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.

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.