Heading Home from Peru

We knew the drill very well by now.  If we were with a Gate1 tour, and if we were traveling to another place and another hotel, we would have to put our suitcases outside the door by a predetermined time in the morning for pick up by the bellboys.  This time would be well before we actually left the hotel.   When we returned to the rooms after breakfast, the bags would be gone. The next time we saw them would be at the next hotel room.

We went through the routine for the last time during this trip to Peru.  And then we went down for breakfast.  I should mention that breakfast in this hotel included quinoa juice, something we had not tasted at any of the other places that we had stayed in.  People seemed to like it, but I could not handle the somewhat glutinous consistency of the drink and the way it felt in my mouth.  To each his own.

It was another early start for the day since our flight to Lima was from Juliaca, the town we had passed through on our way by bus to Puno, and the flight was scheduled to depart mid-morning.

Juliaca, uniformly, has a very bad reputation as a city for tourists.  It is generally  recommended that tourists not linger there longer than necessary. The best thing you can do for yourself is to get out of town quickly.   It is apparently a place for smugglers. Street crime seems to be a significant issue.  The city government is not very functional.

Puno is a tourist town because of its location, but Juliaca still has a larger population.  We were told the the airport was in Juliaca and not Puno because of the geography of the area.  Another article mentioned politics as a reason for the location.  In any case, the airport is small, and there are very few flights out of it.  The whole place was almost empty when we showed up for our LATAM flight.

The only commercial airports that are at a higher altitude than the one in Juliaca are in China and Bolivia.  Juliaca also has the longest runway in South America.  This is because of the altitude.

We ended up being joined at the airport by another tour group from Gate1 that was heading back to Lima. (There was a suspicion that these folks were a part of a more expensive tour package, and that they might have stayed in the prison/hotel in Puno.)  Gate1 customers took up a significant number of seats on this flight.

The security process was a little different than I am used to during recent travels.  The security check was in a small space, and the single scanning machine was apparently not very sophisticated.  I had to open up up my computer bag and all of its pockets to show what I had in it.  But they did not create a hassle.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASitting in our aircraft seats prior to departure, we noticed a few sheep being loaded into the cargo compartment.  What fate awaited them in Lima?

The aircraft departed the terminal area without having to to be pushed back. It turned around and headed straight for the runway.  And then the aircraft was rolling down the runway.  And we kept rolling down the runway as if we were going to remain on it for a while.  Finally, after about 40 seconds, the plane gently lifted off the ground.  I know the time because I measured it.  (We had been warned about what to expect ahead of time!)  It all had to do with the thin air at that altitude.

It was an uneventful flight over the Andes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon, we had landed in Lima, and we were back to sea level – breathing in the heavily oxygenated, but perhaps more polluted, air.

By the time we got from the airport to the hotel and had our lunch, there was not much time left for further explorations of Lima. We took a walk along the cliff that ran along the coastline at Miraflores.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It was going to be difficult to get down to the beach itself.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked to a supermarket not too far from our hotel to buy some local goods.  Got some Kiwicha for breakfast and local chocolate bars.

Back at the hotel, we got on a bus and headed out to a restaurant for our final dinner as a group.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe said our goodbyes back at the hotel.  We had made a few friends during the trip.P4270471.jpgOur tour manager was also heading home to be with his family in Cusco.  He would not be seeing us off at the airport.

We had to leave the hotel before well before daybreak in order to catch our early morning flight to Orlando, Florida.  We were accompanied to the airport by a local agent from Gate1.  Everything went smoothly.  I was surprised that the aircraft that we flew out of Peru on was a small one.  It was packed with kids, most probably headed out to see Mickey and friends.

With customs and immigration taken care of after landing in Orlando, we were back on ‘Merican soil.  There was a vague sense of being back in a familiar, and even comfortable, place,  but the sense of adventure and expectation that comes with being in a new place had also come to an end.  You could feel the senses immediately beginning to dull.  The rest of the trip was going to be very predictable – even if there were any issues that cropped up during the rest of the trip home.

We got back home in time for dinner.  There was nothing in the fridge that could be consumed immediately. Our regular standby, California Tortilla being closed, we had to settle for the 24 hour Wendy’s close to home.

And then it was over.

But the memories of this exciting trip will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

The Uros Floating Islands on Lake Titicaca

It was about this time during the trip that I finally began to consider the fact that it was going to come to an end soon.  After this one day of visiting places, there would be two more days of travel as we headed home.   Then it would be over. It was all happening too quickly.  But that is the nature of tours like this.  One day you are exploring, and then before you even realize it, you are back in the comfort of your home.  Anyway, having been on trips like this in the past, it was a feeling that was less disconcerting than in past times.

Soon after breakfast, before the tours for the day started, a few of us decided to make a short visit to the Cathedral in the town square nearby.

Some of the locals were already out and about, setting out their wares for the tourists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis church is of Spanish origin and was rebuilt in the 1960s after it had burnt down.  It has an interesting facade.  The cross in front is most interesting since it includes both Catholic and Inca symbols on it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe inside of the church was more traditional.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAClose by, at the center of the central square, or the Plaza de Armas, is a statue of Colonel Francisco Bolognesi, a hero of the war with Chile in the late 19th century.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon after we returned to the hotel, we set out on the trip to lake Titicaca with the rest of our tour group.  We were visiting the Uros Floating Islands on the lake.  We had to first walk from the hotel to main road to catch the bus to the dock.

Lake Titicaca is the largest inland lake in South America.  It is bordered by Peru and Bolivia.  At 12,500 feet, some call it the highest navigable lake because it can support bigger ships.  It used to be that you could travel between Peru and Bolivia by ship.  We were told that it takes about 10 hours.

The lake is quite deep and supports a variety of fresh water fish and birds, some of them unique to the area.  It has a rich ecosystem.  Human beings inhabited the area even before the Inca times.

As a tourist, there is probably a lot to experience in the area related to the lake, but we had time on the tour to do just one thing, and that was to visit the Uros floating islands.

The bus trip to the boat dock did not take much time.  This was a view of Puno from near the dock.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is a tourist boat approaching the dock area, probably one that takes visitors to the Uros Islands.  The lakeside in that area actually did not look very inviting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn our way out to the islands in our boat, we passed this luxury hotel that was once a prison.  I hope it was worth it for the people staying there.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe islands were not too far from Puno. The boat had to pass through a narrow channel to get to them.  These guys were monitoring entry to the floating islands.P4260237.jpgOnce we got through the channel, we entered an area where there were a large number of floating islands set in an approximately circular configuration.  There were boats going hither and tither, from one island to another. It was immediately obvious that this space was a destination for tourists.   It was not always that way for the Uros people.  They did not always depend on tourism.

The Uros are an indigenous people who have been living on their floating islands since even before the Inca times.  Their traditional way of life was based on fishing and hunting of birds.  There are still some Uros who practice this way of life, living on floating islands that are farther out in the lake.  In general, this seems to be a difficult way of life which is slowly disappearing as the  young people move to the mainland.

The floating islands are constructed from totora reeds that are harvested from the lake itself.  The reeds are used for many purposes, including food and medicine.

We were taken to one of the many islands in that space.  You can see that the islanders in the picture below were expecting us.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce on the island, they sat us around in a semicircle for a presentation. They talked about their way of life.  There was demonstration of the process of building an island.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe base of the island is made from the roots of the totora reed.  Bunches of totora roots are bundled together and they are anchored to the bottom of the lake to keep the island in place.  Next, the reed itself is spread out in layers over the base to create the foundation on which life takes place on the island.  You can actually feel the island move when a passing motorized boat creates waves.  It takes a little getting used to.  Our particular island was more than 20 feet above the bottom of the lake.

The totora reed is also used to build the huts in which they live and the boats that they use.  The boats are called balsa even though they are not made of balsa wood.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs time passes, the totora reeds begin to rot and the layers of reeds that form the island need to be replenished. The floating islands also have a limited lifetime.  (It sound like a difficult life.)  The islands are of different sizes, and generally support a small community.  We were told that the one we were visiting had about 20 people.

The demonstration included a show of how the homes were set up on the reeds.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASomewhere along the line, I began to feel that the demonstration was beginning to take on the appearance of a comedy show that was being put on for the benefit of the tourists.  I felt a little bad about the fact that this was part of what the Uros people felt they had to do to survive.  It felt like they were going through a certain loss of dignity in the process, and we, the “rich” tourists, were playing our own role in this process.

Some of the people of the island came forward to talk to us about themselves.  The person to the left is the elder on the island, and the the rest of the people were part of his family.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see a couple of solar panels in the picture above.  Electricity was brought to the Uros people in the late 1980s by the then President Fujimori. The metal building in the background is actually some kind of chapel.

We visited some of the living quarters, all of which were made of the totora reed.  Space was really tight in these huts.  After that, they had an open market to sell some of the trinkets they had made.  The lady in the picture is the village elder’s wife.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the picture below, our  local guide, Broz, is showing us that the islanders hunt birds with guns that they make themselves.  (Broz indicated that he had spent a few months living with the Uros people on their islands in order to learn their ways.  This was a part of his training.)  They also make a kind of jerky from the dead birds, and consume the eggs that they lay.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe decided to take a ride in a balsa boat belonging to these islanders to get across to another island on the other side of the expanse of water.  As we left the ladies sang some of their traditional songs to wish us adieu.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we were leaving, I took picture of the island that we had just been on.  To the left you can see one of the new composting toilets that is being installed on the islands.  (Things seem to be a little rough today on the floating islands when it comes to attending to the call of nature.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll of the tourist activity in the area was very obvious as we were rowed across to the other side.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe yellow boat in the front of the picture below is typical of the area.  We were sailing on a similar boat.  It can carry quite a few people.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe landed on an island which seemed to be the focus of the most tourist activity in that space.  It had a regular restaurant and bathrooms, and the tourist presence was actually obscene.  I could not wait to depart.

Some final notes about the Uros people.  They have health issues, and a short lifetime, partly because the water that they consume is a little brackish.  There is salt in the water because the mountains that form the Andes rose from the sea level at some point in the history of the earth.  They have salt in them. The water for the lake comes primarily from rivers that feed into it.

There is a small medical facility on one of the islands for the care of the people, but they have to go to Puno for anything more serious.  As I mentioned earlier, the population is also in a state of decline as young people leave.  Also, the Uros today use the mainland for some of their activities – like for the burial of their dead.  They do not mind using newer technology.  Some own motorboats.  Although I did not see this with my own eyes, I suspect that they must use mobile phones.

We could get a view of Puno from a distance as we departed the islands.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI did see a few birds in the water as we were returning, but was unable to take any good pictures.  I certainly saw a coot, and also another bird with a blue beak.  My research indicates that there is more than one kind of waterfowl in the lake that has this characteristic.

Here is a picture of the last passenger ship that used to sail across the lake.  The SS Ollanta is still available for charter trips these days. It is berthed at Puno when not in use.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had to get back to the hotel quickly after returning to shore at Puno.  We had a short time for a quick lunch before the start of an afternoon trip to our next destination.  It turned out that the only people who had signed up for this optional trip was our small group of seven people.  The trip to Sillustani that afternoon ended up being another great highlight from our visit to Peru.

The Bus Ride to Puno

Our room on the fourth floor of the hotel had views of some of the mountains surrounding Cusco.  This is what daybreak looked like.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was going to be one of the longer travel days of the trip.  We were about to go on a bus ride that was expected to take about 8 hours.  We were going from Cusco to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

The trip started off in a small bus that was to take us to Gate1’s bus depot closer to the edge of town.  It seems that their bigger buses were not allowed into the area of town where the hotel was located.  We were going to transfer to a bigger bus at the bus depot.

Here are some street scenes along the way.  Billboards like the ones below are a characteristic of cities all over the world.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Inca Kola, advertised on the delivery truck below, is the national soft drink of Peru. For some reason or other, the significance of Inca Kola to the Peruvians had not been noted by the tour manager or any of the guides.   Some folks from our tour group did try the drink during this visit.  The general consensus was there was nothing noteworthy about it.  Maybe the management had a good reason not to talk about it!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI could not help but notice the mess of cables on the lampposts lining the city streets.  This is fairly typical, not just in Peru, but in many developing countries.  I have no idea how people keep track of where particular cables go, and for what purpose.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was surprised by the size of Gate1’s bus depot when we arrived there. There were many vehicles in the facility, pointing to the existence of a very big operation out of Cusco.  The bus that we got on for our onward trip to Puno was big and comfortable.  It even had a restroom that we could use while the bus was moving – so that we could minimize bathroom stops.

We got out of the city of Cusco, and on to the highway to Puno, shortly after we left the depot.  In a little while, we entered a big and wide valley with mountains on both sides.  The valley was quite lush, but it was also better visible from the other side of the bus from where I was seated.  The others who had the view seemed to be enthralled by it.  I was enjoying the view of the green mountainside beside the bus.  There were plants and trees, and flowers of the fall season, and even little streams.

The first stop was at the village of Raqchi.  We first visited a school that Gate1 supports financially (for equipment and buildings) .  Gate1 supports 28 schools in all in Peru.  We met with the kids and interacted with them.  This was an elementary school setting.  There were children in a range of ages.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a fun time.  They sang for us and we sang to them (try singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”).

We visited the ruins of the Temple of Wiracocha in Raqchi.  This huge structure used to once have a roof over it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt looked very different from the other temples we had seen thus far in Peru, which were usually open structures on tops of hills.  This is what remains today of the temple.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOther structures have also survived from the time of the Incas in Raqchi, including warehousesOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand some living quarters.

We passed by the small village plaza and the open air market area. There were shops lining the pathways, manned by locals selling small trinkets and souvenirs to the tourists. I also went to the small church that bordered the plaza.  It was an addition to the town from the 20th century.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn a wall in the church was a picture of the Last Supper at which cuy was being eaten.  If the reader has been following my blogs about Peru, he or she will remember that we were not able to see the more famous version of this picture in the cathedral in Cusco.  So, it was a very nice surprise to see this particular picture here, in a humbler setting that seemed more appropriate.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn old caretaker silently appeared from the back of the church as I was walking around.  He started talking to me in Spanish.  I did not understand a word he was saying.  He might have also indicated that I could give some money to light a candle, but I was not trying to follow carefully.  I regret that I did not do that.

All of us got boxed lunches as we boarded the bus once again to continue our trip.

The railroad track from Cusco to Puno, and the Urubamba river, also ran through the valley, and beside the highway, we were traveling on.  The Urubamba looked like a modest stream at this point. It was hard to imagine that it grows in volume over distance to become a significant tributary of the great Amazon river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA short while after that, we passed the place where the Urubamba river begins.  There was smoke from a fire that somebody had set in the vicinity of that location.  The place that was pointed out to us had the look of the remains of an old crater. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon after that, we reached the Continental Divide and the highest point of the bus ride.  We were at an altitude of 14200 feet.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABeing a railroad fan, it was a great thrill for me to see the train from Puno to Cusco stopped at that location.  It looked like a regular stop for the train, and it also looked like the train was going to be stopped for a while.  Passengers had gotten out of their carriages and were walking around.  This train is meant for the tourists.  It is considered one of the highest railroads in the world.  Considering that the train does not operate every day of the week, I was very fortunate to see it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPano - Peru Rail.jpgWe continued our bus ride on the Altiplano, the high plains of the Andes.  Dramatic and wide open landscapes lay before our eyes.  The place looked lightly populated.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe did pass by a few small villages and towns.  Here are some random pictures.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAP4250170.jpgI am quite sure that the people who live in these parts, at these altitudes, are very hardy. I wonder how tough life is for them.  I wonder if they are a happy people?

During the bus ride we were shown some videos to keep us occupied.  They were all related to Peru.  We saw a movie about Thor Heyerdhal and the Kon-Tiki expedition.  In the 1940s, Thor Heyerdhal sailed the Pacific Ocean for the first time in a raft that had been designed to the specifications of the ancients of Peru, i.e, their indigenous people.  He managed to sail from Peru to the Polynesian Islands, depending primarily on the ocean current for movement.  Thor was attempting to show what the people of South America (and more specifically, Peru) could have populated the Pacific islands, and might have even brought elements of their culture with them.  Apparently, there is even some suggestion of ancient South American building practices inherent in the design of the statues on Easter Island.

A second video that we saw was about the practice of child sacrifice among the ancient religions of South America.  The indigenous people believed that the mountains are gods. In those days they used to sacrifice children to them and bury them on mountaintops.  The bodies of these children are being uncovered in recent times by archeologists. It was difficult to watch this video.  While many of the practices of the old religions seem to invoke the human connection with the forces of nature and the earth in a somewhat harmless way, this particular aspect of their practices was in my mind extremely cruel, and, in the end, hard to even understand.   I had a hard time just swallowing the fact that the child who was about to be sacrificed sometimes knew what was going to happen to it, and reacted in a way you would expect scared children to do.  There is evidence in this regard in some of the remains that have been found.

Our next landmark during the bus ride was Juliaca, a commercial town. Juliaca was also the location for the airport that we were going to fly out of to get back to Lima.  The town was not very impressive, and we were told that the local government was not very functional.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn ice-cream seller on the street in Juliaca.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Bajaj autorickshaw service location in Juliaca.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrowded street in Juliaca.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring this trip, I began to notice little structures like the one below all along the highway.  I confirmed that these were memorials to people who had died in accidents.  These look a little more permanent than the roadside memorials we see in the US.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe got to Puno descending one of the hills that surrounds it.  We got our first view of Lake Titicaca.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe city looked big.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABecause of the city’s narrow streets, we were dropped off a few blocks away from our hotel.  We had to do the walk between the hotel and the spot we had been dropped off every time we needed to catch the bus or return to the hotel.   Walking the streets gave us a little better feel of the town.  It certainly looked commercial.

Our hotel was next to the main square of the town.  For dinner, we walked from the hotel across the square to one of the two restaurants that had been recommended to us by our tour manager.  The two restaurants were next to each other, and it was an amusing situation, with folks from both restaurants trying to entice us in.  We selected one, telling the other person that we would go there for lunch the next day (and he did remember us the next time were on that street!).   The dinner was OK, but the loud, live, music, was disruptive.

It started to rain heavily as we were having dinner.  We had to wait for any small break we could get in the rain to make a dash back to the hotel.  It was an adventure crossing the streets that had now turned into swiftly flowing steams with a large volume of water.  We had to do this while dodging traffic that did not want to slow down either for the rain or for the people walking across the street.  But we made it back to the hotel in one piece in spite of the challenges presented.

Puno is a big city.  Like I mentioned earlier, it is also very commercial, similar to Juliaca.  We were told that this is so because of the closeness of this area to Bolivia.  There is a lot of trade across the border. There is also a lot of smuggling that goes on, and an “illegal” contraband open market exists in Puno that the authorities turn a blind eye to. In fact, the authorities apparently shop at these places themselves.

Puno is supposedly not that well developed for tourists. We were warned a few times to be cautious about the nature of the food that we consumed, and the water that we drank.   We got a daily quota of bottled water from Gate1 to keep us safe and hydrated at the high altitudes.  We did have a few people in our group get relatively minor upset stomachs at some point or the other during the travels.  One person in our bigger tour group had severe stomach problems (that actually seemed a little scary) towards the end of the trip.

Puno is at an elevation of 12,500 feet, which makes altitude sickness more of an issue for visitors than in some of the other places that we had been to.  The hotels have oxygen tanks to help visitors with their breathing if needed.  We saw the tank in our hotel being used in the lobby.  We had folks in our group who were feeling the effects a little bit.

More adventures await us tomorrow.

Exploring Cusco

We were tired after our hike to Saqsaywaman and the walk back to town.  It took us a little while to find a suitable restaurant to have our lunch at at in the Plaza de Armas, the central plaza.  Restaurant fronts were not always obvious during our search,P4240524.jpgbut you would also have agents from these restaurants approach you on the street with menus, to try to entice you to enter a door that could lead you to a some hidden place somewhere, perhaps even up one or two flights of stairs.

We settled on the Mistura restaurant, across the plaza from the Church of the Society of Jesus which you can see in the picture below.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe enjoyed our lunch.  It was a chance to relax and catch our breath.

The food was well presented when it arrived.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt this restaurant, as in a few others, we were each given a complementary drink.   Some of us had Pisco Sour, a cocktail that originated in Peru. I did not find the drink that compelling the few times I tried it during this trip.  Another popular non-alcohohic beverage in Peru is Chicha Morada.  That was tasty.  (We were disappointed to find out later on in the trip that chicha morada can be bought in 2.5 liter bottles from the supermarket just like any other industrially produced drink.)

My alpaca dish was tasty.  The meat has a distinct and light flavor to it.  It also had a good consistency for chewing.  Yum!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI coined a name for the french fries on my plate – Jenga fries!  I also partook of some additional liquid refreshment during lunch.  It was needed after all the exercise that had been done in the morning.  You can see what remains of my drink in the glass in the background.

While we were in the restaurant, we saw many plates of cuy being brought down by the waiters from the kitchen on the floor above us.  A tourist couple sitting at the table next to ours had ordered the same dish, wanting to try it at least once before they departed Peru.  They seemed to enjoy it.

After lunch, we wandered around the plaza for a while (click on the picture below).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe spent more time at the Plaza that we wanted because of a shopping expedition that took longer than expected.  We did a couple of rounds of the plaza while waiting.

We would have liked to go into the churches around the plaza.  The cathedral (in the picture below)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwas supposed to have a somewhat famous painting that showed a guinea pig being consumed at the Last Supper.

We were disappointed to find out that the church was charging an entrance fee. How unseemly!  Moreover, they did not allow the use of cameras within the church.  That was the end of that project.  Even the Jesuits just across the plaza were doing the same thing as the cathedral for admission to their church.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere are a couple of more pictures from the plaza.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA statue of Pachacutec stands at its center.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(In addition to this statue, I saw at least two other statues of the emperor in different places around the city.)  One can also see the statue of Christ on the hillside in the background in the picture below.  That hill is next to the one Saqsaywaman is located on, and in fact you can take a trail from Saqsaywaman to this location.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe gathered together after the shopping was complete and continued our exploration, walking towards the big indoor market (or mercado).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked past the Arco de Santa Clara.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto arrive at the market.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe market itself was quite an interesting place to wander around.  It was huge inside.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou could buy almost anything you needed for the home, including foods,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and other kinds of stuff. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey had a section with counters at which you could buy fresh food and sit down and eat.  These were very small places where you did not necessarily get a table to put you food on.  Here is one instance.  There were many other such counters.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was beginning to get late by the time we were done with the market.  We walked back to the hotel using the back roads.  On the way we passed crowded streets, on one of which a street market seemed to be underway.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe pavements were packed in some of the streets.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou saw some interesting food in the store fronts.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd you always had to be careful to avoid getting hit by road traffic.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce past the markets, we continued our way back to the hotel.  We walked through a neighborhood that looked somewhat questionable.  The group of people in the background in the picture below are near a building from which a lot of noise was emanating.  It might have been a music club, one that was open early in the evening.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut we did arrive at the Jose Antonio Hotel safely.

I was completely exhausted by the time we got back to the hotel.  Some of us must have walked around 6 miles, and we were also not used to walking at this altitude.

But the evening was not over yet.  We still had to go to a dinner at a nearby restaurant that had been arranged by the tour group.  The food was good, but I was still full from lunch.  I barely survived. I had to make an extra effort to avoid falling asleep at one point.  I crashed out early after we returned to our room.  We had a long day of travel ahead of us the next day.

The Walk to Saqsaywaman

We had made detailed plans for spending the day exploring the town of Cusco on our own, without the rest of the tour group.   The plan began to unravel almost immediately in the morning.  We did not follow the route that we had set for ourselves, and we did not pay attention to whether we were covering everything that was on our list of things to see. It did not matter. This turned out to be another day of new and interesting experiences in Peru nevertheless.

The men in the group decided that they would walk to Saqsaywaman, an ancient Inca fortress overlooking the city of Cusco.  (The name of this place is spelt in many different ways in the English language, as are many other names that are derived from the Quechua language.)  The women were to meet up with us at an entrance to the park.  This was going to be a climb of about 500 feet, over a couple of miles, starting at an altitude of about 11,000 feet.  It was going to be a nice challenge!

The puma is an animal of importance in the Inca religion (the others are the condor and the snake), and Cusco is shaped in the form of a puma.  Saqsaywaman is the head of the puma.  We set off down Ave El Sol from the Jose Antonio hotel, somewhere in the lower body of the puma.  Most of the road traffic at that time was headed toward the center of town, the direction that we were initially headed in.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few hundred feet into the walk, I abandoned the paper map that I had printed and was trying to follow, and let the youngster in our group lead us onward using Google Maps.  It worked out well.  A few turns, a first right on to the road past the Qurikancha,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthen a left onto the road near the Inglesia De Santo Dominigo,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAa couple of more turns,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAincluding onto a road with the blue window shutters,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand then we were on the final road we had to take to the place where we were to meet the ladies.  Despite the narrowness of all the side roads, there was motor traffic on them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe last road that we took during this part of the walk was a long stretch that was quite steep.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwith the last stretch of the road proving to be the most challenging.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe even saw a car start up the street and then give up, backing away to a spot where it could turn on to one of the side roads. The motorbikers in the picture below made it to the end of the road, at which point they had to find an alternative way to proceed further.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe took it slow and easy.  When the road finally ended, and we still had to climb a few steps up to the top,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAup to a hairpin bend on another road above the first one, to the place where we were to meet the ladies.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the entrances to the park was located here.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe waited for the ladies.  The street dogs kept us company.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe bought tickets and continued our climb once the ladies arrived. The climb continued to be steep.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis llama lifted his headed for a moment from the grass that it was chewing – to look at us with amusement as we passed it on our way up the slope.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe continued the climb!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce we reached the top, we hired a guide to show us around.  The first section we visited was the area of a reservoir.  We saw a few ruins along the way,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAincluding  a couple shrines,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand walked through a closed waterway (aqueduct), one of many,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthat lead into the reservoir. (Note that the hole next to the shrine above could also have been a waterway.)  The reservoir was quite large.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom the reservoir you can see the “slides” that were once actually used by children.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis formation is  natural.  We actually saw children trying to slide down on these sections of rock.  If you ask me, it looked somewhat dangerous!

We walked across the reservoir, and up to a spot where the king used to sit and watch events in the big open field, the grand plaza, in front of him.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe remains of the fortress lay beyond the plaza.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(You can click on the picture below to expand it.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The people of Cusco apparently still hold events in this place, including a major celebration for the winter solstice. The fortress has three levels of walls.  The walls of the fortress have zigzagged edges, reminding you of the shape of lightning flashes.  (I have forgotten the reason the guide gave us for the use of this shape.)

There were doorways between the levels of the fortress, a few of them still intact.  (The guide told us that the rock on top of this doorway was placed there in later times.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe size of the rocks used for the walls decreases at you get to the upper levels of the fortress.  You cannot help noticing the massive sizes for the rocks in the lower wall,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the perfect fit of the rocks.P4240487.jpgThe Incas apparently created shapes in the walls. The rocks in the wall below are in the shape of a llama or alpaca (I suspect it is an alpaca because the neck is short compared to the neck in another rock formation of similar shape close by).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked into the fort area, to its top, to get views of the city (click on picture).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe ended our visit to the site shortly after that. The trip to Saqsaywaman had taken us  longer than expected, and we had a long walk back to town.  The Palacio Nazarenas might have been a good place to visit on the way back, but we did not stop.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA By the time we had walked back to the central plaza, on another one of the narrow, character filled, roads that fill this part of town,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwe were tired and ready for lunch.

A final historical note about Saqsaywaman.  It was deliberately destroyed by the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century.  They removed rocks from the fortress to use in their other endeavors. So much for civilized behavior!

Here’s what happened the rest of the day!

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.