Just Back: Robyn's Peru Trip Report
Robyn's Incan Exploration
Outside GO's trip designer Robyn Goldblatt tells tales from two weeks in Lima, Machu Picchu, and Cusco
“Welcome to the Andes!” Our jolly guide, Danny, exclaimed with arms spread wide and a smile across his face. This was about the fifteenth time he had said this over the last three days, and at this point it had turned into a running joke as the rest of us huffed-and-puffed behind him up a steep trail at 13,000 feet. I exchanged looks of amazement with my fellow travelers as children from the local village below sprinted past us on tattered sandals, springing up and over boulders like mountain goats. This was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time. I was out in the middle of nowhere in a remote mountainous part of Peru. The day had started down below in the Sacred Valley, visiting the local Calca marketplace to sample oddly-shaped fruits, followed by a scenic drive up into the mountains and through small villages. Later I found myself in this moment, hiking up and over a pass, skirting alpine lakes and llamas, stopping every so often to catch my breath and admire the sweeping mountain views over the Lares Valley in the late afternoon glow. Out there it was just me and my fellow travelers, the falcons, and the occasional local who would spot us coming and run up to meet us with a spread of home-made goods. We rounded a corner just as the sun set beyond the mountains, and like an oasis in the mist, our lodge for the night beckoned us with its warm lights and the promise of private jacuzzis on every porch.
What is the first thing you think of when you hear someone mention Peru? Let me take a wild guess and say Machu Picchu. It was for me, too. Now, after two weeks exploring a section of the country, I am here to tell you that while Machu Picchu is absolutely a must-see, Peru is so much more than this one iconic citadel.
I was in the middle of a 12-day trip to Peru with Outside GO. As our lead trip designer, it's my duty to know these locations inside and out. Most of my days in Peru carried on like the scene above, bookended with time in Lima and Cusco. The trip began with an early-morning arrival into the bustling capital city of Lima. My expert driver weaved through the impossibly thick traffic to deliver me safely to my retreat in the quieter Barranco district at Hotel B. This boutique hotel doubles as a museum with glorious pieces of art covering every surface, and while I could have stayed inside browsing the whole day, I could only marvel for so long as there was a whole city to explore. Lima, a coastal city packed with nine million people, is home to a third of Peru’s entire population. Here you will not only find gourmet restaurants, museums, ancient monasteries, cathedrals, but also Chinatown and a surprising surfing vibe, which made for an interesting combination of cultures. There is a strong fishing industry here too, and I enjoyed the freshly-caught ceviche whenever possible. Many of the homes in the city are covered in bright murals painted by local artists to contrast to the often grey skies—a product of being on the coast, but Lima hardly ever experiences rain, so all the rooftops are flat and the streets lack drainage systems. It's a good thing I didn't bring my rain jacket to town with me, which would have read like a sign on my back saying “TOURIST.” Not even 12 hours after landing and an initial exploration around town, I found myself back at the hotel behind the bar learning how to make the local drink—Pisco Sour.
It wasn’t long before I was enjoying more Piscos in the Sacred Valley, where I spent the next week learning the fascinating history of the pre-Incans, Incans, and Spanish. I discovered ancient ruins and terraces, ate guinea pig (the local delicacy), hiked sections of the Inca Trail, and slept in plush digs at night. The majority of my trip was spent in this valley, where I really harnessed a sense of the local culture. I noticed when I wandered through the remote villages, the people seemed genuinely content and at peace. My guide explained, “We are all hermanos and hermanas, brothers and sisters. You are my sister, and I am your brother.” The belief here is that everyone comes from Pachamama (Mother Earth) and therefore we should treat each other as relatives and consider the earth sacred, working with it as it is naturally, rather than manipulating it. Here, farming is the main source of income. The Andean people continue the same way their ancestors did, hand-plowing their fields or harvesting salt mines from the water that bubbles up from below the surface. The people here make just enough money to provide food for their extended family, nothing more. They have a “today for you, tomorrow for me” mentality. When one is in need, others step up to help with no questions asked, just simply with the expectation that the person they assist will lend their helping hand in the future if the roles are ever reversed. There is a natural ease to their daily routines and it caused me to ponder, who has it right? Is it these Andean people who live such simple, uncomplicated lives, or those of us in the first-world with modern conveniences and technology?
Visiting different communities around the world always manage to put what’s important back into perspective for me.
We packed so much into every day that a week flew by quickly, and before I knew it I was on a scenic train ride up to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. Here I tucked into the lush Cloud Forest at Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel and its tranquil setting with humming birds buzzing, water trickling, and the occasional train passing by. I discovered a few of the over three-hundred orchid species found here, most of which were so tiny my guide had to point them out with a magnifying glass, and tried my hand at making tea plucked straight from their on-site garden. This heaven-on-earth set the stage as our launchpad for a once-in-a-lifetime experience at Machu Picchu. The next morning we set out at 6 am to successfully avoid the crowds and boarded the bus for a 20-minute ride up a switchback dirt road to the citadel’s entrance. While there is a multitude of different ways to experience Machu Picchu, I chose the strenuous climb up Huayna Picchu. I was told that Huayna Picchu was steep, but for somebody like me who has a fear of heights, it was particularly harrowing. Towards the top I was cursing under my breath as I used both hands and feet to clamber up the ancient steps, avoiding looking over the edge at my potential fate if I took one misstep. My fearless guide was kind enough to hold my hand on the way down, something I was embarrassed by in retrospect, but at the time was so grateful for. After sufficiently soaking myself in sweat, I was happy to be back on solid ground and at the Sanctuary Lodge with a welcome beverage in hand. Soon enough my energy was back and I was ready to fit in one last jaunt up the Incan Trail to the famous Sun Gate for an alternate view in the afternoon.
It’s one thing to read and see photos of Machu Picchu, but to be standing there looking at the ruins in person was definitely a pinch-me moment. Like the Ollantaytambo ruins down in the Sacred Valley, I was fascinated by the stories of the Incans who built this sanctuary stone-by-stone in such painstaking detail with little resources. I could have stayed there for hours longer, just soaking it all in, but before long the crowds had cleared and it was time to catch one of the last buses back down. Thanks to all the activities offered at Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, there was still more to look forward to at the end of such a momentous day. The next morning I signed up to visit the spectacled bears that had been rescued from various circuses and zoos and were being rehabilitated on the grounds for eventual release back into the wild. I quietly watched as they lumbered around their spacious enclosures, eating a dozen eggs at a time with a side of fresh alfalfa, watermelon, avocados, and passionfruit—what a feast.
There is quite a bit to see and do in Cusco, it’s best to spend a couple nights here. I was pleased to find it a safe city to wander on my own before and after my guided excursions and, most necessarily, in between four-course meals at five-star restaurants. Around every corner I found another picturesque cobblestone alley with white walls and family-run shops—a true symbol of the Incan and Spanish roots of the area with the stone bases topped with smooth white walls above. At the end of these little alleys I would stumble across yet another small plaza where a traditional Andean band would be strumming on guitars and creating mesmerizing melodies on the panflute. One of my favorite finds of all, not surprisingly for anyone who knows me, was the Choco Museo, where one can take a tour to learn about the chocolate grown in Peru, and the best part—sample it! That afternoon, after my chocolate, potato, and ceviche cravings were all sufficiently satisfied, I reluctantly loaded up on the plane back home with a heart full of appreciation for this experience and the people I met along the way.
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Just Back from Peru
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