Category Archives: Peru

Matarani (Feb. 9)

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The port of Matarani is just half an hour from the beach town of Mollendo and 3 hours from Peru’s second most important city, Arequipa. Since it was such a long bus trip inland with just an hour to explore the city before returning to the port, and we saw many postings on saying that it wasn’t worth the trip, we decided to check out the beach instead.

The trip there by shuttle was quite spectacular, if not exactly picturesque.  Giant cliffs of grey rock, mottled with sodium nitrate surround the port and the bus  travelled past what looked like an open pit mine (behind tall walls) and up and down deep gorges to finally arrive at Mollendo.

Once there we decided to do some earnest people watching and strolled down to the very busy beach area. It was obviously a popular area for families (including many dogs) to enjoy their summer holiday by the sea. Evidently many residents of Arequipa come here for R&R.

Part of me was disappointed that we didn’t see the city of Arequipa but it was actually quite enjoyable watching Chileans at play..

Pisco (Feb. 8)

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There is a stark contrast between central Peru and this south Peruvian port. The shoreline is brown, mottled with white (sodium nitrite) and barren. The most famous attraction in the area is the Nazca Lines, a series of amazing geoglyphs that stretch along a plateau approximately 80 miles between the towns of Nazca and Palpa. Believed to have been created by removed the red pebbly topsoil to uncover the white/grey soil beneath, these huge geometric and animal shapes were created between 500BC and 500AD. Some, I understand, are difficult to see now given the growth and development across the plateau but some people who paid over 500USD per person to fly over them did see a bit. It was recommended to us that we look at the video on YouTube which guarantees a window seat and a clear day!

The pier we docked at is not actually in Pisco, a town 30 km away.  We learned that this town’s only claim to fame is as the place where the Pisco sour, the Peruvian national drink was created.  Pisco is a local brandy made from wine  and IMHO, when it’s mixed with lime or lemon juice, a bit of sugar syrup, and a few drops of bitters, it’s delicious (and dangerous)!  Chile also claims Pisco as their drink but many prefer Piscola – a combination of Pisco and Coke (sounds like a waste of good Pisco to me)!

Instead of flying over Nazca or checking out Pisco, we took the shuttle into the town of El Chaco, about 20km from the pier. It is a small fishing village and tourist stop with a long line of market stalls facing the ocean…not exactly a place to write home about. The highlight for me were the pelicans, hanging around the promenade and sitting on the boats. We also enjoyed a couple of musicians busking in front of the restaurants.

On our way out of this port there were an amazing number of birds that seemed to be putting on an air show for us….dipping and diving in formation.

Lima (Feb. 6-7)

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Arriving in Lima mid afternoon, we drove directly to the hotel (overlooking the ocean in Miraflores) and then hopped in a taxi to the Larco Museum. This lived up to its reviews – not only an extensive and beautifully displayed collection of artifacts from the various civilizations that inhabited Peru, but a lovely environment as well. The artifacts on display were amazingly “perfect”, although an employee assured me that most had undergone extensive restoration by their skilled staff. The explanatory cards were very well done in four languages.

A surprise before we left was a separate building that houses a gallery of erotic pottery. It’s amazing what those early Peruvians got up to – and enshrined in their artwork (some made as gifts to the gods – must give them a little thrill as well) 😉

We really didn’t see much more of Lima than we saw from the taxi between the hotel and the museum (through the relatively affluent area of Miraflores and San Isidro) and from the airport and to the port (where we saw the very sad result of 50% unemployment). The whole of the sea front has been reclaimed and there is an extensive project ongoing to provide parks, sports areas and public beaches for all.

The view from our hotel included an amazing number of paragliders who jumped off a hill nearby and swooped and swayed around the ocean front buildings. If I was 40 years younger…..!

Cusco (Feb. 4-6)

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We arrived back in Cusco in the evening and found the inner city much different than the rather scruffy outskirts. Multiple squares are surrounded by lovely colonial buildings (most built on Inca foundation walls), some with moorish balconies that reminded us of old town Jeddah. The squares were alive with people, both locals and tourists.

We were fortunate to be staying in the new JW Marriott (opened just three years ago) is a remarkable restoration of a centuries old convent. Marriott took great care to restore the existing walls, arches and courtyard with a sensitivity towards both Inca and Spanish history. The staff offer a “history tour” of the building which we found fascinating. They employed local workers and all the construction was done by hand – no machinery was brought in. The columns around the inner courtyard were taken apart brick by brick, numbered, and then placed back on 6 metre deep foundations that they feel will survive the next earthquake. The tour took us to a lower level of the hotel where we could observe the Inca walls and canal that flowed along the original street (which the Spanish presumably built over top).

We spent the first night enjoying pisco sours (the national drink to which I have taken quite a fancy!) and appetizers in the bar. We were feeling pretty tired after hiking up and down so many deep stone steps for three days.

The next day we explored churches and museums. Jair had recommended the Machu Picchu Museum which is so new it wasn’t in our guidebook or on the map from the hotel but it was absolutely top notch. I assume that it was developed in collaboration with Yale and the Peabody Museum (US) because it included many photographs from Hiram Bingham’s expeditions as well as excellent videos of archaeologists, geologists, historians discussing the various aspects of the site, including how their assumptions and findings have changed over the years. There is also an impressive display of artifacts that Bingham discovered and sent back to the U.S. which Yale University has just recently returned to Cusco.

The much older, Inca Museum had a less impressive display on the Inca period but gave us a much greater appreciation for the pre-Inca civilizations.

The large Cathedral of Santo Domingo towers over Place Des Armas, the main square. It felt more of a museum to me than a church, full of an ostentatious amount of gold and silver relics. Built in the mid 1600s, there are two more recent and slightly less garish chapels on either side.

We enjoyed the Saint Francisco Church and Monastery much more. The monastery has only been open to tourists for about a year and they use tourism students as guides. Only one section, with an impressive collection of ecclesiastical artwork, is available for viewing because it is still a working monastery and school. In contrast to the cathedral, the décor is understated, with beautiful wood carvings, period paintings and the natural environment of its inner courtyard. I was not able to take photographs except looking down into the beautiful church from the choir and out into the courtyard. I wish that I could have captured the amazing choir stalls and the three huge hand-drawn hymnals that were placed in the middle of the choir on a massive revolving lecturn.

We finished our full day of exploring Cusco with a delicious dinner in the highly recommended Limo restaurant overlooking the main square.  From our window seat we watched various groups of locals dancing to the music of flutes and tambourines.




Machu Picchu (Feb.3-4)

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We left Ollaytantambo on a 7:20 train to Aguascalientes. the relatively new town beneath Machu Picchu (MP) built specifically to serve the tourist industry in the area. It was packed with tourists, probably ¾ of them Peruvians (this is their summer holiday period). As we neared our destination the vegetation gradually changed to rain forest and the valley narrowed to accommodate no more than the rails and the raging Urubamba River. Jair met us at the station at 9am and we lined up for the bus to MP. Both transportation and site entrance are very efficiently run – tickets are purchased in advance and verified at each juncture with photo I.d.

It was a half hour of multiple switchbacks up to MP and every so often we saw hearty people making the ascent by foot up hundreds of stairs cut in the rock that zigzagged the road. Perhaps 20 years ago I might have risen to the challenge but, given the altitude and my level of fitness, the bus was just fine! I am in awe of those who traverse the ** miles over 4½ days along the Inca trail from just past Ollaytantambo to MP.

From the entrance it is perhaps a 15 minute climb up stairs to get your first glimpse of the whole site surrounded by mountains and, despite having seem pictures from others, the shear size and incredible beauty of it all really takes your breath away. A further uphill climb takes you to the watchman’s point from which the view is even more spectacular. You can see cascading terraces from both sides into the valley below. These very steep terraces were built solely for slope stabilization, whereas the wider terraces of the main site were for agriculture and the approx. 200 buildings (royalty and priests up above and workers down below).

The site was planned for security with steep walls surrounding it and just one entrance to the main living area. The quality of Inca masonry was so high that most of the stone walls were still in tact when Yale Professor Hiram Bingham was first shown the site by local farmers in 1911. This despite multiple earthquakes in the years since its construction. Photos he took at that time and during his archeological survey in 1912 show overgrowth of vegetation but, otherwise, much the same structures that we observed. They have reconstructed a few roofs to show the wood/thatch construction that would have been on all of the dwellings at that time. The temples and dwellings for royalty or priests are especially well built and it boggles the mind as to how they sculpted the rocks so intricately to fit so tightly together.

Jair was a wonderful guide – explaining the history and culture of the people and the area very well. We were fortunate to have him as our teacher and leader that first day on the site. The next morning we went up on our own. Tony decided to climb to the Sun Gate, a two and a ½ hour trek uphill and down, while I (having more difficulty with the altitude) decided to wander the site, stopping to contemplate the skill of the craftsmen and beauty of the area from time to time. I even enjoyed the mating dance of some rather frisky llamas!

All in all….we both feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to see this incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sacred Valley (Feb 2)

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The village of Ollaytantambo is where most trains leave for Machu Picchu (MP) but it is also an ancient city in its own right. All of the houses are built on the foundations of the original Inca village and the streets are distinctively narrow and cobblestoned with the original drainage canal running alongside the narrow sidewalks. It has a village square surrounded by two-storey buildings – typical of most in the region – with shops on the bottom, restaurants on the top, most with small balconies from which to watch the action below.

We stayed in a lovely hotel that, although the entrance is actually right off the station platform, had well-appointed rooms in small buildings surrounding a beautiful garden and adjacent to their own organic farm (which provided veggies to the hotel restaurant). It is owned by an American woman, now living in Lima, whose son (born in Ollaytantambo) is now running it – we met him in the hotel Café at happy hour (where we had our first taste of pisco).

Our guide, Jair, picked us up that morning and we drove to the site of the ruins which tower over the town. The highlight of what was both a ceremonial centre and a royal estate is the unfinished Sun Temple, built with six massive blocks of rhyolite which fit together like a glove. Some of the blocks used in the construction weighed up to 52 tons and were dragged across the valley from the hillside across the river, then up a steep ramp. It literally boggles the mind as to how they did this over 600 years ago. The area also provides an excellent example of the Inca’s brilliance in agricultural terracing and irrigation systems. Still under construction when the Spaniards arrived in 1536-7, this is the site of the last Inca victory over the Spaniards.

We next drove east for about an hour through the valley to see another Inca fortress at Pisac. This is a huge area of agricultural, hydraulic, military, residential and religious ruins. We walked up through one of two entrances, on either side of a mountain and found impressively preserved rough stone buildings over an immense number of terraces following the contours of the hills down to the valley below.

Cusco to Ollaytantambo (Feb 1st)

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After 28 hrs travelling and 2 hrs (at most) of sleep, our guide picked us up at Cusco airport ankd asked if we would like to stop at Chinchero village to see women demonstrating weaving on our way to Ollaytantambo, the ancient “stone village” in the Sacred Valley. We couldn’t refuse but, at 12,343 ft. altitude, I found the short walk up stone steps to a Spanish church built on Inca foundations quite difficult (Tony seemed fine). It was a wonderful vantage point, however, to view the beautiful green and patchwork countryside around us and to begin our education in the history of the region. Here was our first glimpse into the destruction of one civilization by a colonial power.

At the women’s workshop they demonstrated how sheep, llama, and alpaca wool is dyed by boiling a variety of local plants in combination to produce the vivid shades so distinctive in Peruvian apparel. Unsurprisingly, they were selling their creations and I was overwhelmed by the selection – all quite beautiful and, especially the alpaca woolens, so incredibly soft. Unfortunately being just day 1 of a 31 day trip, I had to curb my enthusiasm and just bought a beautiful alpaca sweater jacket for my grandson. In retrospect, I wish I had bought more for gifts and simply sent them home by mail because the prices in that workshop were very reasonable in comparison to what we saw elsewhere.