By Cheryl Ryan
After two years of no travel, our first trip was a doozy. We just returned from a 16-day trip to South America, and I feel so fortunate that it didn’t get canceled. We met new people, saw new things, laughed a lot, ate a lot and learned about new places.
We went on our first organized tour. Usually, we plan our own trips and then shlep our bags from place to place, often grumbling about our accommodations. Our neighbors invited us to join them using Tauck Tours. Our excursions were planned with intention and the hotels top notch. It was all rather boojie and we loved it.
First stop – Peru. It really surprised me. The sweeping Andean landscape is spectacular. The people warm, proud, and, from my perspective, living as two groups, one emerging in modern society and the other still deeply rooted in ancient ways.
We spent three days in Lima; two would be adequate. Lima is the largest city in the country, home to one-third of the population. It sits on the Pacific Ocean above tall cliffs overlooking surfers and expansive ocean views, often with daily fog which becomes filtered afternoon light. Lima is built upon ruins even older than the Incas. Some locations have been set aside for ongoing excavation. Much of the city’s architecture is colonial, layered with new and old structures.
We toured the colonial city center, went to museums full of ancient pottery found at Incan burial sites and drove through olive groves left by the Spanish. What struck me about our tour guides was how proud of their independence from Spain and politically knowledgeable they are. Each citizen is required to vote or be fined. They protest often and have had six Presidents in six years and it sounds like number seven may well be on his way out too. As with most big cities, they have their problems but they are one of the few places I’ve traveled that never asked about the U.S. because they were most interested in their own issues.
The Sacred Valley
Our next leg was a plane ride to Cusco, a colonial town sitting at 11,152 feet. We were warned about altitude sickness. Many took meds, but our guide assured me that with plenty of water the day before and ingesting coca leaves or coca tea upon arrival that I would be fine. Lucky for me, he was right. We all felt the altitude. I was very lightheaded and some on our tour didn’t feel well for several hours.
To get us down to 9200 feet our tour had a bus waiting when we landed. We boarded and headed towards the Sacred Valley, the fertile valley gateway to Machu Picchu. We would come back to Cusco once altitude acclimated. We visited an Alpaca and Llama farm before attending a lunch in the valley basin. It was a 100-acre, 3rd generation farm still planting the large kernel corn grown by the Incas (you can find some at certainTrader Joe’s locations). The table setting was spectacular with fresh produce and fish all sourced locally. In addition, they served corn ice cream and tree tomatoes for dessert, both of which I’d never tasted and really hope I will taste again.
This was our first introduction to Pachamama, the goddess of fertility, planting and harvesting in Incan mythology. The idea of reverence towards Mother Earth showed itself repeatedly during our visit. Fresh food and farming harvests are everywhere and Peruvians are proud of their food and ability to feed their own population. Finally, we said our goodbyes to this beautiful farm and headed to our hotel, for our first glimpse of the glaciers, before heading to Machu Picchu early the following day.
I was bummed that this tour didn’t include the 5-day 4 night Inca trail hike that my daughters did. But it turned out that the train ride was beautiful too. It was an hour and a half ride from our boarding location, Ollantaytambo, another cool archeological site. The train runs along a rushing tropical river heading towards the Amazon on one side and mountains with glimpses of glaciers and small towns on the other. Once we got to Aguas Calientes, the last stop before entering Machu Picchu, we took a short but treacherous bus ride and were at the park gates by 3 pm.
Blue skies, puffy white clouds, and golden afternoon light greeted us. Our guide walked us through the ancient streets and brought their dwellings and daily routines to life. It more than met our expectations, especially when we set our alarms to view sunrise the next day and never saw the sun but rather the gray skies that often visit the mountain.
Now altitude acclimated and high on Machu Picchu; we headed back to Cusco for our final days in Peru. Cusco is the landing spot for trekkers, travelers, Peruvian farmers and musicians. It is happening. Centered around a colonial square of churches, shops and restaurants, once evening arrives the lights of the surrounding mountain neighborhoods begin to twinkle as the setting sun bathes the old churches in golden light. It is truly enchanting. The restaurants and bars start to fill up as people gather to share their days.
Our hotel was an exquisitely converted monastery and had soft Gregorian-like chanting piped in throughout the property. I just wanted to spend the day in it, but our tour had other plans. They had arranged for a trip to the Peruvian highlands, and I didn’t know yet what was awaiting us.
The sweeping landscapes with pristine mountain glaciers rising above a patchwork of wheat and barley fields were breathtaking. Our first stop was a family teaching us the traditional dyeing and weaving techniques of alpaca and llama yarns. Using beetles and local minerals in boiling water, they dipped the alpaca strands into pots of colors. By changing one ingredient, it completely changed color. Of course, I came back with a few blankets and hand-woven accessories.
Our final stop was the home of a working farm in the Peruvian highland countryside. The homeowner had earned his money from years as an Inca Trail Porter, carrying heavy packs, setting up camp and preparing food for travelers hiking Machu Picchu.
Now he and his family are farming traditionally. They met us at the bus wearing the vibrant clothing they’d made. They gave us handmade alpaca bracelets and sang songs as we walked to their home. We danced, and they showed us how to make a dip for our lunch by using fresh ingredients blended together on a grinding stone. Then, they served a meal of mainly potato variations (Peruvians eat a lot of potatoes) in their small but welcoming home.
As we boarded the bus for our final night in Cusco we hoped that this little piece of the world would never change. We spent our last evening in the hotel having drinks in the lobby and eating at an interesting Chinese restaurant. All in all, it was an amazing day and outstanding week in Peru.
Next stop; the Galapagos.