The most incredible thing about Machu Picchu is that once you get to Peru you realise that Machu Pichu is just the beginning. And second, that Peru itself is just the beginning.
The Very Beginning of a Life Long Journey
I have been enchanted by archaeology since my childhood. My father was stationed in Egypt with the RAF during World War II. Later when my parents had resettled in Canada he woke my mind up to a world of wonders waiting to be experienced.
He told me stories about the ancient Egyptians and I pored over grainy black and white pictures of the pyramids and the sphinx in our family set of encyclopedias. He also regaled me with tales of the Inca, the Aztecs, the Maya, and the Kon-Tiki expeditions to the Galapagos and Easter Islands. It all got mashed together in my child’s adventurous imagination and probably helps account for my hopeless addiction to travel. (And my slightly offbeat childhood in Medicine Hat that did not include hockey.)
In 1998 I finally made it to the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu.
A Mission to Explore Peru
I was on a mission to evaluate the tour services and accommodations for an archaeology and natural history tour group, led by a university professor. They had more or less requested certain hotels and routes, but it was important for me to verify the reliability and over all logistics since it was my own new travel company that was procuring the services. It needed work well and I had engaged a local firm to help me.
It was also the first time I had ever had taken a privately guided tour myself. Like many people, I was used to doing all my own travel arrangements, but from the moment I arrived in Lima I realised this was going to be good.
Lima is a huge city of over 9,000,000 people and international flights often arrive at late hours from North America. We got in around midnight. Instead of fussing about converting money, getting a taxi and finding a hotel, we were already prepaid and had a driver meet us. He navigated easily through busy, slightly unnerving, night time traffic to our centrally located hotel in Miraflores district. I had business appointments the next day so appreciated not having that stress. The hotel was a small boutique hotel made from a refurbished Spanish colonial mansion. It was like many you can find in Latin America and the kind I usually choose for tours.
The meetings went well and we spent the remainder of our first day scoping out practicalities of interesting sites, restaurants and banking. The following day, I was planning to go to Paracas to see Las Islas Ballestas Reserve where colonies of seal lions, Humboldt Penguins, blue footed boobies and the gaunay guano live in the thousands.
On the Road to Paracas
Instead of racing to a bus station that morning we were taken to the first class terminal by our local guide, Deborah. We were very comfortable, the buses were really unlike anything in North America with beverage and snack services. On arrival once again met by a local guide. He took us to a lodge where we could take excursions to the islands the next morning. All in all by now I was liking this whole pre-planned and prepaid way of travel. We had as much free time as we wanted and a whole lot less time wasted hunting out hotels and transportation. More time, less stress, more enjoyment.
Paracas is south of Lima on the desert coast. It is near Ica where the famous Peruvian alcoholic beverage Pisco is made. They also produce some wine here. The region also is the launch point to the famous Nazca lines. In fact the area deserves a whole post since it’s here that some of the earliest cultures arose. You can spend one or two nights here and return to Lima or you can continue by a very long bus ride to Arequipa and south to Chile. We returned to Lima.
We flew to Arequipa, and met our guide who helped us get to our lovely colonial style hotel. She then took us to see an old Convento Santa Catalina, still in use, but very well preserved from the time of the colonization.
The next day we met another guide, Jorge, who took us to a beautiful hot spring and lodge in the Colca valley. When he learned we were interested in wildlife, he detoured us to places he knew we could see endemic birds, vicunas, alpacas, llamas and of course Andean condors.
But it became even more interesting as the trip progressed to one of our main points of interest, Cuzco in the Sacred Valley of the Inca.
More Machu Picchu Than We Bargained For
We came in the wet season and it’s not unusual that the train to Machu Picchu closes down temporarily when tracks wash out. We did not know this, but it happened a few days before we arrived in Cuzco. Had we been on our own, I don’t think we would have made it to Machu Picchu. But Rosy, our guide/host in Cuzco, had already rearranged our itinerary so that we could take a helicopter transfer from Urubamba to Aguas Calientes where we stayed the night in a fantastic little hotel.
From here we were able to take the daily bus ride up the switchbacks to the magnificent lost city of the Incas. The clouds parted and we spent the day walking along the streets and terraces of Machu Picchu. It was every bit as good as I had imagined. That evening the rains started up again and we took refuge in a small street cafe in Aguas Calientes that made the absolute best brick oven pizzas ever. Truly magical.
The rains would cease for short periods and we able to return by helicopter the next day. We floated once more through the misty mountain clouds (now a twice in a lifetime experience) down to the Sacred Valley and met up with Rosy again.
Rather than letting rain be a negative, Rosy now took us to see how the ancient Incans had engineered buildings, water ways and fountains that not only channeled the water away, but did so with beauty and joy.
The rains had cancelled most commercial flights and they were backed up by days. We had to get to the amazon soon or miss the program that was arranged for us. So, while we were at Machu Picchu Rosy had rebooked our tickets and called the Amazon lodge to advise them what was going on.We continued on our fabulous journey into the Amazon without any stress of dealing with overworked airline check-in agents.
The Amazing Amazon
We got on our way to the Amazon basin over the mountains but still in Peru. Again this was a mind expanding trip with motorised canoes two days up the river to two fantastic ecolodges. We saw the world’s largest known clay lick (a cut bank in the river) where every morning, on a schedule so regular it seems hard to believe, hundreds of macaws, parrots, parakeets and other tropical birds come to ingest clay. The experience is beyond describing as the sun rises on the humid forest and the birds begin to flock while you and maybe 15 or 20 other people from around the planet stop and just absorb the sensation. (Peregrine’s video has some shots of people at this lodge.)
This trip, like every tour I’ve been on, was a journey of discovery. We went for one reason but came away with a richer experience that seems to have cast the original reason for travel as an after thought. Since then, Peru has become one of the most popular places I’ve sold and made tours for.
Machu Picchu it turns out really is the start of touring Peru. Depending on your time, your activity level, interests and budget you can go with a group or you can break up the trip into fully guided and self guided. There are many levels of hiking trips in the Andes to many other “lost cities” and current villages of Quechua people. With 60% of the country in the Amazon basin, it is a biodiversity hotspot. There are many other archaeological sites, from pre-Incan cultures in Peru scattered along the pacific coast.
Peru is hugely significant in the colonization of the Americas by Europeans being the seat of power for the Spaniards. Like Mexico, Peru was exploited by the Spain to supply gold and silver that, sadly, financed hundreds of years of wars. Today mining is still Peru’s most valuable industry but also brings the world such things as potatoes, quinoa, alpaca wool, avacadoes, mangoes, bananas, fish and coffee. Lima is considered to be the Gastronomic Capital of the Americas.
If you had to choose only one place to visit in South America, you would not go wrong with Peru. When I started here there were a handful of organised tours, most for young adventurers. Now it’s easier to find really good tours for people of all ages and a variety of interests.
If you are interested in this type of independent tour, you can download a copy of my independent explorer Machu Picchu program with itinerary and current prices.
There are many other set departure tours with the main international brands that I can also supply. Contact me for some ideas and ways to best arrange a trip whether it’s a small group tour or a private tour.