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!

Exploring outside the box – Andean cloud forest

Machu Picchu is one of those superstar archeological sites that people want to tick off on their bucket list, for good reason. It is an amazing site — the photos you typically see don’t come anywhere near what it’s like to be there in person.

A lot of people want to get there by hiking the strenuous Inca trail, but the tours I see offered most often are quick one-week excursions that give you a couple of days in Lima, Peru’s capital city, a day or two in Cuzco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, and a quick day trip to the Machu Picchu site by train to the engaging little town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly called Aguas Calientes, where trekkers tend to base themselves and buses leave for the winding drive up the mountain atop which sits the ancient citadel that was lost and forgotten for many years until Hiram Bingham made his famous discovery in 1911.

But Machu Picchu sits amid the Andean cloud forest, a truly wondrous habitat that almost no one ever stops to look at.

When we went, we opted out of the 4-day Inca Trail hike and chose to spend two nights at a magical place called Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, set at the edge of Aguas Calientes in its own 12 acres of beautiful and peaceful cloud forest.

Now, normally my hubby and I eschew costly high-end accommodations, which we often find to be glossy and unauthentic, in favour of smaller places saturated with atmosphere and in great locations for exploring.

For this trip, there were a lot of places we wanted to cover — there’s so much more to Peru than just Machu Picchu. I found an adventurous, budget-friendly 3-week tour that included all our must-sees, from the Ballestas Islands to the Nazca Lines, to Colca Canyon to see the massive Andean condors to the floating reed islands on Lake Titicaca and finally the mysterious and rarely-visited ancient city of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.

All the lodgings were basically 3-star, clean, basic but well-chosen for their proximity to area sights, They were all very authentic; we felt like we were embedded in Peruvian life.

Our hotel in Lima, Hotel Maury, had an unprepossessing exterior. The rooms were unremarkable, but the bar off the lobby was woodsy with wonderful murals that made us feel like we’d stepped back in time to the glamorous era of Eva Peron.

The location was fantastic — just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Mayor, where most of the main sights in Lima were ranged around, with pretty parks and a wide assortment of delicious restaurants. One morning we heard music drifting in from outside while we were at breakfast, and went out the front doors to find a parade passing down the street right past the hotel. All we had to do was stand on the sidewalk and watch (no idea what the unusual costumes represented, but it was fascinating to watch).

In the little town of Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, our overland truck shoe-horned itself down a narrow side street and burped us out in front of a tiny yellow-walled place that looked more like someone’s home from the outside.

The interior climbed up a maze of staircases around a small central courtyard, and was decorated in wood and Peruvian textiles.

The rooms were basic but comfortable enough and clean. Off the main lobby there was a wonderful little restaurant that gave us our first taste of a Pisco Sour.

As Pisco is on the ocean, there was fabulous fresh seafood to eat for dinner.

But once in a while you stumble across a place that’s truly magical and worth a splurge. That place was the Inkaterra hotel below Machu Picchu.

Sitting along the banks of the Urubamba river, the hotel consists of several buildings tucked into the lush cloud forest. As you can see from the photo above, the property is not flat, so for anyone with mobility issues, this might not be the ideal spot.

If you can manage the walking, though, you’ll be treated to your own cozy casita furnished with hand-made Peruvian wood furniture and warm woven blankets for the night chill.

The hotel makes its own toiletries from botanicals on the property.

You can book a privately-led tour of Machu Picchu with one of the hotel’s excellent guides.

But after that mainstay, leave yourself some time to explore the hotel’s cloud-forest surroundings, a rare treat.

The hotel has a wonderful little spa that you might want to visit to work out some high-altitude kinks.

Meals at the hotel are delicious. They also make an excellent, if very potent, Pisco Sour, by the way.

The hotel even has its own small tea plantation, and you can drink its teas during your stay, as well as visiting the plantation and making your own bag of tea.

There are birds everywhere — although snagging a photo of a zippy little hummingbird is a challenge.

If you can, visit in November. Why? Because it’s orchid season, and the hotel has 372 species of wild orchid on its grounds. Wild orchids look nothing like the cultivated varieties you see in florist shops. The wild varieties come in an astonishing array of shapes and sizes.

Orchid walks are a complimentary activity at the hotel, led by knowledgeable guides who will show you all the wonders of the orchid kingdom.

Inkaterra has also runs the Spectacled Bear Project, rescuing South America’s only native, and endangered, bear from the pet trade and rehabituating as many back into the wild as possible.

The rescued bears spend several months at the Machu Picchu Pueblo hotel, learning how to forage for food and all the other skills they need to survive in their natural habitat. You can visit the resident bears with an onsite guide as they get their tutorials within a large enclosure (visitors have no actual contact with the bears). They are adorable.

This past April veterinarian Dr. Evan Antin visited the project on his Animal Planet show, Evan Goes Wild.

The Inkaterra hotels in Peru continue to win awards, and since we visited in 2012 they have become part of National Geographic’s Stays of Distinction, which unfortunately has roughly tripled the stay rates over what we paid. Nevertheless, I would rate a stay at this hotel a very worth-it splurge. You might also want to check out Inkaterra’s volunteering opportunities.

If you can only manage a week in Peru, so be it, but do your very best to spend more time and research all the fascinating sites beyond its most famous landmark.

Seeking mellow

I believe that spas are one of the best things ever invented.

If we have time on a journey, I love to check out a spa in a different location. The best massage therapist I’ve ever had works out all my kinks and knots at a great spa within 15 minutes of my house, but there’s something so relaxing about checking out of life for a few hours in a location far, far away. It feels extra-removed from all the minute little cares and irritations back home.

While all my travelling spa experiences have all been great, visiting a spa in a foreign location can be an eye-opener.

My first travelling spa adventure took place at the Boulders golf resort in Arizona. Our long-weekend package included one activity per day for each of us. My hubby elected to play golf each day, while I alternated between rounds of golf and either sleeping in and having fresh coffee and blueberry pancakes delivered to my casita, or having a spa treatment — so much more relaxing! At the time the treatments were based on Ayurvedic principles, and I lay blissfully on the massage table while warm herbal oil was drizzled onto my skin and infused into my pores during a 20-minute wrap.

I wanted to have try out the spa at our beach resort in Bali, but we underestimated how strong the sun was just two degrees south of the equator and got burned out body-surfing, even with sun screen. Instead of a massage I spent most of the evening in a wicker chair under the ceiling fan trying to bring some coolness to my fiery shoulders.

The most unique, and strangest spa experience I’ve ever had was on the island of Mauritius. Our resort package included a complimentary spa combo of a coffee scrub, using coffee beans grown right on the island, followed by a massage.

Let me start out by mentioning that Mauritius spent 95 years of its history under French rule, and it still retains a strong French influence.

Entrance to the spa at Legends Resort, Mauritius
The Source Thalaspa entrance at the Legends Resort in Mauritius

I happily trotted over to the spa one afternoon. The serene entrance had intrigued me from our first day checking out the grounds. The spa was small but lovely. I was given a locker and a fluffy white robe — nothing unusual there. Then I was led to my treatment room and introduced to my therapist, a lovely woman who gave me a pair of tiny paper panties to put on and told me to lie down on the table face-up.

Beg pardon? Where was my cover sheet to hide my no-longer-20-year-old body?? I hesitated, but this seemed to be standard practice, so I did as asked, trying to appear nonchalant when the therapist returned. She then proceeded to scrub all of my exposed skin from the neck down with what seemed to be coffee grounds in a light oil. I looked and smelled like a giant coffee bean by the end of it, and cringed internally when she told me to put my pristine white robe on and return to the change room to rinse off. Well, I thought, it’s their laundry budget, so off I went back through the gardens to the change room.

When I arrived there, the two shower stalls were in use, so one of the attendants suggested that I could use the shower in the courtyard instead of waiting around. Having seen men wandering through the courtyard earlier, I asked “Is it a private shower?” Well, no, she replied. I refrained from saying “Are you nuts?”, because that would have been extremely impolite, and merely replied that I didn’t mind waiting.

After I rinsed and returned to my treatment room, I was given a short but very good massage with nothing more surprising than some different positioning of my arms as the therapist attacked all the knots in my back. The coffee scent faded quickly, and my skin was incredibly smooth for days afterward.

The spa at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in the Andean cloud forest was arguably my favourite spa experience. We didn’t hike the Inca Trail — not physically feasible for either of us — and instead we took the train to Aguas Calientes, the small town along the Urubamba River that serves as the base for most people visiting the compelling ruins at the top of Machu Picchu mountain.

If you ever have the chance to stay at this hotel, set into the cloud forest that surrounds Machu Picchu, I highly recommend it. Unfortunately since we visited the hotel has become a National Geographic Stay of Distinction and the rates have gone up considerably, but it is a wonderful place.

After several strenuous days adjusting to the high altitudes in Peru, I thought a relaxing massage was in order. The hotel makes all of its own botanical products from plants right on the property, and I’d already tried out some of the soaps and lotions in our casita.

Soaps and oils at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Peru
Toiletries in our casita bathroom at the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Aguas Calientes, Peru

The spa was located in its own white-walled casita surrounded by the lush cloud forest. I took a few photos of the treatment room, softly lit with candles, with the floor covered in a springy rush matting, so that every step was like walking on a rush-strewn cloud.

Treatment room at the Inkaterra hotel, Aguas Calientes
Treatment room at the Inkaterra hotel, Aguas Calientes

My massage therapist then proceeded to work her magic — for a petite lady she had lots of strength to knead my tight muscles into mush, working those scented oils into every pore amid the soothing sounds of the jungle.

While I haven’t been able to manage a spa visit on every adventure, the explorations have been as fascinating as they were therapeutic. The spas all seemed to run on similar rules; if you need to bone up on spa etiquette, read this handy article by Trip Savvy — but go with an open mind and be prepared for some interesting surprises the further you get from home.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Threes – Peruvian cloudforest hides wonders

Thousands of people visit the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru every year, but few take the time to explore the surrounding cloud forest, an amazing ecosystem in the Andes Mountains. Instead of rushing up and down the mountain in one day, we went up by train and stayed for two nights at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel on the outskirts of the town of Aguas Calientes, which is the base from which most people visit the ruins. The Inkaterra hotel, an award-winning eco-sensitive property, is spread through 12 lush acres of the cloud forest along the Urubamba River and makes the most of its jungle setting. You stay in cozy white-painted adobe casitas with Andean blankets on the beds and toiletries made from plants on the hotel property.

Casitas at the Inkaterra hotel - photo by E. Jurus
Casitas at the Inkaterra hotel – photo by E. Jurus

You can book a variety of activities, some complimentary when as part of your stay, others at an additional cost. We paid for a privately-guided morning tour of Machu Picchu that included transportation and admission to the site, but the complimentary activities available included tea-making at the hotel’s small tea plantation, bird walks, ancient ceremonies, and, since we were there in November — orchid season — an orchid walk. Our guide was an expert at finding the tiniest orchids hiding amidst the lush vegetation, and even helped us take close-up photos of these amazing plants. It was a not-to-be-missed experience!

Booking a package is easy: just contact the hotel through its website: http://www.inkaterra.com/inkaterra/inkaterra-machu-picchu-pueblo-hotel/. The staff are very friendly and welcoming. A full hot and cold buffet breakfast and dinner at one of the two restaurants are usually included, and the food is terrific. One note of warning: the pizco sours are deadly here, so drink one slowly!

A special feature of the hotel is a sanctuary for Andean Spectacled Bears. The project, in conjunction with the Peruvian government, rescues the bears (the only bear native to S. America) from the brutal pet trade and rehabilitates them for reintroduction into the wild. There were three bears in residence when we were there, and they were adorable as they clambered around the various props designed to reteach them forest survival skills.

Spectacled Bears love avocados! - photo by E. Jurus
Spectacled Bears love avocados! – photo by E. Jurus

There’s also a terrific spa where I had one of the best massages of my life, using oils made from the unique jungle plants.

The town of Aguas Calientes is just across a small bridge from the hotel, so it’s easy to walk into town to explore the great craft market and perhaps have some Peruvian food in one of the restaurants.

All in all, a wonderful place to spend some time, so I highly recommend including a couple of extra days to fit this into your schedule when you visit Peru. If you’d like more information, drop me a line!

paw2014

Cee’s Which Way Challenge: A hair-raising ride up Machu Picchu mountain

The switchback road up Machu Picchu mountain - photo by E. Jurus
The switchback road up Machu Picchu mountain – photo by E. Jurus

If you’re not up to spending 4 days hiking the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu citadel in Peru, one of your other options is to take one of the many buses that careen up and down the mountain all day long. But don’t think you’re getting off too easy: it’s quite a ride up the tight switchbacks of the road, with a steep drop-off on the outside edge.

The view is amazing but disconcerting: it feels like you’re suspended in mid-air at some points, at others like you’re floating straight up the side of the mountain.

Approaching one of the switchbacks on the road to Machu Picchu - photo by E. Jurus
Approaching one of the switchbacks on the road to Machu Picchu – photo by E. Jurus

Looking out from the Machu Picchu switchback road - photo by E. Jurus
Looking out from the Machu Picchu switchback road – photo by E. Jurus

The drive becomes really interesting when two buses have to pass each other!  It’s all worth it though — seeing Machu Picchu in real life is an incredible experience. But that’s a tale for another Challenge entry 🙂

Passing another bus on the Machu Picchu mountain road - photo by E. Jurus
Passing another bus on the Machu Picchu mountain road – photo by E. Jurus

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Challenges and a glass half-full

View from the train to Aguas Calientes, Peru - photo by E. Jurus 2012
View from the train to Aguas Calientes, Peru – photo by E. Jurus 2012

Back from a short hiatus! I’m just getting over a flare-up of my fibromyalgia. I’ve had it for about 8 years, and usually I manage pretty well, but when I push myself too hard for an extended period of time, I pay for it afterwards — this time for a couple of weeks.

For anyone who’s not very familiar with this condition, it’s what’s often referred to as an ‘invisible disability’: you can’t tell just by looking at someone that there’s something the matter with them. When it’s at its worst, every muscle in my body hurts, from head to toe, and I feel like I’ve come down with a bad virus. Most days, I just get tired by the end of the day, but the biggest challenge for me is to try and keep fit. If I don’t exercise, my muscles lose all their tone very quickly, but if I exercise too much (where even an extra five minutes could push me over the edge) I end up feeling so achy later that I can’t do anything other than huddle on the couch with a cup of tea.

For some reason I can be much more active on a trip, but the most frightening thing that ever happened to me as a result of my condition also happened while travelling. Several years ago we spent a few days on the island of Mauritius at a very nice beach resort called Legends, on the northern shore of the island. The beach had quite a steep drop a few yards from shore, which I knew, but what I didn’t realize was that the drop curved inward instead of running in a straight line. I’ve never been a really strong swimmer, but strong enough to pass swimming tests when I was a kid, so I never worried particularly about drowning. This time, though, I was bobbing along through the water parallel to the shore when I suddenly found myself in water way over my head. I tried to return just a yard or so to where my feet could touch the sand, and it was a struggle — my muscles just weren’t giving me much movement, to the point where I had to fight not to panic. After what seemed like an eternity I was finally able to reach solid ground, but that short journey had been touch-and-go. I stayed well close to shore after that, having been made terrifyingly aware of how much strength I’d lost because of this strange ailment.

And yet, I’m very lucky. If I take good care of myself I can live a fairly normal life. I can still do many of the things I love — travelling, dancing, golf (okay, that’s really a love-hate relationship, depending on the day). I look at someone in a wheelchair and think, ‘There, but for the grace of God…’

Last fall I was able to hike around the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu for three hours and enjoy every minute of it. I wasn’t in the running to do the strenuous 4-day hike up the Inca Trail, but that was okay because we thoroughly enjoyed the atmospheric train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes through the Urubamba Valley, winding along the same route that Hiram Bingham hiked just over 100 years ago when he became the official ‘discoverer’ of the Lost City of the Incas. As our train snaked along the river bank, through lush cloud forest, we watched the clouds come in over the towering mountain peaks on either side in the darkening sky.

The next morning, from Aguas Calientes we took a death-defying bus ride (well, not really death-defying, but not for the faint-of-heart) along a narrow dirt road that climbed up to the citadel in tight dusty switchbacks clinging to the edge of the steep mountainside. At the top, in the crystal-clear morning air, we hiked through more cloud forest until we rounded a piece of the mountain and saw the entire city laid out before us, rising and falling across the mountain peak. Machu Picchu is fascinating, but what’s even more awe-inspiring is the setting. You stand on a dirt path amid the stone houses and look down several thousand feet to the Urubamba River undulating far below, with nary a fence to keep an unwary walker from falling over, but all around you there are deep blue-green mountains that swim among the clouds, and ancient sacred animals like the puma and the condor imprisoned in the towering stones.

The view looking out from Machu Picchu
The view looking out from Machu Picchu

Life throws us a lot of curves, so it’s important to celebrate what we can do and live life to the fullest as long as we’re able.

I’d love to hike to Everest Base Camp, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to. Nevertheless, I’ve stood among the clouds in South America. I’ve had a spider monkey sit on my head, I’ve looked at wild orchids so small you need a magnifying glass to see them clearly, I’ve ridden on a reed boat at the roof of the world. There’s still plenty to enjoy.