Cusco is a nice city and is easy to walk around (though it has a lot of hills). By this point the altitude was hitting me hard and I wasn’t able to enjoy the amazing food and cocktails at this cool restaurant we went to called Fallen Angel. Their flag is very similar to the “gay flag” designed in San Francisco, though they made theirs first and it is supposed to represent all the different regions. The town is very touristy, with lots of shops, and the salespeople on the streets are very pushy, wanting to pose for pictures, give massages, or sell textiles. We checked out the chocolate museum, which is a great place to go to learn about the industry, the history, and of course to buy and eat chocolate. From Cusco we did day trips to Machu Picchu and Sacred Valley.
South Americans love to celebrate everything! In fact, groups of people in Cusco dress in traditional outfits and perform dance competitions for pretty much the whole month of June. They close down the streets of the main square and set up stages to perform music. You can see young people up all night practising their dances. They also love fireworks and will light them off as early as 7 in the morning (which is a really scary thing to wake up to since it sounds like gunshots).
Machu Picchu was by far my favourite place that I have visited in South America so far. Many people hike for days to get there, and there’s a bunch of options. There 1, 3, 4 and 5 day treks that include days full of hiking and camping at night. Only 500 or so Inca trail passes are available each day from the government of Peru, and it sells out months in advance, so if you’re interested you better plan ahead. Although porters do most of the hard work, it just didn’t seem fun to me. Additionally, about 400 passes are available first thing in the morning to hike up to Huaynu Picchu (the higher hill you can see in all of the pictures) which apparently has breathtaking views but also no rails, so pretty scary if you’re afraid of heights! So we took the train instead, which is easy, has great views, and takes you right to Agua Caliente (the tourist town at the bottom of the hill). You then take a bus up the hill (or you can take the stairs if you prefer). Once at the top the views are breath taking! There’s so much history, and it’s worth hiring a guide to tell you all about the life and times of the Inca people. You get to see the town from above, walk through the agricultural terraces, and then walk through the city itself (including houses, gates, temples, and the main courtyard). There are even llamas that cut the grass. Overall, I would definitely recommend it. We then got lunch/dinner in the town and took the train for a few hours back to Cusco (a bit longer on the way due to all the switch-backs going up the hill).
Sacred Valley is a pretty place, though a bit less exciting if you’ve already done Machu Picchu, so I’d recommend doing it first. It’s an all-day bus tour with a guide which takes you to many different towns and sites. The terraces the Incas used for agriculture are really amazing, and some are still in use today. There are ruins of old towns, and a lot of interesting history of how the Incas taught children, made calendars following the sun, and how they were one of the biggest civilizations during their reign (before being destroyed by the Spanish). They loved symbolism and especially revered three animals; the snake (representing the past and underworld), the puma (representing the present), and the condor (representing the future and the afterlife). The valley is still used for agriculture, and makes many different types of maize, potatoes and quinoa (staples crops in the region).
Chilling at the Eco Amazonia Resort
From Cusco we took a small plane for 30 minutes to the headquarters of the company that runs the lodge. In that small town we visited the local market and got some snacks. Then we took a big motorized canoe to our resort, which was beautiful. Each room is a log cabin that is totally open to the outdoors, except for netting to keep out the bugs. The resort sits on about 100 hectares of protected land that has been leased out for eco-tourism purposes in order to look after the area under their control. It was so nice to take a dip in the pool and relax in the hammocks by the river. Since they have limited power the electricity only works between 5:30 and 10pm, which is realy nice and forces you to go to bed early (which is good because the mornings are early as well). One night we even got to go on the motorized canoe at night and just float down the river. The stars were amazing, you could hear all of the nighttime animals, and we watched a thunder-storm in the distance, which was so relaxing!
Exploring Nature in the Jungle
During our stay we got to go on boat tours twice (once in a canoe around the lake and another time down the river in a motorboat) and Jungle hikes twice. We learned about medicinal plants, ancient trees that are wider than I am tall, and different jungle creatures. Here are three of my favourites: There’s a tree they call the “Judgement Tree” that can be recognized by the fact that nothing grows near it. The reason for this is that the red ants live inside and kill anything that tries to grow nearby. In ancient times, the local people used to punish criminals by tying them naked to this tree, causing them to get bitten by the ants all over their body, leading to paralysis in 15 minutes and death if left overnight. We also got to go to monkey island, which is refuge for both Capachin and Spider Monkeys. They’re very clever and our guide brought bananas so they got really close and personal, even climbing on our heads and shoulders, a very cool experience! While walking through the forest we also got to see an amazingly long trail of leaf-cutter ants. They can lift way more than their weight and travel for miles to find the right species of trees. They use the leaves to produce mushrooms in their colony, which they consume. The next day we headed for a couple hours on the motorized canoe back to the main land, and then took a flight back to Cusco.
Puno, Lake Titicaca and Island Homestay
We weren’t in Puno long, but we did check out 2 good restaurants. The first is called the IncaBar and has a comfy couch feel with a lot of backpackers. The second resturant is very fancy for Peru, with candlelight and real cloth napkins (yes, this is very unusual in Peru), and is called La Casona. In the morning we took little tricycle taxis down to the port, which was both fun and terrifyig due to the crazy traffuc. At the port we got on a covered motorboat which held about 20 people (with a nice little sundeck for 6 above the main cabin). Our tour guide (Omar) told us all about Lake Titikaka and the people who live on the islands. Our first stop for an artificial island made out of dry reeds, which is home to about 10 families who rely primarily on fishing. They originally left the main land to flee fom the Spanish and their people have lived on the lake ever since. They replace the top layer every week and the whole island about every 25 years. Even their homes and boats and made of reeds.
Then we arrived at a permanent island we would stay on for the night with host families. Our representative was 5 year-old Alex, who didn’t really speak Spanish (since they only speak Ketchwa at home but learn Spanish in school), but was able to lead us home through the steep hills and herds of sheep. After settling in we got a chance to play with the kids (who were the kids of the family we were staying with as well as their cousins… there was about 6 in all). We gave our gifts to the host family (pasta, cooking oil, and fruit – as we were told they were not readily available on the island) and had lunch, which the house-mom prepared. Then all the tourists headed back to the main square. Some people went on a hike, others played soccer, but we were cold so we went to the bar for some delicious hot chocolate with Bailey’s. We walked back to our house for dinner and then the family dressed us up in traditional outfits (ponchos for the boys and about 10lbs of clothes for me, including 2 full skirts, a blouse, a scarf, and a wrap-around cloth belt) on top of our regular clothes. We headed to the dance in the dark and tried not to trip on any stones since there were no lights (only a flashlight), The dance was a blast and everyone had a good time. The songs last a really long time, and after about 5 songs we were ready to hit the hay. We brushed our teeth under the beautiful stars and were asleep by about 9.
On the second day we got up early, had breakfast with the family, played with the kids, and headed back to the dock. We took a short boat to Tequile Island, where we hikind, explored the plaza and had a nice lunch. Our guide explained the different ways of dressing on the island (and how they represented different social and marital statuses) aand demonstrated how to make a natural shampoo usig just one local plant and water. We then walked down about 500 stone stairs back to the boat and arrived back in Puno. The next morning we left for Bolivia….
Up Next – Bolivia (featuring La Paz and the Salt Flats)