Insider Experience: My Journey to Machu Picchu

Insider Experience: My Journey to Machu Picchu

John Miller, former President of Grand European Travel, and his wife Anne explored cultural and archaeological treasures on the Highlights of Peru tour.

Read Anne’s review chronicling their adventure to Machu Picchu, with intriguing personal insight into this amazing destination.

John and I went on the Highlights of Peru tour, and what a delightful surprise! I love Europe and have traveled it extensively, but have always felt there was much more to see. Trips to Turkey and Egypt, however, were increasing my interest in archaeology and ancient cultures, and Peru’s Machu Picchu quickly became a tempting destination.

The first delight of Peru was the travel time; it’s on Central US time so you don’t experience the jet lag of European travel! We departed from Houston, TX around 5 pm, and after a 6 hour flight were met by our transfer agent, Julio, and taken to our hotel in Lima for a good night’s sleep.

peru-lima-plaza-mayor
Lima’s Plaza Mayor

Exploring the capital

The tour did not officially begin until mid-morning, so after breakfast we enjoyed a leisurely walk surveying the beautiful neighborhoods surrounding our hotel in the San Isidro district. I loved the classic wooden doors on the modern buildings and houses – the mix of the old with the new. We visited a nearby park with its grove of mature olive trees, and even had time to explore the perimeter of an archaeological site, Huaca Huallamarca, before meeting up with our group.

After we met our Tour Director and travelling companions, we made our way to Casa Diez Canseco, the home of the Peruvian statesman, Francisco Diez Canseco Tavara. The home is full of Cuzco School paintings and exquisite European antiques. We had an elegant lunch on the pool side garden patio. The tables were set with fine linen, crystal, and china with arrangements of Peruvian Lilies.

local entertainment
local entertainment

We then visited the heart of present-day, and historic, Lima – the Plaza Mayor. Here, one sees the combining of church and state: government buildings with churches and cathedrals surrounding the square. It was a busy Sunday afternoon with a public event at the President’s palace, and lots of people, pigeons, and horse-drawn carriages. We toured the Church of San Francisco and walked through its dusty catacombs. The late afternoon sun cast a warm glow on handsome colonial buildings. (By the way, Pizarro is buried here in La Catedral). That evening we enjoyed a seafood dinner overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

The journey to Machu Picchu

peru-machu-picchu
Ancient ruins at Machu Picchu

The next morning we flew to Cuzco in the Peruvian Andes, the Inca heartland.  From here we would journey to the main highlight of the tour: Machu Picchu.

Many people are concerned about altitude when they think of Machu Picchu. To help you understand the geography and terrain, Cuzco sits at an elevation of 11,444 feet. Machu Picchu is lower in elevation at 7,970 feet. To acclimate, we immediately left Cuzco and traveled down through the Sacred Valley towards Machu Picchu. Staying at a lodge below Machu Picchu helped us adjust to the change in altitude. This worked great for us. (Also, coca tea is served almost everywhere, and is believed to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness.)

The Sacred Valley

Sacred Plaza
Sacred Plaza

We traveled through the Sacred Valley following the Urubamba River with views of soaring, snowcapped peaks alternating with lower rounded foothills that were dotted with Inca terraces and working agricultural fields. It’s amazing to see what an empire the Incas engineered high up on hilltops in this remote region.

View from the Sun Gate
View from the Sun Gate

We stopped at the town of Pisac for lunch with free time to explore its large market. We chose to eat on our own in a rustic courtyard with authentic wood-burning oven. We passed on the cook’s recommendation of cuy chatado (fried guinea pig), and chose instead delicious empanadas (baked bread stuffed with cheese), and chicha (a home-brewed, purple-colored traditional corn drink). After lunch we walked the colorful stalls and streets, bartering with the villagers for hats and textiles.

We also stopped at the ancient site of Ollantaytambo and had a guided tour of Inca ruins. The stone carvings and rock walls were remarkable. I will never again look at a rock wall without being reminded of Inca construction. The stones are massive – all different in size – yet they have been carved and smoothed to conform and fit together perfectly like a jig-saw puzzle. These walls have survived centuries… and major earthquakes!

Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo

As the sun set we pulled into the Inkallpa Lodge in Urubamba, and were greeted with hot coca tea. With its tranquil setting, great views, and terraced gardens we felt we were modern-day Incas! After dinner we stopped and oriented ourselves to the Southern Cross in the night sky. The stars were incredibly brilliant, and we’d never before seen such a vivid and dazzling Milky Way!

Magnificent Machu Picchu

Early the next morning, we boarded the “Vistadome Perurail” train to Aguas Calientes, and made our way to Machu Picchu.  Our local Guide gave us a 2 1/2 hour orientation and tour of the site, and then we had the balance of the day free to explore on our own. John and I hiked up to the Sun Gate – a strategic location for the Incas that provides spectacular 180-degree views with Machu Picchu spread out below, and the Urubamba River winding even farther below. This is where Inca Trail hikers enter the site. For us, it was a long and uphill walk (about 2 hours round trip), but well worth it. We took time to admire the cloud forest vegetation and snap photos. There were happy encounters along the trail – a llama, hummingbirds, caracaras, and other walkers offering encouragement.

peru-highlight-lunch

On our second day in Machu Picchu, we arrived early in the morning – before other travelers had arrived. The area was shrouded in mists and clouds, but patches of blue sky broke through, and gradually all mists burned off. It was fun to experience the ruins in the different atmospheres, and we appreciated having a second day to explore this magnificent site.

Back in Cuzco . . .

Cuzco, Iglesia de la compania
Cuzco, Iglesia de la compania

The sun was setting as we pulled into Cuzco. It was a free evening, so John and I walked to the square, the Plaza de Armas, and popped into some of the stores to look at jewelry and crafts. We had a delicious dinner at a restaurant on the plaza. Later we strolled back to our hotel. Cuzco lights up beautifully at night with many Colonial structures built on top of the old Inca stonework.

The next day was devoted to seeing Cuzco – a former capital of the Inca Empire which Pizarro conquered and claimed for Spain. There’s plenty to explore here. John and I started out at 7 a.m. before the hustle and bustle of the city. After breakfast, our group visited the fascinating geologic site of Sacsayhuaman.

peru-cusco

In the afternoon we chose to explore more of Cuzco on our own. We made our way to the San Blas district known for its art galleries, and it was here that we found a textile shop run by a young proprietor. We bought a colorful tribal weaving that his grandmother had done, and now it’s being framed to hang in our home; a beautiful memory of our trip to Peru.

Cuzco handicrafts
Cuzco handicrafts

That night our tour group gathered for a “Farewell Dinner” in a beautiful hall located just off the Plaza. The event featured a buffet-type dinner with regional dishes. There was colorful folk music and dancing, and if you sat near the entertainment as I did, you were invited to a vigorous and lively last dance of the evening. That was the first and last time that I felt the altitude!

This trip got me hooked on South America. I still love Europe and want to return, but now Argentina and Brazil are calling, too…

-Anne

Ready to cross Machu Picchu off your travel bucket list?  Learn more about the 8-day Highlights of Peru tour here.

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