On the Road: Seeing the Incas in Cuzco, Peru


Cuzco is a very bustling town, driven mostly by tourists frequenting the area on their way to Machu Picchu like us. Our city tour guide told us that Cuzco’s economy is over 70% tourism and it’s certainly noticeable as you walk down the cobblestone pathways lined with nightclubs, bars, restaurants and spas. Enter any restaurant and you’re bound to find at least one person from the other side of the world and each one has their own story to tell on why they are passing through the city. I actually enjoyed this city the most and I think it was because of how much it reminded me of Fort Collins — right at the foothills of the mountains, pretty high altitude, many hiking trails at the edges of the town, the air felt crisp, and it never felt humid while the sun was out.

 

Checking-in and off to breakfast.
On our arrival, it was a very misty early morning after raining and we dodged puddles as we walked along the roads. Our first stop was the hostel where we checked in at only 25 Soles for 3 people and met with our guide who would be taking us on our 5-day trek to Machu Picchu beginning at 4am the next day. He informed us of a local, affordable restaurant serving typical Peruvian food we could try for breakfast and were on our way.

coca tea, cusco
Coca Tea Image courtesy of GreyBack

Coca Leaves: Just leaves if you ask me…
One thing you find out rather quickly in Cuzco is the locals affinity to the Coca plant. It’s treated as a holy plant in many cases and throughout the week we were told from many locals that Coca leaves have had a long and rich history in the region, including even being used by the Incas. I’m not so sure about any of the rumors surrounding the plant, but one thing was certain — locals really pushed everyone to have it to help ease altitude sickness by providing the body a little energy. If you’ve never heard of the plant, check out the Wikipedia article on it and see why it’s actually banned in the US. They served this as a tea, known as Coca Tea, in the restaurant we had breakfast at where I had the opportunity to try it for the first time. Personally, it tasted like a tangier and slightly bitter Jasmine green tea that I have often in the states, and I felt this idea of it providing a great deal of energy is actually just in our heads — making people more energetic simply by believing they should be. We ended up having this tea often during the 5-day trek, including once every morning when they would wake us up from our tents, and I never felt as energetic even compared to a cup of Chai. Cuzco is at a relatively high elevation(3326m or 10912 ft), and during our trek we reached a peak as high as 4500m. Other travelers I met said they felt less light-headed from the altitude, especially on the steep climbs after chewing coca leaves or having some of the tea so take it for what you will. Having lived in Colorado for almost a year now, I’m sure it was easier for my body to get acclimated to the high altitudes here so I was lucky enough not to experience any sort of altitude sickness what-so-ever anyways.

Seeing the Incan remains in Cuzco
After breakfast, we headed over to the main square to get a city tour of Cuzco. I’m typically not a fan of seeing touristy things to pass time in a city, but Cuzco is littered with remains of the Incan civilization and some of the ruins are simply stunning. For 70 Soles, we got a bus tour and a guide for the next 4 hours as we saw each of the main Incan sites throughout Cuzco:

Temple of the Incas - Qorikancha
This was a temple of the Incans that has been preserved in Cuzco. Supposedly it used to be covered mostly in gold and silver before it was pillaged. It’s a rather large and intricate building and fairly massive as you walk through. The main features of the temple, and soon we’d find out is common in Incan architecture, was how finely crafted the stones were on the walls of the temple. If you notice in the image below, each stone is crafted almost perfectly to fit with every other stone and so finely placed that you would not even be able to place a piece of hair between the blocks. We were told the Incas usually laid blocks this precise in their most holy or special buildings — temples, important houses, monuments, etc. And you can actually see this same architecture in other ruins including certain areas of Machu Picchu.

A pretty panorama from the center of the temple:

 
Also, I don’t typically like tour guides, mostly from my so-so experience with museums in the states and the sense I get that they simply regurgitate facts they’ve memorized… but the guide we had for this tour spoke very passionately about not only what we were looking at — but he would also add his personal intuitions and anecdotes from experience being around these structures and showing them for over a decade. It’s something I find is very common among the guides in Peru because many of them have been making a living and providing for their families by showing tourists around these attractions for years and really taking an affinity towards it. For example, he told us stories about his own grandmother pointing at the stars showing constellations like the Llama when he was young, and how he’s seen similar drawings from the Incas as they were looking at the same night sky charting out the soltices. Next up – Sexy Woman! — I mean, Sacsayhuaman? (pronounced like Sexy Woman!) Our guide could not help articulating the pronunciation of the next site, Sacsayhuaman, multiple times as we drove up the mountain pass towards it. While explaining, every other time he would add emphasis on the syllables that would make it sound more and more like “Sexy Woman”. This place is truly a sight to see while you’re in Cuzco. You don’t really even need the city tour to get here if you just wanted to see it, and it’s pretty amazing. Basically it’s a huge replica of a puma, with a large part of the mane and head visible from a side-profile. The guide mentioned what we see today is only around 20% of what it used to be, but from the right angle you can almost see what it once was. Many locals were selling different wares near the site including a black puma which is sculpted in relation to how this site was built. Check out some of these beautiful shots of it including a panorama of the grounds:   

The ancient Incan refrigerator.
We ended up hearing quite a few stories about Sacsayhuaman that it slowly began growing dark so we quickly headed over to the next site which was equally beautiful. It looked like a building that served as a sort of an ancient refrigerator, a store house to keep the harvests throughout the year and used to distribute throughout the Incan empire. You can still make out the area where food was placed, but this site only has 10% remaining after the destruction during the inquisition.

The Sun Altar?
As the sun was just about to set(it sets early in Peru around 6:30pm this time of year because it’s technically winter for them) we continued on to the last stop which is a mysterious little cave with a small Incan table and a neatly cut hole in the roof. It almost looks like a dining table for a large cave man with two carved out seats on either side. The purpose of this spot has been a mystery, but apparently archeologists think it may have simply been an observatory for solstices because when the sun shines on the top of the cave still to this day during a solstice, the shadow will be perfectly visible on the table. The carved edges that looked like chairs are supposedly altars they would have knelt at while it was happening too. It was too dark to get any pictures of it at this point :(

Briefing for the 5-day trek and little sleep.
Afterwards, they offered free Coca tea at a small gift shop on the way down, and soon they dropped us all off back in the main square of Cuzco. We hurried back to our hostel for the briefing on the exact details of our trek beginning the next day. Below you can see the flier they handed out for it. It mentions the estimated distances and altitudes of the trek which came out to around 60 miles or 98 km and various inclines up to 4800m at the highest point. It was quite an experience from the moment it started at 4am the next morning.

Looking back, it was quite an epic trek — following similar paths that even Hiram Bingham, the guy who discovered Machu Picchu, passed. We went through plains, snow-covered mountains, and a tropical jungle lined with fruit trees for over 7-8 hours a day in grueling conditions at certain parts. My friend Nathan unfortunately even injured his foot during a very rocky decline in one area. There were mules, alpacas, nomads, and many travelers from all over the world trekking along with groups on their way to Machu Picchu and it was quite the adventure! I’ll post a detailed account of the whole trek with many pictures on Friday!



On the Road: Flight of the Condors and Antique-an beauty in Arequipa, Peru

I arrived in Peru almost three weeks ago to the beautiful city of Arequipa where I met up with two of my friends Keiko and Nathan. Keiko had been living in Peru with a host family for a few months, so Nathan and I were lucky enough to not only have someone who spoke Spanish, but who could also show us how to avoid tourist traps, eat locally, and immerse ourselves in real Peruvian culture! You can follow her experiences from Peru here: Adventures in Peru. In Arequipa, one of the first things I noticed was how antique the architecture seemed to be. The buildings had a very medieval and renaissance style appearance similar to old structures I had seen in Paris. Many large wooden doors, archway passages, and iron gates as you walk through the streets.

As you pass through the main square (plaza de armas), it gets even more traditional with a beautiful fountain in the center surrounded by shops on every corner. Some of the streets were still cobblestone and large rubber chains were sectioning off certain landscaped areas. We sat in this square soaking in the sun for a few minutes before continuing on.

TIP: Wait until you arrive to get a trek to Machu Picchu or any other attraction you want to see in Peru. Thanks to this year being the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu, and the increased number of local peruvians and internationals descending on the site, we weren’t even able to book a trek in advance online before arriving. As we walked down the streets in Arequipa we soon found out there were many tour agencies trying to sell different options for treks who have no other online presence. We were able to secure the trek we wanted to do for almost half what it would have costed had we reserved it online. It came out to around $250 a person as opposed to $510 initially on our online reservation. I’ll go over the trek in detail in another post, but this included 5 days with a guide, tents, porters to help carry up to 5 kilos on the first 3 days, cooks who make 3 meals a day for 4 days, and the entrance fee to Machu Picchu (which was about $50 itself). We laid down our bills and were set for a 5-day adventure, not sure about what awaited us.
 
A Panorama of the view from the roof:

 
How to get anything you want in Peru: ASK! It had been two nights sleeping in airports on the way to Arequipa, so we felt very tired after a couple hours in the town and wanted nothing more than a soft bed to crash on, even if only for a few hours. We suddenly had the crazy idea of asking a hostel on the street if they would let us stay in one of their rooms for a few hours for a fee. Couldn’t hurt to ask right? Well, it’s a good thing we did! The gracious host of the hostel let us not only stay, but gave us a nice spot on the roof with a beautiful view of the city and a fold-out mattress to relax on for free! We couldn’t have been more thankful and we took a much needed nap in the warm sun under Arequipa. Let me know if you’re looking for a good place to stay in Arequipa because I can definitely let you know!

One thing I’m very passionate about in the US is supporting the local farmers in the community who produce fresh, in-season, and typically pesticide-free produce that tastes far better than the genetically modified produce found in supermarkets. So whenever I visit a new town, city or country, I love to see how their local food system works. I was happily surprised to see a very thriving local food supply chain with fresh produce coming from farmers and being sold in small and large farmers markets. In fact, over the trip I only passed by a few supermarkets which were closer to suburban areas, so I was glad to see farmers still able to get their fresh produce to the masses. I happily indulged in many fruits available at the market in Arequipa including white peaches, mandarins, small peruvian pears, and some delicious bananas.

 

Flight of the Condors – Colca Canyon just outside Arequipa
 We ended up passing through Arequipa twice during our trip: on the first day we landed en route to Cuzco and on the way back from Cuzco after our trek of Machu Picchu. We planned this first of all because we wanted to take buses as opposed to planes to save money ($50 bus ride as opposed to a $200+ domestic plane ticket). And we came up with an itinerary that allowed us to travel by night buses, forgoing the cost of hostels in many cases. This made for a lot of thrifty traveling and not the most comfortable of nights, but allowed us to experience quite a few new cities very quickly and efficiently. Just knowing we were in South America was enough to keep us energized every day we woke up early on a bus ride. On the way back from Cuzco, after our long 5-day trek to Machu Picchu, we finally got much needed rest at a hostel in Arequipa and used the day to recuperate. Most of our time was spent doing our laundry, sleeping in, and buying gifts for friends and family back home. We didn’t have much time to rest however, because beginning at 4am the next morning we were heading to Colca Canyon which is one of the main attractions near Arequipa. It’s a canyon a couple miles deeper than the Grand Canyon at its lowest point, and there’s a lookout point in one area for an endangered bird known as the Condor. Below you can see a panorama of the point with everyone gathering awaiting a possibly flyby of a Condor. We were lucky enough to spot 2 or 3 for a few minutes during the hour and a half we spent there. It was quite a sight seeing such a massive bird flying just overhead.  
 
Check out the Panorama of our view from there:
 


Nathan was able to get some pretty impressive shots of the Condor:

The canyon itself and the path to it was very beautiful as well:

 

Arequipa is a very beautiful town if you time to go around. The people, architecture, traditional food, and many day trip options. There seems to be quite a few universities and schools in the downtown area of the city as well. We happened to encounter one of the schools practicing a dance in the middle of the street:

 

In the next post I’ll be covering our experience in the high altitude city of Cuzco, the jumping off point for many treks, trains, and expeditions towards Machu Picchu.



The Many Traditional and Typical Foods of Peru

Wow, I just got back from Peru! What a trip!

Before I even left for Peru, I stopped by my favorite brewery in Fort Collins: Equinox and had one pint before heading out of town. That afternoon there was a server who, when I told him of my trip to Peru, said to absolutely check out the different varieties of potatoes while I was there. When I inquired as to why, he informed me that potatoes are indigenous to that region and there used to be hundreds if not thousands of varieties grown in all parts of Peru. Before departing, he said to pick up a couple varieties, bring them back and he’d make an interesting trade — potatoes for beer! I chuckled, finished a delicious pint of their special alt beer and said I may take him up on his offer.

There are many common peruvian dishes, and as I would soon find out, almost always consisting of either fries or puréed potatoes — likely having to do with their vast amounts of potato sources based on what the server at Equinox had said about them in Peru .

One dish in particular that I truly loved and sought out a cookbook primarily for the recipe was Lomo Saltado(pictured below). If you eat beef, this is a delicious dish they prepare that consists of specially spiced beef, onions, tomatoes, peppers, fries and rice (fries, as I mentioned, are common with any meal no matter what you get — omelet? Have some fries with it!).

 

They seem to be very fond of rotisserie chicken and it tastes similar to what we find in the states. It was very common to see menus like the one below from Nazca with choices on a fourth, half, or full pollo (chicken) and a rack of rotisserie chicken in plain view of the entrance to entice onlookers.


Other popular Peruvian dishes to try:
Grilled Alpaca with Rice/Fries - 
Arroz con pollo (Chicken with rice) - 
Empanadas (turnovers with different meats or cheeses in it) -


And can’t forget street food! This was the most common, grilled steak, chicken or ham/sausages with a potato:

I was surprised to see some fresh tamales being served on the street… although I’m not sure it’s typical peruvian:

One thing to avoid until you’ve at least tried some typical Peruvian cuisine are the tourist trap restaurants in some cities. They’re very noticeable because they usually have everything from tacos and quesadillas to pizza, burgers and milkshakes. These are similar in quality to frozen meals found at your local supermarket and should be avoided if at all possible. There seemed to be a high frequency of these restaurants in tourist-heavy cities like Aquas Calientes so seek out places that say “Typical Food” (probably spelled wrong like the restaurant below and you’re sure to be happier with the quality of your meal).


The last thing I’d say to check out are authentic Italian-style pizzerias. Make sure to stick your head in and see if they make their pizzas in an authentic italian clay oven and only specialize in pizzas like the above restaurant we found in Arequipa and you’ll be transported to heaven on Earth as you take your first bite. Pizza lovers should definitely not miss out on one of these, and just be wary of certain pizzerias or restaurants simply including pizza on their menu, because some are tourist traps that are not using traditional methods of preparation.

And a list of typical Peruvian cuisine wouldn’t be complete without authentic Peruvian drinks, so here’s two popular drinks I encountered:

Cusquena Cerveza – A beer brewed in the high altitudes of Cuzco and their special beer for this year is a celebratory edition for the 100 year anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu. To be honest, after having drank real craft beer in Fort Collins, beer elsewhere just doesn’t taste like real beer. It was nice having a cold brew in a new country, but I can’t say it was even close to being good. It tasted somewhere between Miller Lite and Heineken.

Pisco Sour – Pisco is a type of hard liquor they make from grapes. I was lucky enough to tour one of their wineries where they were also aging their pisco, and this drink was quite delicious. It tastes like a lime margarita.

And you can see how popular this was on the last night before the grueling 2000+ step hike up to Machu Picchu with everyone in our group from the trek!:

I have lots of pictures, videos, and panoramas of the different cities we visited while in Peru. Stay tuned to early next week when I plan on posting a series of posts about the epic 5-day, over 60 mile, and 2000+ climb up to Machu Picchu trek we did! It can all be done on budget too, so I’ll let you know how you can plan a short 1-week vacation and indulge in all the best sights, sounds and tastes of Peru I experienced.



Reflections From an Empty Airport Terminal


I’m sitting in a mostly deserted airport terminal, lights bright and a sign overhead displaying the city of Atlanta. I look out the window and see an idle plane waiting to take me on the first leg of my trip to Peru. Alone, yet not lonely, with just the attendants in blue shirts, like Tom hanks in The Terminal, I’m contemplating about all that has taken place in the past year to bring me up to this point. A point that seems unimaginable to me based on where I was exactly 1 year ago. So many events and opportunities have presented themselves at the right time to align up with me being able to sit in this airport tonight, awaiting a flight on my way to South America.

It all began with a decision last December to officially leave my job to focus on Quark Studios full-time. Almost 8 months later, I believe I not only made the right decision, but I cringe to think how everything woud have turned out if I had not made that choice. I’m not going to sugar coat it and make it sound like it’s been all peaches and roses, but to be honest, for all the new pain points that have been introduced: lack of consistent paycheck, continually searching for clients, working more than 40 hours a week, always facing the fear of the unknown… None of this even comes close to the pain point of feeling trapped, helpless, and stuck in a cubicle. In fact, they don’t even come close. There’s something about always being in control of your life that is exhilarating and makes you feel truly alive. It was the monotony of working in a large corporation and not feeling like I was contributing to something bigger than myself that made life in a cubicle seem meaningless — like slowly waiting while my life was just passing by.

Now all that’s passing by is an empty moving walkway behind me, humming along in the background as I reflect on how grateful I am to be going on this adventure. As I continue to wait, I can’t imagine a better place I would rather be at this moment in time. I hope wherever you are reading this, you feel the same way or that you are putting yourself in position to. Life is too short to not be living.