Machu Picchu

There are a few challenges involved in making a visit to Machu Picchu.  The primary issue is access.  And then there are the crowds that you have to deal with once you are there.  The uncertainty of the weather is also factor.  It rains a lot in Machu Picchu.

The only way for tourists to get to Machu Picchu is to first take the train to Aguas Calientes (also called Machupicchu Peublo), and then take the bus operated by the authorities up the mountain to the ruins of Macchu Picchu itself.  You cannot drive to Machu Picchu, but you can hike the Inca Trail to the place if you have a few days to spare – and the determination, stamina, and physical fitness, to undertake the challenging walk.

We had to get to Machu Picchu early to try to avoid the crowds.  Our train was to leave Ollanthaytambo at 6:40am.  We were up early,  to have breakfast at 4:30am, to prepare our bags to be picked up for checkout by 5:00am, and then checkout and depart from the hotel in Urubamba at 5:30am by bus.  Early morning departures tend to play havoc with the internals of the human system, especially as you get older.  There was a mad rush for the restrooms in the station at Ollantaytambo once we got there, before we boarded the train.P4230014.jpgA short while after the departure of our train from Ollantaytambo, the valley that it was traveling in began to narrow, and we entered a canyon with Urubamba river flowing next to the train tracks.  We were getting into the park area.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe train ride was very comfortable and there were some nice views.  It was difficult to take pictures of the scenery through the window.  We were in the woods and among the trees.  In a short while we were offered some complementary snacks and drinks.  We were traveling on the Inca Rail. (The other train operator to Machu Picchu is Peru Rail.)P4230058.jpgOur tour manager was determined to get our group to our destination quickly, before the crowds.  Based on his experience from trips past, he knew that most people were delayed because they had to stop at the restrooms in Aguas Calientes before boarding the bus.  He devised a strategy that required all of us to use the restrooms on the train before we got to our destination.  He was going to signal to the group when we should starting lining up in front of the restroom on the train in order to use it.  And that was what we did!  It was somewhat amusing to see folks queued up in the narrow corridor, blocking the way, concerned that this might be the last pit stop for a while.  The other passengers in our carriage who were not part of our group must have been wondering what was going on.

The train stopped along the way at a station for the start of the famous Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.  It is called the Camino Inka-Inka trail.  It covers 26 miles and takes 4 days to complete.  It starts at KM 82 of the train tracks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou have to cross the river from the train stop to start your trek.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trail rises immediately on the other side of the river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt had started raining by the time the train arrived at Aguas Calientes.  Members of our tour group quickly assembled and exited the train.  We headed off in a line towards the bus stop on the other side of a bridge across the Rio Aguas Calientes.  We managed to follow our leader who was carrying a sign above the crowd with the name of the group.  We followed him through an enclosed space of small shops while trying to get ourselves organized with our ticket and the rain gear.  I almost lost my raincoat in the process, but one of the other members of our group picked it up from the floor behind me.  In the chaos of the situation, I could not even get myself organized to take pictures.

Very soon we were near the front of the line for the buses.  We boarded a bus and headed towards the top of the mountain on the Hiram Bingham Highway.  It was quite a steep climb of more than 1000 feet.   There were 13 hairpin bends on this road.

We finally got to use the restrooms once again (for a small fee) before entering the park itself.  These were the last restrooms we saw for next 3 to 4 hours!

Once past the entrance gates, you come upon this sign commemorating the civil engineering work involved in building the Machu Picchu complex.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was a good climb at the beginning of the walk.  Machu Picchu is close to 8000 feet high.  It is a challenge for some people.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we arrived at one of the well known viewpoints, we were greeted by a cover of fog  in the valley.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the clouds were moving rapidly, and one had to be patient in order to be able to get a view of the ruins.  The mountain to the right side in the above picture is called Huanya Picchu.  You can hike to ruins at the top of that mountain.  That sounded tempting, but that will probably only happen in my dreams!

Our patience was rewarded when I was able to take the picture below from the same location.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked further up the hill, and on to the Inca trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture below shows the Inca trail headed in the direction of a pass in the mountains.  This place was full of temptations to do some real hiking!P4230134.jpgThere were a lot of llamas around the area.  This one looked particularly majestic with its long neck.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It was munching on the grass on one of the terraces.

It rained for a short while we were walking in this area.  Fortunately, the rain did not last too long, nor was it very heavy.

Here are two other views of Machu Picchu from up on the mountainside from which the Inca trail approaches the ruins.  The pictures were taken before we descended into the area of the ruins itself.  The actual peak of Machu Picchu was behind us.  (Again, no time for a real hike!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see the crowds that throng the place in the picture below.  I had thought that the authorities managed the number of tourists visiting the site at any particular time, and that tourists had to be accompanied by guides, but this obviously was not the case.  The place was packed!  Navigating our way through the crowd while staying with our tour group proved to be a challenge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe passing clouds and the fog gave us some amazing views of our surroundings.  This is indeed an intimidating and otherworldly place to live in.  The Urubamba river flows at the bottom of the valley surrounded by the towering mountain peaks. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile descending to the ruins, we walked past the Temple of the Sun, or the Torreon. Two of the windows face the direction of the rising sun during the solstices.  There is an altar in the middle.  Observe the stone work in the construction of the walls.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture below once again shows the nature of the crowds visiting Machu Picchu.  We ourselves had been up there in the higher sections of the mountain that you see in the picture during the initial part of our tour. (We did manage to cover a few miles during our visit to the place!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture below shows the temple in the main plaza.  Unfortunately, a part of the wall is collapsing.  Note the precise work with the rocks.  Behind the temple is a hill with the Intihuatana, a rock structure whose function is not exactly understood today.  We climbed to the top to see the rock.  (Inti means sun in Quechua, the language of the Incas.  The sun was a very important deity for the Incas.)  The Intihuantana is the highest point within the complex of the ruins.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe four sides of the Intihuatana represent the 4 cardinal points (north, south, east, and west).  There are mountains particular mountain peaks surrounding Machu Picchu in these directions.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe left the ruins after walking through the central plaza area.  I will not post any of those pictures.  I took so many pictures during this visit that I had a hard time selecting the particular ones to show here.  I did not wish this blog to be overwhelming.

The visit to Machu Picchu was supposed to take a couple of hours, but we ended up taking three to four hours.  If I had been on my own, I might have ended up hiking the peaks surrounding the ruins, getting me away from the crowds, and also providing some even more fantastic views of the ruins.  I would actually like to go back, but I have my sincerest doubts that this will happen.

After using the restrooms at the exit to the park, we made our way back by the bus to Aguas Calientes.  We had a nice lunch in a restaurant there, and then caught the 2:30 train to Ollantaytambo.  The picture below was taken from the train.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople took time recover during the ride back.P4230286.jpgThese were our tour managers.  They looked exhausted.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAArrival at Ollantaytambo.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt Ollantaytambo, we boarded our bus to Cusco, our stop for the next two nights.  The day had been busy and tiring so far.

On the way we stopped to stretch our legs.  This place had a store for tourists, and also hostel rooms for the young and the adventurous.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe travelers were encouraged to take part in a game of Sapo at this stop.  It is a Peruvian game. The general objective is to throw the coins into the open mouth of a frog seated on the box.  You are looking at the winner in action below.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sun set while we were on our way to Cusco.  We stopped along the way to look at the night sky.  I tried to take some pictures but I have not yet mastered the use of my camera in the dark.

Back in Cusco, we checked into our rooms and walked across the road to a restaurant for dinner.  We were advised to eat light because of the altitude.  No red meats, we were told!  I enjoyed a simple plate of spaghetti, something I had not done in a long time.

And then it was off to bed after a very long day.  The next day was to be spent exploring Cusco.


Some Background on Machu Picchu

I suspect that the picture of Machu Picchu that many a person has in their mind’s-eye is one that evokes fantasy, a place that one suspects could only exist in the imagination.  There is the iconic picture of Machu Picchu that one has perhaps seen in a book, or on the Internet, that evokes a sense of wonder, a sense of this being a place that is really not of this world.  It is a place that exists in many people’s bucket lists, a place that some people wish to see at least once in their lifetime.  In fact, many in our tour group were visiting Peru primarily to see Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu was about to become reality for us today.  Could it even live up to the expectations?  We were about to find out.

First of all, some background regarding the ruins at Machu Picchu.  There have been many theories over the years regarding its significance, but it is now believed to have been a royal estate built by Emperor Pachachutec, the Incas greatest ruler.  He was responsible for the expansion of the Inca Empire, which at a point was larger than the Roman Empire.  (The Inca Empire, however, did not last too long, destroyed by infighting, disease, and finally the Spanish conquest.)  Pachachutec deliberately chose a site for this complex that was difficult to access, on top of Machu Picchu (which means old mountain).  The location seems to be most easily accessible from a single direction, through a mountain pass via the Inca trail.

The Incas were great civil engineers.  They built a series of roads that spanned over many thousands of miles to connect their major centers.  Some of these pathways still exist today.  The Inca trail to Machu Picchu is probably one of the most famous of these roads.  The Incas also developed strategies for supporting agriculture in the mountains, using techniques to build structures that optimized the use of their resources.   They also built structures with great precision, managing to move large rocks and place them against each other for form walls with minimal gaps in them.

In order to build Machu Picchu, the Incas first built a series of terraces starting at lower levels to support the structures on top.  These terraces were designed to drain excess water from the top quickly.  They were marvels of engineering design, with layering of different kinds of material in the terraces to allow the water to safely drain away slowly.  These terraces survive even today.  They had rock quarries at the top of the mountain to also help with the construction of the buildings.  They got a lot of rain in those parts.  In fact one of the challenges of visiting Machu Picchu is experiencing good weather when you visit!

Machu Picchu somehow survived the destruction that the Spanish sowed everywhere in their path.  They demolished anything that they found that had to do with the Inca religion. Perhaps Machu Picchu survived because the Spanish did not know of its existence.  Machu Picchu was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911 when he went to Peru on a National Geographic sponsored expedition.  Bingham’s goal was to discover the lost Incan capital of Vilcambamba.  He convinced himself that he had indeed found Vilcambamba at Machu Picchu, but he was wrong.  (This is what happens when you have biases, and a predetermined objective in mind!)  The good thing was that in spite of his biases, Bingham was a good explorer.  He did a good job documenting what he had found.  The road up the mountain to the Estate of Machu Picchu is named after him today.  It is the only way to get to the ruins by motor vehicle.  The only other approach is to hike the trails!

Our journey started with a bus ride.

Visit to Ollantaytambo, Peru

We headed out to the town of Ollantaytambo, at the western end of the Sacred Valley, in the afternoon, after the morning trip to Maras and Moray.

Ollantaytambo is an Inca town that existed even before the time of the Spanish conquest.  It served as a fortress, and as an agricultural and religious center.  It saw action during the time of the conquest.  Today, the town is known for its ruins.  According to Wikipedia the town also has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America.  Ollantaytambo appears to be a major tourist attraction in the Sacred Valley.

It took about an hour to get to Ollantaytambo from Urubamba.  We drove through narrow streets of the old town, and then past the town plaza, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto arrive at the starting point for the climb to the Temple of the Sun.

The Temple of the Sun sits atop Temple Hill at the top of a series of terraces.  The terraces were used for agriculture.  The Incas were well known for the design of their terraces – they had a good irrigation system, and means for drainage of excess water, and you can also see the excellent stonework in the walls of the terraces.  The rocks were cut to fit snugly into each other without the need for mortar.  (The Spanish stonework was extremely crude in comparison.)  The Incas were good civil engineers! OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Pinkuylluna ruins lie on the mountainside opposite the Temple Hill, on the other side of town.  There are trails that go up this mountain and past these ruins.  (I would have loved to explore these trails if we had been on our own.)  The ruins include granaries and other kinds of buildings built into the mountains slopes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a closer picture of one of the granaries on Pinkuylluna.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see the town sprawled out in front of you as you climb Temple Hill.  The buildings towards the middle of the picture house shops for tourists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou arrive at the temple at the top of the steps, and the first thing you see is a structure called the Wall of the Six Monoliths.  You can get an idea as to how big these pieces of rock are, and also how perfectly the rocks fit against each other. This is another example of the great Inca construction capabilities.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbove the Wall of the Six Monoliths, you find an open space with ruins, and you can also see that the ruins extend further up the mountain.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWorthy of note is the fact that this temple was left uncompleted.

This is another view of the town from the level of the temple.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the other side of Temple Hill you can see the fields in the valley to the west of Ollantaytambo.  The train to Machu Picchu departs in this direction.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe steps to get to the Temple of the Sun are rather steep.  We were told that the steps here were more regular than at Machu Picchu. Our tour manager had convinced some of us to buy sticks to help with tackling the steps.  It was probably unnecessary.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe stairs were generally crowded – packed with tourists going in both directions.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI noticed that there were other trails on the mountain that led to other destinations beside the Temple of the Sun, including this one.  We, unfortunately, did not have the time for further explorations.P4220389.jpgAfter getting to the bottom of the hill, we had to walk though the shopping area to get back to our bus.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce on the bus, we drove past the town square once again to get out of town.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat evening, after we returned to Urubamba, we went out to a local family home for dinner.  The dinner was an optional part of the tour, and was part of a program set up by our tour group, Gate1, to provide local people with an additional source of income, and at the same time give tourists an opportunity to meet and get to know some of the locals.

We took the tour bus from the hotel to the home we were visiting. As we parked, a door opened to a closed and walled compound to let us in. We walked through a front yard, and then past the kitchen,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto get to the room where dinner was being served.

During dinner, we conversed with the family with the help of our assistant tour manager who served as interpreter.  We were joined for dinner by the matriarch of the family.  She is the older lady sitting to the left of the picture below.  She oversees her clan, including two of her sons who live on the property with their families.  One of the sons takes care of the property, including the garden and its produce.  He sits to the left of the picture in the foreground. His wife, sitting at the far end of the table, prepared the dinner.  (She could not sit with us during dinnertime, but joined us for dessert.)  The other son is sitting on the right side of the table.  He makes artwork out of ceramics.  (We saw his workshop on the way out.)  Dinner was excellent.  We had a unique dessert made out of tree tomatoes grown in their garden.  The quinoa soup was exceptional.  I understand that the dinner was prepared with ingredients from their garden.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGate1’s dinner program helps the families during hard times.  I understand that occasional flooding is an problem in places like Urubamba and others that depend on agriculture.

Earlier on in the day, we had been a little concerned about going to this dinner because we were scheduled for an early start the next morning – a 5:30am checkout and departure.  But, at the end of the day, we were glad that we visited the family.  It was a simple affair, and it was over early enough in the evening for us to get back to our rooms and prepare for the big day tomorrow!

Next in this series of blogs here.

The Agricultural Terraces of Moray, Peru

To get to the Inca agricultural research area, one has to pass through the village of Moray.  It is an interesting drive down the very narrow streets lined with tightly packed houses, with vehicles occasionally passing by on cross streets in front of you without any warning.  You might be playing a game of chicken, except that when you play chicken you can actually see the other vehicle!  The bus barely fit in the narrow street, and making a 90 degree turn into another narrow cross-street in the middle of town required some dexterity and a light touch from Cesar, our bus driver.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter passing town, we drove down the dirt road towards the hills.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is a patch of red quinoa that we saw on the way.  We saw quinoa in many places in Peru.  Quinoa comes in many different colors.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe fields looked fertile.  Winter will soon be coming to Peru.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the agricultural center we encountered some dry desert vegetation.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were told that the agricultural terraces at Moray were used by the Incas to develop varieties of crops that could be grown all over the country.  Because of the levels of the individual terraces that you can see in the picture below, the temperature difference between the bottom-most level and the top was about 27 degrees Fahrenheit.  Each level of the terrace is at a slightly different temperature from the ones above and below it, and experiences its own micro climate.  The temperature at the bottom is more in keeping with the temperature at sea level, and the temperatures at the top correspond to those in the mountains.  By slowly moving plants through different levels of the terraces over long periods of time, the Incas got them to adapt to the micro climate corresponding to that level.  The modified plants could then be grown in other parts of the country.  (FYI, the Inca empire covered an area greater than that of the Roman empire at one time in history.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFYI, Potatoes originated in Peru, and there are over 3000 varieties of potatoes that grow all over the country.

We hiked to the bottom of the terraces and walked across to the other side.  This is at an elevation of 11500 feet.  We had to take it easy!   FYI, there were a few of these terraces in the area, but the one shown in the picture is the only one that has undergone restoration.

I found the dogs in the picture below taking a nap when wandering around looking for a restroom.  We found dogs everywhere we went in Peru.  They looked clean, and I suspect that they are all owned by people.  They were not aggressive.  The only downside is that you had to watch your step to avoid the dog poop, even in big cities like Lima.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe saw tour groups on ATVs on the dirt roads during our visits to Maras and Moray.  This is a different way to see Peru!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI snapped this picture as we were descending back into the Sacred Valley and Urubamba, on our way back after our morning trip.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is the bridge under construction over the Urubamba river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is a picture of another very common form of mototaxi in Peru.  It seems to be a modified motorbike.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANext blog in the series here.

The Maras Salt Flats in Peru

Juana is an artist, a middle-aged lady who sell paintings to tourists in Urubamba.  She comes from a a family of artists.  She also sells her dad’s and daughter’s paintings.  She waits for the tourist buses to arrive at the hotel that we were staying at, and greets people with her paintings in hand as they exit the bus.  When we first arrived, our tour guide brought her on to the bus and introduced her to us.   He later joked that she was a tourist-chaser (just like an ambulance chaser).  Juana sits at a store-front across the road from the entrance to the hotel so that she can observe the comings and goings at the hotel.

We bought a couple of paintings from Juana.  During our time in Urubamba, we would greet each other whenever we saw each other in front of the hotel.  She did talk about her family.  It turned out that she was over forty years old and pregnant, a slightly risky situation in a small out-of-the-way place like Urubamba.

During our time in Peru, we came across many situations where people on the street were selling products made with their own hands to tourists. Locals would greet us in the streets and offer their wares.  And some of the stuff was quite good.  The sales pitches, in most cases, were not too aggressive.  (“No, gracias”, was my standard response if I was not interested!) Prices were reasonable.   There is a lot of honesty in the  directness of this approach, when compared to buying things in official stores, where things are often overpriced after having passed through the hands of a few middlemen, and things could also be of suspect origin (a lot of fake stuff comes from China!).

The skies were still clearing as we departed for the Maras salt flats (or salt mines, or salt pans, as some people call them) in the morning.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo get to Maras, we had to retrace the route we had taken into Urubamba.  We climbed out of the valley and drove back to a point on the main road to Cusco where we had to turn off the road and get on to the dirt road to Maras.  Just outside of Maras, we turned on to a second dirt road that led to the salt flats.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn a short while, this road narrowed and began to weave its way up and around  mountainsides.  There were blind corners to be negotiated, and the driver had to honk to make sure that it was safe to take the curve on the single lane road.  If two vehicles confronted each other, one would have to back away to a slightly wider section to let the other one through.  There was one occasion where we found a front-end loader that was doing some road work right in front of us just after we had taken a blind corner. That was an interesting encounter!  The road was reasonably busy with what looked like tourist traffic.

We finally arrived at a spot overlooking the salt flats.  It was quite the sight! (Click on the picture to see it in full resolution!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATo our right, we could see the Sacred Valley with the Urubamba river flowing through it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe salt flats of Maras have been in operation since pre-Columbian times, existing even in the pre-Inca period.  (The Inca empire started in the 1400s.) The flats are fed by springs in the mountain.  There is a flow of water from the hillside to the left of the picture below.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe salt is picked up from within the mountains.  The salt exists because the land rose from the sea a long, long, time ago to form the Andes mountains!  The flats are shaped by the hands of man, and are basically evaporation ponds that are at different levels on the hillside.  The individual ponds are owned and taken care of by individual families, and the whole place operates as a cooperative effort so that all of the ponds are taken care of.  This place is still in operation as a cooperative today.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see that the stream leaving the salt flats still has salt in the water.  The stream probably feeds the Urubamba river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a different view of the salt flats from the entrance to the facility.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe water from the spring that feeds the facility flows into channels.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture below shows waterways cut into the ground to feed the ponds. The waterways are fed by the main channels, and these further split in multiple directions to feed the ponds located in different directions.  There are gates from these waterways to the individual ponds that can be open and closed.  It is  cooperative effort to make sure that all the ponds are watered and taken care of.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce there is enough water in a pond, the inlet gate is closed, and the pond is left to dry out until a layer of salt has been deposited.  The salt has to solidify to a certain consistency before it is extracted.

Salt ponds need regular maintenance to function properly.  The bottom of the pond has to be taken care of on a regular basis to ensure proper operation.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a lot of labor involved in this process.  The salt from the individual ponds needs to be extracted and carried out from the slopes without the aid of machines.

On our way out of the place we passed stores where they were selling little bags of salt in different colors from the salt flats.  We were told that the salt is also exported these days.

Our next stop after the salt flats were the Moray Incan Agricultural ruins just outside of the village of Maras.

Urubamba in the Sacred Valley in Peru

I got a decent night’s sleep after our arrival in Urubamba the previous day. Was up early, as is usually the case when I am traveling. It had rained overnight, but the clouds were lifting when we awoke. They drifted between the distant mountain tops.  The orange arch of the bridge under construction over the Urubamba river also appeared in the distance.  (We had to take a detour over a temporary bridge next to this one to get into town yesterday.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Traffic was light at that time of the day.  Vehicles sped past our hotel down the wet road every once in a while, including this auto rickshaw.  Auto rickshaws (also called tuk tuks) are all over the place in Peru.  They are also called mototaxis, and the version in the picture below has doors for the passengers, unlike the auto rickshaws in India.  Auto rickshaws used to be imported from India (Bajaj!), but are now produced locally.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABreakfast in the hotel introduced us to a Peruvian grain called Kiwicha, also known as amaranth or “mini quinoa”. It was to be consumed as a cereal in puffed form.  It is considered a superfood.  Kiwicha was also available for breakfast in a health drink called Kiwigen, which kids like to drink.  (From the advertising on the bottles, they are led to believe that by drinking Kiwigen they will become strong enough to be supermen or astronauts!)

As an aside, the grain quinoa has been consumed in large quantities in Peru historically.  Only recently has it became well known internationally as a superfood.  I had some great quinoa soup on a couple of occasions during this trip.

We got to sample some local breads for breakfast.  In some places they had fresh fruit spreads to go with the bread.  The fruits that we ate with breakfast were the standard fruits that one is used to in the United States, except for the addition of papaya.  We did get mangoes in one hotel.  That did not last too long on the buffet table.

The juices that we got for breakfast during this trip were uneven in quality, but we did occasionally get something that was unique and local, and worth trying.  We did notice that these juices were not sugared up excessively as is usually the case in the US. Coffee was usually quite strong. We ended up drinking coca tea somewhat regularly with breakfast while we were in the mountains to help avoid altitude sickness.

The hotel that we were staying at was an old-fashioned place.  It had an orange tree with oranges in its front yard.  The corridors and the rooms reminded you of a time past.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe gardens were beautiful,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand behind the hotel was a big field on which some sort of grain was growing.  It could have been corn. Peru is a major producer of corn, and it is consumed in different forms at different times of the day.  There are many kinds of corn available in different colors.  The kernels are huge, and they do not look anything like what you see in the United States.

We did not explore much of the town itself because we did a few tours outside of town while we were there.  We were told that Urubamba was not that well developed for tourists, and that most of the restaurants in town were not completely safe for people like us to eat at, but the place did not really appear that intimidating. In fact, there seemed to be quite a few tourists around, especially at the hotel we were staying at.  It could have been a reasonable place to walk around and mix with the locals.   There was even a convenience store next to the local gas station!

We had to leave the hotel at an early hour for our morning tour.  The first place that we were visiting were the Maras Salt Flats.

A Stop at Chinchero on the Way to Urubamba and The Sacred Valley

There was no way for me to create daily blogs on the fly while we were traveling in Peru since were too busy visiting places.  Internet connections were also not always reliable.  Very often the days would start before 8 AM.  There was this day when we even departed in a bus for the train station at 5:30 AM after having checked out of the hotel!

Nevertheless, I did expend a few brain cells during the trip thinking about how I should structure this series of blogs.   I came to the conclusion that I should simply follow the flow of my heart and let it take whatever direction it wanted.  This might be considered a case of not have a well defined structure and/or principle of operation. A lifetime of experience has taught me  that having well defined principles of operation sometimes places unnecessary constraints, and can also diminish the joy of the process.  So I will allow this series of blogs to be more free flowing.  At the same time, I am sure that some sort of structure is bound to emerge, considering that this is a case of a former engineer’s brain cells being applied to the task.

But now that the trip has come to an end, I also need to move into action quickly, lest I forget all the details!  They say that memories last forever, but I am not at all certain that this is true.  Sometimes, these memories get lost in the crevices of one’s mind, and dragging these memories out becomes difficult.  Leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in these blogs might help the process!

To get to the Sacred Valley from Lima, the place where we had arrived at in Peru, one has to get to Cusco first, and then proceed further by road or train.  We flew into Cusco with our tour group.   Cusco is at an altitude of 11150 feet.   We had been warned ahead of time to prepare ourselves for the altitude.   We had already started taking our Diamox pills in Lima.  We were now about to be introduced to the practice of chewing of caco leaves, an activity that the natives practice regularly.

We arrived in Cusco somewhat late in the morning.  We could see the mountains of the Andes all around us as the aircraft approached the city.  Because of the thin air and the need for additional lift to keep the aircraft from stalling, it came in for a landing at a greater speed than I am used to.   As we exited the aircraft and waited to board our bus, we breathed in the thin air of the mountains for the first time.  It all seemed good!

The plan was to head immediately out of the city on the tour bus that was waiting for us.

The next couple of pictures were taken outside the airport building after we got our bags.  What is noticeable in all of the places that we visited in Peru is that many buildings do not have a layer of plaster on top of the bricks.  It is standard practice in the country.  In some cases the buildings are complete and occupied in spite of looking unfinished.  In other cases, especially in some homes, you might even find rebars sticking out of the roof.  This is because the building is being constructed by the family a little bit at a time as money becomes available for construction. This does not mean that the part of the house that has already been completed cannot be occupied immediately.  You will probably see more pictures showing this type of construction in future blogs.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture below is an advertisement for transportation to what may be the most popular destination in the country for international tourists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we drove out of town, we passed a hill with a statue of Pachacutec, considered one of the greatest Inca kings, on top. It is now believed that he was responsible for what has been built on Machu Picchu.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was another monument to the Emperor Pachacutec, beside the road that we were driving along.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe climbed out of the valley that Cusco is situated in using a series of switchbacks. The bus made a stop somewhere along the way, on the hillside, to provide views of the city. While we were stopped we got instructions on the use of coca leaves to fight the effects of altitude sickness.  Our tour manager produced a bag of coca leaves that were safe to chew on. Essentially, one grabs a bunch and gently chews on it, or simply bites on it, on one side of the mouth.  It dissolves slowly over time. For people who do not know, coca leaves are also the source of cocaine when processed in large quantities.  The leaves, and any product made with coca, are banned in the United States, but its use is legal and accepted by all of Peru.  The locals chew on it all the time.  We used it regularly during the trip to help avoid altitude sickness.  There is little danger of addiction at the levels of our usage.  We also drank coca tea and enjoyed coca candies! Here is a view of the city.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see the kids walking down the hill in the picture below.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stopped for lunch at the village of Chinchero.  We were visiting  a cooperative where the ladies make products from the wool of alpacas.

Lunch was served to us by the ladies.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe cuy, or guinea pig, pictured below is considered a delicacy in these parts.  It is a good source of protein.  The animal is domesticated for food.  It is difficult for some visitors to get used to eating cuy, especially in the form that it is usually presented in.  I found the little piece that I was given at lunch a little too tough to chew.  This was the only time I tried cuy.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was fascinated by the way the kids were carried around by their mothers.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWho can resist pictures of cute children!  This one continued to turn around and look at me as mom walked away.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALunch was followed by a demonstration of the process for creating different colored threads from the wool. This thread is used for making the different products sold by the cooperative.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMost of the people in this part of Peru are Incas.  The Inca religion is polytheistic in nature, with Pachamama, or mother earth, being one of the more important deities.  The Spanish invaders brought in Catholicism in the 16th century, and the locals in some parts of the country now practice a form of religion that seems to mix of customs from the two ways of living.   Depending on where we were in the country, we saw either the combination of the cross and the bulls, or just the bulls, on the roofs of homes, meant for protection of the people living in the home.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile walking through town we passed a procession.  It could have been the procession in celebration of Easter.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere also seemed to be some kind of meeting going on in town.  I heard two different accounts regarding the subject of the meeting.  One was that this was a funeral service.  The other was that this was a meeting of the mayors of the local villages.  They are sitting to the left of the picture below.  I was told that the mayors carry their official staffs with them, and these had been collected in a standing pile in front of where they are seated.  A good amount of cerveza was being consumed by the mayors.  Some music was also being provided on the instruments that you can see in the foreground of the picture.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was onward to our destination for the night.  The view beside the mountain roads was beautiful. We stopped for pictures.  The snow-capped peaks of the Andes appeared in the distance.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe valleys were covered with meadows, green fields, and clumps of trees.  There were flowers by the wayside.  For some reason I began to think of The Sound of Music.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe clouds moved swiftly across the sky.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then we began our descent into the Sacred Valley following a series of switchbacks down a steep mountainside.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sun was beginning to set as we got to our hotel on the outskirts of the town of Urubamba.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUrubamba is a small place beside the Urubamba river, one of the headwaters of the Amazon river.  We went out to a local restaurant for dinner with our tour group after checking into our rooms.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt dinner we were entertained by a musician playing music on different kinds of pan flutes.  He was quite talented.  Indeed, he had also made all of the instruments that he was playing.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile you are in Peru, you will hear the song El Condor Pasa almost everywhere you go.    We heard the song being played most beautifully that evening.  Most of us from the US associate this song with Simon and Garfunkel, but the song actually originated in Peru.  The condor, puma, and snake, are the sacred animals of the Inca people.

We returned to our hotel after dinner and crashed out after the long day of travel.  So far there have been no issues in dealing with the altitude, but Urubamba is at an altitude of only about 9400 feet.

Next blog in the series here.