There is always one place that draws you.
I remember as a teen, around 13 or 14, watching a travel program on TV and seeing this place that did not look real. I could not believe that a place like this existed; its location, the tales, the ruins, the view. It was then that I knew how much I wanted to travel; how much I wanted to explore. I got a job many years later that fulfilled the travel bug but it was after I went around the globe that I got the opportunity to go to the country and site that I saw on TV so many years before.
This is my story of the awe inspiring Machu Picchu and my whirlwind trip to Peru.
I was fortunate to run around the southern loop of this country with 2 really close friends. We happened to be working together and had a few weeks off to spare. Randomly one night we were exploring places to use our time well, fell upon an amazing flight deal to Peru and booked it 5 minutes later. What I loved most about the trip is we did not plan much in advance. We bought plane tickets in and out of the country, knew the path we wanted to take and knew our time frame. Everything in between we just made happen.
So our flight landed in Lima very late at night and we had to chill out and take turns having small naps overnight because our flight to Cusco did not leave until first thing in the morning. By the way, for anyone doing an overnighter in the Lima airport, bring something with you because nothing stays open to eat or drink.
So a little bit cross-eyed, be get on our connecting flight to Cusco bright and early. Once we arrive in the beautiful city nestled in the mountains, we grab a taxi and head downtown to wander the streets to find a place to stay while there and begin to plan our time. We only had 2 weeks and wanted to make the most of it. So we found a great place to stay just a block from the main plaza square, arranged to take the train up the mountains to Aguas Calientes, which is the small town at the base of Machu Picchu, and spent the next 2 days meandering around Cusco and its sites with ruins close by. The center square is just beautiful, cozy and a place you just want to spend hours at having coffee and enjoying people watching.
So a few days later, we end up taking the last train of the day to Aguas Calientes, which literally translates to ‘hot water’, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu. We arrange for a place to stay for the next two nights grab a bite to eat and walk the town to go to bed early. We woke up the next morning to take one of the first buses up the switchbacks to the famous ruins. I am so excited I am squirming in my seat. Although I have travelled the globe, this is the one place I had been craving to visit my entire life.
Just driving up the winding road that leads up the mountain is enough to get your heart racing. A dirt road in a bus that does sharp hairpin turns about every 100m back and forth, back and forth, climbing up the narrow path. We finally reach to the top, the sun is beating down on us atop the Andes at around 2040m above sea level, we pay our entrance fee and enter.
There will never be enough pictures and words to describe the feeling I had when I stepped thru the entrance and my eyes took in the famous view. My body was completely motionless for a few minutes as I gazed upon the ruins that took so long to find. I cannot even think about the emotion that American archeologist Hiram Bingham felt when he discovered the ruins in the summer of 1911. His hunt for the famous lost city of the Incas was so captivating, it inspired the movie ‘Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.’
I think the one thing I would go back and change from this trip is that because we wanted to do so much, we ended up just taking the train up to Aguas Calientes from Cusco instead of doing the famous 7 day hike thru the Andes. I guess you always have to leave something behind to go back to. Don’t think the train is not worth it, as it climbs from Cusco higher into the Andes in between soaring ranges. I just think the ancient hike would be a whole other story to write about.
Don’t miss climbing up the side of Huayna Picchu, the pinnacle that overlooks the ruins from the north. It is a steep 1 hour climb up the side of the mountain, but the views from the top looking down on the ruins and below are magnificent. They only let up 400 people a day so if the area looks crowded don’t wait. Definitely a must do!!
We took the train back into Cusco and started to make other plans of where to go and see in this incredible country. We ended up taking an overnight bus to the city of Arequipa, known as the ‘white city’ because most of its building are made from a white volcanic stone called sillar. Arequipa itself is the second largest city in Peru and has a few beautiful sights to explore, like the center square which is considered the most breathtaking in the country. Also of interest is the Santa Catalina convent, one of the biggest in the world.
The main attraction here is the jumping off point to Colca Canyon, the largest in the world. From the glaciers of the mountains above to the narrow river below in plummets some 3200m. It is also a large home to the endangered and largest flying birds in the world, the condor. They like to hunt mostly in the morning, so get up bright and early to see these majestic winged beasts take to the sky along the walls of the canyon in search of prey.
Next we took another overnight bus to make a quick stop at Nazca. There is not much here in the middle of the desert unless you take to the skies. The famous Nazca lines cover an area of 450 square kilometers, the largest being about 370 m. These designs in the sands where believed to be created as early as 500 BC, but it was not until the early 1940’s that an American flew over the fields and truly discovered the figures that lie below. They are actually geoglyphs that range from long lines to figures of animals and humans. We asked around town and this is what most people come here for, so it was easy to find a pilot with a tourist company that took us to the skies for a 45 minute ride over the vast region to view the massive designs. We also got the pilot to do a few dives that gave us a 30 second feeling of weightlessness that added to the trip.
From Nazca, it was only a short hop down the coast to the little town of Huacachina. At this point in our trip we were a bit exhausted from going nonstop, so because of this little town being an oasis surrounded by high sand dunes, we decided to take a few days slow. This small town is known for 2 things: sand boarding down its massive sand dunes and sampling the local drink of ‘pisco’, grown in its neighboring town of Ica just a short distance away.
So this is what we planned. Doing a day trip up and down the sand dunes on a crappy made ‘sand’board was something different and you don’t get to do around the world much. They start you on some small hills to get the hang of it and then take you to some bigger hills by the end of the day, some which were about 1km to come down. Sand is not as forgiving as water, and after a few tumbles had sand in every crevice on our bodies.
We needed a shower and some calm down, which led us to our hostiles BBQ party that night. When they tell you it is the equivalent of $6 USD for all you can eat and drink, you indulge. The best way to describe pisco is a tequila brandy made from grapes. Quite delicious but lethal after some time. However, pitchers of their pisco sour drinks and 4 am came really easily after being on the hills all day.
Our next morning on our boat trip was a bit rough to say the least. We ventured to the coast to visit Isla Ballestas, sometimes referred to as the ‘Poor Man’s Galapagos.” It is a small island off the coast which is home to many species of birds, sea lions, and a small species of penguins. Penguins generally prefer cold water, so these are some that you will find the closest to the equator.
From here we made our way to Lima the capitol, with only a few days left before our flight back. We walked around the cities beautiful squares and took a nice lunch on the coast.
I look back on this last minute crazy adventure with my buddies as the reason I love to travel. No matter what the budget or the experience, there is always something incredible to find and explore if you are willing to just let go and look for it.