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Picture Perfect Peru: 4 Weeks of Slow(ish) Travel

Picture Perfect Peru: 4 Weeks of Slow(ish) Travel

Jan 19th, 2019, 08:04 AM
  #41  
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Join Date: Jun 2003
Posts: 3,774
Day 7 – Into the Sacred Valley

I try not to look much at the weather forecast during our vacations but since we had a lot of outdoor activities planned for the next few days (ya’know… like hiking up to Machu Picchu), I was checking it often, in hopes of it magically turning into bright blue skies with perfectly cool but not cold temperatures. Not happening. The weather app still disappointingly showed cloudy/light showers in the morning and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Yuk. But it was what it was and there was nothing to be done about it except to woman up and keep going.

We started our breakfast earlier than usual as we had to be ready for our driver’s pickup at 9:30am. Baby Sis had problems sleeping, a common symptom of altitude adjustment. But aside from that she woke up fine and without shortness of breath. Las Vegas is at over 600m altitude, so she had some headstart over us, sea-level dwellers.

The driver, Jaime Ramos Quispe (+51 982377783, super pleasant guy, excellent driver, though his English is limited), arrived on time and we were off to the valley. The plan was to go to Chinchero first as the weather forecasted severe thunderstorms in afternoon, then the Maras Salt Mines, have lunch, go to the Moray ruins, and return to Ollanta. A very full day for slow(ish) travelers like us.

First we drove through the valley, along the Urubamba river, and he stopped to show us the Pod Hotel with it’s tiny glass cabins sticking out of the mountain side and the leading cables that guests use to climb to the hotel. Interesting, but no way I would make it up there (or down).

The drive up to Chinchero was through beautiful countryside. All agricultural work was being done strictly by hand. No heavy machinery, not even tractors. Everything was plowed with animals or sheer human power.

After reading countless trip reports, I was not surprised when Jaime suggested that we stop by a weaving coop before getting into Chinchero proper. I told him we would not buy anything, but he said that just looking was fine AND they had clean bathrooms available. I’ll give it to the ladies, the demonstration was interesting, well scripted and they put a lot of effort into it. They showed how the wool was spun, dyed, and finally weaved into different objects. At the end I did buy a hat and a scarf. I'm a [email protected] for these things. I took it as a contribution to the local economy more than a souvenir purchase (which I never, ever do). And the bathroom was indeed immaculately clean.

We parked at the bottom of town, next to the big open air textile market. Only two or three sellers were there because it only runs full on Sunday. Our driver did not have a guide license for Chinchero (he had been clear about this when we negotiated) so he pointed out the way (uphill of course) and send us on our way after we put on our jackets to ward of the cold drizzle.

Chinchero is at 3,762m altitude. That is 1,000m higher than Ollantaytambo and still 500m higher than Cusco. We felt it. That hill up into the citadel went on foreverrrrrrr…. But we made it.

The path goes through a large arch and into a big open plaza. All the souvenir sellers had covered their wares because of the rain so I only got pictures of green grass, gray sky and lots of blue tarps.


There is a Colonial church at the top of ruins/terraces which (for me!) is worth the uphill hike by itself. The wooden ceiling is beautifully painted with floral and religious motifs in an incredible state of preservation.

The ruins (mostly terraces) are extensive but one can get a good view of their extent from the upper platform behind the church. Thank God. Because it was raining, we were all short of breath and enthusiasm for physical exertion was seriously lacking. So, we did not spend that much time in Chinchero after all, perhaps an hour and a half. If it had not been for the church (which I loved) and some very picturesque streets, I’m not sure a visit on a non-market day would have been worth it.

Next destination was the Salt Mines of Maras. This entrance is not covered by the Boleto Turístico as the mines are all privately owned by local families, the ticket was S./10.00 for each of us. The approach to the mines is impressive!

The drive starts out flat on a dirt road but once you approach the mines it’s all switchbacks downhill to the entrance point. The dark soil -it is an almost desert microclimate- gives way to all the little brownish pink puddles lined with sparkling white salt, lining al the mountainside with their different shades. It is almost surreal.

There are several lookout points (which also serve to manage traffic when buses meet from top and bottom). Shy drivers/car riders might get a little nervous along the this road.
The driver gave us an excellent description/explanation of the site during which he managed to take us almost all the way to the entrance (it was a mess and we told him to drop us off some distance away now that we were back at an altitude in which we could breathe) and then stayed in the car to wait.

The tributary spring that feeds the collection puddles comes out of the mountain with its salty water, and the stream is diverted into narrow channels which then fill the shallow pools on top and then overflows to the lower levels. Everything is done by gravity and ingenious design. I don’t know why but I always thought of salt collection was done in flat places, so for me the verticality of the operation was a surprise.

It was busy with tourists and the visitors are guided along a 1-way path from the top and into a path along the puddles. The paths are congested, a little slippery and you walk along the outer edge of the puddles. If one missteps there are only two possible outcomes: wading ankle deep into the salt slush of the pool next to you or falling 2m into the pool on the lower level. For me, the path was comfortably wide enough to walk single-file but passing the gazillion people trying to get the perfect Instagram pose or pressing 10 people together into a selfie….. meh.


I will take another minute to talk again about the outmost importance of sun protection and wearing layers, particularly in this site with all the UV rays reflecting from the salt when the sun decided to make an unexpected appearance. It felt like a tanning booth (or as I imagine this would feel, because I’ve never been to one, lol). We were wearing caps and long sleeve cotton shirts, but we still had to wrap our scarves around our heads Lawrence of Arabia style to try and get an extra layer of protection. I still got burnt on my neck and peeled a few days after. And it was hot; difficult to believe (well, for us living in the tropics) that less than an hour before we had been all bundled up in Chinchero!

When we were done, we walked back up, bypassing all the salt, CD, hat, chocolate and sweater vendors. I know that this is how lots of local people make a living, but I find all this compulsive purchasing very disturbing. I just cannot avoid imagining all these lovingly purchased souvenirs being dumped in landfills. For C this was a constant turnoff almost everywhere we went to the point he did not even want to get off the boat on some of the Uros islands. It goes beyond a pet peeve and YES, I do realize that this is NOT by any means a problem unique to Peru, it is a global constant.

The driver suggested a place for lunch in Maras, before we went on to the ruins. Of course drivers will take you to wherever they get their perks unless you specifically ask for another restaurant. I would not even have had an alternate location to propose. BTW, all the tourist lunch places that we visited during transports on this trip served food which ranked way higher that adequate with even a few outstanding dishes here and there.

Well, the food was good, the lemonades were scrumptious (I still don’t know how Peruvians get all this frothy goodness into their lemonades! I know they add some peel into the juice, but OMG!), and the prices were decent but the service was absurdly slow.


I think that the restaurant was not expecting as many people and was severely understaffed. Their layout did not help at all and there was a lot of running involved. Literal running. As in quick shuffle to bring the plates, place them on the table, turn around and sprint away at a dead run. I’ll add that this was not the only place where we saw the wait staff running.

It rained during lunch, so no one was in a big rush to head out either. This meant that full tables lingered ordering dessert and hot drinks after they were done eating, adding work to the already overloaded waitstaff. E

ven on this rainy and cold day, the best thing about this place was the view. It overlooked the valley and had a wonderful view to the mountains where we could see a lightning storm raging at the top. We wound up spending almost 2 hours here, which was 1.5 more than we would have wished for.
I don’t think this was the driver’s fault, though he might need to rethink in the future where he takes his customers to if the restaurant does not speed things up a bit. But since we did not have a set time to return to Ollanta, the driver did ask for confirmation of this more than once during the day, we were ok with this.

Next stop was the site of Moray (included in the Boleto Turistico… ok, so Baby Sis did well with the full Boleto after all). This incredibly interesting and visually stunning site is thought to have been an Incan agricultural laboratory. There are 3 separate areas in which terraces were dug into the mountain in (kind of) concentric circles.

There is a 15˚C difference in temperature from the top terrace to the bottom of the pit. Researches propose that this area was used to develop a variety of the coca plant that would adapt to higher altitudes than those it was originally native to.

I was willing to risk the drizzling rain to walk to the lookouts with Baby Sis but we agreed that we would not go down the paths. Even this was cut short when thundering picked up and raindrops began to take the form of hail. A very quick retreat back to the car ensued. I regret not being able to spend more time exploring Moray but we did want to get back to Ollanta before dark and the forecast for the evening did not promise much improvement.

Over the last 20 years, C and I have driven together (well, he drives and I navigate) thousands of kilometers on remote countryside, rugged roads and hairpin switchbacks. We were fine. But I do remember clearly a time when I was young, still inexperienced with off road driving, and not sufficiently insured, the descent along the Schaeffer Trail in Canyonlands, Utah brought me to tears.

I think that was how Baby Sis felt on the dirt road from Moray to Pachar; of course the occasional hail stinging the windshield did not help either.


Some other time I’ll tell you the story of when we were in (very) rural Umbria which involves C driving the rental car on a mountain hiking path with me running behind the car, having gotten out to try to get one more millimeter of clearance so that we could get back to where we took the wrong turn. There were goats walking behind me. The car rattled very loudly all the way back to Perugia. It was all very funny; until I found ticks on my legs the next morning. Anyway….

Halfway down, we saw a lone hiker. This is the middle of nowhere. So, we jointly decided to risk offering a lift to a potential serial killer. The young German man said he had already walked 10 hours that day, that he was fine with a couple more kilometers, and declined the ride. I remember him saying that it was only a few more kms to the next town but I’m sure we drove at least another 20minutes before we saw the first few houses.

We got back to Ollantaytambo after 5:00pm, having enjoyed our day very much. Since Baby Sis and I had to get up early for The Big Day tomorrow we decided to go straight to dinner (well, with a short stop for Pisco Sours and Chilcanos along the way). Our chosen restaurant for this evening was Heart’s Café, highly recommended in different travel boards. C and Baby Sis had heavenly smoked trout creamy pasta and I (feeling a bit of a nervous stomach over the next day, but in retrospect I think it had a lot to do with the altitude of Chinchero) stuck to plain (but very tasty) trout with potatoes and broccoli. My credit card states that with wine and water I paid $24.45, I guess Baby Sis and I split the bill. Even at $50 it was a very good meal for a great price.

So to all who think that Ollantaytambo is just a town of pizzerias and tourist joints, I’m happy to tell that you can eat very well in it for a couple of nights. I’m not entirely sure how vegans fare around here though. After dinner we went back to the hotel. C and I wanted to pay with my CC so we settled our bill that night so that I did not have to bother with it before my scheduled 5:00am pickup time, though he would stay in the room until it was time for his 11:00am train to Aguas Calientes.

I slept some, but not much. And my stomach was making worrisome noises during the wee hours of the night. Not what you want to hear just before a big hike. I hoped that German guy had made it safely somewhere warm and dry.

-------------------------------------

Next: Two Undertrained Girls Tackle the Short Version of The Inka Trail


Last edited by marigross; Jan 19th, 2019 at 08:58 AM.
marigross is offline  
Jan 19th, 2019, 09:50 AM
  #42  
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Originally Posted by annhig View Post
Still here, Marigross and loving reading more about your adventure, tho' the more you post about it, the less I think it's for me. And how I felt for your DH's knees after walking the Samarian Gorge. Been there, done that.

And thank you for the map - I think that's a fodor's first!
ann, than you!

Peru is definitely a very physical and effort-intensive destination if one wants to get the money's worth. Like in Greece, if a person has mobility issues I don't know how much they would be able to enjoy a trip like this. C would definitely be willing to put that much effort into a trip if he was on his own. Even the planning part was a challenge, but that is always half the fun

And yes, that Samaria Gorge was definitely a 'Never Again', lol
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Jan 19th, 2019, 11:08 AM
  #43  
kja
 
Join Date: Dec 2006
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Originally Posted by marigross View Post
Peru is definitely a very physical and effort-intensive destination if one wants to get the money's worth.
To each his or her own! My trip was not very physical, and I thought I got well more than my money's worth.
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Jan 20th, 2019, 04:21 AM
  #44  
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Originally Posted by kja View Post
To each his or her own! My trip was not very physical, and I thought I got well more than my money's worth.
Kja absolutely! I'm surprised you think your trip was not very physical. You moved around multiple destinations in the country, flew long stretches, visited museums for hours, dealt with altitude adjustment, walked around in multiple ruins, and got in and out of transport...etc. Those are the things I mean about Peru being a very physical destination, not necessarily doing super hikes. And I'm 100% sure you got every penny's worth.
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Jan 20th, 2019, 05:42 AM
  #45  
 
Join Date: Feb 2006
Posts: 52,641
Marigross, your story about the lone hiker reminded me of when Bill and I were struggling along a rather remote and challenging path in the English Lake District, when we were overtake by a chap who was not only running, but carrying his bike. We watched in awe as he ran past us and disappeared into the distance covering the ground in half the time it took us. And no, we didn't meet him later - he was long gone by the we arrived at our destination.

Hoping that your stomach will soon recover!
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Jan 24th, 2019, 10:03 AM
  #46  
 
Join Date: Jan 2005
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Looking forward to the next chapter!

There is much you can see and do in Peru without being extremely physical..Machu Picchu citadel is mostly visited by train and bus and taking one's time to acclimate and walking slowly go a long way toward adapting to feeling much older than one already is (easily getting out of breath walking uphill). Avoiding overnights in Cusco is also beneficial...If you can handle 9,000 feet (Ollantaytambo) you can visit from there.
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Jan 25th, 2019, 10:29 AM
  #47  
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Day 8 – Time to Cross Something Off the Bucket List!

I had been awake since 3:30am so I had plenty of time to dress, go to the bathroom to try and get rid of some of the stuff making my gut rumble, tie my shoelaces b, untie them, retie (I do this compulsively before sporting events), untie, and tie yet again, before my 4:45 alarm was scheduled to go off. By 4:30 I just gave up on fidgeting and went down to wait by the lobby.

BabySis couldn't sleep either and was just coming down to the lobby in hope of coffee as well though our pickup was not scheduled until 5:45am. There was no coffee to be had.

Choosing the company to do this trek with was a challenging task. I scoured hundreds of forum posts trying to weigh one outfitter vs another. Once I (realistically) gave up on doing the 4-day trek, the universe of possibilities got significantly smaller as not that many companies do what they call the 2-Day Inka Trail. Long story made short: the best price vs. good reviews ratio was won, hands down, by Alpaca Expeditions.


This so-called 2-Day option is really a 1-day trek followed by a visit to Machu Picchu the second morning. They offered both camping and hotel overnight options. There is no way on Earth that I would choose to camp over sleeping in a hotel, so that was easily decided. This is a general description of their package:

-----------------

Day 1:- Pickup in hotel in Ollantaytambo (others were picked in Cusco and driven to Ollanta)
- Board PeruRail Expedition train leaving Ollanta at 6:10am
- Get off the train in the middle of nowhere identified as KM 104 (altitude 2000m) where there is an entrance to the National Park and the start of the 15km hike
- Visit the small ruins of Chachabamba
- Hike 3:00hrs (straight up) to Winya Wayna (altitude 2,700m)
- Hike 1:00hr to Inti Punko a.k.a the Sun Gate (mostly flat average at altitude 2,720m but with a lot of ups and downs)
- Hike 1:00hr (straight down) to Machu Picchu (altitude 2,400m)
- Very slowly walk through the upper part of Machu Picchu as this is technically not a visit to the site and hikers are supposed to be just making their way out.
- Bus from MP site to Machu Picchu Pueblo aka Aguas Calientes
- Hotel in Aguas Calientes
- Group Dinner

- -------

Day 2:

- Bus back to Machu Picchu
- Tour of the complete site
- Bus back to Aguas Calientes
- Free time- Ticket to the 3:40pm PeruRail train to Poroy (Cuzco has no train station) - Bus from Poroy to hotel in Cuzco (hotel not included)

Dozens of emails were exchanged during the planning phase, -I- dindn’t think it was THAT complicated: 2 persons for Inka Trail and 1 person for the 2-day ‘Machu Picchu by Train’ excursion (meaning everything included above except the hike). One Hiker and the Solo Excursioner would share a room and the other Hiker would take a different room with single supplement.’ Not that hard, right?

‘NO, we are NOT starting in Cusco, we will all be in Ollantaytambo so we cannot swing by your office to pay in cash’, ‘No, C is NOT going to go on the same train to Aguas Calientes so how is he going to get his ticket?’, ‘No, we are not returning to Ollanta BUT we need our luggage picked up as we cannot take everything to Aguas Calientes....’ And on and on and on.

C did get a few phone calls at the hotel during departure morning with several slight changes of plan, BUT (spoiler alert!) at the end everything worked out without even the smallest glitch.

The bus from Alpaca Expeditions showed up at 5:40am already loaded with 15 other hikers coming from Cusco. The hotel had kindly offered to pack breakfasts for us, but I never expected to be presented with 3kg of stuff to carry with us. Alpaca had written that we needed to provide our own snacks and water for the hike so we were already carrying water, well sugared coca tea, and energy bars with us. The only thing still sadly missing was coffee but I thought I could get some by the station or on the train (if my stomach cooperated).

If there was coffee anywhere, I never saw it.

The train station was all kinds of madness and mayhem but everybody seemed to be used to it and we got into the correct car without problems. The attendant assigned to our car had some trouble trying to get a group of young adults to move as they refused to accept that it was not open seating and they needed to occupy their assigned seats so that the right person could get theirs.

The
‘kids’ (too old to be called this but certainly behaving like brats) feigned not to understand the attendant's English and refused to move. The PeruRail lady finally had to call for reinforcements and threaten to kick them off the train before they moved. They made life miserable for everyone around them until they fell asleep. Not nice people and utterly lacking in class.

The train makes a short stop by the KM104 marker; literarily in the middle of nowhere, there is not even a visible train station. Thankfully the announcements were clear and we had been instructed to get off when the train stopped. All day hikers got off and stood beside the tracks while the different companies gathered their people and shuffled guides/passengers around for final group assignments. Again, all very organized chaos.

To reach the trail first you walk over a hanging bridge to cross the Urubamba river and enter the park. Mercifully my stomach decided to release most of what was bothering it just as we were assembling in front of the last restrooms. As a precaution, I only took small sips of water and tiny bites of my energy bar during the morning. Thankfully, a run into the bushes was not necessary.

Our group leader was the super fun and awesome storyteller (though harsh taskmaster), Juan Carlos. Born and raised within the shadows of Machu Picchu mountain, he has worked for Alpaca almost since the company started. His job -herding people at very different levels of physical aptitude and attitudes- is not easy but he certainly made it seem so.

Bringing up the rear and my soon-to-be BFF, was the other guide, Christian. Unfortunately, he ‘had’ to give up his hiking poles because the ones we rented never showed up. A second pair was found for Baby Sis after some scrambling. I felt awful for Christian but there was no way I would have made that hike without poles to get me over the scarier bits.

Not more than 10 minutes into the trail we encountered the small ruins of Chachabamba. I loved this introductory site with its temples and carvings, but even more Juan Carlos’ explanation of Inca history, construction and symbology while also providing modern anthropological context from his personal background.

He then demanded that everyone strip down to the first layer they were wearing as most of us were still bundled up for the morning cold. Juan Carlos said that we would all be sweating like Swedes in a Sauna within 15 minutes and wanted to avoid having everyone stop individually at different times to remove soaking wet clothes and repacking them into backpacks. Before we moved on, he wanted to personally approve what each person subsequently layered on top and make sure that the rain coats were easily accessible at the top of the day packs. Heavy rain was expected later in the day and we were already walking in light fog.

Nothing to do about the weather but carry on.

In case anyone is remotely interested this is what I wore: a thin sports bra chosen for its wicking properties and flat shoulder straps that wouldn’t chaff under the backpack, a short sleeved dry-fit gym shirt and over that a light long sleeved zip-up running turtle neck. I never took the second layer or my cap off. On the bottom I wore a pair of horribly-fitting but perfect for moderate temperature hiking pants which I bought to hike the Camino de Santiago (best buy ever!). On my feet I used Injinji ‘toed’ socks under water-resistant light hiking boots.

Things I carried with me but never used: my nice and warm rain-resistant jacket (I briefly used the plastic poncho Alpaca provided as the heavy rain luckily never materialized), a spare but heavier turtle neck running shirt, neck warmer, gloves, sunglasses, extra pair of socks, insect repellent, and sun block to reapply during the day. I’m a girl from the tropics, being cold is not something I’m used to. I admit that I overprepared on that front.

The hike between Chachabamba and Winya Wayna does not cover a lot horizontal distance but it has 700m of NET altitude change (without adding regaining the height one has already climbed up when the path goes down) and Alpaca estimates 3 hours to complete this stage.

If I said I loved every minute of it, I would be lying. But it never got to the point that I wished I wasn’t doing it. Some step downs along the edge of the cliff were a little scary but not terrifying.

During this portion of the hike I was the last person of our group to arrive at the stops in the company of my BFF Christian. Yes, I was out of breath. But it wasn’t only that. I’m totally unable to walk on uneven terrain and observe my surroundings at the same time. I need to stop and LOOK.

Though the pace set by the guide was not overly aggressive, it was too fast for me to stop and take all the pictures I would have wanted along the way. I can understand their wish to keep the group as close together as possible, and that there were some crazy-fast hikers that were still bored with the (for them) slower pace.

Should we briefly discuss my fitness level to put things in perspective? I’m 5’-4” and weigh 150lbs (ok, maybe a little more, but not that much). I go to the gym a minimum of 3 times a week. When I’m there I do strength training, advanced pilates, yoga, Zumba (the heavy sweating kind though I'm sort of bad at it) and Xco (strength/cardio). My muscles were perfectly fine with this hike (well, the thighs burned towards the end) but I did not do enough cardio to be able complete the hike comfortably. Maybe if I had shed a couple extra pounds, hit the Stairmaster for longer time or gotten back into running, I would not have been as out of breath. Maybe. Or maybe I just don’t do well with altitude. Maybe.

Baby Sis suffered. She was working as a performer until two years ago and was ultra fit at the time. After her husband passed, she had to change careers (they had a joint act) and did not have the time (nor the energy) to keep it up. When she got to Peru, she had been going to the gym a few times a week to get in some cardio. Of course, bartending does count for upper body strength training but that was not what was needed for in this hike.

She pulled through (of course quitting is not really a viable option on the trail), but she suffered both during and after the hike. Let’s just say she might have underestimated the endurance (well, don’t we all?) part and leave it at that.

I don’t know what I expected but the lush, jungle landscape was a surprise to me. Bromeliads, begonias, ferns, and orchids highlighted the flora everywhere. Living in Puerto Rico, I’m very familiar with rain forest yet the varietals were and the steep landscape was different enough to fascinate me. Not for the first time I wished C was with me to enjoy this, he would have loved the views and the flowers (though not the exertion to see them for sure).

The temperature stayed in the upper 50˚F’s, perfect for hiking. It was very humid. Thick-air humid is at least something that I’m used to, so I did not suffer from it. The fog never got to the point of fully obscuring the views (and we caught a few VERY lucky breaks) but it ranged from thick enough not to see the valley bottom to just enough to impart that perfect dreamy quality to the pictures.

When we made it to Wiña Wayna we could barely see the top of the ruins, everything was hidden in the fog. The Rainbow/Seven Window Temple was set against thick clouds. The good thing was that since we arrived ahead of schedule due to group’s fast pace, we spent enough time to catch a full break in the clouds and get the amazing views. WOW. This site is simply awe striking. Its verticality is simply mind blowing! The incredibly steep terraces run almost from the valley floor to the mountain top. I don’t know why but the setting almost reminded me of Delphi in Greece (with significant and obvious differences), maybe in the way the site opens itself up into the valley.

The other good thing? We had it almost all to ourselves. Only hikers make it up here!
You can visit Winya Wayna (there are many alternate spellings) as part of the standard 4-day Inka Trail, climb straight up from Chachabamba through the ‘shortcut’ like we did, or you can hike back to it from Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate (you will need to purchase a permit on the trail for this).

This visit made the entire hike worthwhile. Down to the last drop of stinky sweat and thigh tremors.

Alpaca Expeditions has its Day #3 Camp less than 5 minutes away from Winya Wayna. Since we had been told to bring our snacks, I was not expecting to be fed. Boy, was I wrong! Add those snacks (with exception of a single energy bar) to the things I carried which were not needed. The provided extra potable water to refill our bottles, also unexpected.

They have a semi-permanent structure surrounded by tents and another building further down with rudimentary bathrooms (think barely flushing Turkish toilets; still an unexpected luxury on a hike like this). I flip-flopped on whether to eat the lunch they offered or not. My stomach had made loud noised the entire morning but had not troubled me actively. But it still felt a iffy. Of course, being a glutton, I went for it anyway because everything looked so good.

A quinoa soup was served first (a meal in Peru is not a meal without soup) and then a surprising array of platters were brought to be served family style. We had roasted chicken, rice, avocados with a topping pepper and peas, broccoli and cauliflower, roasted potatoes, choclo (gigantic corn nibbles), and probably a whole bunch of thins I don’t remember now. Everything was delicious and incredibly fresh.

I made myself a small plate and ate just enough to feel ‘fed’ but not full. I’m happy to report that my belly did not rebel against my recklessness. I kept sipping at my coca tea (helps with tummy troubles).

Now, a lot of feet were dragging (not only mine) when we had to restart the hike after the meal was finished. I do not like to eat much lunch on any given day, so it was weird to have it in the middle of a hike. Honestly, I could eaten another energy bar and have entirely skipped this meal in favor of taking it slower on the trail.

The second section of the hike, from Wiña Wayna to Inti Punko only takes 1 hour and is supposedly flat. It is not. Ok, it is not as steep as the previous section but while the NET gain might only be 20m, there are lots of ups and downs. At least your quadriceps get a break. The difficulty of the terrain here is not high…. Until you come to the pièce de résistance and want to die: The Monkey Steps (aka The Gringo Killer).

Truth be told, it is more of morale killer than a physical challenge. The problem with this section of the trail is that you come unexpectedly to this WALL of 18” high and 5” wide steps disappearing into a crevice. You are tired, the thighs are flaming from all the climbing and you can’t tell for how long this fresh new hell is going to go on for. But it is not too long and they are not that bad.

I unashamedly handed my poles to the Christian (technically these were HIS poles) and scrambled up the ladder (calling it a stair is a bit of a stretch) on hands and knees. Not long after (thighs still trembling) we made it to the Sun Gate.


The Weather Gods once again were merciful and we walked through Inti Punko when the fog was light enough to get an OK view. And then, and for not more than 3 minutes, the magic happened: the clouds parted: we could SEE Machu Pichu in all its glory way below us. Way below us. Wayyyyyyyy below us. Yeah… we still had to get there.

When the fog rolled back in you could not see more than 50m in any direction.
The hikers arriving behind us got greeted by a solid wall of white. That must have been the most of anti-climaxing ending to a hike. Everyone advised them to wait it out, but I don’t think they ever got a good break.

Now, the only worse thing than hiking UP on exhausted legs is hiking DOWN on a slippery stony path on exhausted legs. At least different muscles joined the effort. Hello hamstrings! Making our way down the last 300m with tiny, tiny steps took longer than the 1 hour we had been told it would. But maybe it just was that we stopped to gawk down onto Machu Picchu at every switchback and viewpoint.

It took my breath away. And this time it was not lack of oxygen on the bloodstream.

Any visitor with a modicum of appreciation for natural beauty, architecture and feats of human endeavor will be rendered speechless by Machu Picchu any way it is approached. But to see is first from above! All its elegance and mightiness was revealed in the soft afternoon light against the backdrop of Wayna Picchu.

I was awestruck; moved to bottom of my core. I was HERE. Not only was I setting foot in a place I had dreamed of visiting since I was a child, I had come here by the power of my own two feet. I HAD MADE IT. Tears of joy came to my eyes.

Well, maybe exhaustion might have had a little to do with it but I’m ok with that, lol.

Coming into the park as through hikers, we were not supposed to tour the site. Though we did not go into the citadel itself, we certainly took our time (and many, many pictures) from the upper cultivation terraces as we made our way down. And down. And down.

Now that the exciting part of the day was over, the only thing I wanted was a long, hot shower. I was sticky, dirty and sweaty. But my major complaint was the I stank. I smelled like sweat that had dried out 3 times over and gotten sweated through again each time (maybe because it HAD). I stank as if a mammoth had died a week ago in the backyard. It was bad and I just could not stand the smell of myself any longer.

But I had to. Because we were not there yet.

We still had to get in line (mercifully short at 4:00pm) to get into the bus that would take us from the site down to Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu Pueblo. That ride takes about 1/2 hour and goes through I don’t even care to estimate how many switchbacks. Though it IS a pretty ride, BabySis’ stomach was not happy with all the turns.


BTW, she stank too. Not that I could really smell it over the stench emanating from my own body, but she claimed she did.

Getting up after the bus ride was not fun. Only the thought of that hot shower put enough humph into my legs to get them to work again. But we were STILL not there yet.

Aguas Calientes is a pedestrian town and it is not as tiny as I thought it was. Our guides took a route that allowed them to drop off guests by their hotels. Of course, the ones which had paid to have the upgrade got to first because it turns out that the closer to the bus/train station, the nicer the hotels are. The not-as-nice hotels are further away, and UPHILL. As in really, really uphill. Seriously!?!?

I can put up with a lot of discomfort when I expect it and have the chance to shore myself up for it. I was not expecting this almost ½ hour uphill walk on top everything we had done that day. I was not a happy camper.

But we made it to La Cabaña Hotel (included in the package we bought), where most of our group was staying and almost at the very top of the main tourist area. The wonderful thing was that since C had arrived early in afternoon, I could bypass the check-in process and go straight to my room! I was submerged under a lusciously warm shower while most of my tour mates were still by the front desk digging out their passports.

The package from Alpaca also included a group dinner. Not a bad thing by itself but we had made it to the hotel by 5:45 pm and their reservation at El Indio Feliz restaurant was by 7:00 pm. No time to power nap, barely enough to adequately remove the stench from one’s skin. I briefly considered flaking out in favor of something closer, but C would balk at bypassing an already-paid for meal.

The décor at Indio Felíz super cool, the food was good (though too much, too soon after the day’s exertion), and even the company was highly enjoyable. But the truth was that everyone was tired. It took forever to order (probably didn’t, but it just felt like that), get the food, and wait politely until everyone was done eating (again, this might just be tiredness speaking). The second it was civil to excuse ourselves, we asked for the bill (drinks were not included), got a head start to pay it downstairs and beat a hasty retreat back to the hotel.

On top of that, we had been told over dinner that we had to get up again at the butt crack of dawn because several of the tour mates were going to hike up to Huayna Picchu and the official tour of Machu Pichu needed to be over by 11:00am so that they could go up.

Way to put a damper on celebratory imbibing.

Still it was one of the most wonderful of all the travel days I’ve had. Sharing it with BabySis was an added joy. I have always been wary of high expectations because I think that they are the gate through which disappointment enters. But for once, the experience of the Inca Trail and of coming into Machu Picchu from above met my crazy high expectations, and even surpassed them.

My 50th Birthday Celebration Year was getting of to an excellent start.

------------------------------------------------------------

Next: Machu Picchu from Below and Cusco from Above
marigross is offline  
Jan 25th, 2019, 10:46 AM
  #48  
 
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Congrats!
mlgb is offline  
Jan 25th, 2019, 11:49 AM
  #49  
 
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A fantastically descriptive account Marigross, thanks so much for sharing your experience (and your pain!). What a way to start a milestone birthday year!!
crellston is offline  
Jan 26th, 2019, 10:44 AM
  #50  
 
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Amazing description - thanks for all of the detail! Still following.
havetwinswilltravel is offline  
Feb 2nd, 2019, 09:46 AM
  #51  
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Thank you everyone! I need to get this report done before we take off to Spain so after the next installment I hope to skip the ramblings...

My 50th Year is shaping to be the absolute BEST! Some wonderful things are in the making.
marigross is offline  
Feb 2nd, 2019, 11:30 AM
  #52  
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Day 9 - Machu Picchu from Below and Cusco from All Sides

I’m a sound sleeper and a morning person. I don’t mind getting up early 99.9% of the time. Today was within the other 0.1% and when the alarm sounded at 4:15am, I was not a happy camper.

I had slept some, but the paper-thin walls of La Cabaña had carried ALL the sounds guests made during the night. I think that the people were actually trying to be quiet, but it was simply impossible. Doors clicking, toilets flushing, steps creaking, snoring, ____ing, phones pinging, etc. interrupted everyone's sleep at one time or another.

First thing was to try out the legs as I gingerly stepped away from the bed. Feet? Ok, no blisters or plantar discomfort. Calves? Yes, a little sore but not anywhere close to bad. Knees? No problem. Thighs? Fine. Back? Good. Shoulders? Yeah... a little sore from carrying the backpack. So much to my surprise, there was NO pain! I literarily sent a Thank You text to the awesome lady that teaches the Lower Body Strengthening class that attend every Monday.

My stomach on the other hand, meh. I will not blame the food for my GI discomfort for several reasons: I had stressed about the hike and I know I have a nervous stomach, these were not the violent stomach cramps/dumping which would go with food poisoning, and I’ve had episodes of diarrhea after long and strenuous exercises (i.e. half-marathons). I popped an Immodium and hoped for the best as there are no restroom facilities within Machu Picchu.

BabySis waddled downstairs on sore, wobbly legs. She is a light sleeper and the noise had kept her up most of the night. To top things of, she was also experiencing GI distress. With stronger symptoms, poor thing.

The hotel offered as part of their standard service to keep our backpacks and deliver them to the train station half an hour before our scheduled departure.
We checked in C’s with all the heavier stuff and took mine along as a daypack.

They had also prepared breakfast bags to go since we would be leaving before their morning service started. Same as in the train from Ollantaytambo to MP, 90% of this food went uneaten and was just thrown into the garbage. Given my uncertain stomach, I decided to fast until after the tour at the very earliest.

The level of waste generated from these breakfast ‘perks’ is simply beyond senseless. Thankfully we were able to give ours away. If I ever get to reporting about our days in the Altiplano, you will read our enraged rants about the garbage marring the landscape. The magnitude of this problem is mind boggling! It is heartbreaking to see plastic bags flying and water bottles rolling around in the wind in the middle of such spectacular scenery.

We had been told to be standing in the bus line by 5:00am, even though they don’t start running until 5:30. We were there by 4:55am and were the first to arrive from our group. There were at least 300 people in front of us.

Some of the tour mates reported that the ‘nicer’ hotels they had upgraded to did not have water during the night or did not have hot water for showers in the morning. I’d rather put up with some noise that deal with lack of water. My mental rating of La Cabaña’s just went up 1 full point, lol, though this could be a matter of sheer luck.

Two other people in the tour called the guide to say they were not going to make it, as they were having bad GI problems. Afterwards I found out that their entrance tickets had been delivered to the hotel and one of them visited the site on her own later that morning. Later that day we compared notes on who had eaten what and could not find any common thread given the difference of when the symptoms started and the intensity of the illness. I'm still standing by my theory that all this GI problems were caused by strenuous exercise at high altitude rather than something we ate or touched.

The Machu Picchu transportation service is a well-oiled machine and they know how to move people FAST. They pre-checked all the tickets as people were standing in line. These were stamped so that the ticket holder could board the bus without further verification. Once the first bus of the morning loaded, we were not in line for more than 15 minutes. All very efficient.

The ride up to the park was magical. As we higher the mountain peaks emerged from the cloud cover, lit by the first silver rays of sunrise and swimming amongst as sea of white. None of the pictures I took did any justice to this majestic spectacle.

OTOH, BabySis did not appreciate the view as much since she was trying her best not to lose the contents of her stomach when the bus turned on the many switchbacks.

One of the most important things you need to know about visiting Machu Picchu is that there are no bathrooms inside the park. NONE. If someone needs to go mid-visit, some pre-exit negotiations will be required so that one is allowed back in. If. To complicate things a little bit further, they have recently implemented a one-way flow for the visit, so one cannot walk back easily to rejoin you group.

The bottomline is that the duration of visits to the site is often determined by bladder capacity or the intensity of bowel movements (the later being critical with so many people experiencing GI issues). Watch your water intake and make sure you visit the facilities before entering. I was glad I did.

The second most important thing you need to know is that removing your shirt in Machu Picchu will immediately result in being kicked out summarily out of the park. There is ZERO tolerance for being bare-chested. You would think ‘what are the chances?’ Right? Ha. Think of all those ultramacho Instagram poster and Influencer wannabes. Yeah.

We actually saw when a guy was physically escorted out of the park, furiously screaming, within 5 minutes of taking his shirt off to pose for pictures with the Citadel in the background. One guy in our group almost got it as well when he was (rather rudely) changing his t-shirt to the one given by the tour. Our guide blanched immediately, screamed at him to put it back on and then had to intervene to prevent him from being expelled. They are dead serious about this.

I thought that since this was ‘technically’ a second visit to the site, I would not be as impressed. Wrong.

The approach to the House of the Guardians, bathed in the soft golden sunrise set against the bright blue sky and the white clouds billowing in the valley underneath simply took my breath away. It was a dreamy landscape. Perfect for when dreams come true. I was moved to tears.

There is not much I can write about Machu Picchu that has not been said before, just add my voice to the choir that sings: get a guide. Our visit was enriched in so many ways by Juan Carlos’ commentary! We got so much more than we would have on our own with a book or audioguide.

One out of a hundred examples I could give was when he pointed out the coca leaves that had been offered to the Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) by locals during their visit. Seeing those leaves lovingly placed on the ground -a detail I might have completely overlooked- at the Temple of the Condor and understanding in situ their significance as a prayer for the souls of their dearly departed to be safely carried up to the afterlife, opened a rift through the centuries for me. I could suddenly FEEL the centuries through which people had stood at this very same site with the very same prayer in their hearts. And these sites are still very much held sacred by many Peruvians. I was blown away.

By the time the tour made it to the Sacred Plaza Baby Sis had had enough. As much as a once-in-a-lifetime experience as this was, when you don't feel well you don't feel well and that's it. She needed the restroom and a place to rest until it was time for the group to go out. Another member of the group had already bailed out and returned to check back into the hotel.

The tour lasted more than 3 hours and we enjoyed every minute of it. The brave souls that had tickets to go up to Huayna Picchu took off (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) to meet their entry time for the ascent. Theoretically we had some free time but in reality we could not go back and re-start the visit (my plan) on our own because of the one-way flow thing. And we were tired from the early start to the day. So we were done around 10:00am and back in Aguas Calientes well before 11:00am.

Juan Carlos had instructed us to meet in a restaurant by 2:00pm for regrouping and lunch before our departure. We all had reservations in the 3:40pm train back to Cusco except for the one guy that had taken it upon himself to change his ticket to the earlier train (so this IS possible) so that he could meet a friend for dinner.

Four hours is a loooooong time to kill when one is tired. And though we were not nearly as stinky or sweaty as the day before, taking off the boots and having a nice long shower would have been nice at that point.

We plunked down in a restaurant by the plaza to sip on some coca tea and enjoyed watching the school kids practice their marching for an upcoming parade. BabySis decided to stay put but C and I took off to walk around. Much to our surprise, Aguas Calientes had a lot of nooks and crannies to explore. The food market by itself provided entertainment for a large chunk of time.

After that we all went to the meeting place to have a soup, recharge the phones, and use their (not so great) wifi. BabySis napped on their couch until it was time to leave. Next it was time to leave.

The train ride from Machu Picchu Pueblo to Poroy (train stop closest to Cusco) takes 3.5hrs. I would have really liked to take the earlier train as the scenery was impressive and the ride through towns interesting but we missed most of this because of the early sunset.

Somehow, our guide Christian turned up by the train station to collect all the people, so there IS another (seemingly quicker and definitely cheaper) way to get from MP to Cusco. From Poroy to Cusco there is a ~30min drive through the outskirts of the city. Though Christian was a careful driver, going into town was still a chaotic experience.

My first impression of the outskirts of Cusco cas confirmed. This place comes at you from all sides. People, cars, buses, animals... It is madness and mayhem but it is THEIR madness and mayhem. And they love it. Once I got myself out of my sanitized 'first-world' mindset I could begin to see signs that I could learn to love it too.

We made a stop at the Alpaca Expeditions depot where we were happily (and somewhat surprised to be) reunited with the rest of our luggage before changing drivers and proceeding into town.

Our hotel, El Andariego, is located on a one-way street. We were dropped off in the corner and pointed out where to walk to. Naturally uphill. Thank God we travel light. I was expecting to be taken directly to the front door so I was not prepared for this and I did not have the address, only a vague memory of an email which said that the hotel was not directly on the street. We couldn't find it on our first walk of the block.

Oh, and I had no internet on my phone. I was soooooo not a happy camper. It took a good 10 minutes of wandering and regrouping before we collected our collective wits enough to find the place.

It is a really nice small hotel.... once you finally find the door, go through the dodgy first courtyard and get buzzed into the second courtyard. This was definitely not what C and I call the 'Mariott experience'. A term we use enviously when we tire of our low/mid-budget and sometimes high-effort-to-get-to hotels. There is a story to go along with this term involving a closeby Mariott with parking and the uphill hotel in a pedestrian zone in which we had made a non-cancellable reservation in Xátiva, but I'm trying not to ramble.

Let's just say that BabySis was highly skeptical about my choice of hotel, lol. To make her even more uncomfortable, there was a sign by the check in counter warning people to beware of pickpockets and general crime, and advising guests to let the hotel staff know where they would be during the day and when to expect them back just in case they ran into trouble. C and I did not even blink, we have seen signs like this before. Even in Barcelona, lol.

But BabySis was NOT a happy camper. My rating as travel planner plummeted.

We completed the check in, dropped our stuff and decided to just grab something quick to eat so that we could crash ASAP.

Not more than 50m from the hotel was Los Toldos Chicken. Peruvians LOVE roasted chicken. Packed with locals, it offered roasted chicken, French fries and salad bar. Perfect. Just what we wanted.

We pondered whether or not we should partake of the salad bar given (a) that salad bars are inherently petri dishes for food-bourn illnesses, (b) none of our stomachs were 100% ok to start out with, (c) there were lots of teens messing around with the food, and (d) it was late in the evening so they were not really replacing the good stuff once it ran out. More sensible people might have avoided it entirely. We didn’t.

I’m happy to report that we even enjoyed our food and had no worsening of tummy troubles from it.

BabySis was wilting but did not want to walk back to the hotel by herself so we did not linger. El Andariego met all the criteria required at that precise moment: good water pressure, endless reserves of steaming hot water, a comfortable bed, and reasonably fast wifi. Within minutes of touching head to pillow we were fast asleep. I should have added ‘good heat’ to the requirements….

-----------------------------------------

Next: Catacombs, Shelter in the Rain, A Beautiful Meal, and BabySis’ Last Full Day
marigross is offline  
Feb 2nd, 2019, 06:12 PM
  #53  
 
Join Date: Jan 2005
Posts: 17,935
So funny to see Los Toldos mentioned. I had forgotten the name, but it sounded familiar, so looked at their photos on the internet and can report that on my first trip to Peru I ate from the Los Toldos salad bar with no ill results!

It is so hard to say how you get a stomach issue, could be something you touched, or something you ate two days prior, or altitude. (Possibly also some places not using the commercially bottled water, but rather boiling insufficiently is another theory so maybe something you drank on the hike). Some people have guts that are just better able to handle strange bacteria. I read some statistic re the % of people who have problems in Aguas Calientes, and it's big!

Last edited by mlgb; Feb 2nd, 2019 at 07:11 PM.
mlgb is offline  
Feb 3rd, 2019, 05:32 AM
  #54  
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mlgb, I think that with the amount of people going through Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu, each carrying their own local germs and with different levels of personal hygiene standards, it is only logical that the numbers are high. Somewhat like major airports, yuk.

I have a pretty sturdy gut. C not as much. He had 3 different bouts of diarrhea and I had 2 while we were in Peru, never both at the same time. All resolved within a day with fasting and Immodium. During our longer trips he has also experienced what I call a 'restaurant stomach' where he gets awful heartburn and gas from eating too much rich food (as opposed to leaner home cooking). This did not happen in Peru, 3 weeks of restaurant eating and not a single episode of heartburn. Go figure.

I did drink a lot of 'boiled' water from the hotels as I try as hard as I can to avoid single-use plastic bottles, might have had something to do with it. C barely drinks plain water, but he had a lot tea. Or maybe it's like Mexico where germs get the blame for people getting sick when it is mostly caused by slightly different pH in the water. I guess, well, never know.
marigross is offline  
Feb 24th, 2019, 09:35 AM
  #55  
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Cusco Day 1 and Kisses Goodbye

El Andariego’s breakfast was beautifully laid out and provided enough options to linger around for a much longer time than we usually would. BabySis’ calves were still hurting and she was lagging behind in enthusiasm but this was the only full day she would have in Cusco; we had to go see things. Yes, my name Mari and I’m a Trip Nazi.

The hotel’s location has a big (BIG) plus: it is less than a 5 minute walk from the main plaza and it is on the flat(ish) area of Cusco. I was very happy not to have selected a highly recommended hotel in the San Blás area. C would have never forgiven me all those steps.

The things we did, basically following Lonely Planet’s walking circuit:

- Cathedral: No pictures allowed. Loved it. It has a lot of interesting art and devotional objects. Here is the famous Last Supper painting in which cuy is the main dish AND the face of Pizarro is used to portray Judas. The sculpture of Our Lord of Earthquakes, patron of Cusco, with its fascinating history is the most venerated effigy in the temple. He was very clear in my mind the next morning when everything started shaking in Cusco. Oy.

- Plaza de Armas: One of the most aesthetically balanced (ok, prettiest) public spaces anywhere. Loved how the mountains are the perfect backdrop for the buildings all around. The intricated wooden balconies are beautiful. One could linger here if not for the endless stream of tour vendors.

-Plaza del Regocijo: another beautiful and lively space with bright blue balconies. We walked over to make a dinner reservation at Chicha for the evening.

- Convento de San Francisco: Guided visits only and photos only allowed in the public spaces. BabySis had never visited catacombs so she was interested in this visit. It was interesting and the guide was knowledgeable and entertaining enough if one is an interested listener. We were all happy with the visit.

- Streets around the Market: fascinating, crowded, chaotic, and visually exhilarating. A bit overwhelming for BabySis whom had not been exposed to Mari’s Cultural Immersion Itineraries before, lol. I took hundreds of pictures.

- Stone of the 12 Angles: amazing stonework throughout Cusco. The actual stone would be hard to find if not for the Inca-costumed (as opposed to authentic traditional garb) guy waiting for people to take pictures with him.

Lunch was at LA DIVINA PATRICIA, a non-descript restaurant filled with mostly locals enjoying their mid day meal. It was selected at totally random by C (he is a restaurant whisperer) for us to duck out of the rain. This restaurant embodies everything we loved about eating in Peru: incredibly fresh ingredients, tasty preparations, and unbeatable prices. For 10 soles each, we had the ‘menú’ which included a small ceviche, a soup, and an entrée.

Two of us had ‘tallarines a la huacaína’ (spaghetti in a spicy sauce) and the other had a ‘lomo saltado’ (beef sauté) with rice and potatoes. Everything was delicious and way much more food than we would normally eat for lunch.

Dinner was at Gastón Acurio’s Chicha. I will start by saying that C was not feeling well, we were all tired, and we were not overly hungry after our big lunch. The restaurant was overheated to the point of removing every non-essential piece of clothing and I did not find the seating to be particularly comfortable (cushions on the bench were constantly sliding). Not a very auspicious beginning.

Having gotten the not-so-good stuff out of the way I will add that the place is beautifully decorated and we would not have been seated on a Friday night without reservations. They were very busy. All items on the bread basket were utterly delicious. We shared an appetizer of alpaca carpaccio dressed with an ‘andean pestp’, so beautifully plated I could hang a picture of it on a wall and equally delicious. This was hands down the winning dish of the night.

The second place went to BabySis’ grilled alpaca served with a quinoa mock ‘risotto’ and it was to die for. I ordered the cuy served with crushed potatoes. The cuy was excellent with golden crispy skin and tender meat. BUT I could not eat the side dish. Green olives are one of the very few things I do not like, to the point where I have a hard time swallowing them. They were not mentioned in the dish description and I almost spit out the potatoes when I put them in my mouth. This was not a failure of the dish, it is just something I do not like and I neglected to inform the waiter when he asked if there was anything we did not eat. Still it ruined it for me. My bad.

C was visibly wilting as dinner progressed. He took one look at his massive dish of mixed meats and vegetables and lost most of his enthusiasm for dinner. Again, this was not the restaurant’s fault, just a reflection of his not feeling well. I ate some of his and everything was great tasting but it was way too much food even for a hungry single person.

Since it was BabySis’ last dinner of the trip, she decided to order dessert. A Peruvian chocolate souffle served with muña ice cream; a minty/lemongrassy herb. OMG. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth but it was heavenly.

Just in case I never get around to it, our dinner in Chicha at their Arequipa location was one of the best crafted meals of our entire trip. Absolutely delicious with very sophisticated flavors. Highly recommended.

After that we were done. We walked back to the hotel (mercifully close at a downward slope) and kissed BabySis goodbye as she would be leaving the next morning at an ungodly hour. At least we would be seeing her soon, not so hard to say goodbye after such great memories were made AND we only had a few weeks to go before her visit home.
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