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Peru: the land of the incredible Incas

August 3, 2011

When we looked at the map of South America, wondering which country we should visit, all seemed to beckon enticingly, filled with exotic sights and adventures for the intrepid traveler. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru – we wanted to visit them all! It seemed impossible to narrow down our choices to realistically one or optimistically two countries, but that is really all we would have time for. Two weeks seems like a lot of time when doing the planning,  but to really get to know a place and it’s people takes much much longer.

The Adventures of Tintin in The Prisoners of the Sun

My first introduction to Machu Picchu and Peru was when I was 12 or 13 years old, through Tintin comics. I was completely hooked on to reading the adventures of Tintin, his adorable dog Snowy and the lovable Captain Haddock as their journeys took them all over the world. The Prisoners of the Sun introduced me to the spit-spewing llamas that irked Captain Haddock to tears of frustration. I read about the smiling people of Peru, their culture and fiestas celebrating the life-giving sun. I vividly recall my excitement as Tintin and Captain Haddock finally reach the Temple of the Sun in their search for their dear friend Calculus who has been captured by the Incas for committing the blasphemous crime of wearing a sacred bracelet. The book also introduced me to the greedy Spanish conquistadors who invaded the country and looted all the gold and destroyed everything the Inca had accomplished. With images of Tintin’s journey through the arduous Andes to get to the Temple of the Sun fired up in my imagination, it’s no surprise that I’ve longed to visit this lost city of the Incas, this magical paradise that has everybody swooning over it’s mystical beauty, this golden city that was built in the highest peaks of the Andes, far away from the prying eyes of invaders and conquistadors.

Magical Machu Picchu

It felt only natural to choose Peru as the first country we would visit and explore in South America. It felt even more natural to sign up for the brutal 4-day trek that one can do to get from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu – by foot – while crossing several treacherous and steep trails strewn with hand-cut stone blocks that barely pass for steps, including a steep relentless hike up to a magnificent 13,800 foot mountain pass aptly named Dead Woman’s Pass. I mean, honestly – who in their sane mind would ever want to take a train and a bus to get to Machu Picchu? To visit a place of such fame, mystery and intrigue – you have got to earn it. Without a second thought, we signed ourselves up for what promised to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

With Peru as our destination, the other place we knew in our hearts that we had to go without question or doubt was … the Amazon rainforest. As kids, both Kiran and I vividly remember seeing numerous documentaries where a low-flying plane would skim the tops of the lush jungles in the Amazon, the sinuous curves of the chocolate-brown Amazon river winding it’s way through the rainforest. Adventurers and explorers hacked their way through the tropical hothouse of a jungle, seeking exotic birds and as yet unknown and unseen species of animals, insects and plants while evading poisonous and deadly reptiles like the anaconda!

On the fertile brown Amazon river in our canoe

Our itinerary –

Day 1 – Fly from San Francisco (SFO) to Cusco (CUZ). Most of the day is spent in travel.

Day 2 – Arrive in Cusco early morning. Check-in to hotel. Acclimatize. Explore.

Day 3 – Sight-seeing around Cusco and nearby Sacsayhuaman ruins. Acclimatize.

Day 4 – Early pre-dawn pickup by our Inca trail guide (Peru Treks), Day 1 of Inca Trail trek.

Day 5 – Inca Trail trek (day 2)

Day 6 – Inca Trail trek (day 3)

Day 7 – Day 4 of Inca Trail trek. Summit Machu Picchu for sunrise. Machu Picchu all day, sight-seeing. Stay at nearby town of Aguas Calientes for the night.

Day 8 – Back at Machu Picchu for a full-day of exploring. Take train in the evening from Aguas Calientes, back to Cusco.

Day 9 – Morning flight from Cusco (CUZ) to Puerto Maldonado (PEM). Met by Rainforest Expeditions guide who will be with us for the rest of our 6-day Amazon rainforest stay. Stay at Refugio Amazonas, 3 hours upriver from Puerto Maldonado.

Day 10 – Take canoe 6 hours upriver from Refugio to Tambopata Research Center.

Day 11 – 13 – Three days at Tambopata Research Center. Get back to Refugio Amazonas by canoe for the night.

Day 14 – Return journey by canoe on Amazon river from Refugio to headquarters in Puerto Maldonado. Fly from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco in the evening. Corpus Christi celebrations and parade in Plaza de Armas in Cusco (June 23rd)

Day 15 – Inti Raymi celebrations – Festival of the Sun (June 24th). Performances both at Plaza de Armas and Sacsayhuaman.

Day 16 – Cusco sight-seeing and shopping. Ruins around Cusco – Quenqo, Puka-Pukara, Tambomachay. Also, Qorikancha – the must-see museum/site which comes highly recommended.

Day 17 – Fly out of Cusco to Lima. 7-hour layover in Lima airport. Visit Lima city center and Plaza de Armas.

We took 10 days time off, and when you add in the 3 weekends – voila! – we got a total of 16 days for our trip! We made Cusco our base because longer cross-country domestic flights cost time and money. Cusco was the natural starting point for the 4-day Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu, as well as for flying out to Puerto Maldonado (an hour away) which is the city port that leads into the Tambopata tributary of the Amazon river. TRC (Tambopata Research Center) is an actual research center with resident scientists and researchers, and the famed claylick where gloriously colored macaws of all species come to eat the mineral/salt rich clay sealed the deal for us. In many guidebooks and travel writing, the Peruvian Amazon is synonymous with Iquitos, which is far higher North, but researching online and reading recommendations from people who’ve been to both places, we found that Puerto Maldonado is equally comparable to what one gets to see and do in Iquitos.

And then of course, serendipitous things started falling in place like a magical jigsaw puzzle. We discovered that not only is June/July 2011 the 100th year of discovery of Machu Picchu by the American explorer Hiram Bingham, but also that June 24th is the biggest festival celebrating Inca culture – Inti Raymi – the Festival of the Sun. Cusco is the navel of the Inca world where this celebration is held with great gusto and grandeur.

Inti Raymi celebrations at Sacsayhuaman

May and June are two of the best months to visit Peru. The dry season months are May – Sep and the peak months of travel in Peru and on the Inca trail are July – Aug. We chose June because of several reasons –

1. The Inca Trail cannot be trekked without acquiring passes for the trail and going with a registered outfit/guide. These passes have to be booked months in advance. For June, we had to finalize our reservations with Peru Treks by Jan/Feb this year.

2. With June, we would get the best of the weather and lesser crowds. The weather promised to be very favorable, with warm days and cool nights.

3. June was also the “fiesta” month in Cusco, and everywhere else in Peru. Inti Raymi, Corpus Christi and dozens of other festivals jostle each other for attention in the lives of the locals who spare no opportunity in partaking in dancing and eating and drinking and truly celebrating their religion and culture with joy.

4. As June would still be the beginning of the tourist season, we expected to find good deals with flight fares, accommodation and other activities.

5. June would also be one of the best times to visit the Amazon rainforest, where areas wouldn’t be flooded and inaccessible unlike in December.

So with all of this initial research, we were thrilled to have a feasible itinerary and eagerly started on the next steps – filling out the details and preparing for what would be toughest part of our vacation – trekking the Inca trail. A picture is worth a thousand words … more about the joys and travails of the trail in the next post!

Steps, steps and more stone steps on the Inca trail … every step of the way!

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From → Peru, South America

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  1. Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

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