The four of us -- Monica, Wendy, Betsy, and Maureen -- arrived in Cusco, Peru, on Wednesday and traveled to Machu Picchu on Thursday.  We toured in Cusco on Wednesday, Machu Picchu on Friday and Saturday, the Sacred Valley on Sunday, and we will do Lima (and our flight home) on Monday.  My wrap up, including Lima and Eating in Peru, will be sent to you once I'm stateside.

A bit of context first. When we visited Quito, our guide told us that the Incas were in power for a relatively short period of time-- certainly fewer than 100 years. Indeed, there are no Incan ruins to speak of in Ecuador because when the Spaniards arrived, they decimated any indication of Incan civilization by building right over it. This stands in stark contrast to the Incan presence in Peru, where the Incas were in power for several centuries. Indeed, part of the magic of Machu Picchu is that it appears it was never discovered (and, certainly never destroyed) by the Spaniards.  To this day, the Incan influence is strongly felt everywhere.


We arrived in Cusco and proceeded to the Monasterio Hotel, a very special property actually converted from a monastery and situated in a lovely square. We were greeted with coca tea (altitude here is higher than Quito) and then off we went on a walking tour with our guide. First stop was the baroque Catedral. This cathedral is every bit as glorious as the cathedral in Quito, but quite different, primarily due to to the Incan influence.  Specifically, in the artwork, oftentimes figures' attire had Incan components (such as feathers). One of the altars had unguilded wood; another was pure silver and yet another was gold. In terms of theology, our guide shared how Catholicism had adapted here to accommodate Incan beliefs. For instance, the spirit of the Virgin Mary became one with the spirit of a tree. (Spoiler alert, this reminded me of the adaptations the Mormon missionaries made to the Book of Mormon  [in the musical of the same name] to be in a better position to proselytize their new Ugandan neighbors-- though I interpreted that as a farce in the play.  Guess truth really is stranger than fiction.)  Another definite highlight in the Catedral was a painting of The Last Supper--looked very realistic except Jesus was feasting on roast guinea pig!  After visiting the rest of the Plaza de Armas, we strolled over to San Blas -- the artsy, bohemian part of town-- I particularly liked the store completely dedicated to coca leaves.  Next stop, dinner (to be described in my next blog -- another spoiler alert-- this meal involved the eating of guinea pig confit), then back to the hotel for a short night.

Machu Picchu

We left the Monasterio at 5:50 A.M. Thursday morning and after a spectacular 1-1/2 hour van ride through the misty Andes and the Sacred Valley, we arrived in Poroy where we boarded an Orient Express train for a scenic, full service ride to Machu Picchu station. After arriving there, we met our guide and porters from the hotel and we boarded a bus for the final 30 minutes of our journey.  We checked into the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge--the only hotel in the national park and well worth the extravagance. The food in the dining room was excellent but more on that later.

Magical. Mysterious. Mystical. Majestic. Magnificent. Mountainous. Munificent. Marvelous. We have been to Machu Picchu and it conveys every one of those attributes and more.  You've  probably seen plenty of pictures of this 16th century Incan mountain hide-away. But when it actually appears before you, it defies description. I've had the feeling before-- when I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time ... and Lake Louise...  and when the Taj Mahal rose before me, it took my breath away. But Machu Picchu was different.  More powerful and puzzling.  Built by hand out of natural stone in an extraordinarily awesome setting and only rediscovered by Hiram Bingham, a Yale University misunderstood professor (and, some say, the model for Indiana Jones), in 1911... it evoked a sense of wonder I hadn't expected. Why did the Incas choose to build here? And did they leave or stay? And where did they get the inspiration to integrate the spectacular  backdrop into the community?  While archaeologists have unearthed some answers, many remain and that is part of  the magic here. So, we hiked for about 3 hours the first day and more than 4 hours the second day, with the kind, gentle, and expert Abraham guiding the way. He pointed out the different sectors of the community (religious, agricultural, residential, industrial), the landmark mountains (Machu Picchu / "old mountain" and Huanyu Picchu / "new mountain"), the astronomical observatory, the llamas and a chinchilla, and various gorgeous orchids and other flora along the way. On Saturday morning, we took the 3 hour hike to the Sun Gate, the primary entrance from the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The hike was amazing with eye-popping panoramas every time we increased altitude (every two minutes). Needless to say, the photo ops were countless (good thing I have an extra memory card).  Here's an infinitesimal sample ...

Sacred Valley

We spent Sunday touring the outskirts of Cusco including parts of the Sacred Valley, an area the Incas considered paradise for its fertile earth. The Sacred Valley is cut by the muddy Rio Urubamba which runs to Machu Pichu and includes the archaeological rich towns of Pisac and Ollaytaytambo. Many tours spend several days here (and I wish we had); we only had time for an overview. We started the day with a stop at a lookout point...
...with great views of the entire city. In the background was the fascinating White Christ (6 meters high and strongly lit up at night), a statue given to Cusco by Palestinians living here during WWII.

Not as large as the one at Cocovado in Rio, but impressive nonetheless.
After several more beautiful lookout stops...
...we visited Awanacancha Center where we not only met several adorable llamas and alpacas, but were also treated to a weaving and dying demonstration. Next up, my favorite stop of the day -- the town of Pisac and its terrific Sunday market.  The fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs were beautiful and so were the people selling them.

This last picture reminded me of the colorful dyes we saw in the local market in India.

One of the treats (if you can call it that) during our market tour was a visit to a shop that fire-roasted guinea pigs (cuy). We had the "privilege" of seeing the pigs as they were prepared for  the roaster and then once they exited (all nice and crispy). We weren't interested in eating them. Afterwards, our guide, Boris, (who referred to our group as "Charlie and his Angels")....
...was generous enough to take us to a town where the women stand over a charcoal fire and barbecue guinea pigs on a stick each Sunday. Boris went a step further and actually got out of the car to take pictures.  One of the women informed him that the pigs were served with potatoes or spaghetti.
Ready for roasting....

Ready to eat...

An alternative way to cook them....

After the guinea pig adventure, we stopped for lunch at a beautiful hacienda, Hacienda Huayoccari, with a huge collection of antiques; some going back to pre-Incan days. The ride back to Cusco included a great drive by Sacsayhuam -- Incan terraces and structures (some say it was a fortress) from the 15th century (or even earlier). 

On Monday, we fly to Lima which I'll describe in my final blog (also with an eating review and wrap-up) after I return home.

Until then, with hugs,


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