“Stop here. Turn and face me. Now close your eyes and let me lead you. Don’t turn around. Don’t open your eyes yet… Almost there… Now stop. Keep your eyes closed. Turn around… And open your eyes.” And there she was. Standing before me in all her glory. Something I had waited all my life to see. A sight truly magical, truly inspiring and truly ingenious: Machu Picchu.
They say don’t spend your money on the material things in life. Spend it on the experiential. If there is one experience I wholeheartedly recommend it is that of Machu Picchu in Peru. You will be left in awe of how a group of people with so little could achieve such greatness in just over a century.
In June 2017 a group of eight very excited but nervous House of Travel Consultants met in Auckland to embark on their journey of Peru. I was fortunate enough to be one of the chosen eight. In fact, we were so excited and so busy talking about our adventure that lay ahead we almost missed boarding our flight. All I can say is thank goodness for the Air New Zealand staff member who went out of her way to find us or I wouldn’t be sitting here now reflecting on our amazing adventure.
With our first hurdle behind us we settled in with LATAM Airlines for our long journey to Lima via Santiago. On arrival in Lima I thanked my puffa jacket for coming along for the ride and made a beeline for the van taking us to our accommodation in Miraflores. If you have the choice of where to stay in Lima, and safety is a priority for you, then this is the area you want to base yourself in. You can walk around this district at night without having to worry about what’s around the next corner which makes for a much more pleasant experience.
Lima is a vibrant city rich in history and culture. Two wow moments for me were the pyramids (yes there are real pyramids in Lima) and Casa de Aliaga (thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited house in all of the Americas). Lima was once a religious sanctuary consisting of more than 40 pyramids during 200-400AD. The pyramids still standing today (most famously the Huaca Pucllana) are a remnant of the Rimac culture. Unfortunately, centuries of conflict and the expansion of the city resulted in the destruction of many of the pyramids. This in turn makes the Huaca Pucllana archeological site even more worthy of protection and conservation.
Casa De Aliaga is an ornate Spanish Mansion which was built in the sixteenth century on a piece of land gifted by Francisco Pizarro (leader of the Spanish conquest expedition of Peru) to Ceronimo de Aliaga (Pizarro’s main lieutenant). De Aliaga family members still reside in this beautiful home. The house is currently owned by Gonzalo de Aliaga Ascenzo; a 17th generation descendant of Ceronimo de Aliaga.
From Lima we flew to Cuzco and took a half hour drive to Sacred Valley. I had no idea of the amazing experiences the Sacred Valley had in store for us. The ingenuity displayed by the Inca through the salt mines of Maras (still in use today) and the circular terraced ruins at Moray (a testing ground for agricultural products) took my breath away.
However, what I am still struggling to comprehend is how the Inca were physically able to construct the surviving ruins at Ollantaytambo. How on earth did they get the massive rocks into place to construct beautifully flat inter-locking dry walls? And, through earthquakes and erosion, how are they still standing? This is evidence that the Inca truly were an engineering culture: structural, agricultural, hydrological, administrative and mining. The archeological ruins at Ollantaytambo are definitely a must see but, as is the case with all of the ruins, make sure you are with a guide so you can really appreciate and understand what you are looking at. We saw people walking aimlessly around the site which can be avoided with a bit of simple planning.
Another aspect of Sacred Valley, and Peru more generally, is the abundance of fresh produce and the varieties available. Peruvians certainly know how to bring out the best in their cuisine. The most appropriate place to see this produce is at the markets and there are plenty to experience along the way. Perhaps the diversity of the produce stems from the micro-climates used in Inca times. The terracing concept, still in use today, was used to establish the best climate for each crop.
From the Sacred Valley we took the Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes, more famously known as Machu Picchu town. Along the way we saw plenty more Inca ruins, waterfalls, the starting point of the Inca trail and of course some stunning Peruvian countryside.
On arrival at Aguas Calientes we stopped for a bite of lunch before boarding one of the many buses up to Machu Picchu. For some the journey up the hill was terrifying. So my number one tip at this point is to avoid taking a front seat and don’t look out the window if steep, windy bus rides aren’t your forte. Also, make sure you have your ticket to Machu Picchu and your passport with you so you can get your passport stamped for Machu Picchu at the end.
Machu Picchu was never discovered by the Spaniards. The Inca heard they were closing in so destroyed the roads leading to the “city” and abandoned the Holy Citadel. For centuries the ancient city remained untouched and became buried in the jungle. American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham found it in 1911 with the assistance of 11-year-old local boy Pablito (the son of a farmer residing not too far from the site).
There is no doubt that Machu Picchu represents an extraordinary example of ancient Inca architectural, hydrological and constructional engineering. As I mentioned earlier, you will certainly not be disappointed by a visit to Machu Picchu. Although many of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed, the essence of the site remains. There are no words which do justice to describing the amazing experience of walking around Machu Picchu except to say it is a photographers dream. While up there you will see things from so many different perspectives which is in a somewhat indicative of the many facets and advanced knowledge of Inca culture.
Having completed the highlight of the trip, I thought the remaining experiences wouldn’t compare. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Our time in the original Peruvian capital city of Cuzco coincided with the Catholic festival known as Corpus Christi. During this festival Saints are taken from their churches, paraded around the streets and the main square Plaza de Armas on pedestals, before being taken to the city’s Cathedral where they rest for seven days. On the eighth day they are returned to their respective churches followed by dancers, musicians and fireworks. We were all captivated by this festival. The diversity, enthusiasm and flamboyance displayed by the locals in the procession was truly impressive.
From Cuzco we travelled by bus to Puno where another aspect of Peruvian culture and history welcomed us. Our day out on Lake Titicaca was one I will never forget. We were fortunate enough to gain a glimpse into life on the Uros islands. This group of forty-two islands are each made up of many layers of buoyant Totara reeds rising six meters above the lake level. They are anchored by logs and connected to one another by ropes. Every part of the reed has a purpose: the piece directly above the root is edible (a bit like bitter sugar cane) and the reeds themselves are used for building homes, boats and handcrafts for selling to visitors.
Upon reflection it becomes apparent that we have much to learn from the the Uros people and their way of life. Their communal lifestyle and concept of reciprocity permeates all aspects of their being. Little importance is placed on material things and commercialisation, as indicated by their focus on knowledge/education and sustenance based on a barter-based economy. These traits are common to those of the Inca people and are values embedded in the belief system of Peruvian culture more generally.
Of significant concern for many embarking on a trip to Peru is altitude sickness. The key is to be aware of the signs (nausea, headaches and so on) and take steps to prevent them. Travel doctors can provide medication in tablet form but for those seeking a more natural alternative coca leaves in the form of tea, confectionary or capsules are worth having on hand. Personally I couldn’t stomach the smell of coca tea so the capsule form I purchased at Lima Airport worked well for me. While nothing can completely prepare you for the effects of altitude sickness increasing your intake of water weeks if not months before heading to Peru does help. Also, planning the order of your itinerary so that you start in Lima (sea level), acclimatize in Cuzco and the Sacred Valley before heading to Machu Picchu and finally the highest point Puno will be very beneficial.
From this reflective account of my time in Peru I hope I have provided you with a glimpse into some of the life-changing experiences this diverse destination has to offer. A pivotal aspect in making this journey a successful one was the presence and assistance of such motivated and knowledgeable guides along the way. The enthusiasm of local guides who are clearly passionate about their culture and heritage is infectious and makes the experience all the more memorable. For those of you out there contemplating a trip to Peru or even South America more generally my advice to you is to go for it. We can cater for all ages and physical capabilities to help you create positive memories through enriching experiences.