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Still Going Places: The Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Cusco & Lima


May 28th, 2014, 09:06 AM
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Still Going Places: The Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, Cusco & Lima


Yes, the heart will always go one step too far...

There was a song that kept running through my mind in the last day before our Peru trip began, and for the first few days after our arrival. It’s a song called “Go Places” by the New Pornographers, with lyrics by Carl Newman and Neko Case.

And now, as I search my memories to pick through the pieces to place together in our trip report, I’m reminded of that song once again.

...Come the morning and the four corners I see
What the moral of the back story could be
Come with me,
Go places...

After more than a quarter-century of marriage, through the challenges of two full-time careers and a daughter in college, our shared love of world travel is one of the sparks that helps keep ms_go and myself alight. We have a great deal of passion for seeing the world, and for each other...and those two things tend to go hand in hand, through the years. Come with me, go places.

Let me begin by saying there are hundreds of very good reasons to visit this corner of the world. There are a ton of good reasons to visit just Cusco and the Sacred Valley alone. And it needs to be said, hiking the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu has been at or near the very top of our shared “bucket list” for a very long time... so clearly, there was no shortage of good reasons for us to live this experience as well.

But if, like us, you are on the north side of 50 years old and have never done something like this before, one of those reasons has to be to prove to yourself (and to each other) that you can still do it. Assuming you ever could in the first place.

In general, we knew it was going to be a challenge. We had no idea how either one of us would react to the high altitude. To say nothing of the steep uphill climbs leading to steep descents, neither of which are to be easily found in our native Illinois. Or the rocky, uneven terrain. With fully loaded packs on our backs. Sometimes in the rain. Sleeping in tents, in the thin and frosty cold air. For days at a time.

So, let’s be perfectly honest for just a moment. The unspoken question of “are we really up to this challenge?” was lingering in the air when we started. At least, in my mind it was.

The short answer to that question is yes.

The long answer is the rest of this trip report. We invite you to take the journey with us.
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May 28th, 2014, 09:54 AM
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Looking forward to your report, glad you survived!
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May 28th, 2014, 10:12 AM
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Our overall itinerary

A few mundane details and bits of context while we're working on the more interesting part of this...

We had about 11-12 days to play with. Any more than that, unfortunately, is a stretch right now when it comes to time off work. Given that, we allocated our time as follows:

Lima: one night @ Costa del Sol at the Lima Airport, following late evening arrival from the United States

Cusco: three nights @ Rumi Punku to acclimate to altitude before the trek

Inca Trail, three nights and four days, operated by Enigma Peru; this was the centerpiece of the trip and the first thing we booked, and everything else was arranged around it

Aguas Calientes, one night @ Casa del Sol following the trek to give us more time at Machu Picchu, as well as the option to climb Huayna Picchu if we so desired at the time (we had the ticket, but did we have the legs left to do it??)

Cusco, two nights @ Rumi Punku; we chose to go back here rather than a Sacred Valley destination, such as Ollantaytambo, for simplicity’s sake and the ability to store most of our luggage

Lima: one night @ Casa Andina Private Collection in Miraflores to allow a day of sightseeing in Lima (and a buffer for any flight issues) prior to our late night departure back to the United States

We’ll comment on each hotel further down in the report, but overall, we were very happy with our choices.

Of course, we missed out on spending time in the Sacred Valley (other than a day at Pisac), but time constraints are what they are, and we will add that to the long list of future destinations. On the other hand, we saw some fascinating and different things on our trek. For instance, having the beautiful site of Wiñay Wayna all to ourselves was pretty spectacular:
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May 28th, 2014, 10:17 AM
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Acclimating to altitude

We’ve hiked in mountains before, but we’ve never spent substantial time at this high an altitude, aside from a couple of hours walking at the top of Haleakala some years back. Our daughter spent three weeks in Peru (Huancayo & Cusco area) last year and did have some issues with altitude during her first few days in Huancayo.

Conventional wisdom would suggest heading first to the Sacred Valley, which is a bit lower than Cusco. While we were concerned, we were swayed more by the convenience of having one hotel before and after our trek, so that we could store luggage. And Cusco seemed like a more logical point given our other sightseeing interests and for ease of coming and going.

mr_go began a course of Diamox just as we departed on the trip and didn’t have any altitude issues. I did nothing, other than take it a little easy the first day and ensure that I stayed hydrated, and I also had no issues. We consider ourselves fortunate.
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May 28th, 2014, 10:21 AM
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And here are some photos in the meantime...

This is still a bit of a work in progress--as time permits, we're adding captions, organizing and fixing some initial fast editing issues.
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May 28th, 2014, 10:42 AM
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Probably as good a time as any to mention this... our trip reports and photo albums are a collaborative effort. As always.
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May 28th, 2014, 10:55 AM
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Great start - keep it coming!!
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May 28th, 2014, 11:24 AM
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That's a fabulous picture #9 on day 3. It shows how steep some of those stairs can be.
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May 28th, 2014, 11:44 AM
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Very true, coldie... and you would know, too!

btw, that's ms_go coming down the steps (with the wacky Brit honeymooner photo-pbombing the shot...more on him later).
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May 28th, 2014, 11:54 AM
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Can't wait to hear/see more. We did almost the same trip (even using Enigma) in September 2013!
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May 28th, 2014, 01:45 PM
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As one who also did the Inca Trail in middle age I understand the challenge. I can't wait to read more.
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May 28th, 2014, 01:56 PM
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Thanks for sharing and for the invitation to take the journey with you.. much easier here on Fodors than IRL

Machu Picchu has been hovering at the top of our to do list forever it seems and my DH definitely doesn't have the knees for the Inca Trail anymore (one soccer injury too many).. and like I said I don't camp

The photos are terrific as usual!
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May 28th, 2014, 02:16 PM
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If someone had mentioned the mule of shame bailout I might have tried it before turning the big 60... although there is still the heights/vertigo thing.
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May 28th, 2014, 02:19 PM
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Welcome back. I'm following along your report and enjoying it as well. Love your photos too. Making the journey myself in less than two months' time and cannot wait.
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May 28th, 2014, 02:35 PM
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mlgb, I am also terrified of heights and have a weird fear of losing my footing going down stairs...regular stairs, not to mention steep, uneven, slippery stairs that are hundreds of years old and not even big enough for my entire foot I did make it...not always quickly...but I made it. And actually, the heights issue really didn't bother me too much, to be honest, even when the trail had a steep drop to one side. I have a much worse time, say, in tall church/clock towers in Europe.
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May 28th, 2014, 05:16 PM
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I'd like to blame our not doing the trail on having a little one along. But those stairs... and not having a properly made knee on one side... I think it was probably the right choice for us. But I'm full of wonder all the same.

Loving the report and the pictures!
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May 28th, 2014, 07:53 PM
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My hats off to you ms_go. I get that same feeling (but am okay if there is a wall or handrail. At Pisac, I imagine you came to that long flight of steps there between terraces? I had to have a hand on a wall or I could not take a step.

sassy_cat, you do know that you can reach MP by a train and then a bus from Aguas Calientes, right? You won't have bragging rights but it is still wonderful.
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May 29th, 2014, 04:30 AM
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We're seriously thinking of a trip to Peru next year. I have a bad knee (which apparently isn't a good candidate for surgery or injections), so that's my excuse for not planning to do the Inca trail. I think we'll be doing the bus from Aguas Calientes, but it's fun to read about others' trips.
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May 29th, 2014, 05:12 AM
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mlgb, I'd almost forgotten about the steps at Pisac after the Inca Trail!

The capital of a lost empire

After an overnight at the Lima airport hotel, which was not really notable for anything other than the convenience and the long line for a free welcome drink at 11:30 pm, we begin in Cusco...

Come head on, full circle, our arms filled with miracles...

To the traveler with a discerning eye and an awareness of history, Cusco is a genuinely miraculous place. First of all, for a big city, it’s unfathomably high up in the air... about 11,200 feet. That’s more than twice as high as Denver, for instance. This is why visitors are encouraged in the strongest terms to relax, take it easy, don’t eat heavily and don’t drink alcohol for the first day or two.

But the truly remarkable thing about Cusco is its historic center. It was laid out and built by the Incas hundreds of years ago, and the streets are still the same. They’re still right where they were. The Spanish conquerors of the 1500s razed the buildings along these streets and put up Spanish colonial architecture on top of the sturdy, well-crafted stone foundations... but those foundations still line the streets and rise to a height of 5 to 10 feet. One of the most notable is at the Archbishop’s Palace. If you squint your eyes in just the right way, you can still tell what this city must have looked like before all the guys with guns came along. Our own hotel, the Rumi Punku, was on one of these original streets... and its front doorway was framed by a massive stone arch that must have led to an important or sacred site in ancient times.

Smack dab in the middle of the historic center is the Plaza de Armas, which was originally the ceremonial center of the Inca capital. This large and gorgeous town square is flanked by impressive and historic churches and more than its fair share of touristy bars, restaurants and shops. It’s a great place to sit in the sun and absorb the atmosphere, if not for the touts that approach you every 30 seconds or so pitching everything from knit hats to massages to “art” (including art produced by all relations of Pablo Picasso, as well as the man, himself) to shoe shines. Small lesson learned: wear TOMs (they make them for men and women); easy to pack and the shoe shiners won’t bother you.

Over the course of our five partial days, we paid visits to:
*The Cathedral and Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús, both impressive outside and stunning inside (no inside photos allowed in either, sorry), particularly the intricate woodwork
*Qorikancha/Santo Domingo, the church and monastery built on top of Incan ruins (one of our favorites; don’t miss)
*San Pedro market, source for everything from pigs’ heads to local food to baby alpaca (or “maybe alpaca”…an inside joke) souvenirs; we came here a couple of times, mostly for photos rather than purchases
*ChocoMuseo…okay, only a visit to the gift shop part, which sells, among other things, chocolate lotion and chocolate condoms (we only bought chocolate bars)

Other than that, we did a lot of wandering and admiring the old and older architecture, the various public squares and the diverse street life—stretching from the hills above San Blas and up to Saqsaywaman all the way to the Convento de la Merced. There are a variety of good museums in Cusco, but we planned these for bad weather moments—of which we had none.

Too much time here? No, not really. Remember, our five days were divided between two stays…three initial days punctuated with visits to some of the area’s Inca sites and then back full circle following our time on the trail.

It is a very laid back place. Good for wandering. Good for relaxing before and after a long trek. And good for eating and drinking…more on that shortly.

Cusco photos:
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May 29th, 2014, 06:33 AM
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Rumi Punku

There are a variety of other higher-end hotels around Cusco, including a cluster just a block or two away on the Plaza las Nazarenas. But we can’t say enough good things about this place. We typically pick 3-4 star, independent hotels in our various travels, and this fit the bill perfectly!

Once inside an imposing and impressive Inca doorway…

…the hotel is a cluster of buildings around several attractive and peaceful courtyards.

Our double superior room was spacious and comfortable and included free wi-fi (strained connection at times but it worked). They put packages of ear plugs by the beds, but we never needed them—we found it to be nice and quiet at night. The fountain in the courtyard outside our room added a nice touch.

Service was low key and very helpful. We knew it would go well when our e-mail queries a week or two before the trip were answered within about 10 minutes.

There’s a nice sitting room adjacent to the check-in lobby, and the breakfasts were plenty substantial. Apparently, there’s a small gym as well, and a roof terrace, but we didn’t even get around to looking at those.

Perhaps our favorite thing about the hotel, though, was the location. It is a short walk (5-10 minutes) to the Plaza de Armas, but up the hill just far enough to be away from the crowds and the touts.

$130 per night.
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