Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Colca Canyon to Arequipa – El Valle de los Volcanes - Peru

We got up early again to view the condors, again. Just like yesterday there were some sparse sightings between 6:30 and 8:15. Then for the next hour, they glided, soared and swooped, skimming along the canyon walls, then catching an updraft of thermal use it to climb higher only then to glide graciously overhead. They are magnificent and clearly visible from our vantage point. Afterward, we went back to the lodge where they had breakfast waiting. It was then time to checkout, say a fond goodbye to Jessica who had been our charming hospitality hostess and we were on our way. We decided to take the back way out of the canyon driving on a little used dirt track but which we were told would take us through some fantastic scenery. At this point the canyon is at its narrowest and runs the deepest until the tiny town of Huambo. The canyon reaches its greatest depth in this region, where from the river there is an elevation of 3,497 ft (1,066 m). Steep zigzagging paths wound up and down the canyon and again we marveled at how the farmers manage to cultivate the steeply terraced sides. But manage they do and every arable piece of land is used. Colca Canyon can be visited any time of year, but it is most beautiful at this time of year, springtime. During the rainy season through the summer months of November through January, active volcanoes are nearby and seismic activity can cause landslides or otherwise make the ground unstable and the roads impassable. Now, during the dry season the roads are simply very, very dusty. Leaving the hamlet of Huambo behind, we drive through an amazingly scenic area called El Valle de los Volcanes (the Valley of the Volcanoes) located at the foot of a large range in the Andes called the Nevado Coropuna. Here the valley floor is made up from ancient lava flows which is dotted by large cinder cones, some up to 250 feet high, lined along a major fissure in the earth. Each of the cinder cones and there are maybe around 100 of them were formed from a single eruption. This 65km (about 40 mile) drive through the valley gives us great views of not only Coropuna Volcano but also Volcan Sabancayo an active volcano and Ampato which is where a very famous ice mummy was found. There is a museum dedicated to the mummy dubbed “Juanita – the Ice Princess” in Arequipa which we will visit during our time in that city. At 20,630 feet (6,288 meters), Ampato is one of the highest mountains in the area and is now considered dormant. However the whole range seen together is snow capped and quite majestic. Even though the scenery and landscape are incredible, we were nevertheless happy to reach the paved road of the Panamericana Highway. It had taken us the better part of five hours to jostle and jolt the 160km (100 mile or so) from Colca Canyon. It is now easy sailing to Arequipa making a half circle around that city’s two spectacular, sentinel volcanoes, El Misti (5,822m) and Chachani (6,075m). Although we did notice that since we left, much of the snow atop of peaks has diminished substantially. We received a big welcome from German and Pablo the two guys that work at Las Mercedes, especially Winston who looked very happy to be home. As we unpacked, we looked at the car. “Think I need to wash it before taking it back” Tom said and I agreed. After all the traveling and the dirt roads the car was dusty both inside and out. But we both agreed that it had been a fun 10 days.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Colca Canyon - Peru

After watching the “condor show” we took the road towards Chivay. Our goal is to drive for as far as possible on both sides of the canyon. Although about 75 miles total and it is now around 10am, given the road conditions we doubt if we will make the whole way on the northern side to a small hamlet called Madrigal but we will see as much as possible. Most first-time visitors to Peru make a beeline for the ruins of Machu Picchu, without realizing that they are passing within a short distance of the epic Colca Canyon even though it remains Peru's third most-visited tourist destination with about 150,000 visitors annually. Slicing through the high Andes like a giant fissure for more than 100km, Colca is the world’s second deepest canyon, approximately 13,650 ft (4,160 m) at its deepest point -- a shade shallower than the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon and nearly twice as deep as the USA’s Grand Canyon. More impressive than the statistics are the region’s attractions. In addition to the soaring Andean Condors, there are endless trekking routes and unshakeable Spanish, Inca and Pre-Inca traditions little altered since the conquistadors first arrived in the 1570s. The river and valley were well-known to the Incas and their predecessors, and when the Spaniards arrived they laid out townships along the valley, no doubt planning to use Rio Colca valley as the route to Cuzco and other Andean locations. They built churches along the way but the towns never grew and the route faded leaving the area isolated. It wasn't until the early 1930's that the Colca valley was explored again, this time for the American Geographical Society. The valley is still inhabited by people of the Collagua and the Cabana cultures and these indigenous communities still maintain their ancestral traditions giving us a glimpse of a life that has endured and remained the same for centuries. From the Cruz Del Cóndor cliff top lookout, we drive 35km west to the village of Yanque. Here, every morning in the main square in front of the gorgeous Baroque Inmaculada Concepción church, couples in traditional dress dance the watiti, a love dance of the native Quechua people. Unlike most of the Grand Canyon, many parts of the Colca canyon are habitable with pre-Colombian terraced fields still supporting agriculture. The intensely terraced, cultivated landscape stretches down one side and up the other of the vast canyon for miles. We try to guess what is growing and let me tell you there is a lot (and I mean A LOT) of coca plants. The leaf of the plant has a very distinct, bright green color which looks waxy and glossy. Coca tea (either loose or in teabags) and the leaves are sold throughout Peru in most food stores and is offered in many places as an antidote for altitude sickness. Of course all places advise you that none of these can be exported, even neighboring Chile and Ecuador will confiscate any coca bought into the country. In the US, you could get arrested. But here, well it is a way of life. And yes, both Tom and I have drunk the tea, it does help with altitude sickness and it does not make you any more hyperactive than a cup of espresso. Besides coca plants there is also potatoes, quinoa and other grains growing. The Colca is also well known for crafts: goods knitted from baby alpaca fiber and a unique form of embroidery that adorns skirts (polleras), hats, vests, and other items. It is all very colorful and well made. There is a marker for the footpath to the Infiernillo Geyser on the flanks of the Wallqa Wallqa volcano but since the last big earthquake in 2007, the geysers no longer spew and are now considered dormant. Hot springs, some developed for tourist use like La Calera are dotted throughout the valley and canyon and overhead is a zip-line which stretches for 600m between the canyon walls simulating the flight path of an Andean Condor. Unfortunately this is not the height of the tourist season and no-one is zipping across. We eat lunch in Chivay before setting out on the road on the northern side of the canyon. There are two bridges to cross the canyon which lie side by side. The old Inca bridge which is for people trekking and on horseback and the newer steel bridge, which is still pretty rickety but passable. From here the road deteriorated even further until it was only a rough, single track along the canyon walls. The isolated settlements on the north side of the Colca River are much less developed. Colonized by the Spanish in the 16th Century, the settlements are notable for their ornate churches, soporific main squares and agriculture. We saw men in the fields using yoked bulls to plow the steep terraces. We saw women with the traditional textile shawls strung over their backs to carry their loads. We saw children herding the cattle, sheep, goats, llamas and alpaca. We saw families in donkey driven carts headed home. We saw no evidence of any modern convenience. This is how they have lived for centuries. We were awestruck by the simplicity of it all and at the beautiful scenery that surrounded us. We passed through Lari which is the starting point for the treks which lead to the source of the Amazon River, a spring at 16,800 feet (5,120 m), where snowmelt from the volcano Mismi bursts from a rock face. Although we did not make it to the end-of-the-road settlement of Madrigal we did see the Fortaleza de Chimpa, a reconstructed mountaintop citadel that looks down over the hamlet. Passing pre-Inca ruins throughout the valley, this bucolic setting was ideal for taking in the slow unfettered traditional lifestyle of the people. At about 3:30, we very reluctantly turned the car around so we would be back at the lodge in Cabanconde before dark. Driving back as the sun was setting over the canyon, bathing it in reds and yellows and orange, we were again awestruck by the beauty of this amazing place. No wonder it is the third visited area in Peru but besides the crowd at the condor lookout, we felt isolated from city life. Ah yes, and tomorrow we will visit the condors again before going home – to Arequipa.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Andean Condors of Colca Canyon – Peru.

Colca Canyon’s most famous attraction is the morning “show” put on by the resident Andean Condors and we had been told that no matter what else you do, this is a not-to-be-missed scene. We had asked at the lodge and been told that between eight and ten were the best times which sounded late to us, so we plan on being at the viewpoint “Cruz Del Condor” by 7:30 or so. Following an early morning breakfast, we loaded up Winston and drove the 8 miles back towards Chivay to the viewpoint. There were several groups of camera toting tourists’ already in place and we were told the condors had been flying since around 6:30. Darn! Right now there isn’t one in sight and we hoped we were not too late. In the space of the next hour or so, the people at the several viewing platforms swelled to more than one hundred which was not surprising to us, as we knew many buses come to the canyon everyday for this one event. The Andean Condor has been the focus of worldwide conservation efforts and the condor population of South America is unfortunately dwindling, but here the canyon has become a fertile breeding and nesting ground and their numbers are steadily on the increase. There are no railings and the floor of the canyon is 3,960 ft (1,200m) below the rim where we are standing. For someone who suffers from vertigo, it was quite an experience for me and I was hoping I would not have to get too close to the edge to see them. I didn’t need to worry. With a wing span of 10 and half feet (3.2 meters), these birds are huge and came oh so close to us. Around 8:15, the giant birds gradually starting emerging from crevices in the canyon and slowly began circling the canyon walls searching for the thermal updrafts. Soaring ever so gracefully above our heads searching for carrion on the canyon floor far below us they use the rising thermals which occur as the air warms. They hunt in the morning or late afternoon and watching them is an unforgettable experience. They were so close to us and flew both solitary and in groups, it was truly an awesome sight. At one point there were as many as eight of the Andean condors swooping and gliding majestically above the steep canyon walls using the thermal uplifts that rise from Colca’s depths. We saw the last group of condors fly around 9:20. Some people who came later where intensely disappointed and Tom and I decide tomorrow morning we were coming back for another “show” and we will be here no later than 6:15. While we watched for condors, we spotted another notable bird, the Giant Colibri. As the largest member of the hummingbird family it is relatively big for a hummingbird but we were looking at condors! There was the inevitable collection of small stalls set up selling all the traditional handicrafts available and other vendors selling drinks and snacks. A “tourist trap”, absolutely. The viewpoint is invariably packed with camera-clicking tourists between 8 and 10 in the morning when the condors are most active, but like Machu Picchu, this is an essential pilgrimage and worth every clumsily swung backpack, every jostle and push and yes, every vendor plying their wares. We will be back, same place tomorrow morning!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Puno to Colca Canyon – Peru

After two exceedingly frustrating days at the border trying to enter Bolivia, we have given up. We had already delayed our trip so the agent in Arequipa could get all the paperwork for the rental car to enter Bolivia. We first tried crossing at Cocacabana, only to have the custom people tell us we needed to cross at Desaguadero, which is two hours further. This is without doubt, the most chaotic, corrupt border we have ever encountered. As we waited we watched many people give the border patrol money to pass and even though we were prepared to pay the outrageous cost of $160.00 US dollars each way, we still could not get the paperwork advanced through their “system”. On the second day, by 4 pm, we had had enough. Even then, we had to pay $20.00 for them to give us our paperwork back. Bolivia is still on our list of places to visit but we have abandoned the idea for now. It has just been too much hassle. Instead we fall back on Plan B, which is to travel to the Colca Canyon region. We spend one more night in Puno while I make reservations. There is a lodge in Cabanaconde which sounds nice and is pet friendly. Leaving Juliaca was a police checkpoint. They pulled us over – not unusual, they ask for Tom’s license, also not unusual then… they tell us that the license in not legal in Peru and it is $100.00 US fine! Huh. We said “no”. They reiterated saying the fine was one hundred dollars. We stood our ground and said “No, we won’t pay you”. I pulled out the paperwork for the motorhome and told them we had entered Peru, been approved for driving and had been given the temporary import permit. I told them Tom’s license was legal. Eventually after about 15 minutes, they waved us on. What is wrong with this area in Peru? Do they think that they are so far from Lima that the rules don’t apply to them? I later did report both encounters, the one at the border and the checkpoint at Juliaca on a government website, but I’m not sure what good it will do. We shook it off and determined that it was not going to spoil our trip and settled in to enjoy the countryside. No passable roads existed into the canyon until the 1940s, when a road was completed to serve the silver and copper mines of the region. More roads were built in the 1970s and 1980s by the Majes Hydroelectric Project, a program to divert water from the Colca River to irrigate crops in the Majes region. However only parts are paved and the rest is a dirt and gravel road which in some areas was little more than a narrow trail cut into the side of the mountains. Slowly we made our way up the steep, winding passes before traversing the high plains of the vast, barren Reserva Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve. While crossing through the Patopampa Pass we reached the highest elevation achieved so far, 16035 feet or 5,010 meters above sea level. At this altitude most of the farming has been replaced by the raising of livestock; primarily llamas and alpaca with a few sheep and cattle thrown in. We also glimpse herds of the wild and very beautiful vicuna. From this high point, we gradually start our descent into Colca Canyon towards the main town of Chivay. Here we got our first glimpse of Colca’s manmade terraced fields stacked up like gigantic staircases on the steep canyon slopes. Many of the terraces date back to Inca times and most are still tended to by local farmers who grow crops such as potatoes, barley, beans and quinoa. Chivay is located at the midpoint of the Colca Valley and is the main entrance to the national park. After stopping at the guard house, paying the entrance fee, we get a map and ask directions to Cabanaconde. With our frequent stops along the way for photographs, bird watching and bathroom breaks for Winston, it is getting late and we want to be at the lodge before dark. From Chivay to Cabanaconde is about 40 miles but with the road conditions it will take us about two and a half hours, passing by a series of small villages. Cabanaconde sits on the canyon’s rim and is a smaller version of Chivay, getting only about one fifth of the tourist traffic. The streets in town are narrow and completely dug up. It is a mess with piles of dirt off to one side. We are later told that the streets are being prepared for cobblestones. So, anyone coming in about three years will have excellent streets but probably a lot more tourists. After checking into the lodge, we discover we are the only guests. Our room is lovely, opening to a gorgeous walled in garden, large enough for Winston to roam and be happy. We are asked what we would like for dinner and what time we want to eat. It is now almost seven, so we request dinner for eight which gives us enough time to clean up, walk and feed Winston and then walk him again. The dining room is set apart from the main lodge and has a beautiful table set up for us inside. Javier who assisted with our check in and luggage, is a man wearing many hats. He has changed into a tuxedo and will be our waiter also. He gets us seated and goes to check on dinner. We have both ordered the fresh catch of the day with rice and veggies. Returning, he brings a bottle of wine and generously pours two glasses. We toast. Memories of our earlier frustrating encounters slip away and are just that; memories. We are hungry and looking forward to dinner. In addition, we need to be up early in the morning, we have Andean Condors to seek out.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Lake Titicaca, Peru - Photographs

Coy and paste the link to google plus for photographs of Lake Titicaca. Best viewed in slideshow mode so you can read the captions.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Chullpas of Sillustani, Peru

For our final day in the Puno area, we take a break from the beauty of Lake Titicaca to get off the beaten track and visit one of the archaeological gems of the altiplano, Sillustani, a pre-Incan burial ground on the shores of Lake Umayo. The ruins which are thought to be about 900 years old aren’t Incan but Colla who were part of the Pukara culture, an Aymara-speaking war faring tribe that buried its nobility with food and their belongings in funerary towers called chullpas. They were eventually conquered by the Inca in the 15th century but they left behind the tombs, the only vestiges of the Colla people. Leaving Puno driving north, the high-altitude plains of southern Peru are a gently rolling sea of low grasses, simple homesteads, sheep, alpaca, vicuna and broad vistas that seem to stretch on forever. Some of the very simple stone homesteads looked interesting and we thought maybe we could stop at one on the way back and check it out, offering the family a little money for their time and inconvenience. Then, after a quick turn in the road towers spring up from the broad slope of a hill. The Chullpas of Sillustani. While chullpas are not unique to Sillustani and are found across the altiplano scattered from Peru in the north down through Bolivia and into Chile, this site is considered to be the best and most preserved example of them. We slowly make our way down a dirt trail towards the main entrance to the ruins. The descendents of the Aymara who built the chullpas still live in Sillustani and assist in the management of their ancestor’s tombs. In fact all the people we met during our time here appeared to be indigenous. After giving Winston a long walk through a nearby meadow, the alpaca were curious of him and at one point there was a distinct “stare-down” between him and what appeared to be a female with a young baby before Winston turned away and concentrated on something else. Never mess with a mom and her baby! We then made the car as shady and cool as possible before leaving him to nap and for us to climb the hill leading to the tombs. The Sillustani burial site is an amazing complex made up by huge cylindrical tombs, scattered up, across and down a hillside. The architecture of the site is often considered more complex than typical Incan architecture. In contrast with the Inca, who used stones of varying shapes, the Colla used even, rectangular edges, although some during the 15th century were redressed with Inca stone work. It is also one of the very few places where there are so many different kinds of chullpas. The wide variety of building styles at Sillustani includes towers made of cut and uncut stone, some that are covered with adobe, and both square and round foundations. The only openings to the buildings face east, where it was believed the Sun was reborn by Mother Earth each day and some of the tombs also have various animal shapes and icons carved into the exterior. The insides of the tombs were built to hold entire groups of people, most likely extended families of the Aymara. Each body was placed in the fetal position and accompanied by food such as llama and guinea pig, plus clay pots and other useful tools for daily life. Most mummy bundles indicate burial in a fetal position and although the bodies were not intentionally mummified, due to the dry environment created by the closed tomb, many survived for centuries. Unfortunately no bodies remain there today, most were grave robbed centuries ago and those recovered from the site are housed in a museum nearby. What the chullpas meant to the people who built them remains debatable. Some researchers think they served to mark a group's territory or announce its prestige to neighbors. In the case of Sillustani, archaeologists believe it was a burial and pilgrimage site for the Aymara over hundreds of years, making it a sacred place where relatives journeyed to visit their ancestors in their tower homes. The site is beautiful set on a peninsula that juts into Lake Umayo, a small offshoot of Lake Titicaca, so it is easy to see why this theory may hold some truth. Given the high elevation to start with, the slow and tortuous climb up the hill to the chullpas was as breathtaking as the views from the top. Lake Umayo glistens in the afternoon sun, herds of vicuna and alpaca graze and the lake is amass with a variety of birds including three different species of flamingo. On the way back to the main road we stopped at one of the homesteads belonging to a family with two young children. They cheerfully posed with us for photographs and showed us around their simple home. Their primary activities are weaving textiles, growing potatoes and raising guinea pigs (cuy), which they explained are served on special occasions for the Peruvians. They also owned a guanaco which was extremely tame, a llama for milk, and several alpaca and an alpaca/vicuna mixto from which they both used and sold the wool. The man had a weaving machine and he showed us how he hand wove small rugs from alpaca. We bought one from him since they would not accept any money from us. On the drive back to Puno, we commented yet again on about the friendliness of the people and the simple yet seemingly rewarding lifestyle they maintain. Yet another lesson in simplicity for us.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Floating Islands of the Uros (Islas de los Uros), Peru.

Of the more than 30 islands on Lake Titicaca, probably the best known are the Islas de los Uros or the Uros Floating Islands. This group of 40 or so (they are constantly changing) artificial islands made of totora reed are the home of the Uros tribe, which pre-dates the Incan civilization. The Uro islanders are believed to have originally stemmed from the Oruro area in Bolivia and to have developed their unique way of life in resistance against the conquering Collas, Incas and later the Spanish. The purpose of the island settlements was originally defensive and if a threat arose from the mainland, they could be easily moved. Nowadays, these islands have become a major tourist attraction for Peru, with boat excursions from Puno. Before we arrived in Puno, we had debated about whether or not to visit Los Uros. Most guidebooks list it as one of the main thing to see when visiting Lake Titicaca. When reading about it online, the tours sounded more like a big show put on for tourists, almost to the extent of being fake. Some comments mentioned the way of life being portrayed as not being true to the way the Uro people live today, with families wearing traditional clothing while tourists are present but changing back into their jeans as soon as you go. That being said, they are floating islands and definitely not something you see every day. So we decided to make the most of our stay on Lake Titicaca and take the local ferry boat to visit the floating islands of Los Uros. After making sure Winston was exercised and settled in for a nap, we caught a taxi to the small port where all boats for the islands depart from. The hotel would have booked a tour for us but we like to do things at our own speed and had read that arranging a ride to the islands was easy. And it really was simple. With only a little negotiation, a 3 hour trip for a mere $10.00 per person, we quickly were aboard a two-story boat and headed to the islands with about 15 other companions consisting of tourists both Peruvian and foreign, and locals making their commute home. Sitting on the second story of the boat (basically the roof with a rail), allowed us to take in the beauty and tranquility of the lake as we left the sounds of the city behind. After a smooth 30-minute ride, passing several locals on small boats traversing the marsh-like surroundings of the lake, we were greeted upon entering the community by a large straw watch tower. As we landed on the first of two islands we would visit, it was an interesting sensation walking on the reeds, which felt spongy in some places and almost bouncy in others. Suddenly it dawned on me and I realized that the only thing that supported me was merely a floating mass of reeds and dirt on Lake Titicaca in Peru. I was on the floating islands of Los Uros. This small piece of land where we were all standing, approximately 100 square feet, looked as if someone had wildly spread straw all over the ground, giving it a rustic barnyard look. Scattered around this tiny island were small straw huts serving as sleeping quarters, kitchen and communal living spaces. All around me were the rest of the islands of Los Uros, very similar to the one we were on, whose inhabitants were now going about the day’s tasks. All of this was surrounded by the enormity and beauty of Lake Titicaca. After being greeted by the family that lived there, we were given an explanation, complete with props, on how the islands are made. The islands, and the locals’ famous canoe-like boats, are made from dried totora reeds that grow in abundance above the lake’s surface. Through a careful anchoring system of ropes and sticks, the islands are practically immobile – unless a natural disaster or family dispute strikes. They constantly add new reeds and straw to the islands to keep them floating, as the reeds at the bottom rot away with time. They have to add a new layer of reeds every couple of weeks. The island's 300 inhabitants continue to speak the Aymara language, an ancient language from their ancestors and they still fashion the totora reed into many products, from huts to canoes to souvenirs with many of their traditional customs and crafts remaining unchanged. Depending on the size of the island, three to ten Uros families live on each of them. Each island has a well defined hierarchy and each has a president. They do have a school system on one of the floating islands and the children row their reed boats to school. To relieve themselves, tiny 'outhouse' islands are near the main islands. The ground root absorbing the waste. Before the 1960’s, most of these families had little to no contact with the outside world. Now many rely on tourism brought from Puno. The tour boats to Los Uros are on a rotation system of which island is visited, so that each family has an opportunity to share with tourists and sell their locally crafted souvenirs. After the small presentation, we were free to walk around and take photos, and had the opportunity to buy handcrafts. The reviews of Trip Advisor suggested we would be almost forced to buy something, but that wasn’t the case. We did buy a small hand woven tapestry but we were not pressured into any purchases. The trip to the second island could either be made on the boat we arrived on or via one of the traditional totura reed canoes for which there was an additional charge. However again I correct Trip Advisor who many claim this was not really an option. Not true. There were several people on our boat who elected not to pay the additional amount ($3.00) to ride in the canoe and there was again no pressure to make them. Tom and I, of course, paid the money just for the experience. On the way over, the children from the island sang to us in about 3 or 4 different languages. Very sweet and very cute. At the second island, we had the opportunity to buy lunch or more handicrafts, chat with the locals and learn about their methods of trout farming. I can only reiterate that walking on these floating islands, as your feet sink several inches into the reeds with each step, is an incredible experience. After saying a fond goodbye to the family of islanders, it was then time to leave for the return trip back to the mainland. As we slowly motored our way past these floating islands, past the reeds that support this tiny community in so many ways, I thought about the Uros. Overall, I didn’t find the experience as “showy” or “fake” as I was expecting based on the comments I had read. I didn’t feel that we were being presented anything fake, and it was an interesting day. I’m not sure if this is because we didn’t do an organized tour with a guide, but I think taking the boat over by ourselves was the best option anyway. After visiting two of these islands, talking to locals, purchasing a few handicrafts, and riding on one of the local reed boats, I was left yearning to learn more of this culture. Because of their simple and precarious lifestyle, the Incas had thought them worth little and accordingly taxed them very little. Yet the Uros, with their basic reed homes outlasted the mighty Incas with their huge stone temples and mountain-top enclaves. A basic lesson in simplicity.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Lake Titicaca, Peru

What most people know about Lake Titicaca is its name and little else. Pristine and vast, the lake sits majestically at 12,500 feet above sea level backed by the snowcapped peaks of Bolivia's Cordillera Real range. It is the highest navigable lake in the world and South America's largest fresh water lake, covering 3,200 square miles that extend across the border between Peru and Bolivia. Five major river systems and more than 20 smaller ones feed into it and the lake has 41 islands, some of which are densely populated. Since 2000 Lake Titicaca has experienced constantly receding water levels. Between April and November 2009 alone the water level has sunk by 81 cm (32 in) and has now reached the lowest level since 1949. This drop is caused by shortened rainy seasons and the diminishing glaciers feeding the tributaries of the lake. Water pollution is also an increasing concern because as cities in the Titicaca watershed grow, they sometimes outpace solid waste and the sewage treatment infrastructure. The lake is surrounded by the barren landscape of the Altiplano, a high plain that starts at the northern border of Peru and stretches south through the Andes, ending at the world's highest volcano, the Ojos del Salado. One of seventeen remaining ancient lakes in the world, the lake is thought to be three million years old, a remnant of Lago Ballivian, an inland sea that disappeared amid the volcanic shifts and eruptions that formed the Altiplano. For centuries, Lake Titicaca has held great religious significance and mythology abounds. Pre-Incan peoples believed in the Sun Deity and that the sun itself had originally emerged from the lake. According to the mythology, this is the place where the world was created when the god Viracocha came out of the lake and created the sun, the stars and the first people. For the sun-worshipping Incas, it was considered the birthplace of mankind, beginning with the first emperor, Manco Capac. Considered a sacred place for the Inca civilization, the Incan mythology states that the first Inca king, Manco Capac, was born here. As we drive in the early morning to the southern end of the lake and the swirling mists rise from the lake and hover over the Cordillera Real, it is easy to imagine how these myths were started. The lake, in parts densely filled with reeds, is a deep sapphire blue and shimmers in the ever increasing sunshine. The mountain range on the Bolivian side towers in the distance, the volcanic peaks capped with snow slowly begin to emerge from the morning mist and gradually show their reflection in the mirror like surface of the lake. There are groups of indigenous peoples preparing their canoes for a day of fishing whilst even more are working in the fields. All are dressed in the costumes that their ancestors have worn for centuries. It is a bygone age. Many of these people live with no power, no television, no so-called modern amenities and yet they do not appear unhappy with the situation. Tom and I speculate that maybe it is because this is all they have known and yet, we also know that many of them, especially the islanders choose this lifestyle and most of those do not even want any contact with the tourists that descend year round on their little corner of the world. South of Puno, several small towns and hamlets dot the lakeshore, Ichu, Chucuito, Llave, Juli and finally Pomata with it’s totally out of proportion, behemoth Templo de Santiago Apostolo, built dramatically on top of a hill. The church is like the proverbial elephant in the corner, you just can’t miss it. From here is the border town of Desaguadero but that is for another day. So, we turn the car around and make our way back to Puno, stopping several times to walk Winston and admire the amazing views of Lake Titicaca as the sun slowly started to set.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Arequipa to Puno and Lake Titicaca – Peru

After our return from Machu Picchu, our next venture in exploring Peru is Lake Titicaca. We have decided to rent a car and take Winston with us. This involves the search for pet-friendly hotels but since the larger town of Puno will be our base, we found several that would allow pets. At $20.00 per night, we settled on one of the less expensive hostels, Hostel El Manzano since we definitely splurged in Machu Picchu. We are also hoping to cross the border into Bolivia and spent a few extra days in Arequipa waiting for the rental company to get the paperwork together and notarized. We were told we would have to contact an agent at the border in Desaguadero to help us get across, so we can only hope. This will be our third attempt to get into Bolivia and at this point we are ambivalent about it. If it happens, great, if not we will see Lake Titicaca from the Peruvian side and then go to Colca Canyon for a couple of days on the way back. From Arequipa it takes about 6 hours to get to Puno and we are traveling over the Andes at the highest elevations we have taken so far. Arequipa sits in the Andes at about 8,200 feet (2,560 meters) and Lake Titicaca is at 13,300 feet (4,150 meters), breath-taking in more ways than one. At that elevation we know the air is getting really thin and the simplest of activities become heart pounding with the possibility of nausea and headaches. We are hoping that having lived in Arequipa for the past month we will have acclimatized somewhat and not experience too many problems. We will leave the motorhome at Hostel La Mercedes and after getting some travel information from Ursula, we have the car loaded and Winston ecstatically panting at the opportunity to come along with us is settled on the back seat with his pad and pillow. After leaving Arequipa with its two towering volcanoes, El Misti and Chacani behind we turn north and begin our steady climb over high mountain passes, past incredible snow capped cone shaped volcanoes and shimmering Andean lakes. The day is gorgeous, sunny with a little breeze. We pass the local wildlife, camelids – llama, alpaca and at higher altitude the rare and beautiful vicuna. At first we could not tell them apart but they all have a subtle but distinctly different appearance. Guanaco, which we had first seen in Argentina are the most common and seem to range over a variety of elevations. They are the largest, with long necks, legs and a slim body. They do not vary in color being light brown and white. Llamas also have long necks but are smaller and are usually white or cream color. Alpaca are well, they are funny looking. They have a more squished face and their coat, unless it has been recently sheared is long and curly. They also come in a myriad of colors, all shades of brown, white, grey, cream and black. Then there are the vicunas. Similar to a llama but much more delicate looking and graceful they live at the highest elevations. Almost hunted to extinction due to their prized wool, they are protected and only in the past few years have the herds increased. Now, the gathering of their wool is state monitored and sells for hundreds of dollars. I had tried on a vicuna coat in Arequipa. It was gorgeous, softer than any cashmere or alpaca that I had felt and supple and warm and….$7,000.00. Men sweaters are around $900.00 and even a simple scarf sells for about $500.00. A little out of our price range, we were happy with alpaca. Seeing the vicuna in small herds on the high pampas was a testament to how, given a little forethought and effort, we can save a species. While Tom and I talked about the animals, Winston was content to bark at them every now and again. Given our frequent stops for photographs and to let Winston stretch his legs the projected 6 hour drive was in reality for us about 8 hours, but that was okay. We are in no real hurry. Although Puno is the largest town on Lake Titicaca, it has the appearance of being about 50 years behind the curve. A few cars are on the streets but small mopeds predominate, many converted into taxis. Another popular taxi mode was converted bicycles which Tom and I decided not to use. Our combined weight would have been too much for the poor cyclist, besides they looked a little flimsy. El Manzano was almost exactly how we pictured it but a little nicer. Our room was large and clean with plenty of thick blankets for the freezing nights ahead. There was an attractive grass and flower filled courtyard for Winston to roam and check out and the staff were friendly and knowledgeable. All for $20.00 a night, breakfast included. Perfect for us for the next three days and ideal for Winston. Now we need to see the lake.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Final night in Cuzco, Peru

It is late and we have dinner reservations at Cicciolinos Restaurant at 8:30pm. We checked back into this amazing hotel to a chorus of “Had we had a good time?” “Welcome back” and of course “How was Machu Picchu?” And we gave the same replies Amazing, Magnificent and Outstanding. At their suggestion, they also telephoned the restaurant and put our reservations back half an hour to nine o’clock, giving us a little breathing space. Tom sprang another request on me. When we had shopped here on Tuesday, the shop where he bought a sweater and gifts for the kids, had these gorgeous hand woven scarves. The best quality we have seen but a little expensive at about $70.00 each. He wants to buy the two we both liked plus he wants an Inca hat. You know the ones, with the ear flaps and the strings that hang down. I argue the cost but he is adamant. We haven’t seen the same quality anywhere, we really liked the design, we can afford it etc. etc. Since we don’t have time to discuss it further I suggest we take a cab as time is passing and one thing we don’t have right now is spare time. Needless to say, I am now the proud owner of a scarf and a hat and so is Tom. Given that, we arrived at Cicciolinos about 10 minutes late and given our reception on arrival, we should have left and found another place to eat, but we didn’t. This is supposedly the top restaurant in Cuzco and if our being late was a problem, they should have told us. Instead, the hostess gave us ominous looks and told us to wait. We were then shown to our table but no-one came. Not to say hello, not to offer us menus, nothing. After about 15 minutes, I was getting annoyed and cranky from a busy four days. When a couple got seated at a table nearby and were immediately offered menus and a drink order, I confess I lost it. “This is bulls*t” I said to my table fairly quietly. I try never to cuss either in public or when really angry as I think it undermines whatever point you want to make. Although Mariano and Marcela agreed, Tom blocked my way to stop me from springing from my seat. He could tell I was fuming and since no-one still approached us, finally said “You want out?” I nodded and he moved out of the way. I walked over to the wait station and our server knew it was trouble and she also knew why. She told me she had “forgotten” our table and “did not see us sitting there”. I simply told her that we had sat for now 20 minutes, she had passed our table several times so had to have seen us, she had sat another table and had already taken their order and I wanted to see the manager. I was pretty loud and several tables glanced over at the commotion. We should have left. We didn’t. Someone did come over to the table and apologized but we did not think it was the manager. Needless to say, our food was mediocre and the service barely improved. In fact, by dessert time, they told us they did not have the desserts we selected left and there was no offer of any other. Marcela cancelled her espresso and we asked for the check. Their actions seemed petty and we were not sure if it stemmed from our being late. But this is supposed to be the best restaurant in Cuzco and if that were so, we should have been told from the outset. It was a pity but we resolved not to let the one bad experience mar our near perfect four days. Unfortunately by the time we got back to the hotel it was after eleven and the bar was closed so Marcela never did get her espresso. We were also really tired and we have flights in the morning. I can only add that the breakfast buffet was spectacular and given all the fabulous food we ate in our four day trip, would forget the one bad but would never recommend Cicciolinos to anyone. Go to Inka Grill when in Cusco. We all went to the airport together and though our flight was supposed to leave first, it was delayed two hours. Oh, the joys of flying! We said a fond farewell to Marcela and Mariano as we are not sure when we will see them again but think it might be in Ecuador next year. If not, it won’t be too long as we are all very fond of each other and we really have so much fun traveling with them. Now, we need to get back to our exuberant hound, who after five days will give us a welcome fit for a king, perhaps even an Inca king. And take with us some astonishing memories of Machu Picchu.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Machu Picchu, Peru - Photographs

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Machu Picchu, Peru

The Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, as the ruins are formally known, was declared by UNESCO as a World Cultural and Natural Heritage Site in 1983. Subsequently it has been named as one of the seven wonders of the modern world and is a world renowned archaeological site. Having asked at the lodge, we had been told that the best place to watch the sun rise was at an area known as the guardhouse and knowing we were going to be exploring the ruins for the whole day, we arranged wakeup calls for 5 am so we will not be rushed. We had also been told that the park opens at 6am, sun rise is around 6:45 and it is a 25 minute hike to the guardhouse. Okey, dokey! Our plan is to hike up to watch the sun rise, then return to the lodge for breakfast and to checkout and then reenter the park in time for Tom, Marcela and Mariano to hike Huayna Picchu at 10 am. After a fortifying cup of coffee, we line up to enter through the main gate. It seems as though, of the 2,000 tickets issued for park admittance, a good number have the same idea we do for seeing the rising sun and everyone had the same reaction on passing through the entrance and reaching the stone passage that forms the entry into Machu Picchu itself. Nothing, not a photo, not a description in a brochure, not seeing other Incan ruins, quite prepares you for the awesome feeling of seeing the citadel for the first time It appears as though the city is molded into the mountains, blending itself into the hillside creating a stone walled paradise. It is magnificent. Situated at 7,200 feet above sea level and nestled on a small hilltop in the Andes, the majestic city soars above the Urubamba Valley below. After taking a few (dozen) photographs, we head up the stone steps that gains access to the Guard House. As the name suggests, this is at the top of a hill overlooking the ruins past the Funerary Rock Hut which it is believed to be the place where the Incan royalty were mummified and on to the vantage point offering a dramatic view of the whole complex. The hike up the long flights of twisting, rigid stone stairs that lead to the viewpoint is arduous but well worth the effort. Considered to be one of the most photogenic spots at Machu Picchu, we are rewarded by some spectacular views that will not soon be forgotten. With the sun rising over the Andes which seem to encapsulate us on all side and slowly clearing the swirling mist from nearby mountain peaks, the sheer isolation of the area is almost overwhelming. Time feels suspended and everything else ceases to exist as my gaze travels over the citadel comprising of temples, buildings and terraces that at one time was thought to be home to about 1,200 people. Machu Picchu was unknown until its relatively recent discovery in 1911 when archaeologist, Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it when exploring in the area. Even after Bingham’s discovery, the city remained inaccessible until the 1940’s when an expedition working at the site discovered the now famous Inca Trail which cuts through the mountains and leads from the citadel to the Sacred Valley. Due to its isolation from the rest of Peru, living in the area full time would require traveling great distances just to reach the nearest village and because of this reason it is theorized that this was possibly a retreat for the Incan rulers. Tom breaks through my reverie and reminds me that we need to get back for breakfast and to check out as they have a mountain to climb at 10 o’clock. Yes, a mountain. Huayna Picchu to be exact. On every picture of Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu is that big peak behind the citadel to the right and since it is at the farthest end of the park, we will need to keep moving. We eat breakfast and say farewell to the Sanctuary Lodge. They assure us not to worry about our luggage and they will be sure it gets taken into town to the Inkaterra, where we will be staying tonight. It is then back through the stone entryway, gaze once more over the citadel and then make our way along the terraces, past the main plaza to the meeting place for the Huayna Picchu excursion. This involves more climbing up and down countless stone stairways and it is difficult for me to stay concentrated on moving given the views we have. But I know that once they leave for the climb I am going to have plenty of time to walk and take photographs. Like I have mentioned, Machu Picchu only issues tickets for 2,000 visitors per day but Huayna Picchu only allow 200 per day, making these tickets much sought after. Now, in Lonely Planet and other guide books, Huayna Picchu is listed as a moderate climb, steep but not difficult which should take about two hours round trip. There is no recommendations other than don’t try it if you have vertigo problems, which is the only reason I am not going. As we make plans to meet up later, they eye the mountain. It is very tall and very steep. “I think it might take us three hours there and back, not two”, Marcela observed. So we agree to meet at one o’clock either here at the base or at one of the huts that have been restored with thatched roofs and benches. Although Machu Picchu is huge, its layout is surprisingly straightforward and there was no question that we would miss be able to miss one another. I wish them luck, ask Tom to take lots of photos and I leave them to do my own exploring. I first head back to the main plaza. The Central Plaza of Machu Picchu is surrounded by roofless stone structures and steep terraces and is like a green oasis amid the Inca stone buildings. At the lower end is a labyrinth of cells, passageways and niches extending above and below ground and I make my way down narrow, steep steps to the main attraction in this part of the ruins known as the “Prison Sector”.. The Temple of the Condor which has a carving of the head of a condor above a rock pile is a breathtaking example of Inca stonemasonry. A natural rock formation that the Inca skillfully shaped into the outspread wings of a condor in flight. On the floor of the temple is a rock carved in the shape of the condor's head and neck feathers, completing the figure of a three-dimensional bird. Historians speculate that the head of the condor was used as a sacrificial altar and under the temple is a small cave that when first discovered contained a mummy. Leaving this sector, I make my way through the other not-to-be-missed areas of the citadel. Temple of the Three Windows, Group of the Three Doorways, Temple of the Sun and Intiwatana, the observatory before finding my path back to the Guard House. Wandering around, up, down and through the citadel, it is easy for me to appreciate the superb craftsmanship of the Inca, masonry with its large stone blocks polished smooth and joined perfectly. They used no mortar to hold their walls in place; relying instead on precisely cut stones, geometry, and exacting joints in the corners and foundations. All their structures, like Machu Picchu can withstand time and even multiple earthquakes without damage. It is almost one o’clock. I have roamed the city and climbed countless stone steps. Thankfully, I find a bench at one of the huts to wait for the others to arrive from their climb. My view looks out over the terraces to Intiwatana and back to the main square. A small herd of llamas and alpacas graze on the grass and seem to be doing a good job keeping it efficiently mowed. Up to my left I can also see the start of the Inca Trail, a dirt footpath winding up through the Andes and as I gaze across the terraces, I fall back into my reverie from this morning and the history of Machu Picchu. In Incan times any person entering to Cuzco and the Sacred Valley was greeted with the phrase “Ama sua, ama quella, ama lulla” – “Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t be lazy”, which sums up what was important to this co-operative society. Everyone in the Incan community with the exceptions of priests and royalty was required to work on projects like roads, irrigation ditches, aqueducts and buildings. The philosophy being, that if all participated they would all take care of the finished product. Built between 1438 and 1493, the construction of this amazing city was laid out according to a very rigorous plan and comprises one of the most spectacular creations of the Inca Empire. Separated into three areas - agricultural, urban, and religious - the structures are arranged so that the function of the buildings matches the form of their surroundings. The lower areas contain buildings occupied by the Inca themselves, agricultural terracing and aqueducts take advantage of the natural slopes and the most important religious areas are located at the crest of the hill, overlooking the lush Urubamba Valley. Thousands of stone steps connect everything, steps that at the end of the day will leave your quadriceps throbbing and your feet aching, no matter how many step classes you’ve taken! But where are the others? It is now 2 o’clock and I am starting to get concerned. Only there is another lady sitting who is also waiting for her family to return from the climb. They arrive first and tell me yes, they have seen Tom, Marcela and Mariano on the trail and yes, it was much more difficult than anticipated. They leave to get lunch and finally I see my group in the distance, walking very slowly. The first thing they said was “that was horrendous”, the second was “we are hungry”. Over lunch they told me about it. Steep, stone steps lead the way to the top of the peak, not straight up but up and down over ridges: a small cave and tunnel that you had to crawl through half way up, very narrow steps cut out of huge boulders with a sheer drop on one end and sometimes a rope rail to hold on to but most of the time nothing but air. At the top there are more Inca ruins and a plaque and some great views of the citadel below. Marcela told me she came back down, crab crawling on her rear end, Tom made it down by descending backward as you would a ladder and they told me some people just plain panicked at the top and needed guidance. Most of all they reiterated how hard it actually was and that the view from the top almost makes it worthwhile. Tom, who is bothered by his knees and shoulder, told me he was done for the day but Marcela and Mariano game fully said they were good for a little more climbing stone steps. Leaving Tom at the same spot I had waited overlooking the citadel, we set off along the terraces towards the Temple of the Sun and Intiwatana. We marvel at the architecture, the buildings, the number of stone steps there is to climb. We go slowly. The sun is starting to sink over the mountains and the place takes on a more ethereal quality. Only a few people still remain and a quiet solitude passes over everything. We see little clusters of rabbits emerging from cracks and crevices. But not rabbits, they have a tail like a rodent. We found out later they are vizcacha and are actually related to the chinchilla family. And we watch a couple of Quechan men herd the llamas and alpacas into huts for the night. We had been here at sun rise and we were still here as it sets. I will never forget today or Machu Picchu. There are many places that do not live up to the “hype” but here is not one of those. With the sun lowering over the Andes and mist settling in for the night, with the light growing dim and casting long shadows over the buildings, this place is magical.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Cusco - Aguas Calientes, Peru - Photos

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Friday, October 4, 2013

Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes)

Taking the bus back down the mountain on the dizzying hairpin turning road was nerve racking but we were so tired from our day we barely notice as a gorgeous rainbow arced over the mountains. All we were hoping for was that our luggage was at the Inkaterra and our rooms were ready. We were not disappointed and within just a short time from arriving, Joaquin the General Manager had us checked in and shown to our suites, the luggage already there. We made dinner reservations for 7:30 and went to shower and rest. Not for too long though. Complimentary pisco sours were waiting for us in the lounge before dinner. The Inkaterra Lodge is beautiful, set on 15 acres beside the River Urubamba in a veritable forest of lush flowering landscape and trees. On the way to our pisco sours, we stopped off at their Ecolodge to check on the variety of tours they give around the property. After a discussion over cocktails Marcela, Mariano and I agree to get up early for a 6am bird-watching tour. Tom said in no uncertain terms that he was not getting up early again. I, on the other hand, don’t want to miss anything. Unbelievably, Inkaterra is also home to the Andean Spectacled Bear Sanctuary. A rescue group designed to help rehabilitate the endangered bears back into the wild. Although the tours are free, we hastily agreed to the requested donation of 30 soles per person (about 10USD), which goes to the sanctuary and helps defray costs. Dinner was fabulous, of course we were hungry but the food on this trip has been very good and it was an early night. Everyone is exhausted with sore muscles. Next morning arrived bright and early and although there had been some rain during the night, it was dry and the sun was peeking through the clouds. We could hear the birds singing in the nearby trees and hoped that was a good omen for sighting. In addition to the three of us, there was another couple of Georgia and we did indeed see a myriad of birds including the very shy and elusive cock-of-the-rock, albeit the female which is slightly less colorful than the male. This is an Andean bird which is also the national bird of Peru. From there we went to have a quick breakfast before visiting the bear sanctuary. Just as we were finishing up, Tom joined us but still is in no mood to walk through the property to the sanctuary. He is still sore and a little grumpy from too many early mornings. We leave him to eat and join up with our guide for the 15 minute walk through to the far end of the lodge’s property. They currently have 4 bears but in a week or so, plan on sending two, a pair of 4 year old sisters, to their other facility which is the final step before releasing them into the wild. It seems as though their program is quite successful and we wished them the best. Arriving back at the main lodge, we regroup and talk about what to do with our remaining time in the mountains. We decide to go and explore the tiny pueblo, do a little shopping and have lunch before our train back to Cuzco, which leaves at 3:30pm. We are again assured to not worry about our luggage and they will get it to the train station for us prior to leaving. The town is small, steeply built into the mountainside and consisting really of only two main streets. Water from the snowmelt cascades down an aqueduct running through the center of town before gushing into the Rio Urubamba and the only way to cross one of the streets is via a network of iron bridges. On the other street, the railway connecting the Pueblo with Cuzco runs down its center so crossing that street meant keeping an eye open for trains passing. Very interesting. We found the town square with a small wood-framed church and an imposing statue of the Incan ruler Capac. Walking back, Tom and I noticed a jewelry store that had Tumi, an Incan god designed from 18K gold filigree. We had seen some in Arequipa but they were really expensive and so had never bought one. Here the store owner said he would give us a good deal and said the 18K gold sold for $37.00 a gram. This is about half price than what is available in the States. I selected a pendant and a bracelet from his collection and after much bartering was told we could have both for about $750.00, dropping the price per gram to about $30.00. This was a deal as in Arequipa, for the pendant alone we had been quoted $1,500.00. We thought and finally Tom said “Let’s do it. You have looked at these for months and this is by far the best price”. So, I am now the proud owner of a beautiful gold Tumi pendant and bracelet. The train ride was a repeat of the one up with only a few exceptions. Since it is afternoon the snacks are different and so is the entertainment. In addition to keeping an eye on the landscape moving slowly past our window, we are also marvelously and humorously entertained by the staff with music, a masked performer playing the part of a jester and even a fashion show modeling sweaters, shawls, jackets and coats all made from the wool of a baby Alpaca. However, we are tired and judging from people in the carriage around us we are not alone on that. People moved slowly and many dozed and slept all the way back to Cuzco. As arranged, our cab driver did not let us down and was waiting for us. We are all staying at the Palacio del Inka for the night before leaving tomorrow. The taxi driver asked us about Machu Picchu and we all chorused the same. Amazing. Magnificent. Outstanding.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes)

There are only two ways to get to Machu Picchu, either trek through the Andes on the Inca Trail for four days or take the train. Yes, by not trekking, you do miss some fantastic views and scenery and some remote Incan ruins (so I am told) and you also miss those precipitous trails, steep mountain climbing in thin, high-altitude air and the freezing nights with an ever present possibility of rain. Guess what, we took the train. From the comfort of our carriage we still got some magnificent views of the snow capped Andes in addition to being provided food and entertainment, and we were at the Pueblo within four hours. It was also pouring with rain and I can only imagine that the Inca Trail would be miserable in the wet and being drenched. On the other hand travelling on PeruRail’s Vistadome train is akin to first class train travel anywhere in the world. The train is well maintained, the carriages are clean and comfortable with windows on all sides and on the roof so we could get unobstructed views and the staff were efficient, friendly and fun. After boarding and getting settled, the train left on time and soon afterwards we were served coffee, soft drinks and snacks. Our route follows the Urubamba River through an area known to the Incas as “the Sacred Valley” with a short stop in Ollantaytambo and then on to Machu Picchu Pueblo which is also known as Aguas Calientes, the entire journey being against the backdrop of the Andes mountain range. The Andes is actually made up of dozens of mountain ranges called cordilleras and in Peru these ranges cluster together to provide some of the highest peaks in the world outside of the Himalayas. However this is not untouched wilderness, every bit of arable land is farmed. The high sierras of Peru were conquered by the Incas and it was their terraced system of farming and irrigation that allowed the large areas of steep but fertile land to be cultivated. Passing through the remote and sparsely populated areas is like viewing a window to the past. Small huts, constructed with adobe bricks and with thatched fichu grass roofs have not changed much since the Inca ruled. There is no electricity and water comes from the snowmelt filling the streams and rivers. Small enclosures have chickens, goats and cuy (guinea pigs) which are considered a delicacy in Peru and crops of corn, grains and vegetables are grown on the terraces. The four hour journey filled with steep switchbacks flew by and with a flurry of hoots and whistles we pulled into Machu Picchu Pueblo. But our journey is still not over. From the town, we must now purchase tickets for the bus ride up to Machu Picchu ruins and the Sanctuary Lodge. Thankfully the lodge had sent someone to take our luggage up to the hotel for us. The ride to Machu Picchu is steep and winding and even though I rarely suffer from travel sickness by the time we made it up the mountain, I was feeling distinctly nauseous. Although both Tom and I are taking altitude sickness pills, maybe the steep climb has affected me. I was okay after about an hour but it was a very unsettling feeling. The Sanctuary Lodge is everything we had read about and promised and is situated right at the entrance to the ruins. After lunch, we wander around the grounds, all the while absorbing the mountains which seem to envelop us. We have made dinner reservations for 8 o’clock and want to have an early night. Tomorrow we intend to enter the park at dawn to get to a great spot to watch the sun rise and we will spend the whole day walking the ruins. In addition, Tom, Marcela and Mariano are climbing Huayna Picchu, the high mountain peak that is the backdrop for most of the photographs taken in Machu Picchu. I suffer from vertigo, so while they climb the peak, I will explore the ruins. We are so excited to be here, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Fantastic.