000 feet, the entry-level height to high altitude, so it makes a perfect spot to begin acclimatizing. Giving your body time to adapt is the single best thing you can do to help yourself.

Ideally you’re supposed to ascend no more than 1,000 feet in a day, but realistically most visitors to Peru don’t have the time to take it that slowly. Spending a couple of days at around 8,000 feet though is a good start, and generally people tolerate this height fairly well. (In fact, Machu Picchu itself sits at about that height and fast visits are usually problem-free, though not always).

In addition, Arequipa is a beautiful city, full of culture and charm, and I always recommend it to people who ask me about going to Peru.

It’s often called the White City, partly because many of the buildings in its UNESCO-recognized historic centre are made from white ashlar stone from the three surrounding volcanoes, Misti, Pichu Pichu and Chachani. The pale tree-studded streets with cozy sizewalk cafes are a delight to explore, and to nosh in. We had fabulous stone-oven pizza and the best vanilla milkshakes I’ve ever had in my life – should have asked for the recipe!

There are all kinds of colourful markets and pretty gardens, but there are two standout sights that shouldn’t be missed.

The first, the Museo Santuario Andinos, to my great excitement when I found out, holds the famous Ice Maiden, the mummy of a young girl who was revealed at the peak of Mt Ampato in 1995 when a neighbouring volcano erupted and melted some of the ice at the top. Given the name Juanita, she had a short life with a dramatic ending, sacrificed to the gods in the eerie cold and wind at the top of the mountain after an arduous climb up the almost 21,000 feet of Ampato’s height, after which she was given a drugged ceremonial drink to ease her state of mind and then clubbed severely on the head to kill her.

Entrance to the Museo Santuario Andinos

She would likely have been sacrificed to appease the gods after an eruption of Mt. Misti, so it seems fitting that her final resting place is in the city below its white peak, Arequipa. She’s still dressed in her ceremonial garb, curled into position and kept carefully in a glass shroud in the museum. I’d seen her haunting story on National Geographic a few years previously, and was honored to be able to see her in person. Photography isn’t allowed inside the museum, but you can find out a bit more about her on the Smithsonian YouTube channel.

The other must-see is the Monasterio Santa Catalina, which hides a world of 16th century convent life inside its white walls, when extra daughters without marriage prospects were sent to make a different life.

Outside the walls, you’ll see women selling refreshments or religious items, sometimes with a child in tow.

The complex inside is enormous, a small city within a city, with zigzagging streets and hidden gardens. Nuns still live there to this day in more modern buildings, secluded from the historic front sections that you can walk through.

The novices could meet their family from time to time in this long passageway through latticed windows.

They slept in simple rooms, their beds positioned in alcoves set into the thick stone walls to shelter them from earthquakes and eruptions.

Within the stern white exterior walls, a fantastic world of colour opens up before you, with surprising juxtapositions almost Cubist in appearance, interspersed with beautiful religious murals painted among the archways.

One entire section was painted in vivid adobe red, a dramatic contrast to the heavy wooden doors and pale stones paving the lanes.

Little gardens offered places for sunlight and contemplation.

Some of the ancient conveniences were amazingly clever. Water was filtered through cones of porous volcanic rock, a process that would take several days but give absolutely clean water for drinking and cooking.

A kitchen storeroom held an array of cookware, including this fish-shaped bread pan.

My favourite contraption was a laundry system where clothes were washed and then rinsed clean in a succession of huge shell-shaped stone basins.

From the rooftops we could see the mountains looming over the city as we looked down on the labyrinth of pale roofs and reddish passages.

It was in Arequipa that we discovered the concept of what we affectionately called ‘Peruvian flat’ – there are no flat streets in most of Peru, everything seems to go uphill, or at least felt like it! The city is like an urban version of a Stairmaster, getting you in shape for the more intense walking you’ll be doing later.

We found the citizens to be very friendly, such as this mom who enjoyed watching her children play with us,

and these two crafty ladies. I prefer to take unposed shots of people going about their daily lives, but they caught me taking a photo of them, and they were so cute that I felt I had to buy one of their dolls. It sits on a shelf next to our rec room fireplace.

Arequipa was the place for those of us taking the only medication available for travel to high altitude, acetazolamide. It helps your body adapt faster, and is to be started 24 hours before you begin to ascend. For those who can’t take it, like me (it conflicted with another medication), the other options help: higher amounts of caffeine (for which the powerful Peruvian coffee was perfect) and lots of carbs to provide your body with more energy, copious amounts of water (drink until your urine is almost colourless — it helps with the headaches), and as much rest as possible between activities.

After two great days exploring this delightful city, we moved onward to our first serious high-altitude site, Colca Canyon. This canyon, believed by some to be the deepest in the world, is where the magnificent Andean condors nest and glide around on the thermals, and I really wanted to see it even though many blogs talked about how awful people felt when they reached its location at 14,500 feet.

Along the way we were treated to stunning views of the volcanoes, and we got instruction in how to chew coca leaves the way that the people of the Andes have done for a long time.

The leaves reminded me a lot of small bay leaves, if not as smooth. We were each given a bundle of about eight or nine of them, which you layer together and then place a small piece of damp banana-leaf ash in the middle. This is then rolled up like a miniature cigar and place in the corner of your mouth to be slowly chewed on either until you’ve consumed the whole thing or you feel like discarding the remainder. The sweet ash gives it a pleasant taste, and the chemicals in the ash work together with the coca leaf to make the whole thing work even better. It’s an ancient remedy that the high-altitude inhabitants have been using for centuries to help them with a variety of illnesses. It’s said that there are some common North American illnesses that these Andean people never get, but unfortunately coca leaves are illegal outside of Peru and a couple of other South American countries. I didn’t get any buzz even from chewing the leaves directly, and they did help.

We passed an area in the mountains where wild vicuna live, surviving on tough grasses with serrated edges that also sharpen their teeth as they graze.

The road to Colca runs through the town of Chivay, an unremarkable place that serves as a base to get lunch and park your weary body after a trip to the higher locale of the canyon. One of the ways to help your body acclimate, if you can’t do the whole thing slowly, is to spend a few days going up and down in altitude. For some reason that works, as we can attest from this trip.

Not everyone makes an easy transition, though – the husband of a young couple from England approached me after lunch because his wife was already severely nauseated. I gave him a Gravol tablet (aka Dramamine), told him to crush it and give it to her with some juice to hide the very bitter taste in order to get it into her system as fast as possible, and a few coca leaf candies for good measure.

Past a cactus-filled desert landscape straight out of a spaghetti Western, eventually we arrived at the top of the canyon and the viewing platforms.

The canyon itself is a breathtaking sight, which is a good thing as there’s no guarantee that you’re going to see a condor, the sacred bird of the Incas with a huge wingspan of about ten feet – they fly around on their own schedule. We were delighted when eventually a male came out, leaving its mate on her nest of eggs, to look for food. It glided through the canyon walls on its wide black wings.

There’s a small and colourful textile market on site if you’re looking for some weaving, but while my hubby and I were feeling fine, I decided to go and check on a few people who’d felt ill enough to stay on the bus, and it was good choice.

One was headachy and weak, but able to talk; the other was chilled and really out of it – an early sign of moderate High Altitude Sickness, so I hustled to find our overall tour leader and transport everyone 2,500 feet down into Chivay. In such a case, quick descent is the first stage of treatment. Along the way we stopped briefly to view the undulating hillsides of potato farms – this was where the bulk of Peru’s extensive potato crop comes from.

In Chivay we were taken to our cozy hotel to check in, with a handy llama out back to keep the lawn grass short, and great mountain views.

Several people took advantage of the hot springs the town is known for to work out some high-altitude kinks, but I accompanied our ill traveller to the local doctor. She was suffering from high altitude sickness indeed, compounded by an intestinal parasite that she’d likely picked up in Arequipa, either from brushing her teeth with tap water or from an out-of-the-way restaurant serving guinea pig. With a prescription for antibiotic, we got her back to the hotel to sleep. I had instructions from the doctor to call him in a couple of hours and let him know if she’d had any more episodes of vomiting, something she’d unfortunately chosen to conceal from me until now. I checked on her in due time and was happy to see that she was feeling better and able to eat some light chicken soup.

That evening we all gathered for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, warming up from the high-altitude nighttime chill around the cozy fire.

Some people were already feeling the effects of our Colca Canyon visit, so I gave them recommendations, including to avoid alcohol (which acts as a CNS depressant, fighting the hard work your body is doing to speed things up).

A hearty meal under our belts, my hubby and I both retired early with headaches, something that had worried me as I was already prone to migraines. My hubby was doing a bit better than me, as he was able to take the Diamox. I took what pain medication I could and tried to relax, hoping the headache wouldn’t get much worse.

At length I fell asleep, only to be woken up around midnight by someone knocking on our door. It was one of my own group, asking what she could do for her roommate, who’d ignored my advice to skip wine with dinner and was now sitting on the bathroom floor with her head over the toilet. I dispensed some more Gravol with the same crush-with-juice instructions (when you’re that nauseated, you want to get the medication into your system before you vomit it out) and went back to bed.

By the next morning everyone was feeling more-or-less better, including the young English gal, and we hit the road once more for a long drive through the Andes to Cuzco, the cradle of Inca civilization and the gateway to the main highlight of our journey, Machu Picchu. But more adventures awaited us before we got there. Tune in for more in a couple of weeks.

All photos are by me and all rights reserved.

The Road Through Time

It’s early August and the past few months have been a bit of a blur, days of staying in punctuated by trips for groceries and home supplies, and a few rounds of golf. I feel that we’re a lot less stressed here in Canada, but the news from outside our borders is routinely troubling.

Michelle Obama has gone on record about feeling low-grade depression through all of this, a revealing comment from someone who was resilient enough to be a truly historic First Lady. While I’m not feeling the stress in exactly the same way – removed as I am from a lot of the turmoil that she’s surrounded by – even in Canada there’s a constant and pervasive low hum of tension just below our senses that we try to ignore so we can carry on as best as possible.

We feel it in small ways though. I find myself more irritable about silly small things, never completely relaxed, looking for ways to keep myself occupied. Perhaps you’re feeling the same, or something different.

The lengthy heat wave we’re experiencing in Ontario hasn’t helped for me personally, although it’s a great summer for pool owners. I can do dry heat any time, but the combo of 90oF-plus temperatures and humidity just as high makes me even more testy when I do have to go out, and I’m drained of energy by the time I get back home. I really feel for so many of the seniors I see in grocery stores who seem to be struggling with navigating the ever-changing rules as our society tries to safely get closer to normal, but I get frustrated with people who appear to have forgotten how to drive or can’t seem to understand the social-distancing thing.

So this is a good week to offer a little distraction via the next part of our journey to Peru, through the blazingly hot desert to see the Nazca Lines and Chauchilla Cemetery.

Peru is most famous for the Incas, but there were many cultures before them. From Huacachina Oasis the road took us backward in time to the mysterious Nazca people, and then forward to the very early Incas, through burnt landscapes filled with eerie dust devils and so empty that we wondered why anyone would have ever made a home there.

The Pan-American highway crosses the Nazca Plateau and there’s even a spot where a tower has been built to view a few of the strange and gigantic etchings in the dirt without flying over them. The area is protected, so you can’t walk out to the etchings, but you can get a decent view of a couple of them from the tower if you’re not inclined to do the flight. The view from the tower, though, doesn’t capture the weirdness – for that you need to see all the Nazca Lines from above, stretching for miles across the desert plateau, layers and layers of them.

The sprawling branches of the huge biomorphic “Tree” glyph
Straight geometric shapes stretching for miles mixed with undulating wavy shapes

As we left the tower, the sun was setting over the eerie landscape that houses the etchings – more than 50 miles of flat reddish land dotted with little scrubby bushes that seem to survive on virtually no moisture.

We stayed in a charming 3-star hacienda-style hotel surrounded by farmland — how they managed to grow food in this climate was a sign of Peruvian ingenuity.

The next morning, those of us who planned to brave the Nazca flights headed off to the Maria Reiche Neuman Airport.

Maria Reiche was one of the first noted researchers of the Nazca figures. The enormous geoglyphs had been mentioned by a Spanish conquistador, Pedro Cieza de León, as ‘trail markers’ in the 1500s, but it wasn’t until humans invented flight that people were able to see them in their entirety and realize their significance. An American historian, Paul Kosok, was the first to study them in depth, including from the air, and he was later joined by an America archaeologist, Richard P. Schaedel, and Maria Reiche, a German mathematician and archaeologist who had come to Peru originally as a governess and tutor, then stayed on when WWII started. She’d been doing scientific work in Lima when she became fascinated by the Nazca figures. She joined Kosok in his research and spent the remainder of her long life studying, mapping and protecting the geoglyphs. After the Pan-American highway was cut directly through one of the figures, she lobbied the government to protect their national treasure and also sponsored the tower that we’d just been at the afternoon before. For her efforts, she became known as the Lady of the Lines, and is honored at the local airport.

Safety Note: For several years before we arrived, the small-craft flights over the Lines had a poor safety record, with several crashes and deaths. At one point, as group leader for our cluster of eight travellers, I was going to recommend that we skip the flights entirely. The Peruvian government had worked diligently to improve matters, and by the time of our trip our tour company was able to recommend several approved flight companies. The one we used, as you can see in this photo of yours truly waiting to board the plane, was Air Majoro.

Any time you’re planning an adventurous activity, it’s important to do your research in advance – there’s always an element of risk in these types of activities, but you’ll want to know what you’re getting into and make an educated decision about how far you’re willing to go.

The airline put my hubby and I on different planes – they spent a lot of time figuring out weight configurations among all of us on the small craft – so we each had very different experiences.

One thing you should be aware of before deciding to fly is that the planes tilt at severe angles to give you the best view of the figures etched into the red dirt. They also make a lot of pretty tight turns to allow you to see as many of the figures as possible.

Rising into the deep blue sky, it’s truly stunning to see how many figures the ancient Nazca people carved – there are over 1,000 of them, spreading for miles, often crossing other figures, and in a wild assortment of shapes and styles. Seventy of the figures, known as biomorphs, include the famous animal figures (monkey, spider, lizard, heron, etc.). But these are only a small proportion: there are 300 odd geometric designs, and 800 straight lines running for up to 30 miles in length!

There are only a few somewhat humanoid figures: a large pair of what looks likes disembodied hands, and a 100-foot tall figure etched into the side of a hill. It’s often referred to as the Astronaut, with an odd helmet-shaped head and its arm raised as if in greeting to something in the sky.

The geometric shapes are astoundingly sharp and straight for having been created over 2,500 years ago by removing the reddish upper layer of dirt up to about a foot deep to reveal the pale yellowish base beneath. Reiche found the mathematical precision to be highly sophisticated. Her research with Kosok found that many of the figures pointed towards the summer and winter solstices, so they theorized that the plateau was a gigantic astronomical calendar.

Since then, a lot of people have speculated about the purpose of the figures, from landing sites for aliens to religious ritual designs to markers for underground sources of water in a landscape that receives only about one inch of rain in a year.

This figure, my personal favourite, was originally called The Hummingbird, but is now believed to represent a forest bird called a Hermit

Many of the theories seem to fit some of the Lines, but none of them fit all of the Lines, and it’s not until you fly over them that you see how strange they truly are. Whichever theory appeals to you, there are a lot of questions still. Some that popped up in my head that day: what could prompt those ancient peoples to make so many of them (think of the effort in measuring, excavating, running straight edges for miles and miles and miles even up in the hills), why would they make so many different shapes, why would they lay them on top of each other like a crazy jigsaw puzzle? I’m not sure we’ve come to any real understanding of what the etchings are for, or are even close to it.

Our pilot gave us a heads-up as we approached each different figure or cluster of figures, tilting the plane steeply so that the wing tip was pointing towards where we needed to look. Then he would execute another tightly-banked turn to move on to the next figure.

It turned out that my plane had a hot-dogging pilot who seemed to be showing off a bit for a guest he’d brought on board. I was doing okay stomach-wise until he started zipping through tighter and tighter turns, while I got greener and greener in the face. I had to stop taking photos and was fervently praying to land soon when someone must have alerted the pilot that I was looking pretty bad, because suddenly we were doing just that. On the ground, our excursion leader sat me down and hustled to get me some coca leaf candies.

Peruvians have been using coca leaf tea for centuries for altitude sickness, and it turns out that coca leaves are also great for nausea. Both tea and candies are available everywhere, and I recovered enough to be able to explore a couple of shops – I bought a silver-coloured wrist cuff with the most famous Nazca animals on it – while I waited for my hubby’s plane to return.

What I didn’t find out until they landed was that his pilot had trouble with the landing gear and was delayed for several minutes as he frantically pumped the lever to get the wheels down. My hubby regaled me quietly with this story after we got back to the hacienda.

Was the flight entirely safe? Well, everyone in our group eventually made it safely to ground, although not without a bit of a close call. Do we regret taking the flight? No, there’s no other way to get any real sense of the scope and enigma of the Nazca Lines. Should you go to Peru, check recent safety records and decide for yourself.

The mystery of the Lines becomes even deeper when you visit the ancient cemetery of Chauchilla, just 19 miles south. The Nazca culture believed that the afterlife was a mirror of their earthly existence, so they buried their people in little houses constructed underground, hair braided and clothed in well-made robes, surrounded by the artifacts they had used in life – pottery for cooking, tools if you were a builder, and so on.

You can visit Chauchilla and its subterranean necropolis today because robbers had been digging up remains for some time – walking across the blistering sand, you can see bones and bits of smashed pottery scattered about – so the government turned it into a protected open-air museum.

You approach Chauchilla across miles of bleak desert, where eerie dust devils spin up out of the sand with a noise like gusts scouring the air.

Wear closed footgear – Chauchilla sits in part of the Atacama Desert (according to the National Geographic Society), commonly considered the driest place on earth. It was certainly the hottest place we’ve ever been, a strange wind-blown inferno which for some reason the Nazca peoples decided to make their home. Any of our travellers wearing sandals took no more than a few steps before they sprinted back to our overland truck to get shoes. Even the truck itself was parked under a huge shaded ‘truckport’ to keep it at a reasonable temperature while we explored the site.

Long stone-lined paths lead to covered areas where you can view the tombs.

The occupants are well-preserved and you can see details of their lives, including stone grinding bowls and simple pottery. It was an appropriate place to visit on Halloween, as it happened.

So this brought to mind my next question: how did these apparently simple peoples create the mathematically-sophisticated Nazca geoglyphs? And why would they have gone to the trouble?

Questions to ponder as we moved forward about 1,000 years in time to a place on the coast where the ancient Incas sent fresh fish by footpath over 300 miles to Cuzco, the religious centre of their culture. The road to Puerto Inka is cut through soft sand down to the beach – we blessed our skilled driver for navigating the precipitous twists and turns.

As evening began to fall we arrived at a unique place to stay, the Hotel Puerto Inka just outside the ruins of the ancient village overlooking the pounding waves of the Pacific.

After checking into one of the comfortable, salt-scented rooms stacked in layers up the hillside, many of us checked out the ruins of the Inca buildings, which even in their rustic village state still displayed remarkably precise engineering.

A few people took a walk along one of the many paths in the surrounding hills (presumably those of the fish-runners), or along the gorgeous beach.

At dinner, since it was Halloween, we celebrated with a round of Pisco Sours and organic candy suckers that I’d brought with me, while the waves crashed on the shore and storm clouds darkened the sky – a fitting wrap-up to a day of strangeness and wonder.

The Nazca Lines are one of those ancient mysteries that will haunt and intrigue us for a long time, I think, and should not be missed if you go to Peru.

Next up: beginning our high-altitude acclimation 8,000 feet up in Arequipa, the ‘White City’ for its white-stone buildings set among three looming volcanoes, and widely considered the most beautiful city in Peru. Its residents consider themselves so set-apart from the rest of the country that they even have their own, unofficial, passport (which you can buy).

In the meantime, stay calm and kind for yourself and the people around you, stay safe for the better tomorrow that will be coming.

The surreal coastline of Peru

This week really got away from me! Hubby and I were watching a two-episode show on Prime video called El Dorado, an ‘archeological’ adventure made in 2010 to capitalize on the impending ‘end of the world’ in 2012 (according to the Mayan calendar). The show played pretty fast and loose with archeology – even the supernatural parts – but the scenery of Peru is spectacular. Then hubby pointed out to me that it’s Thursday!

So, this blog post is a bit seat-of-my-pants, but it will give you an idea of the strange and often other-worldly coastline of Peru, where the Andes mountains dip their feet in the Pacific Ocean, creating some hair-raising roads that hug the mountainsides alternating with lunar-looking desert and verdant farms that demonstrate that modern Peruvians haven’t lost their skill at agriculture.

Leaving Lima very quickly shows you Peruvian life outside of the one-percenters. Ramshackle towns perch between the highway and the beach.

You are travelling along the famous Pan-American Highway, an ambitious concept designed to stretch between both tips of North and South America. The United States had a vision of cooperation among all the countries in the Western Hemisphere, and held the First International Conference of American States in 1890. Delegates from 13 countries attended, and among numerous political discussions one of the ideas proposed was a railroad that would stretch along the entire western coastline. Several decades into the new century, when road transportation began to dominate, the highway was born, and it was quite a thrill to be riding on a portion of the South American network.

Life is very basic outside Lima, almost a throwback to another time, with plaster or mud brick homes mixed with shop stalls selling modern goods like open-air convenience stores.

The road weaves in and out along the coast, sometimes moving inward through hills on which the Peruvians, echoing the ancient desert carvings on the Nazca Plateau toward which the highway is leading, have inscribed gigantic advertisements into the dirt.

The roadside is also dotted with odd little shrines and memorials in isolated places.

Within a handful of hours we’ve arrived at our overnight destination, the little city of Pisco. The word “pisco” means bird in the old Peruvian language of Quechua, which has been in use for hundreds of years, long before the Inca Empire. Pisco sits amid the remnants of the ancient Paracas culture, which flourished over 1000 years before the Incas. In modern times this section of coastline is part of the Paracas National Reserve, a protected area that straddles both arid coast and the deep blue aquatic biosphere off shore, where thousands of birds and other sea creatures live on islands strewn across the waters.

The moisture in the sandy soil allows vines to flourish, despite the heat and dryness, and one of the products to come out of those grapes has made the town famous: Pisco brandy, used to make the delicious Pisco Sour.

After checking into our quaint hotel scrunched in at the edge of one of the streets in the middle of the city, where the rooms were basic and clean, we went down to the main square to explore a little of the area before dinner.

Pisco is in an earthquake zone, and in 2010, just two years before our visit, an 8.0-magnitude quake destroyed about 80% of the city, which was still being rebuilt. From the pretty central park, filled with funky topiaries and pretty gardens, we could see signs of the damage in the severely cracked bell tower of the Cathedral, which was so bad that they had to construct a new church next door.

Nevertheless, the people of Pisco are resilient, and many relax in the park as the day winds down or stroll the delightful open-air market.

With such a long coastline, Peru specializes in fresh seafood, and we returned to our hotel for a fabulous meal that began with the beverage we’d been holding off on trying until we could sample it in its home base — the amazing Pisco Sour. It reminded me of a sweeter Margarita, but smoother and more refreshing.

We followed that with a huge bowl of chicken and vegetable soup topped with a fried egg — pure Peruvian comfort food!

Some of our group opted for the fresh seafood paella, which looked fantastic, although I’m not a big seafood eater myself.

It’s a short drive from Pisco to the town of Paracas, the jumping-off point for cruises out to the Ballestas Islands, an animal sanctuary out in the ocean formed of a series of rocky outcrops amid the Humboldt Current, which brings many creatures to these little outposts in the water.

Paracas has a nice little waterfront that you can stroll as you wait for your boat, with cute little cafes strung along the promenade.

The ride out to the islands is smooth and pleasurable. On the way you get an excellent view of a strange and massive figure cut into the desert sands approximately 2,200 years ago by the Paracas peoples! It’s been named El Candelabro because of its shape, but no one knows what it really represents. Although it’s hard to tell from the water as you pass by, the figure is 595 feet tall, and was cut two feet into the soil, allowing it to last for over two millennia and be seen 12 miles away.

You can spot the Ballestas Islands from some distance, pretty grey mounds sprinkled through the deep blue water.

Your boat will take you quite close, and if you’re at all prone to seasickness, let me warn you that the remainder of the cruise is going to be quite unpleasant while you get spectacular views of the wildlife. The waters are very choppy as they swirl around the rocks, and the bobbing up and down of the boat mixed with the strong smell of boat fuel as your pilot stops at each outcrop is intense.

I’d taken an anti-nauseant before we boarded, and had to hurriedly swallow a second one while we were out there, neither of which helped very much. I’m not sorry we took the cruise, but I paid for it for several hours afterward. Fair warning should you choose to go 🙂

The closeup views of the wildlife are worth the effort, though. These islands are often referred to as the mini-Galapagos for a reason, but unlike those more famous islands, here visitors are not allowed on shore, which is non-existent anyway.

Numerous sea lions basking on the rocks
The pretty Humboldt penguin
Beautiful Inca terns

Happy to be back on land a few hours later, we had the opportunity for either more adventure or some R&R at the Huacachina Oasis farther inland. The oasis looks straight out of a 1930s Hollywood movie, laden with palm trees and a circling promenade made for languorous strolling — balm to my unsettled stomach.

However, Huacachina is most well-known for its dune buggy rides across the towering sand hills that surround the oasis. I wasn’t up to it, but my hubby went and really enjoyed it (although he did tell me that it wouldn’t have been a good idea for me at the time).

From the oasis the road enters an increasingly surreal landscape that makes you feel as if you’re on another planet — strange white rocks emerging from the sands, long empty stretches of sand edged by mirage-like golden hills in the distance, with the highway snaking back and forth surreptitiously through all of it.

This road takes you to one of the strangest places in South America: the mysterious Nazca Lines. Some of us would be taking a flight over the Lines to see them from where they were seemingly designed to be viewed, high above the plateau on which they were inscribed, but no advance reading could prepare us for what we were soon to experience. More to come in the next Peru-themed blog post in two weeks!

N.B. all photos are by me and all rights are reserved.

Intro to Peru, starting with fascinating Lima

Suddenly I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stonework.’ Hiram Bingham, Lost City of the Incas

In 1911 a young lecturer from Yale University was exploring Peru in search of the ancient Incan capital of Vitcos. Travelling along the winding Urubamba river, he asked local people about any Inca ruins in the area. On one particularly drizzly day a farmer named Melchor Arteaga led him across the river and up to the top of Old Mountain, called Machu Picchu in the local language. The rest is enshrined in history.

Hiram Bingham wasn’t the first non-Peruvian to see the jungle-cloaked ruins of the citadel named after the mountain it sits on, but he received support from Yale University and the Peruvian president to return in a year later and excavate the sprawling piles of rocks, revealing an amazing ancient city that was so well hidden in the Andes that the Spanish invaders never found it. It remained intact and was eventually reclaimed by the surrounding cloud forest.

Bingham’s photos and accounts of his expeditions were a sensation and the discovery of Machu Picchu would become one of the greatest ‘finds’ in history – so famous, in fact, that most visitors to Peru see little else.

That is a great mistake, because Peru is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. Straddling the jagged Andes mountains, on the eastern side the country is the dense green Amazon jungle. Crossing the crest of the mountains, roads wind among the grey and ochre-coloured peaks under an unearthly blue sky. The western side drops steeply toward the Pacific Ocean, in landscapes that look like they’re from another planet.

I hope that by the end of this blog series you’ll feel the same way, and look for a tour that spends at least two weeks or more exploring some of the many, many different aspects of Peru.

I grew up most enthralled by ancient Egypt. A fascination with all ancient cultures, and growing up watching adventure movies with my dad (like the 1954 movie Secret of the Incas, which served as the inspiration for Indiana Jones’ signature outfit), meant that Machu Picchu was on my bucket list but not at the top. A higher list spot belonged to a remote and mysterious archeological ruin high up in the mountains of Bolivia called Tiwanaku, which would be capping the trip and was actually the part of the journey I was most excited about.

By the end of the trip, though, I’d completely fallen in love with Peru – it’s that remarkable! But to see past its most famous feature, you have to take the time to explore its many layers.

Start your adventure with at least a couple of days in Lima. Most tours fly you in and ship you out to Cuzco the next day, but Lima is a great city, and a wonderful introduction to the country. I recommend arriving least one day early to give you time to explore the architecture, culture and fabulous food of Peru’s capital.

Most tours will locate you at a hotel in the upscale Miraflores district. We were so fortunate that our tour, with Tucan Travel, put us right in the middle of the city, just a block away from the central plaza. We stayed at the Hotel Maury, a 3-star hotel that looked it was straight out of a 1950s adventure movie! The wood-lined bar with gorgeous murals, a lobby with classic wall clocks for several international cities, elevators with old brass number plates, and an old-fashioned breakfast room that may have been a bit worn around the edges but exuded atmosphere, more than made up for the basic rooms.

On top of that, on our very first morning a parade proceeded to the Plaza de Armas right past the entrance to our hotel – all we had to do was step outside and have front-row seats to the colourful spectacle. We had no idea what the strange costumes meant, but it was a fascinating slice of real Peruvian life.

There seemed to be a lot of festivals going on when we arrived in late October, so almost every time we turned a corner there was something artsy taking place. Peruvians do celebrate Halloween, and the Spanish part of their history means that they also celebrate the Christian holidays that come afterward. It was a very lively time to be there and I highly recommend it.

The Plaza de Armas, aka Plaza Mayor, is the core of the city, and to us it felt like the heartbeat as well. It’s a very picturesque square fringed by several important historical buildings displaying stunning Spanish architecture.

In the height of irony, conquistador Francisco Pizarro laid the first stone for the imposing Cathedral of Lima, in a location on top of ancient Inca tombs, after he and his company systematically overran the country and destroyed both the Inca civilization and a large part of the artifacts that told its history. Inside the cathedral you can see the entrances to several tombs safely preserved under glass, as well as the tomb of Pizarro himself.

Walking around the perimeter of the Plaza shows fascinating streets radiating away from it, with colourful buildings and artwork, lots of arcaded shops to explore, pretty tree-lined seating areas, cafes with delicious food and snack shops filled with treats for the local sweet tooth, and ladies with carts purveying all sorts of religious articles.

Expand your walk a little further and you’ll come across the beautiful Convent of Santo Domingo, where we found another band setting up to play.

The interior of the building is rich in colour, with vibrant chapels, a delightful trompe-l’oeil floor, beautiful tiled cloisters and lusciously-scented rose gardens. The library is a magnificent wood-paneled room with about 25,000 richly-decorated books.  

Bus tours leave from the Plaza regularly to take you on a wider tour of the city, where you can see everything from the imposing Judicial Palace to flower vendors tucked into tiny open shop-fronts.

These are just a few things you can discover as you explore Lima – don’t neglect the opportunity to spend at least a little time there.

It won’t be until you finally leave Lima to see the rest of the country that you’ll see your first evidence of the wide disparity between rich and poor in Peru. The interior of the city may be filled with ornate buildings and pretty parks, but the poor are all clustered in stacked slums on the outskirts, living a bare-bones existence and working at whatever they can to make ends meet.

A few things to be aware of before you go:

  • The plumbing standards in all of South America are not even close to ours, so even in major cities like Lima your used bathroom tissue can’t go in the toilet (little covered pails are handily placed and regularly cleaned out by staff).
  • Tap water is not safe to use even for brushing teeth.
  • If you eat in central restaurants, you shouldn’t have any issues, but you’ll want to be wary of out-of-the-way places for trying things like guinea pig, a Peruvian delicacy – as curious as you may (or may not) be, things like that are best avoided. My hubby and I had no trouble with the food during our three weeks, but some of the other tour passengers who decided to be adventurous did pick up a serious illness.
  • You may see warnings about a high crime rate in Lima. My hubby and I walked freely around the streets surrounding our hotel without any problems – we stumbled across a great barbecued chicken restaurant one evening on one of the side streets. Just be as prudent as you would in any large city in your own country.
  • Learn some basic Spanish before you go – it’s a lovely, easy language to learn and will smooth your connections with local residents if you can at least say hello, please and thank you. In more remote areas, a phrasebook will really come in handy.
  • Future posts will include information about travelling to the higher altitudes of Peru. You may see some tours that begin in Puno/Lake Titicaca and go downward from there, ending in Lima (more-or-less sea level), but that’s a hard way to do it and I’ll be explaining why later. The itinerary we followed, starting in Lima and slowly climbing higher to allow for acclimatization, is (based on both extensive research and the experiences of our group of travellers) the preferable method.

In our next installment we’ll look at travelling along Peru’s Paracas coastline to two special places – Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, and a clump of offshore islands often referred to as the Mini-Galapagos, not to mention a gigantic ancient figurine predating the Inca culture that’s carved into a hillside along the way!