Finding Peru: A backpacker’s bazaar
January 24, 2009
There I stood, in marvel: Wondering what this place looked like in its glory days, with gold embellished rooftops and lamas roaming the terraces. Admiring the tenacity and work ethic it must have taken to maintain a palace tucked away in the remote Andes Mountains. Pondering how many lives were lost while scaling the edges of cliffs to create a civilization of intricate craftsmanship and bountiful harvest. The heart of an Inca is strong and most definitely mysterious. The journey to Machu Picchu is rich in culture and history, but if hiked, not for the faint of heart.
Our trip started in Lima. We promptly stashed our backpacks in the hostel and headed out to explore. After quick deliberation, we headed to the Plaza de Armas, the main Square of Peru’s capital. A guide approached us and offered to take us around and show us the historical buildings. Dedication to the Catholic religion was apparent in much of the architecture we experienced. One of the most interesting cathedrals included a diorama of the Spanish Inquisition in the 1500s.
After exploring the plaza with our guide, Luis, he took us to one of his preferred local restaurants ($15 for meal and sangria). Here, we experienced ceviche, a Peruvian favorite consisting of fresh seafood marinated in lemon juice and seasoned to taste. Luis summed up its importance to Peruvian culture in one phrase, “it is life.”
Content with the ground we covered in Lima in only one day, we were anxious to continue our trip to Cusco, the gateway for all things outdoors.
Cusco carries on much of the old tradition the “Highlanders” have established since living in the Andes Range. Guinea pig and alpaca are popular delicacies throughout Cusco, and can be sampled at most of the restaurants.
We quickly discovered ecotourism bolsters the entrepreneurial spirit in Peru. Vendors in traditional dress offered hand-made items such as beanies knitted from baby alpaca, and hand carved chess sets. This is certainly the place to gift shop. It is impossible to wander the streets of Cusco without being approached by entrepreneurs young and old. Inexpensive and unique purchases contribute to the Peruvian economy and are appreciated and expected by locals.
Sacsayhuaman, dubbed “sexy woman” by English speaking travelers is a recommended site for ancient Inca ruins in the center of Cusco. After a 25-minute hike, we reached the ruins, believed to be built in honor of the sun god. Impressive man-made rock formations weighing up to seven tons were among the structural feats.
Finding the local marketplace presented a bit more of a challenge than purchasing local artwork. After three days of searching for it, we found an authentic market on the outskirts of Cusco. We stuck out like a sore thumb, and pictures had to be taken discreetly, but the culture we found here was undeniable. Muslin sacks of grains, coca leaves and produce lined the agricultural bazaar. A walk down the meat section tested my olfactory and intestinal tolerance; however, the meat was in its purest form.
On the third day of our stay in Cusco it was time to start our trek.
As most people traveling to Peru set out to do, our initial goal was to book the Inca Trail. However, with the influx of tourism the government regulates the amount of people permitted on the Inca Trail at one time. At first discouraging, this helped us to book an alternative trek to Machu Picchu. The Salkantay to Machu Picchu route gave us the opportunity to experience the awe of the Andes and far less people along the way to distract from the beauty of the great outdoors.
Packed up, we took a long bus ride to the start of our trip. We met our guides, Paul, Jamie and Raul.
The backdrop for the most difficult and most elevated part of the trek was Salkantay, the second-highest peak in the Andes. Day one was only two hours of hiking, but many people experienced effects of the altitude. After a hike to about 14,000 feet, our guides and porters set up camp. Dinner in the tent that night was cold, but the stars were brilliant.
How lovely it was to wake up to snow-capped beauty in front of us. We had breakfast, and headed out for a full day of hiking. We started off trekking to our highest elevation of 15,253 feet before carrying on to our lunch destination, where we dined amongst farm animals and a trio of cleverly built shacks.
The rest of day two was pretty relaxed as far as physical exertion. Our group reached our destination in time to set up camp and hike to natural hot springs in the valley. Our campsite was breathtaking, and the villagers were gracious enough to let us sleep in their backyard ” the Andes.
We started with more trekking, a full day again. We went from alpine environment to rainforest. The terrain proved interesting and gradual. Eventually, we arrived in La Playa, a village with two convenient store-like shacks. The bugs were horrible. Cervesas were necessary once we reached this destination.
Happy to wake up and trek away from the bugs, we set out to reach the town Aguas Calientes, meaning hot waters. After a full day, everyone was happy to see somewhat of a civilization and, mainly, a hot shower and bed.
This was the big day. Machu Picchu-bound and ready to see the ruins that have sparked so much curiosity and allure. A short bus ride to the top, and there we were. Paul, our main guide gave us a brief interpretation of the history of Machu Picchu, and then let us explore on our own.
Wanu Picchu, the mountain peak neighboring Machu Picchu can be hiked. The only stipulation is waiting in line to climb it, and the steepness of the climb. Regardless, a couple of my fellow trekkers and I decided to brave it. Well worth the one hour ascend; the view from Wanu Picchu is unparalleled. For me, seeing the view from Wanu Picchu made the trek and gave me a better understanding of Machu Picchu.
Our journey through Peru was simply put ” an adventure. For me, Machu Picchu was the highlight, and provided education and exploration. In Peru, the culture is rich, the faces friendly, and the ruins and Incas who built them, wondrous.