The In-Transit Report


Peru Part Three: Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley

Cuzco  Cristo Blanco 4

From the Galapagos, I booked a flight all the way down to Cuzco, not even needing to leave the Quito airport. I spent seven hours in the Lima airport, and finally got to Cuzco and just relaxed for the day. Cuzco is at high altitude (3,400m / 11,200ft) and so it’s advised to spend a few days there to acclimatize. Unfortunately, I have a hard time adjusting to altitude, even over a few days. The next day, I did a walking tour with a cool English girl I met, and was breathing hard and drinking water the entire time. I don’t know if my heart has ever beat so fast. In any case, I survived. The walking tour was free and surprisingly informative, covering a few neighborhoods and some of the major sites in those areas, including the beautiful churches with original, anti-siesmic Inca stone foundations. We also stopped at a store for a demonstration of traditional Peruvian instruments, and a few places for bites of food. Definitely worth the price, plus tip.

Cuzco  Sacsayhuaman 12

The next day, my companion and I bought sandwich supplies at the local market (avocados, tomatoes, bread) and went to check out the free ruins near Cuzco. It was a long, long day of more walking (and a short horseback ride), but we got to see some neat ruins and the gigantic white Jesus statue (pictured above) that guards over the city.

Towards the end of our walk we found a nice picnic spot overlooking the ruins (pictured), with no one else around, and we ate our sandwiches there before walking back via the giant white Jesus.

After that adventure, we opted for something slightly different, and booked a day tour to go river rafting in the Urubamba River. I’ve never gone river rafting before, but I’ve always wanted to, and I love pretty much anything to do with being on or under water. Very fun, and amazing scenery. Afterwards, we got a surprisingly good lunch at “Base Camp”, and then almost everyone opted to do the zipline across the river. I’m too afraid of heights to do it, but I was satisfied enough with the rafting.

Finally, I made it out to Machu Picchu, or rather Aguas Caliente, the small town at the base of the mountain. AG was a sad specimen of a town, completely overrun by tourism with hostels and restaurants that were all exactly the same and overpriced. I wound up taking the train in from Ollantaytambo, which was cheaper than going all the way from Cuzco. I arrived in the evening, bought my entry ticket and bus tickets up and down the mountain. Spending the evening in AG was pretty boring, aside from the little girl at the restaurant where I had dinner, who was obsessed with my piercings and shiny computer. I showed her pictures and talked in my very limited Spanish.

Machu Picchu 167The next morning, I got up at 4:30am and walked to the bus stop at 5, to catch the first bus of the morning, which was at 5:30. There was already a long line. Luckily, they ran out of seats for couples and needed a solo person… so I skipped the line a bit and got the last seat on the first bus! After the half hour long, very winding bus ride up, I got to stand in another line before the gates opened. Once they did, I rushed ahead of the gathering tour groups and got my tourist-free Machu Picchu pictures.

Machu Picchu 295

Machu Picchu is, of course, amazing. I think the main attraction of it is the sheer size and the beautiful settings. The narrow, tall mountain peaks in the background are an identifiable characteristic of the site, even though it lacks the intricate carved details of Angkor Wat, and the gorgeous pink and orange limestone of Petra. It does has the Inca attention to detail in terms of its orientation and position in the mountains, and the number of temples throughout the site (such as the Temple of the Sun, left). The stonework is nice and well engineered against earthquakes, but it’s not very embellished. Throughout, you can imagine finding the sacred animals hidden in the walls: the serpent, for the underworld, the puma, for the living world, and the condor, for the overworld.

Machu Picchu 63Sometimes, I linger at a specific spot and eavesdrop on the tours that pour through, contributing to my knowledge of what’s what, like the energy stone (pictured), and the temple that was either damaged from a 1915 earthquake, or tourists walking on the top, depending on which tour guide was talking.

I spent over four hours total walking around Machu Picchu, from 6am until 10:30, when the hoards of tourists increased a thousandfold. I’d been walking through a number of passageways in the residential area, almost completely alone. This is my favorite way to see the sights; having enough time to take in all the small details as well as the overall, not being rushed through a tour with no time to take good pictures.

I wanted to visit a number of other sites, but unfortunately my bad knees and altitude sickness made trekking a very bad idea. That was one very disappointing part of the week, but considering how hard walking up and down the steps in Cuzco was, I don’t think I’d make it through a trek without seriously injuring myself. At least I have scuba diving.

Ollantaytambo 83

Two other sets of ruins I did get to see were Ollantaytambo and Pisac, both near towns that were easy to get to by public transportation. Naturally, they were a bit underwhelming compared to Machu Picchu, but they were a different enough style to be interesting. The Ollantaytambo ruins were a short walk from the main plaza of this lovely little town (I wished I’d stayed there a night), and consisting of terracing and some structures on the top and the bottom. There were some really neat examples of Inca irrigation systems as well (pictured).

Pisac 23

Pisac (pictured) was more difficult to get to; farther away from the town of Pisac, it required an expensive taxi ride to get to, and I had too little time to really enjoy it. Pisac was much bigger and more spread out than Ollantaytambo, with much more impressive terracing and a great view of the valley. Unfortunately it was also undergoing some restoration, so I had to edit out lots of blue tarp. Overall, both were nice to visit, but I wish I’d done them before Machu Picchu, and gotten a much early start before attempting to do both in one day. I regret not having more time for the entirety of the Sacred Valley. There’s always more things to add to the list, another place to go back to someday!

Up next, a week and a half in Bolivia, and then on to Central America!

Peru Part Two: Chachapoyas and the Great Adventure to the Ecuadorian Border

Chachapoyas  City of the Dead 46

From Trujillo, I took an overnight bus to a small city in the mountains called Chachapoyas. It’s full of lovely white colonial buildings, a relaxed vibe, and is not completely overrun with tourists.

My reason for coming here was mainly the Kuelap ruins, but I spent another day on a tour to check out two sites with really interesting sarcophagi, clay burial chambers with sculpted faces dating back to the 15th century. There were also some interesting paintings on the walls from around the same time.

The picture on the left is from  Pueblo de los Muertos (City of the Dead), a collection of sarcophagi built into the side of cliffs. To get close we hiked a ways and then gingerly tiptoed along the edge of a sheer drop, ducking into the remains of circular mausoleums on the way. Many of them are simply inaccessible, but they’re really impressive even from a distance. Since they contain bones, there were a lot of bones randomly scattered about the area. The other site is Karajia, which boasts more elaborate and distinctive sarcophagi, with white painted bodies, stronger carved faces, and human skulls (of their enemies, it would seem) resting above them. They are less accessible, however, so harder to see and photograph.

Chachapoyas  Kuelap 198

Chachapoyas takes its name from the Chachapoyan people from that area, a reputedly white tribe (e.g. blond haired and blue eyed), lthough there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of that. They were conquered by the Inca and apparently didn’t survive after the arrival of the Spanish. Another characteristic of the Chachapoyans was their round houses, of which there were hundreds at the other site we visited, Kuelap. In the photo on the left you can see the base of a round house; some of them belonged to shamans, with walls marked with symbols (see below).

Kuelap is called the “Machu Picchu of the North”, although it doesn’t receive anywhere near the amount of visitors as Machu Picchu due to being a bit remote. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to visit it; less tourists means less people in my pictures, and a lot of places that are remote are less degraded or, worse yet, reconstructed. Kuelap is quite an expansive site, and I think it deserves more attention, as does the north of Peru in general. 

Chachapoyas  Kuelap 127

I could have spent a week or more in town, but I was feeling enthusiastic about moving on. In Chachapoyas I went on two days of touring with five other people in a small van, since there weren’t that many travelers in the town. We went with Revash, a hostel with its own tour company, and had a really cool, very informative tour guide who spoke excellent English.

By the second day, we’d discovered that we all planned on going up to Ecuador through the La Balsa/Zumba border crossing, a less used crossing, and decided to go together early the next morning.

For the next two days, all six of us stuck together: me, a couple consisting of a South African and a Turkish girl who I nerded out about photography with, and three Germans. We shared quite a few cars with not enough room and got quite comfortable squashed up against each other, feared for our luggage tied to the roof (my bungee cord came in handy for that one), and made it across the Ecuadorian border at La Balsa with no issues, then taking a bus with a chicken and farmers and their sacks of goods to Zumba, where we got a much more comfortable bus to Vilcabamba, a small hippy town nestled in a valley. And then I became a hippy… just kidding.

Peru Part One: Lima, Huaraz, Trujillo/Huanchaco


Lima  Historic Center 62

I’ve traveled mostly in Asian countries before, so it’s been a big learning curve to come to Peru and adjust to Latin American culture. I just relaxed in Lima the first few days, in the upscale Miraflores district, which also happens to contain a small ruins site that is still being excavated.

I met with two local girls from the Couchsurfing website, and got to explore more of the city with them, including my first ride on a dilapidated but functional combi, or small bus. The historic center itself has a number of beautiful Spanish-style buildings, but with an array of bright colors, intricate balconies, and a swarm of little stores lining the streets. I really enjoyed visiting the Church of San Francisco (left), complete with catacombs underneath where religious people’s bodies were left when they died. The whole place is basically an underground vault of bones, bones and more bones. Amazing.

A long but scenic day bus ride up the coast and inland took me to Huaraz, another dry, dusty city, but this one perched in the mountains at around 3,000 meters above sea level. The first few days here I did almost nothing since I was a bit sick from adjusting to the altitude. However, I was couchsurfing, so spent the time just hanging out with my host and friends, which was a really nice way to get into a groove and pick up some more Spanish.

Huaraz  Chavin 6

I did two day trips in Huaraz: Pastroruri Glacier and the Chavin ruins site. Pastoruri was my test trek, to see how I fared hiking in altitude. Well, I made it. It was about an hour up, hitting close to 5,000 meters, and I made a lot of little stops to catch my breath and slow my racing heart. My knee was also acting up a bit, so I pretty much ruled out the amazing-sounding multi day treks that most people in the area came for. The ride into the glacier, and hike up, provided some amazing views of Huascaran National Park, so at least I got to see it even if I wasn’t going to be trekking it. I’d rather save my knee for Macchu Pichu and the Sacred Valley.

Huaraz  Chavin 268

The ride to the Chavin ruins site was even more impressive, with the bus winding up and down the steep mountains. This ride lso proved the most entertaining – I wound up on the Spanish tour, with the rest of the group save one being Peruvians, who were all loud, boisterous, and would randomly burst into song, or chant the name of the town they were visiting from. The other foreigner was a really awesome Italian guy who spoke Spanish and translated a few things for me.

The ruins themselves were interesting, but not particularly impressive. The bus ride there and back more than made up for that, though. What made Chavin interesting was the small things. There were originally a number of carved faces that protruded from the walls of the site, though most of them are now in the museum. They ranged from funny to angry faces, and it’s suspected that the inspiration for these were drawn from the imbibing of certain hallucinogenic substances. 

Huaraz  Chavin 269

The sun started to set on the way back, and the clouds also came in a deposited a meager amount of rain on the roads; not comforting considering the narrow, twisting ride back to Huaraz. Luckily, the rain didn’t last for very long. 

Peru, being a very Christian and Catholic country, had a huge religious statue up in the mountains, which provided this awesome photo on the way back. Very cool.

Huaraz to Trujillo was my first overnight bus ride in Peru, and was of course fairly uncomfortable. I’m amazed I got any sleep at all. I didn’t check my bag, so I spent the ride with my 35 litre bag as a footrest, and an old Peruvian guy snoring to my right. Once we got into Trujillo, I shared a taxi to Huanchaco, a small beach town just outside of Trujillo, and napped for a few hours at my hostel.

Huanchaco  Chan Chan 28I met up with two girls I’d been talking to through Couchsurfing; why I thought it was a good idea to get up and go right after a night bus I’m not sure, but together we went to visit Chan Chan, a 700+ year old Chimu ruins site right next to Huanchaco.  Chan Chan is a huge Adobe (mud brick) city with simple but beautiful carvings in the walls. I really liked this a lot, despite hearing reviews saying it was “just okay”. The whole feel of the place, and the colors and patterns, were really interesting, and it’s even more amazing to me that this was just hidden, buried under sand. Across the road you can see mounds and mounds of sand with walls peeking out, just waiting to be uncovered.

Trujillo  Huaca del Arco Iris 26

After Chan Chan, we met a German girl who was negotiating with a taxi to visit other nearby Chimu sites, and we joined in. Being four people now, it was a much better deal, about US$3.50 for a taxi to drive us around for an hour or more! Along with the Chan Chan museum, we saw two other, smaller Huacas (temples): Huaca del Esmeralda, and Huaca del Arco-Iris (pictured), or Temple of the Rainbow. The last one was very impressive; just a small structure, but with amazingly intricate designs carved in the walls, many featuring rainbows, hence the name. 

The next day, the three of us met up again and went to Huaca de la Luna y Huaca del Sol, which are two Moche temples just outside of Trujillo. This involved a long, bumpy taxi ride to the outskirts, where suddenly you emerge from the dusty side streets to the view of a hill with a huge excavation site at its base. Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) is undergoing excavation, while its sister temple, a ways away, is still under a pile of sand. In between the two temples is a buried city, part of which is being uncovered. I would be curious to go back in 40-50 years and see how much work has been done. 

Trujillo  Huaca del la Luna 17I’ve heard that most people prefer Huaca de la Luna to Chan Chan, but I like both of these sites for different reasons. Chan Chan felt more complete, more like you could walk in and imagine what it was like to be there a thousand years ago, whereas Huaca de la Luna contains absolutely impressive painting carvings all over. Apparently it was a tradition with each successive ruler to cover the old and paint a new level, so during the excavation many levels of carvings have been uncovered. In the museum near the site, a number of exquisite ceramics are held, many of which are carvings of people who were sacrificed. The level of detail in these is amazing; it’s almost unbelievable that this site is around 700 years OLDER than Chan Chan. The last part of the tour led us to the outside of the Huaca, where a multi-layered wall shows the multitude of designs.

Trujillo  Spring Festival 9

I must admit that the few week or so of Peru has been a bit underwhelming; I’ve thought a lot about how much I miss Asia and Oceania, and I thought I might not be able to get into a groove here. However, seeing these awesome ruins has reminded me how much I love archeology and ancient civilizations, and meeting people though couchsurfing and hostels has helped me adjust a lot. The few days I spent in Huanchaco (which also is a wonderfully chill beachside town in its own right) really refreshed me and got me excited for travel again.

My last full day in the area was spent with Louise, one of the Couchsurfers, going into downtown Trujillo to watch a parade and kill some time before her night bus. The Plaza de Armas in Trujillo is probably the most beautiful Plaza I’ve seen yet in Peru, which its colonial buildings and Trujillo-style windows (see above picture). The parade was also really fun to watch, moreso with another person. Afterwards, we chilled at my hostel and watched movies until she had to go. That’s the problem with travel – you make new friends just in time to leave them and probably never see them again. So it goes.