Here we are already- back home in Albuquerque, and now that our internet is back up and running we can do a post! Our eight solid months of international travel is now only a memory. It is good to be home, but it was also a little sad to give it up and get on that flight from Lima to Miami and enter the ole US of A once again. We questioned ourselves several times, wondering if we should have kept our flight taking us back to Portland at the beginning of July, as originally planned. But the reality was, that we were both very tired after eight months and nineteen countries and our beautiful home in New Mexico with all of its modern conveniences was looking more irresistible each day. While the Galapagos and Machu Picchu were a couple of the highlights of our trip and we enjoyed both of these places immensely, other destinations were just seeming not as wonderful and enchanting as they may have seemed, if we would have been fresh. It really was time to go home.
So, our last frontier of the trip was Peru, a country that had been high on our list for a long time due to the fascinating ruins of Machu Picchu. After leaving Quito, a city that was surprisingly beautiful and charming, but also not comfortably safe (there are frequent robberies reported by travelers). While here, we enjoyed walking through the old town during peak daylight hours, but saw something that made us feel that we might be walking the streets of Baghdad. An armored vehicle was parked in front of a bank with a man emerging from its roof with a machine gun, AND the machine gun was pointed right into the crowd. The people around seemed to be completely used to this and appeared to think nothing of it.Our nights and evenings in Quito were spent at the Secret Garden Hostel, which is a great place to stay. Since most travelers do not venture out into the night when they want their evening meal and drinks, the Secret Garden provides all of that with a couple of great chefs and some crazy Irish bartenders that mix up some dangerously stiff drinks.
We had a few of these stiff drinks before heading off to catch our flight to Lima at nine pm. We figured we may as well. Once we got to Lima at 11 pm our plan was to just sleep in the airport until our five am flight the next morning to Cusco, home to lots of Incan ruins as well as a jumping off point to Machu Picchu. Once we arrived at the airport, went through immigration and all of that we noticed right away that is was already midnight and this airport still looked incredibly busy. Also, we have never seen so many people waiting for arrivals as we did here, we felt like we were on some sort of a stage walking out from baggage claim. We had it in our heads that we were going to easily find a quiet place to lay down and rest, this wasn’t so easy. There were people everywhere! Finally after a few hours we were able to find our departure gate, so we laid down like bums for a bit of rest. Five am came quite quickly after this and we were off to Cusco. Since we arrived in Cusco so tired and worn out we swallowed our pride and let the taxi driver take us to his recommended hotel (also the one he gets a commission for). We were just too tired to go around shopping for a place. Upon arrival we were served coca tea and then we decided to take a little rest before venturing out to make plans for Machu Picchu. Our taxi driver, of course, offered us a trip up there on the train and it seemed fair, but we thought we should do a bit more shopping to see what other options there were. We already knew that the famous Inca Trail was out of the question, due to the government restrictions on the trail this year limiting use to only a third of what was allowed last year. Because of this limit travelers are forced to book months in advance now, and for those who have not gotten in on the famous trail there are now “alternate” routes. While eating breakfast we met a couple of guys fro Winnipeg, Manitoba who just go back from a mountain bike and trekking adventure up to Machu Picchu and were raving about it. After we ate they pointed us in the direction of the agency and we booked the trip with them. Since the trip was structured as a four day trip and we only wanted to take three, they accommodated this and arranged for a bus on day two. We also planned on spending another day in Cusco to acclimatize a bit before heading out on an exerting trek. Cusco is pretty far up there altitude wise- 10, 860 feet a bit higher than the Sandia’s next to our home in Albuquerque. Since we had been spending so much time a sea level we were definitely breathing quite a bit harder up here. We even noticed at night it was more difficult to get to sleep because when you did finally relax and start to get into a sleeping pattern you would wake up as you gasped for a breath of air. This took a couple of nights to get used to.
Cusco we found to be both a beautiful and fascinating city, the center of the Incan Empire with the enormous beauty of the mountains surrounding it. We enjoyed hanging around in the plazas (we even saw a children’s costume parade) and walking up and down the sometimes steep (I gasp for breath) and narrow historic streets. We found several ladies with llamas standing in street, for the benefit of tourists, asking if you would like to take a picture with them. we initially a bit turned off by the whole thing, but ended up turning around a block later to pay them a little bit of money and to get a few fun photos. After all, they were not beggars and were offering something that tourists want.
Our second night in town we even became brave enough to try the local delicacy of guinea pig. It was a little expensive by Peruvian standards, but we thought what the heck we may never have a chance to eat guinea pig again. I was a bit shocked when they brought it out to us stretched across the plate with its head still intact. After giving it a good look over, we each grabbed a leg and dug in. The meat wasn’t bad, but had a little bit of a strange flavor. Who knows what they feed these things! Once we finished off the legs we began peeling off the crispy skin to find really not too much meat underneath. We looked at each other and asked, “So what are we supposed to eat”. At that moment, the waitress came around and explained that the crispy skin was also to be eaten. We went ahead and dug in, I also think that the head was meant to be feasted upon, but neither of us were willing to even touch the rat looking head in search of something to put inside of our systems.
The next morning, we got up, ate another white bread and jam breakfast (sugartastic!), and headed out catch the beginning of our tour to Machu Picchu. At about 7:30, the tour guide ran up to our hotel giving us instructions to meet him at Plaza de Armice in five minutes. We quickly left most of our baggage in the hotel storage and bolted out the door to meet our guide. Once at Plaza de Armice he spotted us and quickly led us up quite a few streets until finally we stopped in front of some random shop. He told us and a young Korean girl to wait there as he hopped into a taxi and bolted off. In the span of the next hour twelve other people arrived and eventually we were loaded into a minibus. The whole thing just seemed to be a huge organizational nightmare and our group discussed with each other how it was amazing that these guys do this everyday, because it seemed as if this was the first time. Some bikes were loaded at this point as well and we all began laughing hysterically looking at the bikes as they were definitely not the bikes that are advertised at the tour agency. Surprise! So off we went, to the bus station to load the crappy bikes and equipment onto the top of the bus. When we signed up for the tour we really had no idea about the five hour bus ride before we even began to do the downhill mountain bike ride. The bus ride was a bit crazy and reminded us a bit of Nepal. Winding switchbacks through the mountains, no guard rail, views of rural farming (we’re talking oxen driven plows here) with beautiful mountain vistas in the background. Really a gorgeous drive, but not for the faint of heart, due to the sheer cliffs on the side of the road. We stopped at one point to use the toilet, and once again I asked myself, “Where are all of the toilet seats in Peru?”. Peruvian ladies mush have really strong legs after a lifetime of hovering over seats! Once we unloaded at the top we noticed that there was another company up there as well, but they had WAY better bikes and equipment. They were equipped with disk brakes, nice frames, seats, and even had knee and shin guards. Our group had bikes that were held together with electrical tape, seats that had their stuffing coming out, helmets that were sometimes cracked, and leather work gloves that were too big for most of the women and bunched up as you tried to grip the handlebars or brakes that were adjusted so you had to pull really hard to make them work. As we began to ride the bikes around we discovered that many of the bikes had dysfunctional brakes or had shifters that were not working at all. Adam mentioned that he was not able to shift his bike from the big ring and was told by our guide that when we got to a hill he should just walk up it. This didn’t make my cycling obsessed husband very happy. As expected, our group suffered break down after break down and even our guide was forced to walk his bike a majority of the thirty miles because of a flat tire. Our group was then left with the guides assistant who spoke not a word of English (his English was worse than our Spanish, which is very minimal). The poor guy did not even know how to work the quick release to get the wheels on and off, so Adam gave him a little lesson on how that was done. These guys do this same four day tour over and over again! After half the ride was over my butt was beginning to sting really bad, as this was by far the worst seat I have ever used. By the end of the ride I could not sit anymore, but my feet also hurt from wearing soft running shoes and trying to stand on the pedals. To top it all off, there were little flesh eating bugs up there that seemed to be attracted to the DEET that everyone was liberally spraying to ward them off. These things would bite and then leave a blood blister. The more we had to wait because of breakdowns the more bites we got. This ride was really pretty disappointing. In the tour agency we were presented with pictures of nice bikes on single track, but we got crappy bikes on a dirt road. When cars and trucks would pass, a cloud of dust would linger in the air, coating our lungs and the rest of out bodies with a layer of dust. When we got to the end of the ride we were pretty happy, even though we had to wait for quite a while for a few in our group who had worse luck than we had, such as a guy who had a flat tire and was forced to ride and walk with the bike for many miles, or our guide who finally showed up a couple hours after we arrived with his non-functioning bike.
That night we made arrangements to take the bus to Santa Maria the next morning. Our guide told us that he would wake us up at 3:45 in the morning for our journey. We were given a separate room from the dorm that everyone else was staying in, so we wouldn’t have to disturb anyone in the morning. 3:45 came very fast and our guide and assistant led us down the dark road to catch “our bus”. Our bus, turned out to be a station wagon driven by some random guy in the village. We were instructed to sit down in the back seat with the assistant, the driver and his friend got into the front, and a woman and a little girl hopped into the back crammed with all of the luggage. The station wagon was very overloaded and the tires made a loud scraping sound whenever we would go around a corner from the tires hitting the wheel well. The driver tried to go fast but couldn’t because of how overloaded we were. Adam and I were relieved that we were so overloaded and were forced to go slow because this dirt road we were on was cut into the side of a mountain, so even though we didn’t have seat belts it didn’t matter anyways because of how far the vehicle would fall if the driver made any kind of error. Adam, who was on the cliff side would look over every once in awhile and make a comment about how close the tires got to the edge. At one point the driver go out and moved the luggage around in the back to hopefully help the scraping problem. He also instructed the lady, who was short but fairly stocky, to move more of her weight forward, so the poor lady had to ride on this bumpy road with her neck contorted on the roof of the vehicle. I felt bad that she had to sit that way, while we sat in the back seat. After a couple of hours of this we did arrive in Santa Maria, just about the time the sun was coming up. Our driver and guide dropped us off at a hostel that had a spare room and they let us take a room to sleep for about an hour before our new group had breakfast. The room they gave us was VERY simple- it consisted of cinder block walls, plastic table cloths for a ceiling cover, and two twin beds. It was also infested with mosquitoes and was the first room of the entire trip in which we found a cockroach. We met the new group at breakfast and heard many stories from the day before about how it was a pretty long and rough day and many of the people were covered in insect bites. This made us glad that we took the death defying station wagon ride a couple of hours before.
After breakfast we began the hike for the day to Aguas Calientes. It began with the guide telling us that ten years before the village of Santa Maria was at the bottom of the valley, but there was a huge mud slide that destroyed it. Luckily, they were able to get all of the people out in time and then move the village to the top of the valley. On the floor of the valley there was a river with a perfectly good bridge going across, but to make the journey a bit more adventurous next to the bridge was a two person cart on a zip line. It was a bit fun, but it took some time to get 16 people across the river using this.
We then began walking down the road, which was really quite scenic. It was a bit disappointing knowing that you could drive on the route we were taking, but a part of me was glad that I was on my own two feet rather than in the back seat of some random vehicle with some random driver. Since Adam and I were not on the hike the day before our guide was kind enough to take some extra time with us and show us the plants that were growing in the area. He showed us sugarcane, mangoes, papaya, avacodo, coca, and passion fruit. He was even able to find some passion fruit so we could sample it. We then came to a beautiful waterfall where our guide encouraged everyone to get out their suits and walk underneath the falls. The water was very cold and the air not very warm yet as well, so the two of us declined. It was a very scenic place though.
From here on it was hiking down the road. Below the road was a river and on both sides of us were sheer cliffs. We stopped for lunch at around noon, and then continued on until we got our first view of Machu Picchu. We then hiked on train tracks for several hours, until we were all very tired of this and were finally at Aguas Calientes. This was a bit like walking into a Disney set of a Peruvian Village. Aguas Calientes is a VERY touristy place! But also in a very beautiful spot. The town’s name in Spanish means “hot waters”, and Adam and I visited these “hot waters” which are more warm than hot and of course very touristy and Disney like. We didn’t hang around long, mostly because of the strange odor that didn’t necessarily smell geothermal.
The next morning was our trip to Machu Picchu! We were given two options. The first one being getting up at four in the morning and taking the trail up to Machu Picchu, and the second getting up at five to catch the first bus up there. We decided in the second choice, mainly because we wanted to climb Waynapicchu (the tall skinny mountain behind Machu Picchu that is seen in nearly every photograph of the place) and we wanted to have the energy to enjoy the place once we got there.
Once we got to Machu Picchu that morning by bus our guide came to us with our tickets and we we able to enter. Unfortunately, he didn’t yet have tickets for everyone so this created quite the scene as members of our group demanded that they have their tickets ASAP. Not having tickets was not an uncommon occurrence though as we saw many screaming matches happening near the entrance. Most of them did eventually get their tickets, but their day at Machu Picchu was delayed while they dealt with this unpleasant inconvenience. Once we were in we began trying to find our way to the trail head of Waynapicchu quickly. Climbing this mountain is a popular thing to do and they only allow 200 people in the morning and another 200 in the afternoon, so you have to line up to be able to get in on the 7 am opening. Since it was so foggy that morning it was initially very difficult for us to find our way there, but eventually the rest of group caught up with us and we were all able to line up together. Once we got in, Adam and I were #45 and 46 for the day. I had heard horror stories about this climb, and it was a little tough because of the altitude but was not as scary as I had been hearing and there was never a time that I felt like I was going to fall off of the mountain. Once you almost reach the top, the trail leads you through a cave which is pretty neat. Once you pop out on the other side you have just a little more climbing to do before you summit the thing. On the top the trick is to find a place to sit and wait for the fog to clear up, when there are a couple hundred other people trying to do the same. We sat up there for about an hour watching it clear up on both sides of M.P. but there was still an obstructed view. And then all of a sudden the fog became thinner and there it was- what an incredible view!!
After coming off of Waynapicchu, we met our tour guide and took a tour about the history of Machu Picchu. We learned that this was a place only for the royalty and most of the people in the Incan Empire did not even know of its existence. It was a bit of a retreat for the King and the permanent residence for his secondary wives and concubines. There were also royalty there being educated. Our guide even showed us where animals and sometimes even children were sacrificed.
Once our tour ended the guide suggested a place to go to get a great view and photos. We sat down here for about an hour and had lunch, and a little fun.
We spent the whole day at Machu Picchu, and when the day was over we headed back to Aguas Calientes to catch our train. Our guide told us that someone would be at the train station holding a sign with our name on it. When we arrived there was a whole mess of people with signs, but we never found our names. Eventually, we found a lady with extra seats on her bus so we paid her and hopped on. Who knows if there ever was someone there with our names or not.
The next morning was a bright and early flight to Lima. Once in Lima we spent most of the day resting for our 3:45 am taxi ride to the airport to catch our flight to Miami. Everything went went smoothly getting home until we got to Miami. We have decided
that the Miami airport is the worst in the world. Everyone we talked to seemed to be highly incompetent and since every turn we made we seemed to get the run around we missed our connection to Dallas/Fort Worth. Luckily, we had a pretty long layover in Dallas so we were still able to get the same flight into Albuquerque. Our great neighbors Mike and Staci picked us up and greeted us and then we were whisked on home to meet our beautiful home again. Trish, the woman who rented the house while we were gone took great care of the place and it was really nice to feel comfortable in our own home again right away.
Now that it has been a week, we have fallen back into our old routines again- grocery shopping, cooking, laundry…. I was happy that I remembered how to drive my car 🙂 We have also gotten all of our bikes back into working order and are enjoying the amazing trail system that is right out our front door. It is also good to have all of the great New Mexican food. That is one thing that was nearly impossible to find on the trip, so we have visited more than one New Mexican restaurant for some green chile concoctions.
It had been fun to be amongst all of the American conveniences that we have, and to view our culture in a different way. I can say that overseas I did not see many parents screaming at their kids in public and was a bit horrified when I saw that again. We think that eight months of travel will take awhile to sink in and it will be another adventure to revisit it through memories in the future.
Now soon we will be onto the northwest to visit family and then July 12th we board a family reunion cruise to Alaska with 18 other family members. We are also trying to work out a way to cycle the length of the Oregon Coast with my dad. So….. the adventure will not end with our arrival back in the states. We are really lucky to live in a country that takes a lifetime to explore on its own, so many places to visit!
We plan on keeping this site active for awhile and have plans for a few reflection posts, so keep checking.
~Shawn & Adam