It all began as a casual comment from me to Elaine Smith at the December, 2011 Mahjongg Club. "If you and Norm ever decide to travel to Machu Picchu, I'd like to tag along." By January, Elaine had run with the ball. The trip would be girls only and limited to eight travelers. By February there were seven of us – Adele Ward, Anne Byrne, Barb Dewell, Barbara Woodman, Elaine Smith, Helen Herd, and Marian Ezell. We were dubbed the “Magnifi cent Seven” by Elaine’s husband, Norm.
The planning took seven months! Peru for Less, our travel agency, greatly assisted us in setting the itinerary. Our group met monthly throughout the spring and summer to exchange travel tips and discuss the various locations we planned to visit. We all expected a grand adventure and we were not disappointed!
We flew from San Antonio to Mexico City, connecting to Lima, Peru, arriving there in time for a few hours of sleep before departing to our fi rst destination, the Andean city of Arequipa (7,709 feet). Arequipa is also known as the “White City”, thusly named for its gleaming buildings made of petrified volcanic ash and its setting amidst snow-covered mountains. While we were there, the city’s inhabitants were celebrating the 472nd anniversary of Arequipa’s founding. So, we fortifi ed ourselves with the ubiquitous coca tea (said to help cope with the Andean elevations), and set out on a city tour.
The lively celebration gave us an opportunity to see the locals in costume everywhere we went. We viewed pre-Incan terraced farms growing potatoes, cabbage, onions, and alfalfa; and we purchased our fi rst coca products - coca candy, coca cookies, as well as the coca leaves (chewed as an anti-infl ammatory).
Downtown we strolled around the Plaza de Armas, visited the city market where we indulged in yummy fresh potato chips, and walked through Arequipa’s “Sistine Chapel”, the Iglesia de San Francisco. Regional Peruvian cuisines were on the menu for lunch. A few tried the chupe de camarones while most sampled the rocote relleno; no one tried the cuy or guinea pig. After lunch and a brief rest, a group headed for the Monesterio de Santa Catalina and additional shopping in town. The enthusiasm of the day found them in a celebratory parade, and they became unoffi cial Arequipenas.
The next morning, on the way to the Colca Canyon, which is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon, we drove through miles of colonias that were settled by Incan and pre-Incan peoples who came down from the Andes. In the countryside were vistas of barren terrain surrounded by snowcovered mountains. The volcano Misti, source of the Amazon River, is still active and provides Arequipa with about five tremors per day (although we didn’t feel any). Motoring through the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reservations or Reserva Nacional Salina y Aguada Blanca, we saw grazing vicunas, llamas, and alpaca. We also saw Andean geese and ducks in the wetlands. At the highest point (16,000 feet) were many aryachata, stone monuments for offerings to the mountain gods. The native Peruvians have combined Christianity with their ancient religion, worshiping a combination of gods representing the sun, the mountains, the earth, and the water.
We stopped in the small town of Chivay, a farming community surrounded by pre-Incan terraces still in use, where we were once again part of the festivities. Bands and dancers in native costume were pouring from the Cathedral into the plaza, many wearing masks and carrying altars. Our lodging for the night was an eco-style hotel, built with Incan architecture but featuring a spa and private thermal baths in the Colca River.
After a late lunch, we separated to enjoy the various treatments. At an elevation of 12,000 feet, it seemed possible to count every star in the Southern Hemisphere while soaking in the thermal baths.
We had an early call to travel back through the canyon to the Cruz del Condor and arrived there at the optimum time of 8:30 a.m. We saw giant condors fl ying in circles, using the thermal currents to gain altitude to leave the canyon and forage for food. They were so close to the viewing area that one could almost see their faces. We returned to Chivay for lunch and found the celebration still in progress, although many groups had retired to private homes for food, beer, and Pisco, the Peruvian national liquor. We enjoyed a typical buffet luncheon featuring soups, organic vegetables, quinoa, and various meats - beef, pork, chicken, and alpaca. On the road to Puno after lunch, we were amazed to see real fl amingos in the Mirador de Flamencos at 15,000 feet!
Puno (12,000 feet) is the gateway to Lake Titicaca; the meaning in native Quechua language is “stone” or “gray puma”. The highest navigable lake in the world, it is the size of Puerto Rico and 600 feet deep, Peru bordering one side and Bolivia the other. According to Andean belief Lake Titicaca gave birth to the sun as well as the father and mother of all Incas – Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo – children of the sun. Legends abound regarding alien portals on the bottom of the lake which will open on 21 December 2012. Our group visited Islas Uros, the fl oating reed islands, each inhabited by generations of one family. We were welcomed there and had photo ops with the residents. On Taquile Island we enjoyed a luncheon at 14,000 feet. The trip back to the boat was a lot easier than the trek up to the restaurant!
Busing the route of the Incas to Cusco took nine hours, with regular stops to view ancient ruins and take pictures of alpaca and llamas grazing at 14,000 feet. The llamas were just outside our windows, and women had set up a small market featuring textiles and otherhandcrafted items. The town of Raqchi was home to signifi cant Incan ruins and is an important place for pilgrimages to the god, Wiracoha, the god of all gods. In the next town of Andahuaylillas, we visited the St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s little church, dubbed America’s Sistine Chapel. It was fi rst built and decorated by the Jesuits; later the Dominicans covered the murals with paintings.
We had a free morning in Cusco (11,500 feet) and agreed to meet at 8:30 to make plans. Some attended Mass, and then we all met in San Blas, one of the city’s most picturesque districts. Walking through the Plaza del Armas, we encountered the Sunday military parade. On our city tour, we learned that Cusco was once the heart of the Incan Empire, and the current buildings were built on top of the Incan structures partially destroyed in the 1650 and 1950 earthquakes. The Cathedral is an example of the Colonial Imposition of the Catholic faith on the indigenous population. The grander the building, the more impressive the faith! This one had soaring ceilings, baroque carvings, enormous oil paintings, and glittering gold and silver altars. One of the most famous paintings is “The Last Supper” by a Quechua artist, Marcos Zapata, featuring roasted cuy and the face of Francisco Pizzaro imposed upon the body of Judas. The temple of Qorikancha (Golden Temple), built to honor the sun, offered fine examples of the mortar-less masonry and trapezoidal doorways typical of the engineering skills of the Incas. Several miles outside the city we visited the ruins of Sacsayhuaman (Sexy Woman), a three-tiered zigzag fortifi cation. One particular stone used in the structure weighed more than 300 tons!
The next morning we set out on a tour of the Sacred Valley. The first stop was the Pisac market. Although we had already done a lot of shopping, the selections and bargains here were not to be passed up! We lunched at the Restaurant Touristico and had a taste of Chicha, a corn beer brewed and sold from rural homes. Tradition had us pour the fi rst taste on the ground to gain the blessings of Pacha Mama (Mother Earth); we agreed that she was welcome to the entire shot! Our drive took us through Urubamba, named for the river flowing through this fertile valley and then on to Ollantaytambo. The ruins there featured large steep terraces and mark one of the few places the Spanish conquistadors lost a major battle. We boarded the Vista Dome train to Aguas Caliente here. The rail followed the Urubamba River through spectacular scenery. The climate in Aguas Caliente (2,000 feet) was semi-tropical and the grounds of our hotel were lush with greenery, orchids, and Bird of Paradise flowers.
The brave ones left a 4:30 a.m. call for an early bus to the Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas, and the early hike up Huayna Picchu, an Incan path leading up the sugarloaf hill in front of Machu Picchu. Those arriving early saw the sun rise over the ruins as the cloud cover broke. Only Barb and Barbara completed the hike to the top of Huayna Picchu, which was no easy feat! The guided tour began at 11:30. Machu Picchu is the best preserved of the Incan ruins and remains a mystery regarding its origins and abandonment. It is a marvelous example of Incan engineering and irrigation techniques and must have played a very important role at some time during the Incan era. Myths abound about Machu Picchu, but no one can dispute the exceptionally powerful and positive vibrations present there. We left Aguas Caliente on the 4:30 train back to Cusco after a long day.
The next morning we departed for Puerto Maldonado, our gateway to the Amazon jungle. We were taken by boat on the Madre de Dios River to our destination hotel, a five-star camp with a large restaurant, meeting area, and individual cabanas for residence. After refreshing ourselves, we were ready for a twilight river cruise. Staying close to the bank, we glimpsed a number of caimans, a relatively small species of crocodile. After Pisco Sours and dinner, we retired to our cabanas where we found the lanterns lit and the mosquito netting lowered, creating a cozy atmosphere for sleep. We were up early for a canoe tour of Lake Sandoval. Walking through the Tampotata Reserve, we saw marvelous sights – giant ficus trees, scurrying pacas, parrots nesting in dead trees, army ants, and huge termite nests. Rowing close to the lakeshore, we saw lake caimans and Marian spotted a large snake sunning on a low branch. Our guide identified it as a fer de lance, a deadly South American viper. Searching the dense growth and the tall canopy of the surrounding jungle, we saw many colorful birds but no anacondas. After lunch and a short siesta in our individual hammocks, we set out for the Canopy Walkways. A short hike took us to the fi rst tower and we began our climb of 155 steps to reach the walkways. We literally walked over the top of the jungle on eight connected, swinging bridges. Looking out, not down, we spotted a red Howler monkey.
The next day was our last in Peru, flying from the jungles to Lima. Our fl ight was delayed, so we had time for an abbreviated city tour. Lima was the capital of Spain’s colonial empire for 300 years, and there are many fine examples of the architecture of the period around the Plaza del Armas. Like many cities, the growth is in the suburbs, and we were driven to Mirafl ores, a modern area. After dinner we headed for the airport for an early morning flight to Mexico City, connecting to San Antonio. While awaiting our departure, we finally had time for a relaxing game of Mahjongg!