Guest Blog: Larry’s Macchu Pichu DreamsDecember 10, 2019 • By THIRDHOME
My Great, Big, Fat Peruvian Adventure.
I met Marco 2 years before in Iquitos, Peru on the magnificent Zafiro boat while on a THIRDHOME 6-day adventure touring the Amazon. He was the medical guru on the boat and his English was like my Spanish: just good enough to communicate, while completely butchering every noun-verb combination in existence. We talked non-stop during our excursions and at the end of the trip he gave me two pieces of advice:
- Come back to Iquitos to spend time with him and his family and really understand what the Amazon means to Peruvians.
- Go into the Peruvian Andes and explore Macchu Pichu, Cusco and Lake Titicaca (yes, it’s a real place, birthplace of the Incas).
All that sounded good, but the missing ingredient was finding travel companions willing to do an extended Peruvian boondoggle deep into the Andes. I’m not a “big tour guy” and I really like to travel at my own pace meeting locals, taking photos and drinking beer at dives in small towns. My U.S. friends were useless and gave me the following excuses: too many days, too far, altitude sickness, “you know they kidnap Gringos in South America”, and finally my friend Ronnie’s “who wants to spend all that money to look at a bunch of old rocks”.
So I put my Machu Picchu dream on hold for 2 years until, while hanging out with my friends Paul and Ronnie in Mexico City, I met my Chilean-Peruvian-Japanese and future friend and muse, Ozaki (her last name) while eating tacos and listening to Mariachis (see my Mexico City Blog). “Don’t be cowards” she advised us, “come to Peru and see the most beautiful country in South America with the best food, nicest people and, of course, Machu Picchu”. Maybe it was the “tequila factor”, but by the end of the night I knew I found my guide and exploring Peru would be a future adventure.
Six months later I embarked on my meticulously planned 18-day Peruvian adventure beginning and ending in Lima. My wonderful new Peruvian friends: Ozaki, Marco, Carlos, Rosita, Santos, Pili and Daniela knew routes, restaurants and don’t miss places. I traveled by plane, moto taxi, car, train and boat across Peru with just the right balance of crazy, hectic sightseeing and mellow times in local cafes, bars and plazas. On day 4 I realized I would need a vacation after this vacation just to sort out the experiences, but by then the old adage “go big or go home” won the day.
Hundreds of photos and thousands of miles traversed later I’ve concluded that Peru is in the running for coolest country for any Gringo to visit. So many stories and highlights but here are my Top Seven experiences I want to share in no particular order:
- Partaking in the Peruvian/Chilean beverage, the Pisco Sour (both countries claim to produce the best version of this grape-based liquor). It is a delicious, refreshing cocktail loaded with fresh lime juice and topped with a frothy egg white (it’s practically a national pastime here). For four Peruvian soles (about $1 U.S.) I had the treat of a going behind the bar for a tutoring session from an experienced bartender on how to make the perfect Pisco Sour at the Museo de Pisco restaurant in Arequipa.
- Driving through the Andes to the Colca Canyon region in southern Peru with lush green valleys, terraced agricultural terrain and the world’s second deepest canyon (twice as deep as the U.S. Grand Canyon). I had the opportunity to soak in natural hot springs, visit several traditional small towns along the way and watch giant Andean condors from a mountaintop fly through the Canyon. These birds are majestic with a wingspan of up to 10 feet, making them the largest flying bird on the planet. It is simply breathtaking to see these birds flying above.
- Hanging out in the Cusco Historic Center at night. Cusco is the former capital of the Inca empire and a Unesco World Heritage Site. At night the plaza and surrounding streets comes alive with restaurants, bars, music and stores catering to locals and tourists alike. I listened to local melodies in a tiny bar while enjoying my favorite Peruvian specialty: “aji de gallina” (Peruvian chicken stew). To make my Cusco stay even more memorable, our Marriott hotel was a restored convent from the 16th century with multiple lounge areas, and an enormous central courtyard that I took advantage of during my limited down time.
- A visit to Maido Restaurant in Lima. Maido is ranked the No. 1 restaurant in all of Latin America for the past three years and features Peruvian-Japanese cuisine and is not to be missed. Reservations are required and difficult to get. It was a novel experience to have the waiter cook shrimp at the table with a mini “blowtorch”. Quite simply, my meal was the most scrumptious eating experience of my life. Long live Peruvian fusion!
- The entire Machu Picchu experience was everything I could have hoped for. It began with a two-hour train ride on a Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu. The train ride itself features some of the best scenery on the planet and whets the appetite for the rest of the adventure. Looking down at Machu Picchu from above was a humbling experience that literally took my breath away. For one thing, I kept asking myself “how in the world did the Incas pull off building an entire city on the side of an Andes mountain?” The pictures I have looked at for the past 45 years simply do not do it justice. As one of the new “Wonders of the World” it is a very busy attraction so when you visit, get there early.
- The “Alpaca factor”. Several options exist regarding how best to enjoy this domesticated Peruvian cousin to the camel. Alpacas and llamas seem to everywhere in the Andes and it is not unusual to see them blocking your path on the road and roaming free in the mountains. They are really beautiful animals and I chose to purchase a colorful alpaca blanket that is extremely soft to the touch. In Peru they serve a dual purpose as alpaca steak is listed on most menus and is renowned to be an excellent lean protein source. Me, I’m sticking with my blanket.
- Visiting and staying on Julio’s floating island of Uros in Lake Titicaca was undoubtedly a trip highlight. The tiny island is one of 42 artificial floating reed islands inhabited by 1200 descendants of the Peruvian Incas. Julio, who had an infectious laugh, clearly loved his island life. Each day he toured us around several colorful islands, each with its own yellow “tortura reed boat” and unique character. His family prepared scrumptious meals during our stay and entertained us with fabulous stories describing the history of this area of the world and the work it takes to keep these traditions going.
Much of the joy of traveling throughout Peru was the incredible kindness and hospitality of the Peruvian people starting with my new travel mates. During my short stay in Peru I gained a Goddaughter, made 10 new friends I plan to stay in touch with, and I’m already planning a return visit. Upon reflecting on my adventure I’ve come to the following conclusions: First, small group travel is priceless and I found it to be far more fun than sitting on a tour bus with 50 or 60 fellow travelers. Second, when traveling in a foreign country with friends who speak the language and are familiar with the terrain you are privy to many experiences you otherwise might have missed. My formula was simple: They led. I followed. And as a result, I ended up with probably the best vacation of my life.