Several years ago, I won a silent auction for 2 business class tickets to Lima Peru for only a couple hundred dollars. I was very excited because I had always wanted to see Machu Picchu and visit the Amazon jungle and both are short trips from Lima on local airlines.
I raced home to let Nancy know the good news. At first she was a bit befuddled, “why exactly did you buy tickets to Lima?”
After explaining to her that these tickets were really just a nice way to get to Peru and that we would only really be using Lima as a base to hit the Amazon and Machu Picchu she was back on board. That is until we actually arrived in Lima and had to take our first local flight to Cuzco.
Our “plane” landed and pulled up close to the airport. After stopping, a wheeled ladder was pushed against the side and a ramp was lowered from the back. The departing passengers were shuttled out the back of the plane while the embarking passengers (Nancy and I among them) were climbing the ladder to board the plane. There was no apparent safety check nor even refueling as is customary with US flights. This flight was a stop and go. A very disconcerting practice especially for a semi-nervous flyer like myself.
Once on board the plane, the first thing we noticed were some interesting smells. It quickly became apparent where those smells orginated as we saw chickens and a goat on the plane. Never did I think I would be boarding a plane with livestock. I knew right then that this was going to be interesting… if we survived…
Upon arriving at our seats, Nancy and I stowed our carry-on’s and began to settle in for our flight over the Andes headed for Cuzco. When I sat down in my seat, it felt as though the entire seat rocked back and then made a loud pop as it fell back into position. After a minor investigation I found that my seat was in fact, not bolted to the floor! Oh sure, the stud was there where it should be, there were simply no nuts fastening the chair to the studs. I suppose this makes swapping the seats out easier when one of the goats on board has an “accident” in flight.
My next surprise came when I grabbed for my seat belt… only one end was actually attached to the seat! I guess this wasn’t so bad since the seat wasn’t attached to anything. After all, why would I want the false sense of security of being firmly secured to a seat that would only fly out of the plane in the event of a nervous goat opening the door mid-flight?
When I mentioned these things to the stewardess pre-flight, she responded by smiling and walking on by. Well, I wanted adventure… here we go.
On the plus side, the flight from Lima to Cuzco was extremely turbulent as we skimmed the tops of the Andes the entire way. I have no idea why the pilot felt the need to fly so low. My only assumption was that he wanted to smoke and in order to be courteous to the other passengers, he felt it best to crack a window making it impossible to fly at a higher altitude. I mean what else could explain the tremendous wind noise that seemed to be coming from the cockpit?
Eventually, the pilot found a small crevice between the mountains into which he could crash-land our plane and bring a merciful end to this flight. Turns out the crevice was the airport in Cuzco, and the crash landing was actually a normal landing… I never would have guessed.
Our local travel agent met us at the airport and after a few minute ride back into town we arrived at our hotel. We stayed at the Hotel Los Andes de America, a Best Western of all things. The hotel was in a great location, just a short walk to the main plaza and the hotel had a great center courtyard to sit and enjoy a meal or a cup of coffee before or after a day of adventuring around the city.
Upon arrival to our hotel, we were handed a cup of coca tea, made from coca leaves, to enjoy during the check-in process. Cuzco is at an elevation of between 11,000 and 12,000 feet, depending on where you are and whose stats your reading. The locals swear that coca tea is excellent at preventing altitude sickness. I’m not sure if there is any validity to that assertion, but I can say that neither Nancy or I had any trouble with altitude sickness and we did drink the tea.
Nancy and I chose to walk around Cuzco and found it to be a safe and pleasurable experience. We were in our early thirties when we took the trip and in reasonable health but even at that, walking around at that altitude can still get you winded pretty quickly. If you think it could be a problem, take a cab, they are fairly plentiful and fairly reasonably priced.
The city is filled with old world charm and street vendors are numerous. Bargains can be had on alpaca sweaters, hats, gloves, art and jewelry. American dollars are accepted everywhere as well as the native Sol.
Cuzco is the traditional starting point of the Inca Sun Trail, a 4 day hike through the Andes down to the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu. Nancy and I were not adventurous enough to attempt the hike so we opted for the train ride. At the time we were there, the train ride took about 2.5 hours and was excellent! It seems they have since added a shorter route that takes only 90 minutes to reach Aguas Calientes, but if I were to do it again, I would still take the longer windy route. The train winds it’s way through the Sacred Valley, passing through tiny villages along the way. On the train are troubadours and vendors dressed in traditional Peruvian garb. Time passes quickly, and before you know it you are in Aguas Calientes, a small village at the foot of Machu Picchu.
This was the one part of the trip I did not care for. As soon as you exit the train you are bombarded with people selling tourist junk. The path from the train to the buses that bring you up the switchbacks to Machu Picchu is lined with tourist-trap junk vendors. Hold onto your wallet.
Once on board the bus, the trip up to the top of Machu Picchu is fairly quick. As the bus travels along the narrow switchbacks carved into the shear sides of the mountain, think about the fact that, when this city was in it’s prime, nearly everything needed to live had to be carried by hand up this mountain. There was no water source at the top of the mountain. Water was either captured from the rain or carried by hand. Some food was grown on the terraces carved into the mountain sides but much of it was, again, carried by hand from the valley below.
There is one hotel adjacent to Machu Picchu, The Sanctuary Lodge if you wish to stay there you must make your reservations well in advance of your trip. If you do stay there you will be afforded the rare opportunity to remain in Machu Picchu after all the other tourists are taken away by the last shuttle bus. You will also have an opportunity to watch the sun rise over the ancient Inca city before any other tourists arrive. It is amazing to wander the city with so few others around. Truly breathtaking
For those who feel extremely adventurous, there is a a trail that leads to Huyan Picchu, a much smaller portion of the city built even higher on an adjacent peak. The trail is very steep and treacherous and should not be attempted by anything but expert hikers. The views from atop the trail are unmatched if you do choose to make the trip.
Our trip to Machu Picchu was a once in a lifetime adventure that I will remember forever. The second half of our trip to Peru was a week long adventure in the remote Amazon Jungle, but that is a story for another time…