Peru: the Land of the Incas

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    With colder weather rolling in, finals coming up, and holiday festivities kicking off, I'm feeling a little nostalgic of a warmer time with less studying and exams.  Why not take a trip down memory lane to the 3rd largest country in South America?  In the spring of 2016 that's exactly where my mom and I headed, Peru!  
     
       I'm really not sure where I came up with the idea of going to Peru, yes I speak Spanish, but South America was never really at the top of my travel list.  We originally were planning for Spain and France, but there were some conflicts with the timing.  Naturally, the next option we agreed on was Peru to see Machu Pichu.  We tried really hard to research and plan the best we could, but we honestly had no idea what we were getting ourselves into since neither of us had ever been to the area.  
     


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     A few hours of flying later (only about 8), and we found ourselves in Lima, Peru!  We stepped off the plane into a world like I'd never seen before.  I often think I feel this way every time I go somewhere new, but each place is so different and it just is an immediate shock to walk out into it.  For Lima the differences I saw were the amount of people waiting outside the doors of the airport, in the US you can't just be near an airport to be there, but in Lima there were so many people selling things, offering taxi rides, and just standing at the entrances, it was really hectic.  Sadly, this was all I saw of Lima as we then hopped on another flight to Cusco.  




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     In Cusco we got off to a much calmer area.  We had read about "collectivos" while we were planning and that's what we decided to take from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, where our first hotel was.  The collectivo stop we had found was a short distance from the airport so we took a taxi.  Once at the stop it took a few minutes to find the collectivo because it was not quite labeled...We did find it eventually, a 12 person van tucked into an alley with a man that took our bags and told us to wait in our seats.  We waited, two more people came, we waited some more.  Then, come to find out, collectivos wait however long it takes for the van to fill up.  While we were sitting, waiting, it was a little concerning as we had no idea what was going on and generally sitting in an alley in a foreign country should cause some concern.  Fortunately for us, after 3-4 hours the van was full enough to go and the 2 hour ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo was quite an adventure in itself.  Now I can't speak for everyone in Peru, but our driver was in a bit of a hurry, as in we flew down the tiny roads, passed other cars with no clear sight, and slid across our seats.  We definitely got to see a more local route since the collectivo was a local transportation system and we made a couple stops to drop people off.  
   
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     Once we arrived in Ollantaytambo, the true beauty of Peru really hit.  The village sits in the middle of the Sacred Valley and is surrounded by ruins, the Urubamba River, and the awe-inspiring snow-capped Andes Mountains.  The tiny streets were made of cobblestone, leading to a few shops, restaurants, and a large market behind it.  We stayed at la Casa del Abuelo.  It was an adorable hostel, turned hotel, situated right next to the river, right behind the village plaza.  Our room was quite nice; two beds, wifi, hot water, and they even packed us breakfast bags for our early morning train ride to Machu Pichu.  If you visit, you also must find the artist that goes by Liz Taylor, she sells paintings in a variety of sizes and I bought one featuring sassy llamas walking in a line.  Her among, all the other locals we met, were so incredibly welcoming and friendly.  We ate dinner at Uchucuta in the plaza, and had our first taste of Coca tea, a Peruvian specialty, along with very yummy chicken salad sandwiches (not a very adventurous choice I know).  






     Ollantaytambo is the easiest place to stay in order to get to Machu Pichu.  The next closest town, Aguas Calientes, has luggage limits and other restrictions if you stay there.  The morning after we arrived in Ollantaytambo we caught the Peru Rail to Machu Pichu, we chose the earliest available train so we had as much time as possible in the park itself.  The station is only a short walk downhill from town, though early in the morning in March it was quite chilly.  The ride itself was stunning, the train follows the river through the Andes and eventually ends up in Aguas Calientes.  We could see the river, smaller villages, and the rain forest through our windows.  Though the train does say it goes to Machu Pichu, it actually stops in Aguas Calientes.





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     From Aguas Calientes, we purchased a bus ticket the rest of the way to Machu Pichu!  The bus ride was uphill, climbing straight to the top of the Andes, and quite scary at times due to the tiny little gravel road we were on... None the less, we survived and arrived at the entrance to the Machu Pichu Park area.  Restrooms and food are only available at the entrance, but you can come and go multiple times with your tickets.  There's also a station to stamp your passport at the entrance, which of course we stopped to do.  


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     We were among the very first people to enter that day and the sun had not even broken through the clouds yet.  The area we saw was covered in this magical mist of clouds and we couldn't quite see the full grandeur of where we were yet.  We walked around the lower parts of the ruins for a bit looking at the details of the mud bricks, trying to befriend llamas, then we started the hike up to the Sun Gate.  This was a moderate hike, but fairly long.  However, once we reached the top, the clouds had begun to break and we could see the full wonder of the area.  Sun Gate is the highest area in the park and you can see everything from there.  Below the massive vertical structures that made up the Sun Gate was the river that you could actually hear from the top.  Once I could see through the clouds at how high up we were and how incredible the mountains around us looked, I realized that what I was looking at looked identical to a painting.  The designs of the ruins below, the height of the mountains around, the clouds that were actually below where we were, were all unreal and straight out of a movie.  It definitely took a few minutes of just quietly looking around to even remotely attempt to take it all in.       





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     We came back down the trail to eat our packed lunches (leftovers from dinner) at the cafe at the entrance, only because I had to use the restroom.  Many more tourists had arrived since we had gotten there earlier that morning and I can fully say that we were really glad to have arrived so early and had the area to ourselves for awhile, it was much more peaceful.  I also suggest layering your attire as it started out chilly, with some moisture, then ended up warming up substantially by the time we took our lunch break.  





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     After hiking around for about 5 hours it was getting hotter and we were a little tired, the altitude really takes a toll, so we took the bus and train back to Ollantaytambo.  It was sad to leave the area because I could have easily spent a few more days there trying to see every part of it and grasp the tiny details.  On our return train we upgraded to get an earlier departure time, we also somehow got a fashion show and skit included.  I even got selected as a volunteer to "dance with the devil".  



     I was really sad to leave Ollantaytambo the following day because it was such a welcoming village, but we had planned for time in Cusco.  Our hotel arranged for a cab to take us back to Cusco, rather than taking the collectivo back.  Throughout our two hour ride our driver tested my Spanish with different facts about Peru and information on the areas we were passing.  We then arrived at our next hotel, Tierra Viva Cusco Centro.  The location was great and it was a pretty hotel with a nice courtyard in the middle.  Again our room had two beds, wifi, and hot water, which was definitely great!  The front desk gave us directions to different things to walk to see, we headed first to el Mercado Central de San Pedro that I had been wanting to visit.  




     The market was massive, they had everything from fresh juices, to raw meat, to souvenirs, to bread and nuts.  It took almost an hour to walk up and down every aisle.  We had seen, and been eating with every meal, the small round breads so we had to buy a few packs of those to take home.  I also got a fresh papaya juice that was made right in front of me with a papaya I picked from the stand.  



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     Next, we stopped at el Museo y Catacumbas del Convento de San Francisco de Asis de Cusco.  This is a monastery in the center of town that offers guided tours.  This monastery not only has beautiful paintings, an ornate ceremony space, and ancient scripture books, it also has crypts that they allow you to enter.  I went down into the crypts without any thought, my mom was a little more hesitant but made it in.  The experience was surreal, less creepy than I expected, more so very powerful to be within something like that.  


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     Our last stop was la Plaza de Armas, the main town center in Cusco.  It is a circular plaza with shops and restaurants all around.  We grabbed lunch at the Plaza Cafe then headed back to our hotel.  Of course, before going back we found a bakery to buy what I lovingly named "Peruvian pop-tarts", aka my favorite food of the whole trip.  







     Our one day in Cusco was short, but quite beautiful.  I'll also add that there were little to no mosquitoes while we were there in March.  We flew back to Lima the following day, then continuing on to Miami and home.  In all my life I didn't think I would really see Machu Pichu, it's something you see in movies on Nat Geo and learn about in books.  To say I've been there now is incredible and Peru has so much rich culture to experience.  I highly recommend adding it to your bucket list if you haven't already.  For more of the logistics and costs of our trip check out Behind the Zoom's post.   


XOXO, Cierra              
            
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