Peru 2020

By Colin McFadden

This is a laterblog, recapping some of the highlights of our recent trip to Peru.  This was a scouting exercise for a work project, so much of our time was spent doing work.

Because this was a work trip, and because I am good steward of grant resources, I eschewed our usual “Delta unless it’s literally twice the price” policy and booked on the low cost winner, Air Canada. This turned out to be A Bad Idea™.  Our initial itinerary would have gotten us into Lima around 1:30am.  Late, but still time to get to a hotel and grab some sleep before our 2pm flight to Cusco.  Delays upon delays out of Toronto meant we got to Lima more like 6:30am.  Rather than spending another 45 minutes in a cab to our pre-arranged hotel, we plunked down for a room at the airport hotel and got a little sleep.

The flight to Cusco was uneventful (obviously not Air Canada).  The approach into Cusco was particularly neat, as the plane wound its way up a valley.  We arrived to beautiful weather and a boatload of good dogs in Cusco. The winding drive through the Andes was often blocked by rockslides and construction attempting to hold back the mountains. Steve and Rebecca met us in Ollantaytambo and showed us around El Albergue, our hotel/organic farm which also doubles as the train station. After petting the alpacas, we went for a walk around the city. There are two large annual festivals in Ollyantatambo and we happened to arrive at the tail end of the largest one.  Between the altitude and the travel, we were a little disoriented, but got a good first introduction to the city.

Kat spent the next morning bird watching in the gardens with her new binoculars. After breakfast with the team we crossed the Urubamba River on the Inca bridge and hiked east along the terraces. Our goal was the ruins of Choqana, a guardhouse watching the river valley. After exploring the ruins, we walked to the town of Pachar where we hitched a ride back home with some friendly Germans. The best lunches in town are on the third floor of the local market. Steve settled us in at a stall that would become our lunch spot for the week.  The lady running the stall makes a half dozen dishes a day, with a rotating menu.  6 soles (less than $2) buys you soup and a plate, along with some tea.  Outside, there was maize cake on the street for dessert.

After lunch we walked out through the original town gates and followed a canal down to an Inca wall. Upon exploring the town further, we discovered a Kancha group that catered to tourists. The courtyard was full of goods for sale and the individual homes were bursting with guinea pigs (cuy). The weekend festival was still in s wing and we watched a parade of condors amble down the street. We stopped back at the market for some sweet potato donuts before heading down to the river to explore the ruins of an elite Inca house.

The next day, we again planned a morning of hiking while Steve and Rebecca did some writing.  We picked up some hiking snacks from the market (cookies and chocolo, or Incan corn), then headed up the valley to the north toward the ruins of Pumamarka.  Gaining some altitude, we had a great view of the expanse of agricultural terraces around us. Massive alluvial fan deposits dominate the valley floor.  You also see the construction of new tourist retreats, as well as the remains of similar failed endeavors along the river.  The hike was a little more intense than we expected – the AllTrails waypoints turned out to have missed about a mile at the start and a half mile at the end.  Woops.

After the hike we relaxed and did some work in the hotel hammocks while Kat fed the resident lawn-eating bunnies before heading into town for another market lunch.  We did more exploration and planning with the researchers, as our ideas shifted from “game” to a more educational concept.

The following morning, we took a car out to Pachar with Steve to explore “the cave” or Naupa Iglesia. We hiked along the train tracks until we came to a steep slope of terraces. At the top of the slope, two large stone slabs had fallen, creating a cave-like structure between them. In this space the Inca had carved a massive double-lintel door. Another sculptural stone at the cave entrance had been blasted apart with dynamite, most likely by treasure hunters. A stone wall covered in niches extended the depth of the space and there is a small building outside the cave.  We explored the site, looking closely at the rocks and marveling at the precision of the carving work.

That night, we stopped at Chunco for some fancy drinks.  Chuncho is run by the same guy who runs El Albergue, and caters to upscale regional cooking.  We just got cocktails (and a hot chocolate).  Dinner was down the street at Apu Veronica, where $5 gets you a huge amount of food, including soup, meat and a starch.

Although we’d hiked a little ways up the valley north of town a few days prior, we hadn’t really grasped the scale of things.  To better understand what it means to go “over a pass” to another valley, we rented a car and took it all the way up the valley to the crest of the pass at 15,000 feet.  As we neared the summit, we entered the clouds and the temperature plummeted.  There’s a small chapel and some carved stones at the crest.  We definitely felt the impacts of the altitude shift.

On the way down, we stopped for photos of the small farms and pens at different altitudes.  A bit lower, we stopped in Patacancha to watch some women weaving and buy some textiles.  These communities are the heart of weaving in the Ollantaytambo region.  They were pretty surprised to see tourists this time of year.  Once we’d chatted for a bit, they warmed up and showed us their work.

Further down the valley, we were waylaid by a parade making its way up the road.  This was the tail end of the town’s festival, as a statue of Baby Jesus makes his way back up the valley to his home.  Not long afterwards, we pulled over to join some locals for Chicha, a lightly alcoholic drink made of fermented fruit juice.  We were immediately welcomed in, and they set to work teasing Colin for being too skinny.  They asked Steve if Colin was his son, and accused Kat of being a bad wife for not fattening him up. All par for the course.

By the end of the week, we’d narrowed down our focus to the creation of a technology-enhanced, content-rich walking tour with some pre- and post-tour content. Friday morning, we set about creating a cohesive walking route.  We also hiked up to the storehouses above town, which provide a great view of the entire valley.  We had lunch back at the market (the stall owner asked where our friends were).

Saturday morning, we paid the (steep) admission fee to enter the archaeological site of the Incan fort.  It’s an impressive site, but like everywhere else in Ollantaytambo, totally lacking in didactic material or signage.  Good thing we had archaeologists with us!

After visiting the fort, we procured some yarn, walked the tour route again, and then had a fancy dinner at Chuncho.  The multicourse meal consisted of guinea pig, alpaca, and all kinds of delicious local vegetables.  The sweet quinoa pudding was definitely a revelation.

For our last day in Ollantaytambo, we hiked up to the stone quarries on the other side of the river.  The Inca hauled every stone block down one mountain, across a river, and up another to build Ollantaytambo.  Our hike was a little less strenuous, but still pretty intense owing to a lack of shade.  Towards the end of the hike, we watched a storm rolling down the valley, and cut our visit short.

Another archaeologist staying at El Albergue (in secret – she was writing and didn’t want the locals knowing she was there, so she could focus!) tipped us off to a hidden arepa restaurant in town.  Run by a Venezuelan ex-pat (one of many in Peru, like Columbia and elsewhere in the region), we had loaded arepas full of beans and pork and all kinds of delicious sauce.

For our drive back to Cusco, we took the high plains route, instead of following the valley back. This gave us a different view, with sweeping sights and gorgeous sun dappled mountains.  As we approached Cusco, Kat had an urgent need to use the bathroom.  Guillermo, our driver, spotted a local paid bathroom under a bridge and pulled over.  Thank goodness for his keen eyes!

Our travel home went off the rails when we hit Lima, where compounding delays meant we had no hope of making our original flights back to Minneapolis.  Rather than spend a day or more in Toronto, we gave up and paid Delta to get us home.  Like we should have to begin with.

2 thoughts on “Peru 2020

  • Deb Marsh January 25, 2020 at 1:24 am Reply

    Oh my—what an incredible experience! That scenery is amazing and I’m itching to explore the botany in every photo. Looking forward to hearing how the project evolves.

  • Susan January 25, 2020 at 1:59 am Reply

    Your photos are remarkable. They really give a sense of the steep terrain. But those guinea pigs… I’m glad Kat got to hang out with alpacas and rabbits and dogs. I’m eager to hear more. I hope school children in the US still study Inca culture (and Aztecs and Mayans). I was fascinated by them as a kid.

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