Nice muggy picture of the plaza… the weather luckily got a bit nicer.

I didn’t have a very ambitious day planned for my final one in Cusco. Originally, I had been thinking that I would do a day trip to one of the towns close to Cusco like Tipon or Pisac, but considering how I felt when I finally rolled out of bed, I figured it would be a better idea to just take it easy. Pretty much my entire body was aching. Between the hiking and biking, every muscle in my legs, plus my shoulders and back from carrying a backpack, wanted to die. Trust me, it’s an accomplishment that I even managed to motivate myself to leave the hostel.

One of the churches in the plaza, Templo de la Compañía de Jesús. There are two (this one and the main cathedral) and then there are about 4 other churches within a 1 block distance

I decided to do the self-guided walking tour that I never got around to on day 1, and this time, I was sure to avoid every tour salesperson in the Plaza de Armas. I spent some time sitting on a bench in the plaza, then on the steps of the church, then on another bench. I know, really strenuous stuff. I just wanted to have some time to get to know the personality of the city. I spent all of my other days running all over, and I never had a chance to just sit and observe the people and understand what makes Cusco unique, besides all of the mountains and pretty buildings.

The entry hall into the library

After sitting in the main plaza, I continued my stroll, browsed the public library (a popular tourist destination, I’m sure – not), sat in a few other, smaller plazas, watched tourists take pictures with alpacas and get harassed by people selling paintings and necklaces and whatever else, saw schoolkids getting into after-school mischief, visited the market, and tried to imagine myself as a Cusco-ian (or whatever the word would be).

My late afternoon was spent reading in a cozy little plaza by my hostel. I don’t know, I guess some people might think that I wasted my last day, but sometimes it’s fun to do normal things in a new place and pretend for a second that it’s your usual life. The city and I bonded.

Well, I didn’t spend the WHOLE day just wandering. I had a nighttime plan to go to the Cusco planetarium! I love stars, so this was something that I had been looking forward to. The Cusco twist is that besides talking about normal constellations, they also talk about the Inca constellations.

Another church, La Merced, just one block from the Plaza de Armas
Anddd another church, Iglesia de San Pedro
My reading spot… next to another church of course

The planetarium woman started out talking about rivers. Okay, not exactly the introduction I was expecting, but sure. She mentioned that Peru is the most ecologically diverse country in the world. I think I talked about this before, but Peru has 30 out of the 32 climates and something like 84 out of 114 microclimates in the world (don’t quote me because I couldn’t find support for that statistic, but that’s what she said). A number of them are quite fragile, so climate change is a very real issue for Peru as they’re already seeing big impacts on their wildlife. She said that many of the Andes mountains around the Sacred Valley used to be snowcapped about 15 years ago, and now barely any of them are. It was interesting to hear about things from her perspective, based on things she’s seen through her lifetime. Anyway, she tied all of this into how the rivers are the source of life. This is how the Incas saw them as well, so for them, the rivers were incredibly important. Ready for this segue from rivers to stars? The Milky Way was seen as the river of the sky. Aha.

We headed into the planetarium, and she showed us the night sky and some of the “modern day” northern constellations before switching to the southern hemisphere. That was cool because, as I realized, I know nothing about the southern sky, but of course there are just as many constellations as in the north.

Planetarium starry sky
Talking about zodiac signs

Finally, we got to the Inca constellations. Some of them were constellations in the way we see them, by drawing lines between the stars. However, they also saw figures in the dark spots in the Milky Way. To them, the Milky Way was a river in the sky, and the creatures they saw inside were alive (because river = life). Here’s an image of the dark spot constellations:

I swiped this graphic from futurism.com

She said that the most important one is the llama. The Incas believed that the llama came at night and drank from the rivers and streams on earth to keep them from overflowing. When it rains, it’s star llama pee. Who knows? Maybe she was just messing with us, but that’s what she said. I like it though, so I’m going to call it fact.

My train left Aguas Calientes the morning after Machu Picchu Day at 5:30AM. UGH for early morning wake ups. I forced myself to stay awake for the ride though because this time, I had a window seat! Easy to do when there are only about 10 people on the train. I tried to take some pictures of the ride, but between the glass in the way and the fact that I’d need an IMAX screen for you to really understand it, they’re not great.

I took better pictures on the train ride this time! Hooray for window seats! Of course, there’s still a window in the way, but this at least gives you a much better idea of what much of the train ride is like.

I decided to plan an adventure for the day, so I signed up for a mountain biking excursion that left from Ollantaytambo. It was just me and the guide, and I learned that mountain biking maybe isn’t my thing… No, that’s not true. I learned that I have plenty of room for improvement. I could totally do it. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

One of the “labs”

We drove from Ollantaytambo to Moray, another Incan ruin. This was one of the coolest ones though! First of all, it’s in great condition. Second of all, it’s super nerdy and shows how smart the Incas were. There are three different areas with circular, terraced depressions, and archaeologists think they were used to breed and genetically engineer their plants. Each different layer is at a different altitude and temperature, and this site allowed them to work with plants with varying environmental requirements all in one place. The deepest one has an almost 30-degree F difference between the top and the bottom terraces! They brought soil with the plants and had an irrigation system and a way to drain water out so that the depressions didn’t just turn into lakes.

This is the biggest one (the one with the 30-degree temperature difference between bottom and top)

The Incas managed to develop some amazingly strong plants. They needed to, if they wanted them to survive in places like Machu Picchu where the weather is constantly changing and the altitude is so high. It’s a shame that so much was lost when the Spanish conquered them. Most of the Incas were killed, either through war or through new diseases that the Spanish brought like smallpox and measles… I think I read somewhere that only 5% survived (though I potentially just made that up, so don’t quote me). That makes it much harder to pass on knowledge and scientific advances!

Check out the perfection of those curves. Amazing!

From there, we got onto our bikes and started making our way to the salt mines at Maras. It only took me about 2 seconds of biking uphill to realize that maybe I didn’t plan things so well. What idiot goes on a hike that’s ALL STAIRS and then goes biking the next day? This idiot. Those two things use a lot of the same muscles, and my quads were burning. Besides that, the air was still thinner than I’m used to. Between my burning leg muscles and struggling lungs, we made some slow progress. I just kept thinking how easy it would be to do the ride if we were at sea level, but instead, I looked like some biking amateur (how embarrassing).

I love these mountains!!! This whole long valley (stretching for more than 60 miles) is called the Sacred Valley and was an important area for the Incas.

At some point, I got a flat tire. I don’t know how long it took me to realize that I had a flat, but in hindsight, I think the answer to that is “too long”. We stopped, and the guide checked out the damage. If it was me, I would have just replaced the tube, but I don’t know if he didn’t have the right size replacement for my bike or what because he ended up patching it. I see patches as a temporary solution that doesn’t work very well. They especially don’t work well when your tube has more than a couple holes in it. Especially more than 5. Or 10. Or 15. I think there were something like 17 holes in my one tube, and even after all of those were patched, air was still leaking out… just slightly more slowly. I couldn’t even guess how long it took to apply all of those patches, but I have a sunburn on my shoulders to commemorate the eternity spent on that shadeless stretch of trail.

Pre-falls, moments post-tire patching. You know what? I think I need to blame both falls on my tire. Makes sense!

I’m going to blame my couple of spills on the tire, just because I can. Also because I’m not convinced that they aren’t at least part to blame. One thing I learned about myself on the ride is that I REALLY don’t like tight corner turns, especially when the trail is covered with rocks that can shift and slide. The first corner I got to that I felt like I wasn’t going to make, I brought my bike to a stop and tried to put my foot down… but the seat was high, and I was on a hill, so I ended up just falling over from a complete stop with my bike on top of me. It’s a good thing that I’m past the point of getting embarrassed by things like that. I wasn’t hurt at all, but I did need a little help to get the bike off of me.

Fall number two was slightly more dramatic. I was coming around another questionable corner. The terrifying thing about these corners is that if you don’t make the turn, you literally ride off a cliff. So you’re dead. So just know that I wasn’t being completely crazy. This time, I’m not completely sure what happened. I think that I got freaked out at the last second when I didn’t think I was going to make it, braked too hard, and got thrown. I was incredibly calm through the whole thing, though. I remember flying through the air thinking, “whoops… okay hopefully this impact doesn’t hurt too much”, hitting the ground thinking, “well nothing is broken, so now I just have to hope the rocks don’t tear me up too badly”, and laying there afterwards thinking, “hm that wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. I could use a hand though.” Sure enough, I was fine. I had a couple of scrapes and cuts that were bleeding way more than they needed to, but no question it ended as well as it could have (the fall, that is. The ride could have ended better, for example, with me NOT falling).

The salt mines are that light brown strip in the valley

Our second official stop (as in, not including the million flat tire stops and multiple Lara fall stops) was at the Maras salt mines. This is where most Peruvian salt is harvested. It’s been running since the time of the Incas, and the process they use currently is mostly unchanged from those days. Different families own the approximately 3,000 different pools, and they’re responsible for maintaining and harvesting the salt in their pools. Since this is the rainy season, there isn’t a lot of salt in production because the rain makes it harder to make quality, white salt.

I have no idea how the water flow works here, but it’s crazy awesome!

Luckily, there was still enough going on for me to see how it all works. There’s a spring that feeds a salty stream that runs to the area, and that stream is routed into all of these different pools. When a pool is filled, the flow of water is stopped, it evaporates, and the salt is scraped off the bottom of the pool. It’s given a rating of quality, the best stuff is exported, and the rest is sold in Peru.

You can see a little salt production happening, but they said that in the dry season, way more of the pools will be operating and will look white from the salt.

After the ride, I wanted nothing more than to get back to my hostel, take a shower, and lay in bed for a bit. The guide helped me clean my cuts, put me into a colectivo, and sent me back to Cusco, bruised and battered but feeling accomplished (mostly just for not dying). I think I’m going to take a short break from mountain biking experiences. Just for now.

When you walk in, this is the first view you get of the ruins!

When my Machu Picchu day finally came along, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, of course I was beyond excited to visit the place I had been looking forward to seeing ever since I decided to go to Peru. On the other hand, it’s nice to have really exciting things to look forward to, and sometimes the “looking forward” is almost better than the “actually doing”.  That probably doesn’t make any sense… let me try again. When you finally go somewhere or do something that everyone has raved about, aren’t you ever nervous that the idea of it will be better than the actual thing? That it’s been talked up so much that the reality can’t possibly match your expectation? There was a part of me that feared that. Like maybe I’d find myself facing one of the wonders of the world and manage to not feel impressed.

SO COOL SO COOL SO COOL!!!

 

Lucky for me, the experience of visiting Machu Picchu is partly indescribable. No matter how much people told me about it, they couldn’t convey the wonder I’d feel when seeing the huge expanse of beautiful ruins set against a backdrop that’s straight out of a fantasy. No matter what I write about it, I promise you that I can’t even begin to do it justice. Even without the air of mystery that surrounds the history of Machu Picchu, it’s baffling. When you add in the questions about how it was constructed, what everything was used for, and where everyone disappeared off to, it becomes even more marvelous. There’s nothing better than a good mystery!

Along the path to the Inca Bridge
View from the Inca Bridge hike. Still a little foggy (because I was there at 7AM), but still spectacular
This picture is confusing and kind of seems like it should be rotated… but this is right. I promise. The Inca Bridge is at the bottom of the light rocks on the left. See the gap in the rock path and the boards that are placed across it? The Incas could move the wood to block off this entrance into Machu Picchu if they ever needed to.
On my hike back to the main part of the ruins… I just couldn’t stop taking pictures!

Archeologists have concluded that the site was an estate for one of the Inca emperors, which means that it was basically a full city on top of the mountain. About 1000 people could live there, but they think that 5x that number was required to build it. Also, they’ve only recovered the skeletons of about a quarter of that. The stone is a type of granite that was taken straight from the site, and they don’t use any mortar to hold it all together.

Question #1: How was it constructed? The site is way bigger than I realized. I think that’s what everyone says after they go, and even though I’m telling you that right now, you’ll say the exact same thing if you go. There’s the main part of the town that you always see in pictures (which even that is bigger than you realize… all of those pictures are taken from quite far away), but then there are terraces EVERYWHERE that were used for growing crops. Carving out the terraces, cutting, moving, and putting together the millions of rocks, and building a town of that size must have taken an eternity. The methods they used for cutting rocks so precisely and moving the big ones around are still somewhat unknown. It would be an amazing feat even if it WASN’T on top of a mountain, but it is. Oh yeah, I didn’t mention that you have to take a half hour bus ride (or a 1-1/2 hour hike) up the mountain from the town. It is not located for ease of access.

There are also pathways that wind through the surrounding mountains. There’s no way the full extent of them is even known because at this point, the unexcavated ones are buried under almost 450 years of plant growth.

Let me just say that there’s a reason why one of the theories of its origin is aliens. It’s so fantastic that aliens start seeming like a realistic explanation.

Okay, this one was a mini-tripod/self-timer picture. There was no one around to take it, really! I’m standing in the quarry area.
Like, does this even look real?

Question #2: What was it used for? Archaeologists have general ideas about the site as a whole and the functions of some of the different buildings, but for the most part, it’s just speculation. If you hire a guide while you’re there, they’ll tell you all sorts of things about what this rock means and why that room has 5 windows and 4 niches, but the truth is that not much is known for sure. There are a lot of assumptions, but there are so many questions that it makes you wonder how much you can trust them.

I decided to skip the guide and take my sweet time wandering through the buildings, making up my own stories as I went. I did have a guidebook which was nice because it helped to draw my attention to some of the more interesting features, but I still got to move at my own pace and just soak in the wonder of it all.

Did I already take this picture? Yes? Ehh… I’ll take it again just in case.

This stonework though…
The view from my window… I wish!
Ruins and mountains, ruins and mountains

Question #3: Where did everyone go? When the Spanish invaded in the mid-1500s, they took out much of the Inca civilization. However, they never made it to Machu Picchu. Its existence wasn’t brought to the attention of the general public until 1911 (it was looted by a few German explorers, and some local farmers knew about it and were even farming on some of the terraces prior to that year). So what happened to all of the people? Did they all go to fight in other locations? Did they just die out eventually? Smallpox is one guess. Imagine for a second if whatever did happen hadn’t, and there were still people living there when it was stumbled upon. They certainly had the food resources and planting strategies that they needed to survive. How cool would that have been?

My thought about every picture: “this is kind of the same… but kind of different so yeah, I’ll post this one too.”
How epic is this?
The more important buildings had more precise stonework, though none of the buildings used mortar so they were all pretty darn precise. These though… How on earth do you get such tight joints with such massive rock pieces?

Anyway, those are the three main mysteries that I allowed myself to mull over as I wandered around and tried to make sense of it all. I didn’t start out wandering the ruins though. First, I walked up a pile of stairs to look over the site and get that iconic Machu Picchu view. From there, since I was already halfway up, I did two of the hikes that are included in the entrance ticket, one to the Sun Gate, where the people who hike the Inca Trail enter the site and watch the sunrise, and the other to the Inca Bridge, a piece of wood terrifyingly placed across a big gap in the rock path that winds around the mountain. You can’t walk across it anymore because someone fell off and died, and after seeing it, that doesn’t surprise me one bit. More like why did they ever let anyone walk across?

The classic Machu Picchu picture. I actually asked someone to take this, rather than using my usual mini-tripod/self-timer technique.
A cool view of the terraces and the beginning of the hike to the Sun Gate
Some ruins along the Sun Gate path

My big hike of the day was up Machu Picchu mountain. Nothing at Machu Picchu, including the place itself, is called by its Inca name. No one knows the Inca names. Machu Picchu is the Quechua name for the mountain next to the town, so when it was “discovered”, the explorer just called it by the same name. All of the buildings and such that are named were named by him. So like I was saying, everything is complete speculation. Anyway, I bought a separate ticket to hike Machu Picchu mountain, one of the two mountains next to the site. The other one, Huayna Picchu, is shorter, but the hike is more of an adventure with ladders and precarious ledges. I decided to skip the death-cheating hike and save it for if I ever go back with a hiking buddy.

The hike up Machu Picchu mountain is just hundreds and hundreds of stairs. And more stairs and more stairs and these stairs that are so steep you probably want to use your hands too. Every time you turn a corner, you’re faced with another dead-end wall of rocks. Oh wait. Those are stairs. About 20 minutes in, I found a friend! She and I bonded over our pain and the fact that we were moving at similar speeds. I was thankful to have someone to struggle through it with me. The only thing worse than a super intense hike with minimal oxygen is a super intense hike with minimal oxygen where you don’t have anyone to complain to. In hindsight, it was a definite mistake to do the Inca Bridge and especially the Sun Gate hikes before the mountain. I basically set myself up for failure because my legs were already tired when I started.

My hiking buddy speeding ahead on the Machu Picchu mountain hike
Pretending I’m not dying
MORE STAIRS???!!?? Yes. The answer is always yes.
But I eventually made it! This is after about 45 minutes of relaxing at the top, which is the only reason why I’m smiling and not bright red.

Anyway, I’ll spare you the quad-killing, air-gasping details of the hike and just say that it was an hour and a half of me strongly considering turning around and being fairly certain that the mountain was never going to end. I got to the top just before the clouds blew in and completely obstructed the view of the ruins. Can you think of anything worse than finishing that horrible hike and then not even being about to appreciate the view? I had about 20 minutes before we were sitting in a cloud. That’s all I needed though. I found a nice wall to sit on, ate some pretzels, and soaked in the awesomeness.

Everyone gets booted off the mountaintop at noon, so I headed down through the clouds, a moment of rain, and back into the scorching heat. They say that you need to prepare for every type of weather when you go to Machu Picchu, and it’s true. I went in the morning wearing a sweatshirt and pants. I took my sweatshirt off early and changed into shorts on my hike to the Sun Gate. At the summit of Machu Picchu, it was freezing and drizzly, so I put my rain jacket on. Once I hiked down a little, it was hot again. Then, in the afternoon as I was wandering the ruins, I must have put on and taken off my rain jacket at least 5 times as it rained and stopped and rained and cleared up and rained again.

See that mountain enshrouded in clouds in the middle/right of the picture? It looks like the top is actually cut off in this picture too. Yeah, that’s the one I climbed

Me and my hiking friend with a very important rock that looks like some important animal but actually looks just like, well, a rock.
Remember, imagine thatch roofs!
I think this is hilarious. There are a bunch of places where there’s some ginormous rock that I imagine the Incas looked at and said, “LOL I’m not tryna move that!” (loose translation) So instead, they just left them in place and built the walls around them. The way they fit everything together is amazing no matter how many times I think about it.

I spent the last couple hours of my visit exploring the ruins. I reencountered my hiking friend, and we had fun walking around and making things up about the different ruins and their uses. Sometimes it’s nice to have a friend! It was especially perfect because she and I were on the same page about taking our time and wanting to see everything. Sometimes things work out so much better than you could have imagined!

After finishing up at the site and heading back down the mountain to the town, we considered meeting up for dinner and ended up just showering and laying immobile on our beds at our respective hotels. I could have guessed that was what was going to happen.

Just a few more for good measure…
Can you imagine having this view every day?
But seriously could it be any cooler? Sorry I can’t express myself any better but I’m sitting at my computer, days later, still geeking out over how amazing the whole thing is.

After my day of visiting ruins, I decided to spend the next day… visiting ruins. I had a train to catch to the town at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu is located (Aguas Calientes), but the train didn’t leave from Cusco. I had to find my way to Ollantaytambo, a town about two hours away, and get the train from there. At this point, I was a colectivo expert, so I wasn’t worried about it. I asked at the hostel where to find colectivos to Ollantaytambo, and off I went! If you even manage to get close, you’re golden. Once you find the right street, there are a bunch of people calling out to you, trying to get you to get in their van. You just pick one, confirm a million times that they’re going to the place you want, and then decide to trust them and get on.

I just thought this was funny… This person is unloading crates of eggs from this truck – and is standing on a layer of them! I never really think of eggs as something you can stand on.

The ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo is beautiful but also somewhat vomit inducing if you have any issues with carsickness. The road winds up and down, back and forth through the mountains and valley, and view after view was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I was trying to play it cool so that I wouldn’t give myself away as a tourist, but on the inside, I wanted nothing more than to press my face up against the window, unblinking for the entire 2-hour ride so that I didn’t miss a second.

You can see Cusco to the southeast of Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu to the northwest.
Some views from the drive

I got to Ollantaytambo about 2 hours before my train left, so I decided to check out the ruins in town. There are, of course, a million different ruins that you can visit in and around town, but I went to the biggest one that used to be an Inca fortress/temple. It’s one of the only sites where the Incas actually won a battle against the Spanish invaders.

Terraces!

My first thought when I got inside was, “UGH… stairs.” The whole thing is just terrace after terrace, leading up the mountain to where there used to be enclosed structures. The roofs were all thatch, so there’s obviously nothing remaining of those. They’ve been restored in some locations, but for the most part, you’re left to imagine the ruins in their former glory for yourself. There are also some giant stones (I read somewhere that they’re 50 tons, but I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that) that were used in the unfinished temple construction. They were brought over from a “nearby” (6km away…) quarry, and the trip to the site includes a river crossing. You can use your imagination to try to figure out how they managed to move them on dry ground, but to cross the river, the stones were brought to the edge and then the water was diverted around them! That’s crazy!

Those big rocks in the distance behind me are the (maybe?) 50-ton ones that had to get moved here somehow from the quarry.

It only took a couple ruin visits for me to realize that the Incas were masters of beautiful and hard-to-reach sites. This fortress is no exception. When I finally managed to wheeze my way up the stairs (remember that this is at high altitude! I’m not just completely pathetic), I was treated to an incredible view of the town, the valley, and the surrounding mountains. The best way to view the mountains is from another mountain!

I’m sure I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again… but I love the Inca stonework! I think it’s so pretty

Looking over the town

I had plenty of time to check out the main part of the ruins, even with my “stop and take the same picture 100 times” breaks. I still wish I’d had longer though. From the fort, there’s a hike you can do to a temple nestled up higher in the mountain, and I’m sure that it would have been worth the extra climb (if you consider another pile of rocks, another view of the same mountains, and some solitude worth it… which I totally do). Plus, it would have been cool to have a time to see some of the other ruins around town.

This is the view at the beginning of the hike up to the temple that I didn’t have time to do. Looks like it would have been a pretty awesome view, huh?
Some formerly roofed structures
Not bad…

Casual stroll along a path that wraps around the mountain
This is a good view of the terracing
Here’s a building with a recreated roof, so keep this in mind when visualizing how the rest of the ruins must have looked

Oh well, I had a train to catch, and there was no way that I was going to miss it. There are a few different ways that you can get to Machu Picchu with the most common being either trekking (aka walking A LOT through the mountains) or taking the train. I think a trek would be awesome, but with my limited time in Cusco, I decided to spend it doing other things. Despite requiring far less effort, the train ride was still incredible. It was like something straight out of the movie “Avatar”. I’ve said that about other places in my life, but I’ve never meant it more than I do right now.

Let me try to set the scene. There are cloud-topped mountains towering over the train on either side, plus a river running beside the tracks (the water is very brown but no matter). Everywhere you look is green and full of life. You pass from the low highlands ecosystem at the beginning of the ride into the cloud forest ecosystem. I didn’t even know that was a thing, but can you think of a more mystical name than “cloud forest”? In reality, it was just as mystical as in theory. I’ve never been on a shorter 2-hour train ride. Seriously I could have stayed on that train for another 10 hours and been totally okay with it.

Serious train situation
Cloud forest… mystical, right?
I want to know who you have to bribe to get assigned the front seats!

But alas, we arrived in Aguas Calientes, and I set off to find my hostel. It’s the off-season at Machu Picchu right now, so I lucked out and got my own room, complete with all-natural “raging water” white noise from the river outside. Perfect for getting lots of sleep!

After my mountain biking struggles, part of me just wanted to call it a night at about 6PM. The other part of me was saying, “Lara, you only have one more day here. Make the most of it!” My Machu Picchu hiking friend and I made plans to meet up for dinner, and afterwards, we were going to hang out with one of my friends from the tour I went on my first day and one of her other Machu Picchu hiking friends.

With this trip, I finally understand the whole solo travel thing. I kind of did it in London, but I was meeting up with old friends throughout my time there. In Cusco, I didn’t know anyone. I had no prior connections to work with. I was forced to choose between making new friends and just not talking to anyone for the entire week. Talking to strangers and making friends in those settings is hard for me, but I did it. And you know what? It wasn’t so bad. More than that, I met some really cool and fun people.

The travel world is weird. It’s filled with people from all different life situations and stages. First (in my non-exhaustive list), there are the families. In general, that travel world runs completely separately from the other traveler world. Families interact with other families, and that’s it. Next, there are the friend pairs and friend groups. Some of these are short-term travelers (aka normal work vacationers), some are doing longer trips during a school break, and a few rare long-term travel pairs. Usually though, the long-term travelers are going solo because chances are slim that two people have life breaks that coincide.

That brings us to the third group. The solo travelers. This group was a complete mystery to me before this year. I didn’t realize that some people do actually go on solo short-term vacations. Like they have a job, they take vacation, and they go somewhere by themselves. I think that’s incredibly brave. Also, how cool? You don’t have to put all of this pressure on finding someone to travel with. You find somewhere you want to visit, and you just go. Then, there are the solo long-termers. This group is the biggest mystery. Do they have jobs? How are they supporting all of this travel they’re doing? I can’t judge them though. Out of all the groups, I guess this is the one I most fit into. That’s something I NEVER would have predicted. I would never have pegged myself as a “solo travel kind of person”. Whatever that means.

My travel friends!

Before, I didn’t understand how people did it, but after a night of hanging out with my travel friends, into and back out of my life in the blink of an eye, it makes sense. Solo traveling doesn’t mean you’re alone. It means that you’re given a unique opportunity to connect with other people from around the world. Now, I have friends in so many different countries!

You can learn a lot about yourself from people who are just passing through your life. Many of the people I’ve met are incredibly insightful. They’re only going to be around for a short time, so they’re more open and sometimes tell you things about yourself that you didn’t realize before. Some seem to know you better than the people who have been in your life for years.

That night, with three people who I had known for at most 3 days and at least 5 minutes, I had the feeling of hanging out with old friends. I know it doesn’t always happen that way, but the fact that it EVER does is incredible. We had three hours together, and then that was it. We’ll never all be together again. Likely, even just two of us will never be together again. But for those three hours, we connected. We laughed together, imparted wisdom, and when it was time to go, we said goodbye and good luck. There’s something beautiful about touching someone’s life for just a second and having that second be one that they remember and carry with them when they go back out into the world.

After visiting Qorikancha, my adventure really began. I wanted to see the four major ruins outside of the city. They’re all within about 16 km of the city center (road distance, not direct distance), so it’s not crazy far but definitely enough to not want to walk it both ways (plus it’s uphill). I heard through the grapevine that it’s possible to take a bus there, even though the ruins aren’t an official stop. (I don’t even know why they bother having official stops because you can usually get off wherever you want.)

I considered this my first true Spanish test, and I was determined to pass. The girl at the desk in my hostel said I should just rent a cab for the day, but why should I when there’s another perfectly good way of getting there? Plus I would feel rushed if I knew a cab was waiting for me, and I like to take my sweet time wandering around.

I found my way to what looked like a bus stop after a taxi man tried to convince me to hire him and I told him I was fine taking the bus. I tried to look like I knew what I was doing, but apparently the bus stop isn’t at the little hut with a bench and is actually like 50 feet away. Silly me. The taxi man sassily filled me in while trying to use that as proof that I should really just take a cab. Thankfully, after about 8 minutes of waiting at the random piece of sidewalk he pointed me to, a woman asked me if I was going to Pisac (the bus I needed to get to the first ruin), I nodded, and she directed me onto a bus that didn’t say Pisac anywhere on it. How is anyone supposed to figure these things out??

Well, luckily for me, it all worked out. I told the driver as I got on that I wanted to get off at Tambomachay and headed to the front of the bus when we got close. He let me off right in front, and I only had to pay 2 soles (about 60 cents)!

Tambomachay

Let me start off by saying that when it comes to Incan ruins, everything is pure speculation. 95% of the time, no one knows for certain what something is, why it’s there, what it was used for, etc. For example, Tambomachay. All that’s certain is that there are aqueducts and canals that feed water into a pile of rocks that looks like a fountain. Maybe it’s an ancient bath, maybe it’s a water temple. The name is Quechua and means “resting place”.

Cool trees on the way up to the fountains

The fountains. You can see water still running in the bottom left of the picture

The full extent of the ruins

The ruins were fine, but I was more interested in the scenery. I’m a fan of taking random paths and seeing where they lead. There was one that went up behind the fountain, and I followed it up into some terraced gardens and around the mountain (hill?) to a secret view of the valley. I say secret because I didn’t see another person ANYWHERE, and at a tourist-filled site, that’s an extra special treat. For a few moments, it was just me, peaceful green-ness, and a herd of alpacas grazing in the far distance.

My secret valley

Looking towards Puka Pukara

Once I managed to drag myself away from the view, I headed across the street to ruin #2…

Puka Pukara

Puka Pukara is in the upper right

One guess is that this was a military base, but maybe it was a hunting lodge, guard post, and stop for travelers. The name means “red fort” because the stones look red in some lighting. It’s another “the ruins are kind of cool but the thing that makes the stop worth it is the view” situation. Some people had guides who I assume told them more information than that, but like I said, it’s probably 95% made up. I’m more than happy to just embrace the mystery and be impressed by the Incas’ site selection skills. They sure know how to pick a site with a view.

View from the “fort”

There’s an almost 5 km walk between Puka Pukara and the next ruin, and I was not interested in walking if it could be avoided. Lucky me, a colectivo (mini-bus) was driving by right as I left the site, and I flagged it down and hopped in for a 1 sol ride to…
Qenqo (ken-koh)

Qenqo means “labyrinth”, and they think (“they” being whoever it is that comes up with these theories) that it was a religious something. It’s a huge rock with passageways and channels carved into it.  I wish I could have gotten a bird’s eye view because it’s way more interesting from the top.

Qenqo is that giant rock in the upper right with the rounded top

One of the passageways through the rock
Qenqo from the outside

I used my same “follow whatever random path you see” strategy and ended up on a huge rock overlooking the town of Qenqo. I could also see Cusco in the distance, and no matter how many times I do, I still am amazed by the view. This and my other detour were probably my two favorite parts of the day. Hooray for exploration!

View from my favorite perch

The town of Qenqo

I walked from Qenqo to the next ruin, passing through “Qenqo Chico” (small Qenqo), which I didn’t even know existed. This was my third favorite part of the day… another unplanned detour. There’s another overlook of the city and plenty of big rocks to sit on. I stopped for a minute to eat a snack and soak in the view.

Qenqo Chico

How cool are these rocks?!

Saqsayhuaman

Saqsayhuaman from a distance

The pronunciation guide for this ruin is that it sounds a bit like “sexy woman” (sack-sai-WHA-man). It means “satisfied falcon” and was a big military fort. It was one of the last Incan strongholds during the Spanish invasions. After the Spaniards conquered the fort, they took many of the stones build houses for themselves. The biggest stones are still left.

There are alpacas grazing all over the place
View from Saqsayhuaman
A wall. Check out that awesome Inca stonework

Fun fact: there’s a big zig-zag wall on the fort because the ninth Inca ruler saw Cusco as having the shape of a puma with the zig-zag walls as its teeth. Also, there’s a rock slide there. As in, smooth rock that can function as a slide… and people are allowed to slide down it. I think it’s hilarious. I also apparently have very good slide pants because I flew down with literally no way of slowing myself. My hands did nothing and my sneakers were worthless.

Good view of the zig zag wall

Rock slide!

After wandering Saqsayhuaman for a couple hours, I was wiped and ready to get back to my hostel. I walked down the path to Cusco (which they say that you can walk up to the ruins if you want… only if you’re crazy, in my opinion) and felt like I teleported into the middle of a forest. The walk was beautiful, but if I was going up, my thoughts would have been focused on not passing out.

The path back to Cusco

By the time I reached the bottom, my head was pounding. I’m not sure if it was an altitude-related problem or just a dehydration problem, but I downed some electrolytes and painkillers and flopped on my bed until I felt functional again. Altitude sickness can be a big problem for people going to Cusco from lower altitudes. Cusco is at 11,152 feet of elevation. For comparison’s sake, Denver is at 5,690 feet. People all react to the altitude differently and can range from no symptoms to headaches, dizziness, and vomiting. I thought I was superhuman because I felt fine on my first day. I guess this means there’s a chance that I am only human.

My plan for Cusco day #2 was ambitious, to say the least. I always make a massive list of things that I’m going to do and then manage to get through MAYBE half of them. I don’t like to rush though. I take as much time as I feel like I need to get a good sense of the place I’m visiting, and if that means I go to less things, so be it.

I was behind schedule from the very beginning, leaving around 9:30AM instead of the 8AM I had planned for. I’ve decided that sticking to morning departure times is the hardest discipline of solo travel. I don’t think I’ve managed to do so successfully yet. If you’re with someone else, at least there’s some motivation to get a move on.

Here’s a bonus… Some Inca skulls. Notice their elongated shape. This resulted from a long process of head binding and shaping that started very young, before the skull was fully developed. It was an indicator of class/social standing.

Anyway, I wanted to visit the ruins outside of Cusco. There are four different ruin areas that are all within like 10 km of the city, but there’s not a well-advertised easy way to get to them. My guidebook mentioned that you could take a bus to the farthest one and then walk back, but that’s still a ton of walking. I decided to give that a try, with the hope that I’d be able to flag down a bus on my way back as well. When I asked at the front desk, the girl seemed skeptical about my plan. That’s fine. I was determined to prove her wrong.

Qorikancha

On my way to the bus stop, I detoured at Qorikancha (kohr-ee-KAHN-cha), a former Inca temple that was converted into a colonial church and convent. Oh yeah, a note about all of these names… they’re all Quechua names, which in my opinion means that they’re even harder to pronounce than Spanish names, plus there are far too many letters. There are also about 500 different spellings that you’ll find, depending on the intended audience of whatever you’re looking at.

A view of the grounds that used to be filled with golden animals and golden corn. Yes, corn stalks

In the old days, the entire temple was covered in gold! There were hundreds of gold sheets covering the walls, and those were all taken and melted down during the Spanish conquests. The temple includes rooms dedicated to the moon, stars, thunder, and rainbows. They had straw roofs originally, so those are obviously gone, but the whole area has been enclosed to make it a building within a building.

The rainbow and thunder temples

The stonework here was amazing as well. Forget the 12-sided stone outside the religious art museum, here there’s a 14-angled stone! It wraps around a couple corners, into a double door jamb, and out on the other side as part of the wall. I should have taken a picture, but honestly it’s impossible to capture in 2-dimensions. Just remember, we have this gigantic stone that’s been cut every which way and then it fits in PERFECTLY with all of the other stones. How did they do it???

Check out those joints!!! No mortar!

The building is a weird mix of architectural styles, with the Inca foundation, the church add-on, and the glass-walled, metal-roofed enclosure over the temple area. There’s also a beautiful garden outside that is, predictably, terraced. The Incas were experts in terracing because so much of their land was in the mountains which means very little level ground for farming. There are terraces EVERYWHERE. The gardens have been kept beautifully, complete with grass so green it might not be real, flowers everywhere, and a bird etched into the grass.

The interior courtyard. I. Love. Interior. Courtyards.

A view of some of the terracing

Bird!

The view isn’t so bad either…

This just screams “secret garden” to me. How pretty!

From the second floor, looking into the courtyard

It’s cool how they put the walkways in, and you can see the metal roof addition too

Inside the church

Okay, that’s all for part 1 of day 2… I’m currently in the town at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu is located, and I’m going there tomorrow! I’ve obviously planned far too much to accomplish in one day, which means I need to get some good sleep tonight. Luckily, my hostel is right next to a raging river that results in some aggressive all-natural white noise. It sounds like a combination of pouring rain, an air conditioning system running, and wind that might blow the building over.
To be continued!

I know I’ve been silent over the last few days, but no need to worry! I didn’t fall off a cliff or anything. The problem is with the way that I do “vacation”. If I’m somewhere new and am only going to be there for a short time, I jam in as much as possible. It doesn’t matter if I completely wear myself out… I can recover once I’m home, but I can only see these things while I’m here. As you might imagine, that has resulted in two days of run, run, running and then collapse, collapse, collapsing into bed at night.

Last time we talked, it was Thursday night, and I was attempting to stay awake in the Lima airport. I… mostly succeeded. By the time my flight started boarding, I was trying to force my eyes to stay open. I only realized that I fell asleep when I opened my eyes from a “blink” and my kindle was on my lap instead of in my hand. And then that happened about five times.

I don’t even know what happened once we got on the plane because I was asleep the instant I sat down until about 1 minute before landing. I think the flight ended up being longer than scheduled, but for once that was a blessing because it gave me more time to sleep. Total night’s sleep for Thursday-Friday = 2 hours of plane sleep.

You can see Lima to the north on the coast. You can drive from Lima to Cusco, but it takes about a day!

I had some time to collect myself once I got to my hostel, but I knew that I had to keep moving if I wanted to stay awake until a reasonable hour (goal: 7PM). I headed out with the plan of doing a self-guided walking tour to get my bearings. That lasted about 3 blocks until I was persuaded into an inexpensive group tour that was covering a bunch of the places I wanted to go anyway. I figured that it couldn’t hurt to have someone else leading me around for a few hours.

The interior courtyard of the religious museum

Oh yeah… another thing. The tour was in Spanish. Luckily, the guide spoke clearly, and since he knew I wasn’t fluent, he translated some words into English when it was clear that I didn’t know them. I’m generally not a tour person, but the people on the tour were a lot of fun. There were a couple Chileans, a guy from Mexico, one from El Salvador, and a few others. I felt like I was in a cool Spanish-speaking club, and they welcomed me with open arms and extra-slow speaking so that I could understand better.
The whole thing was a whirlwind, so I don’t even know that I can remember everything we did. We went to a religious art museum first which was probably the lowlight of the trip, besides the building itself which was originally “the palace of the sixth inca, Roca” (literally the sixth ruler of the Incas). There were a lot of paintings of the Virgin Mary shaped like a mountain because mountains were important to the indigenous people, so it was like a fusion of Christianity and things that the local people were already familiar with. At least I think that’s what the guide said. Keep in mind that you can maybe only 70% trust any of the information I got from this tour.

Check out those 12 sides! Actually super cool though if you think about trying to fit all of those stones together so precisely

Outside of the museum, there’s a famous 12-sided stone. One of the big things that the Incas are famous for is building structures with huge stones that are perfectly fitted together and have no mortar between them. There are plenty of stories of earthquakes that destroyed tons of buildings in Cusco, but the Incan buildings remained standing because of how the stones are fitted together and the fact that there’s some resistance to horizontal forces, plus they can shift around and just settle back into place afterwards because they’re so perfectly shaped.

Doesn’t it look like something out of a storybook?

The places we visited during the rest of the tour are irrelevant because the view is all I remember. We drove to a church that’s perched up above Cusco and then kept driving past some ruins until we reached Cristo Blanco, a huge Jesus statue that overlooks the city. For the entire drive, we were winding around and around, up and up and getting incredible views of the city and the ruins and the mountains along the way.

Me at the church overlook

We also stopped at an alpaca store where they sell everything from fake hamsters covered in alpaca fur to scarves and rugs. The lady taught us about the differences in how synthetic alpaca, grown up alpaca, and baby alpaca fur feel, so now I’m practically an expert in alpaca-wares. Baby alpaca is the softest and hence the most expensive. Shopkeepers beware… I can’t be fooled into thinking that grown-up alpaca sweater dress is baby alpaca. Ha!

Mystical!

Cristo Blanco was our last stop. I’m beginning to think that every big South American city has a giant, white statue of Jesus overlooking the city, and he’s doing approximately the same pose. This observation is based on 1.) Cristo Blanco in Cusco, 2.) Cristo del Pacífico in Lima, and 3.) Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. BUT if there are three, there must be more. I will now add to my bucket list a goal to visit as many giant Jesus statues as possible.

Speaks for itself

The view from Cristo Blanco
Cristo Blanco, Cusco edition
The courtyard at the Inca museum. I am all about interior courtyards.

After the tour, I forced myself to go to one museum on my list (an Inca museum… interesting, but probably not the best choice for keeping myself awake) before allowing myself to return to the hostel, take a hot shower, and collapse into bed at 7PM. The end, Cusco day 1.

I don’t know that I’m ever going to get used to this feeling. The feeling of “where did the time go?” and “I feel like I just got here, but now it’s time for me to leave”. How does time always feel like it’s moving quickly or moving slowly? That should be one thing that we can always count on – time moving at the same speed. And yet, how many times in life have you thought, “ah, time is moving exactly as it should”? Probably zero times.

Current state: icicle

This is The Year of the Airports, so it’s fitting that I’m sitting in the Lima airport right now, 8 hours before my flight to Cuzco. Eight hours that will, almost definitely, move slowly. Plenty of time for some airport people-watching (one of my favorite things because I just imagine that everyone is going to or coming from someplace awesome, and how fun is that?!), snack-eating, potentially freezing to death because I’m sitting under an air conditioning vent, and trip-planning the last few details for my day tomorrow. I’m not completely sure how I’m going to make it through the day without falling asleep, but that’s just part of travel, right?
I can’t complain because 1.) I made these plans so there’s no one to blame but myself and 2.) I’m on vacation so complaining is illegal. Realistically, in a couple hours I’ll be too sleepy to complain anyway. Here’s my schedule for the next 24ish hours:

Now: sit at the airport and amuse myself for 4 more hours until I (maybe?) can check in for my flight

2AM: check in and hopefully find a nice place to sleep near the gate

4:50AM: flight departs, hopefully with me on it and not asleep by the gate

6:10AM: flight lands in Cuzco, hopefully after a glorious 1 hour and 20 minutes of plane sleep

The rest of the day: drop stuff at hostel, go on a culture-filled, caffeine-powered sleepwalk through the streets of Cuzco.

When I feel like collapsing (ideally after at least 6PM): go to hostel, check in, be that super cool person who goes to bed at 7PM on a Friday night. Hibernate for 12 hours minimum.

Aside from the inevitable, impending physical exhaustion, I’m feeling a bit mentally drained. Today was great, but it was also filled with goodbyes. Be proud of me though! I didn’t cry at all! Well, except for that one time but it was just a little bit and not really in front of anyone.

After this game, Julie told me that I’m too competitive hahahaha

I woke up and packed/organized until I only had 10 minutes until for worship, so I quickly got ready and walk-jogged there. Afterwards, I had to shower (since I didn’t have time before), and Debbie came in when I was conditioning my hair saying something about the lights in the cafeteria not working and “it’s not urgent but kind of is so you can finish showering but hurry”. Okay… weird.
I got out and got dressed, and the two of us walked back to the cafeteria and into a surprise farewell party! I’ll be honest; I wasn’t COMPLETELY surprised. Debbie’s story was sketchy at best. I didn’t, however, expect a party! The fact that the kids are off from school this week made it possible, and I’m glad because it was so much fun!

Limbo skills

First, we played this game where everyone has a balloon tied to each ankle, and you have to stomp on everyone else’s balloons while protecting your own. No big deal, but I won. Shh ignore the fact that the majority of my opponents were under the age of 12. Really that makes it more impressive because they have better endurance. Next, there was some limbo (I didn’t win…), musical chairs (Debbie won… she’s very strategic), and a cup-stacking game where the kids had to make a cup tower and then carry it across the room. The finale was a race to run to a chair, sit on/pop a balloon, run back, and repeat two more times. Debbie and I were in all-out sprints in the cafeteria. The first round ended in a tie, so we had to do a tie breaker where I edged her out. I’m not convinced that she didn’t let me win since it was my party, but we’ll ignore that.

The balloon display and cards!

The party ended with the presentation of some awesome thank you cards and hugs from each of the kids. It was really sweet. As much as I joke (/am totally serious) about not being a “kid person”, sometimes kids are pretty cool. The rest of the time though…
The afternoon was filled with wrap-up meetings and semi-successful attempts to fit all of my snacks in my bags. Before I knew it, it was 8PM and time to leave (Jim has a flight out tonight too, so I got to hitch a ride to the airport with him). I was happy to be able to mostly sneak out and avoid a million goodbyes. Julie, Debbie, and Tony were all there to see us off.

Cup stack carrying

Saying goodbye was weird but not as dramatic as the goodbyes in Ghana. There, I knew with almost complete certainty that I wasn’t going to see most of those people ever again. Here, I feel like I was just saying a “bye for now” to some friends. I don’t know when or where, but I truly believe that I’ll see them all again. True or not (though I hope it is!), it makes for a much easier goodbye.
Now, I have a week of sightseeing, and I’m super excited! I’m spending some time in Cuzco and am going to Machu Picchu. It’s going to be awesome! I’m just 6 hours away from take-off now. Time to attempt a relocation to a warmer spot, ideally with a nearby outlet.

My snack situation is still solid. I’ve already eaten an apple and some Oreos. Next up, peanut butter sandwich at midnight, maybe some “red fruit” mentos at 1AM, and probably some crackers at 2. Scheduling snacks is the best way to stay awake… I used to do the same thing in college to get through late work nights. Okay, now get some sleep (so I can live vicariously through you), and I’ll see you in Cuzco!

The weather situation here has just gotten worse since the last time I wrote about it. It’s even getting a small nod in the international news, and when that happens for a weather-related event, you know it’s a big deal. Still, they’ve just been tiny shout outs: “MUDSLIDES IN PERU KILL ##, LEAVE ###,### HOMELESS” followed by a three sentence article. HERE and HERE are two of the more substantive ones I’ve seen.

See that brown spot in the ocean? That’s where one of the rivers comes out. The rivers are dumping all sorts of mud and waste and trash into the ocean.

The problems are stemming from the highlands in the northern part of Peru. They’re getting a lot of rain, and all of the water runoff is more than the usual rivers can handle. A bunch of rivers that haven’t seen water in years are getting flooded, and due to some poor planning, their paths are now blocked by roads and houses. Well, I guess they’re not really “blocked”… more like there are roads and houses in the way, but the water doesn’t care and has been just plowing through and causing all sorts of destruction. There’s a ridiculous amount of personal property damage, not to mention the infrastructure damage. At least one major bridge has collapsed which isn’t exactly encouraging.
It’s ironic, but due to the flooding, there are water shortages all over Lima. The water in different parts of the city has been turned off most of the time over the last week because they’re having issues with the water treatment system. People have been buying out all of the water at the grocery stores, and when they did manage to turn some water back on, they had to turn it off again because people were stockpiling and the system couldn’t handle it. There have been scattered power outages too, but as far as I know, water is the biggest problem.

Here’s the previously bone-dry Chilca River. It’s definitely not dry anymore. This is one of the rivers that is running around our water well and making it so we can’t get running water right now. We went to check this out on Friday. You can see a wave coming down the river to the right of the middle of the picture. Those waves just kept on rolling down, as if the water wasn’t running fast enough. The big damp-looking dirt area above that little island was also covered with water just days earlier, but our neighborhood rented a backhoe that has been digging a trench for the river to run down in the hopes that it won’t keep spreading out.

The schools in Lima are closed all week, which includes the schools that our kids go to. We heard that some schools tried to stay open last week after the problems started and got fined for it! The after-school program is suspended until school starts again, but the overnight program is still running. The kids who stay over are just hanging out here all day, playing outside and watching movies and doing activities. It’s kind of like summer school all over again. A few extra kids are staying over this week too, from some families who are really in a tough place or whose parents need to go to work and have no one to stay home.
We’re technically in the Lima province, but we’re way outside of the city. Things are slightly better here, but the people who live around us without running water are struggling too. Usually, there are water trucks that drive around the neighborhoods at somewhat scheduled times, and people who need their water tanks filled flag down the truck and buy water. With the increased demand for water trucks, the water service isn’t nearly as consistent, leaving people with no clue of how long they’ll have to wait for another one to come. We’re lucky here. We have huge water tanks, so we have a much more significant supply than other people. Still, we need to be super careful. The kids’ shower and laundry schedules have been adjusted, and we’re doing everything possible to cut back and conserve.

Things are okay now, but it’s unnerving having such an unknown future. They’re estimating that these flash flooding and mudslide problems will keep cropping up over at least the next two weeks. A lot can happen in two weeks!

I’m leaving here on Thursday to do my week of touristing, and at least at the moment, it sounds like everything is okay in Cusco and around Machu Picchu. They’re more in the southern part of the country, out of the affected zone. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that things stay that way! Or better yet that something changes with the weather and these problems stop altogether.