It is unlikely that the soaring altitude and sheer magnificence of the Andes Mountains, inspired “Stairway to Heaven.” This signature work of the virtuoso rock band Led Zepplin is arguably the best rock ballad oh, maybe Ever. Those guitar riffs live on, even if Lake Titicaca isn’t their spirtual home.
However, the lake, situated in the Andes at an elevation of 12, 500 feet (3800 meters), does seem a likely rest stop along the imagined “stairway.”
If not a Stairway, Lake Titicaca is definitely a sanctuary.
Incas conquered (and often enslaved) other tribes, as they built an empire the length of the Andes. Legend has it that the Uru people living along the lake sought sanctuary from Incan rule by building floating reed islands on the lake, out of reach of their hostile neighbors. Today, the Uros continue to live and thrive in their island-based communities.
Visiting the Uros community is kind of travel experience Yampu Tours does so well; authentic, respectful of local cultures and traditions. Knowledgable guides who speak the local languages. In the case of the Uros, the language is Aymara. (Most of the indigenous Andeans speak Quechua, the language of the Incas.
The single day trip to Lake Titicaca was part of a 10-day epic experience in Peru with Yampu. Another segment of the Yampu trip is chronicled here.
Getting to Lake Titicaca
Traveling from Cusco along the spine of South America is a good 8-hour journey overland. One can fly to Puno but the trade-off is to miss the stark, arid beauty of the high desert mountains. The vast expanse of “nothing” is, in itself, something special. Yampu’s organization and attention to detail made the trip bearable in a luxury coach.
The world isn’t uniformly gorgeous, but it is uniformly intriguing. The Andean highlands are like the surface of the moon; endless rock and sand. You don’t want to live there, but it is worth the drive to see it.
Besides, you need to humble brag on Instagram. On a flyover, you’d miss this the dwindling glacier, the woman with her pet alpaca and the welcome to the Abra la Raya mountain pass.
At a bit over 14,000 feet (elevation noted in meters), you feel lightheaded, your heart pounds. You begin to think that you are indeed “knock, knock knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
From there it was quite literally “downhill” into our luxurious base for the next two nights. Given the elevation, we were encouraged to rest. A good idea in my estimation. I welcomed the hotel’s ready supply of oxygen, wheeled bedside.
Floating islands – a place to call home.
The Uru people in Peru, living along Lake Titicaca, took to the water as a defense against the troubling Incas. They fashioned boats using totora reads from the lake and constructed a network of islands Today, they use motor launches to ferry tourists to the islands, about three miles out onto the lake.
To create the islands, blocks of reeds are cut below the water line to include the buoyant and thickly intertwined roots. The blocks are lashed together forming floating platforms and anchored to the bottom of the lake.
Reeds are spread on the platform. The surface is spongy, sort of like walking on a waterbed. As the reeds dry out, they become quite brittle and are replaced with a fresh layer, about every three months. On the other hand, during the rainy season, the reeds rot quickly and the replacement is more frequent.
Modern Life on the floating islands
About 200 people of Uros descent still live on the islands, maintaining the traditional lifestyle. The larger islands house about 10 families; the smaller ones one or two extended families. Each island lasts about 30 years.
Today, solar panels rise above the thatched roofs; outboard engines replace the long oars and traditional sails. Young children attend school on the larger islands and then more advanced education on the mainland.
Tourism is thriving – Uros even has its own passport stamp – for a small charge of course. Sign me up! I was there, 11 October 2018.
It may very well be that tourism to the floating islands is restricted in the future. The reeds are fragile and the increased foot traffic takes its toll. Each step, each footfall, sinks about 2-4″ into the island’s spongy surface reeds, depending on the person’s weight and other factors. A plan for sustainable tourism to the region is in order.
That said, Lake Titicaca’s floating islands are very special place; warm people inviting you into their homes and lives, if only for a little while. Go now, and go with Yampu.
What is Peru’s Sacred Valley? Machu Picchu always grabs the headlines as the Andean destination of dreamers, scholars and intrepid tourists. Retracing the Inca Trail and the steps of the early 20th century explorers who “discovered” the “Lost City” has become almost a rite of passage for second gen hipsters.
The Sacred Valley is a beautiful sixty-mile stretch roughly following the Urubamba River, filled with Incan history and lore. From the Incan capital of Cusco in the dry Andean plateau (altiplano) it descends, literally, into the high jungle of Machu Picchu.
To my mind, this part of Peru should not be overlooked. Done right, visiting the Sacred Valley offers the increasingly rare chance to glimpse and even experience an authentic local culture, built upon ancient belief systems that still resonate today and serve as a touch point to our humanity.
How to See the Sacred Valley
As a baby-boomer traveler, I wanted a thoroughly planned itinerary including hotel bookings, in-country transportation and a friendly face greeting me at each leg. I’m a pretty intrepid traveler, but the assurance of on-the-ground assistance is hugely important.
I called in the pros. Yampu Tours. They delivered. Flawlessly.
I knew I wasn’t going to hike the Inca Trail. Or, heaven forbid, camp. I need a few (say, 4) stars after the hotel name. Further, I need local guides, courteous and flexible, yet knowledgeable beyond the prepared text. I need to trust their knowledge to feel connected to the people and land I’m visiting.
My goal was an experiential, multi-dimensional trip, not just check off bucket list items.
(Note: this is the first installment of a series on my Peru trip with Yampu)
Yampu put together a terrific itinerary. Trustworthy, local guides who grew up in the area and whose native tongue is Quechan, the ancient language of the Incas. Throughout the trip, each guide provided his/her soulful backstory of growing up in the Andean highlands. I understood how, in just a generation or two, traditional lifestyles are now inextricably linked to the modern world.
You don’t get this kind of insight with just any guide. Yampu has found the best.
So, I recruited two friends, seasoned travelers, and we, as a group of three adventurers, set off.
The “Must Experience” Destinations in the Sacred Valley
MORAY: Experimental farming, the Inca Way
The Inca Empire, at its apex between the 13th to 16th centuries, stretched from modern-day Ecuador to Argentina, from the Pacific coast to the Andes peaks. It’s a harsh landscape with little arable land.
Once conquered, managing a population of nearly 8 million people, scattered over thousands of miles of inhospitable territory, required ingenious military and organizational strategies. The Incas figured it all out brilliantly.
The Incas excelled in harnessing a region of climatic zones ranging from coastal plains to high desert. They developed agricultural labs such as the one found in the archeological complex of Moray. The development of sustainable agriculture was vital to their success.
In this amphitheater of concentric circles, the temperature can differ by as much as 27 degrees (Fahrenheit) from top to bottom. Testing crops in these different micro-climates provided valuable information on successful agriculture production across the Incan empire.
They refined varieties of quinoa in high elevations and developed over three thousand varieties of potatoes. They grew maize of rainbow hues, big kernel stuff, tasty but starchy. It is the basis of a fermented corn brew called chicha de jora.
I didn’t drink any chicha; a bit strong and sweet for my taste. However, if you’re into homebrew, here’s the insider recipe.
Chinchero is the mythical home of the rainbow in Andean lore and a handicraft/weaving capital. I fell hard for the doe-eyed llamas and alpacas.
Even llamas get dressed up in the colors of the rainbow
The wool from the alpaca is, of course, legendary for its use in fine knitwear. Here’s a tiny example of goods I bought for grownups and kids. The little mitts are for my granddaughter.
Fingerless gloves with llama motif and a wonderfully soft baby alpaca scarf.
Unfortunately, we missed Chinchero’s traditional Sunday handicraft market. This photo essay captures the vibrancy of the marketplace. Indeed, it’s a reason to return!
However, we did see a fascinating demonstration of wool dying with local vegetable dyes. Talk about artisanal!
The women explained the process from the start – the fur of the alpaca (left). On the right, the natural alpaca wool ready for dyeing.
The Maras Salt Ponds
The salt ponds aren’t an official Wonder of the World, but they should be. Eons ago the region was a seabed. Volcanic and geo-rumblings ultimately forced the Andes to rise and form the spine of South America. Meanwhile, seawater was locked within the rock.
It is still trickling out.
Pre-Columbia tribes harnessed the salty water trickling out of a mountain spring around 200AD. Later, the Incan Empire used this precious commodity trading for cocoa leaves from the jungle.
The stream feeds an ingenious system of small canals that in turn fill thousands of small, vertigo-inducing ponds perched on the hillside. Each basin is about 15 feet square (3 meters) and shallow, about a foot (30 cm.) deep.
When a pond is full, the notch is closed, diverting water to another basin. As the water evaporates, the salt is scraped off, bagged and carried in several kilo bags along narrow paths to the cooperative’s depot. It is hard manual labor done at an elevation of 11,000 feet.
The salt is available at the co-op shop (and across Peru). It has a lovely pink tinge, a very salty taste, and is renown for its curative properties. It’s high in calcium, zinc, magnesium, and iron, used as an effective treatment for skin conditions and swelling.
(Traveler hack: if you can’t get to Maras, this remarkable salt is available on Amazon.)
Ollantaytambo and the Huilloc Community
Ollantaytambo – Architecture in the Incan tradition
The ruins at Ollantaytambo, built by in the 1400s under the leadership of Incan empire builder Pachacutec (1438-1471), who went on to create Machu Picchu. The ruins are thought to be of religious and strategic importance.
Visiting the ruins is a beautiful precursor to Machu Picchu. It’s a bit smaller, not as busy and sets the stage for the remarkable engineering brilliance of the Incas.
Further, their engineering expertise is readily apparent. The Incan ingenious design for interlocking stone blocks gives their buildings resilience in earthquakes. Seven hundred years and the construction is still “rock solid.”
Incan doorways are a trapezoid shape. Narrower at the top places the pressure on the base of the opening, not the top.
Evident, too, is the very advanced water distribution system. This remnant of the intricate canal system at the Ollantaytambo pays tribute to the Inca engineering genius.
A Huilloc Community Welcome
To my mind, the real value of a tour/travel agency is their ability to connect you with an experience you couldn’t do otherwise.
Participating in another culture was a hands-on lesson in gratitude and humility.
We visited the rural Huilloc (pronounced “Wee-oak”) community, to participate in Chakra or agriculture. Roles and dress are traditional, so Linda and I slipped into woolen skirts, hats, and ponchos. Geoff, the guy in our small tribe, donned the male attire.
After introductions, we enjoyed delicious mint tea and a crunchy peanut-like snack.
We joined in dancing accompanied by pan flute and strings played by the men. Everybody participated: the kids, the teens, men, women. What first seemed awkward on our part quickly gave away to the graciousness of our hosts.
However, our visit took us deeper. Geoff practiced traditional farming with a hoe/plow tool, still in use today to plant potatoes, a diet staple.
Linda and I toured the kitchen, where potatoes were on the boil.
I was shown how to stoke the fire (blowing through a hollow log). Later, the lady of the house turned me around and, filling a cloth square about the size of a large scarf with the potatoes, she tied it around my shoulders. I was to carry this to the stream where we had a picnic with the family.
By this time, we were pretty comfortable with one another and chatted as friends do. Through our guide, we learned everyone’s ages and roles, and they learned ours.
They heard about our grandchildren (and gamely complimented the pictures); we learned the road to their village was recently paved making the weekly 24 km walk to the market far easier.
The kids played, the teen boy talked about his wish for a cell phone (that’s pretty universal) and the young woman spoke wistfully of her upcoming marriage.
The elder of the family, with his bottle of homebrewed chicha, poured the first draught on to the ground. It’s the Incan practice of giving thanks to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, for her bounty.
A beautiful, simple expression of gratitude. Grace is such a simple thing – why don’t we do more to incorporate it our 1st world privileged lives?
Lunch, 3 courses, was served in a dining room clearly meant for visitors. Corn soup, chicken, a vegetable dish and sweet pudding for dessert. The room was too dark for pictures; the meal simple and delicious.
Prepping to Go
Before I embarked on the trip, I did plenty of research which I chronicled here and here.
Now, with 20/20 hindsight I mostly agree with my pre-trip expectations. Except Peru was more magnificent, more profound than I dreamed.
More attention will be given to the topic of altitude in further installments of my Peruvian adventure, but suffice to say that hydration is super, super important. Especially if you live at or near sea level.
Here are a few tips for staying hydrated while traveling, but what about before you leave?
About a week before departure, I made a conscious effort to drink at least a liter of water per day, the minimum of what I thought I’d need while in the high Andean plateau. I landed in Lima (sea level) but then went directly to Cusco and from there by car to the Sacred Valley. The Sacred Valley ranges from 6,000-11,000 feet, much higher than my home turf.
I arrived in Peru hydrated, and never had to play catch-up. It proved to be a wise choice. Drink up, my friends.
(Not Quite) Required Reading
I’m a huge fan of reading up on a destination before visiting. And not just travel books or online material. That’s helpful in the planning stage, but not, ahem, the whole story.
To understand a country, to get into its veins, you need their literature, the voice of their authors. For Peru-bound travelers, there’s no better resource than Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.
Essayist, novelist, short story writer, his work is legendary.
I loved this one, even though I wasn’t traveling to the Amazon. I found it a thoughtful approach to engaging with indigenous people, a factor very much part of today’s discussion surrounding economic development in Peru.
Here are some other recommendations. I carried the Reader with me and found it an invaluable resource in sorting out the tidal wave of information washing over each day.
If you have the time or inclination for just one book before traveling to Peru, make it this one. A collection of essays, short stories, legends and biographies, this provides a look at the diversity that makes Peru so fascinating.
This one is on every list of must-reads on Peru. Focusing on the history of the Incas, it retraces the steps of Hiram Bingham, the early 20th-century explorer. Clever and funny, it will make you glad you’re not planning a modern-day tramp across the Sacred Valley.
The seminal work of Hiram Bingham. You might as well read his first-hand account, written soon after his 1911 exploration that made him famous for “discovering” Manchu Picchu.
The Upshot/Final Thoughts
Peru clocked 3.3 million tourists in 2017. The growth of international tourism is expected to rise by 8.5% in 2018, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
The district government and local communities are only recently awake to the economic benefits of cultural tourism. It is still in its infancy but holds transformational promise. Plans afoot will inalterably change the character of the place. One hopes the commercial development, based on tourism, will be thoughtful; respecting the area’s ecosystems and preserving the inhabitants’ unique heritage.
The economic alternative – migration to the larger cities – threatens to render the region, indeed, “lost.” And by that, I don’t mean overgrown with vegetation.
My advice: see the Sacred Valley soon. The cable cars are coming. The tourist buses will get bigger and more frequent.
Finally, book through an experienced tour provider such as Yampu. You can customize your trip to your liking and come away with a remarkable experience you couldn’t do on your own.
Your Quechan is probably not as good as your tourist Spanish.
N.B. 3 Score & More will receive a slight commission from links to Amazon, at no additional cost to you.
Travel is supposed to be an adventure, right? Whether it’s a place you’ve never been (like Peru) or a destination you visit annually, it’s still an adventure.
I chose Peru for several reasons, key among them:
Peru offers a sense of daring enterprise that is reminiscent of “Indiana Jones.” At its center is the real-life academic exploration of “lost civilizations.” The well-chronicled “discovery” of Machu Picchu, in 1911, by Yale historian Hiram Bingham, brought the famed Incan civilization to scholars, adventurers, and now tourists.
From the Amazonian basin to 20,000 foot Andean peaks, Peru casts a mysterious, exotic spell. There is an unmapped jungle, the world’s deepest canyon, sand dunes, 1500 miles of Pacific coastline. And we’re talking a country smaller in size than Alaska. I know I’m just skimming the surface in one trip to the famed Inca region.
The flight from North America, though long, does not trigger much jet lag. There is just one-hour time difference from the U.S. East Coast and then only during Daylight Savings Time, which Peru does not recognize. The time difference from the U.S. mainland is no more than 3 hours. That’s a big plus in my book.
Itinerary and Logistics
The big question, especially in the age wide-ranging Google searches and transparent Trip Advisor reviews, is whether a travel/tour professional is really necessary.
I’m in for the help of a travel professional. I chose Yampu Tours.
As an experienced yet older traveler, engaging a knowledgeable tour company is a must. Especially in a country with a less developed tourist infrastructure. This isn’t France.
Based on my experience in Argentina with Yampu, I know they will do a great job on the Peru trip. They already have, in presenting a customized itinerary for myself and two traveling buddies, travel insurance options, international and domestic air reservations.
I don’t want to deal with in-country logistics. I do want train tickets, local guides, time-sensitive admissions (as in Machu Picchu) sorted out beforehand. Again, Yampu has done all that, and more.
I’m coming upon my seventh decade. Unapologetically, I’m at the age where I feel it’s okay for someone else to vet the hotels, arrange the transportation, provide on-the-ground support when things go awry. And I think that’s okay.
That said, I don’t want the “Deep State” of Tour Operators.
Yet, I don’t want every hour filled nor every meal planned. And Yampu gives you plenty of free time. I do want to know what I’m doing day-to-day, not but second-to-second. I’m looking for flexibility, some time to roam around on my own. Even some “toes up” time. Check and check.
The importance of friends’ recommendations on Peru
Your own network is the most reliable place to start a trip prep, including the selection of a tour company.
Why reinvent the wheel? Your friends know you, your quirks, they way you live. And you have the same basic knowledge about them. So when they make a recommendation for a restaurant in Lima, for example, you immediately know:
They always choose the most expensive/the cheapest place to eat.
Their sense of culinary adventure is close or not so close to yours.
Invariably, they will eat at the hotel. In that case, don’t bother.
Friends’ suggestions provide important insight. For example, I’ve had more than one Peru-saavy friend counsel me on remedies for altitude sickness. One recommendation was to take the acclimation process slow — and have this – Altitude RX– on hand.
Another friend suggested a joint ticket available for same-day visits to the Pedro de Osma Collection (OSMA), MATE, the museum of iconic Peruvian photographer Mario Testino, and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
All these art venues are located in the quite hip, bohemian neighborhood of Barranco, a seaside quarter once favored by Lima’s aristocracy. Again, Yampu has left the time in the itinerary for me to explore on my own.
The last bit of advice, which I’m taking to heart, is the importance of hydration at altitude.
Hydration must begin beforehand, not once you land in the mountains.
My itinerary will wind through Peru’s Sacred Valley at elevations well above 5,000 feet. To help acclimate, I’m starting now, a week before departure, to drink (or try to drink) 2 liters (approximately 64 oz) of water per day.
Ahh, the Internet
The internet is the ultimate prep tool. Answers to specific questions about anything.
What’s the weather going to be like in Machu Picchu?
Some perspective on Peru’s Andean interior. Nearby Lake Titicaca is at 12,500 feet.
Do I need additional vaccines?
Typically, tour operators will advise on recommended preventive shots for specific locations. Further, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a wonderfully comprehensive website. Here’s the update on Peru.
I plan to climb Huayna Picchu, towering a thousand feet above Machu Picchu. But what about coming down?
I’ll be that lady coming down on her backside, clinging to the wall.
I began my prep for this trip with literature. I’ve touched on Peruvian authors and travel writers, read magical stories, fictional histories of the Marxist era of the 1980s, essays, and non-fiction, in an attempt to unravel Peru’s diverse cultural, historic, political currents. Here are my recommendations that have informed my impressions of Peru. Travel, as always, will confirm or dispel the assumptions gleaned from the armchair. Travel does that.
Via con Dios.
N.B. Purchases on Amazon from links herein will generate a small commission, at no extra cost to you.
With Yampu, I experienced Buenos Aires, the incomparable wine country around Mendoza (and a wonderful city in itself), and the magnificent, awe-inspiring Iguazu Falls.
The Peru trip promises to be special as it’s the home country of Jose Irauzqui, founder and president of Yampu. So when I say they really put their heart into it… I’m looking forward to great, great experiences.
But 10 days is barely enough time to scratch the surface of Peru.
Start with the country’s almost incomprehensible geographic diversity.
Just a bit bigger than Alaska, Peru boasts the world’s highest city (the mining town La Rinconada, at 16, 700 ft), a 1500 mile Pacific coastline, sand dunes of the Huacachina desert oasis, glaciers and dense jungles, and the soaring the Andean peaks surrounding Manchu Picchu.
And the Amazon rainforest. In fact, this region covers over 60% of Peru, the second-largest chunk within a single country. (Brazil has the most).
Literature as insight into Peru’s cultural diversity and rich history.
While not meant to be a “travel book” per se, I find thought-provoking for the serious traveler in our “post-culture” world.
He laments a global sameness, an aspirational materialism stoking the world’s economic engine, the primacy of image over the word. All, he posits, have contrived to change what it means for a society to have a culture.
Culture has little to do with quantity, everything to do with quality. — Mario Vargas Llosa
In travel, culture matters. A lot.
Other Must-Reads for Peru
These provide an insight into Peru you won’t find in travel guides, on Trip Advisor, or even the most informed travel itineraries.
It’s the work you’ve got to do to get behind the brochures.
If you have the time or inclination for just one book before traveling to Peru, make it this one. A collection of essays, short stories, legends and biographies, this provides a look at the diversity that makes Peru so fascinating.
This one is on every list of must-reads on Peru. Focusing on the history of the Incas, it retraces the steps of Hiram Bingham, the early 20th-century explorer who claimed to “find” the lost traces of the remarkable Incan civilization near modern-day Cusco.
2017 was a banner year for my travel. Some destinations were carefully planned but others were just serendipitous, popping up out of the blue. Either way, believe me, the travel gods cranked it out on my behalf. During this remarkable stretch of travel and exploration, the trips were chronicled in this space. And now, as the year winds to a close, here are my 5 favorite destinations for 2017. I hope you’ll find some ideas and inspiration for your 2018 travel plans.
Mendoza is often associated with the other Argentinian M-word: Malbec. The region is indeed the heart of Argentina’s prodigious wine production and the focus of many a trip. The wine tasting was certainly high on my list and I did plenty of it.
But there is more to explore: Mendoza is sophisticated yet laid-back; beautiful parks reflect the regions’ rich history and Spanish heritage. Culinary expertise pairs nicely with the renown wine. Traveling with the expertise of Yampu Tours, here’s how two friends and I caught the best of Mendoza, from Malbec to aflajores.
Ah, Buenos Aires. The first time you visit any city, you can’t do it all. Sometimes budget constraints limit options, or the allotted time slips away. Thanks to a great itinerary put together by Yampu Tours, I experienced some of the best of Buenos Aires in a way that made me want to return. I’m sure I’ll go back for more…. Continue reading “First time in Buenos Aires? 5 Things I loved!”
Casa Zinc in La Barra across the small wavy bridge from Uruguay’s famed costal hot spot, Punta del Este.
It’s part of the Tablet Hotel collection, which hints at its exclusive, uber-cool nature.
Casa Zinc is a small hotel, a hipster’s dream; an unassuming collection of six rooms in a quiet residential neighborhood off the main thoroughfare.
Don’t let the trompe d’oeil facade and Casa Zinc’s consciously rumpled public areas fool you. The illusion masks attention to detail in all creature comforts, wrapping modern conveniences in luxurious, carefully curated bohemian chic with just a whiff of intrigue.
Want to conjure up a mysterious past? Cafe Zinc is the perfect setting.
See if you don’t agree in the following slideshow or Casa Zinc’s online gallery, here.
Say “Argentina” and wine – especially Malbec – comes to mind. But the world’s largest waterfall system, the dramatic Iguazú Falls, lies along Argentina’s border with Brazil. “Amazing” doesn’t really do them justice.
The Iguazú National Park (Parques Nacionales Iguazú (AR) y do lguaçu (Br)) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After a few days in the sun-parched wine country of Mendoza, seeing – and occasionally feeling – water drop 270 feet (82 meters) is, well, refreshing.
Yampu Tours booked the day’s tour to Iguazú Falls, as part of a larger trip to Argentina. A high point was an unforgettable boat trip to get up close and personal with water flowing at a rate of 62,ooo cubic feet (approximately 1800 square meters) per second.