In Southern Peru, the focus was on the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. We checked out the alien lines in the desert, were woken up by a police officer at our frigid altiplano camp spot, and battled the switchbacks and trucker traffic to get to Cusco. From there we drove through more gorgeous mountain scenery to the Hydroelectric Plant on the opposite side of Machu Picchu so that we could take Hobie with us on the hike to the town below the sacred ruins. As expected, Machu Picchu was spectacular and we spent most of a day hiking up the nearby mountain, wandering through the amazing stonework, and just sitting to take it all in. On the way back towards Cusco we camped overlooking an intricate mosaic of salt ponds, wandered through a maze of artisan markets, and drove down the Sacred Valley, lined with more ancient Incan ruins. We spent our last two nights in Peru in a valley lined with red sandstone cliffs and then on the shore of the massive Lago Titicaca.
The long drive to Cusco started by passing the Nazca lines. These are very well-preserved pre-Incan figures that were dug into the desert landscape, removing the dark top layer to reveal the lighter sand below. It isn’t known why the ancient civilization created the massive figures. Some believe it was in homage to their gods, but we prefer to think that it was how they lured the aliens down. From the observation tower on the side of the highway, we could only see two of the dozens of figures that decorate the desert. Even those two were quite impressive.
From the coastal desert, we immediately started climbing up to the Altiplano, the high plains of the Andes. In order to get to Machu Picchu, we would need to cross the Andes and start to descend the other side where the moist air from the Amazon Basin allows the vegetation to thrive. We drove countless switchbacks, climbing to a new elevation record for the trip of around 4,500 meters (14,763 feet). At this point the road straightened and flattened out and we passed several alpine lakes lined with flamingos. As the sun started to set, we found a dirt road down to a stream where we were able to park behind a rock pile, mostly concealed from the view of the road. We awoke to ice-lined windows and a bundled up police man poking around the van. Tim threw some clothes on and opened the door. It turned out that he was just checking to make sure that we were alright as the area has some problems with banditos. We assured him that everything was ok, made some coffee, defrosted the windows, and continued the long drive to Cusco.
Unlike most of the Peruvian cities we had visited, we loved the narrow, winding, cobbled streets, and mix of Incan and colonial architecture of Cusco. The central market was one of the most colorful and interesting markets of our journey. There were stalls lined with bags of brightly-colored spices, dyes, grains, and countless unidentifiable products, aisles of fruit and vegetables stalls spilling over with stacks of fresh goods, whole rows lined with bins of different kinds of potatoes, stands with just coca products, bloody meat aisles, and endless rows of handicraft stalls, brimming with the soft, colorful alpaca products that the area is so well known for. We loved wandering the aisles, looking, listening, smelling, and trying not to buy more than we could carry.
The drive towards Machu Picchu took us up and over more mountains along an incredibly sinuous highway, then onto a narrow dirt road that hugged a cliff edge and crossed several small streams. We arrived safely at the hydroelectric plant down the river valley from the ruins in the mid-afternoon, quickly packed up some water and a change of clothes and started off down the tracks on the 10km hike towards Machu Picchu. The walk was easy, mostly flat as it followed the train tracks along the river, and gorgeous. Since we were now on the eastern slope of the Andes, the air was moist and the vegetation lush, almost jungly. As the sun slid behind the mountains we caught our first glimpse of the ancient ruins high on a saddle above. We arrived in the tourist town of Aguas Clientes just after dark and checked into a dog-friendly, but mold-ridden hostel.
We opted to avoid the early morning rush to the ruins and enjoyed our cappuccinos and omelets while waiting for the crowds to thin. We left Hobie in the smelly hostel and arrived at the entrance to the ruins with just enough time to start the long hike up Montaña Machu Picchu before it closed. The hike was gorgeous but brutally steep, consisting of stone stairs for almost the entire 650m to the summit. We were red-faced and sweaty when we reached the top, but it was worth every step for the incredible view.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering through the incredible ancient city. We were most impressed by the stonework – in many places the stone walls were integrated into massive boulders, in other places there were cut rock pieces so massive that we couldn’t imagine how the Incans moved them into place, and throughout the ruins the stonework was very well-crafted and fitted, with angles and edges perfectly aligned. Much of the day was overcast, but in the late afternoon the clouds parted and we were treated to spectacular views of the ruins bathed in sunlight.
As we hiked back along the tracks early the next morning our calves were screaming from the steep hike up the mountain and around the ruins, but we were happy to be walking. Hiking into Machu Picchu felt like a rite of passage, and Hobie not only loved the adventure, but now has bragging rights as one of the few dogs from the US to visit the area (in addition to Tia from Carpe Viam)!
Heading back from the ruins we were treated to an incredible sunset and view of many snow-capped peaks, a perfect close to our Machu Picchu adventure.
We spent that night camped near an ancient and still fully-operational salt mine. The Salineras de Maras is a small, tradition operation. Instead of using giant trucks to scoop up massive mounds of salt, each family tends one to several pools along a hillside. By controlling the flow of water down small rivulets, the pools are filled with briny water from a natural source, and then closed off and allowed to evaporate for a few weeks, filling them with white to reddish salt, which is then scraped off and hauled away in bags. Everything is done by hand.
We spent one last night in Cusco before heading south. It happened to be Thanksgiving, so we celebrated by treating ourselves to an amazing meal at an all-organic restaurant in the city center. The next day we stopped for lunch at a pull-out along the highway and were just biting into our sandwiches when we heard honking. We turned around to see the giant white Unimog of our friends Franz and Ingrid, who we had camped next to several days ago in Cusco. We chatted and laughed for a while, then said goodbye again. That evening as we settled into a lovely camp spot in the beautiful red sandstone of Tinajani Canyon we again saw the giant white beast lumbering up and spent another evening chatting and laughing. It’s great to have friends on the road.
We spent our last night in Peru on the shore of the deep blue Lago Titicaca (which we read actually means “grey puma” in Quechua). While looking forward to exploring the wilds of Bolivia and the many adventures that lay in store for us further south, we also reflected on the amazing experiences we were treated to throughout Peru.