Machu Picchu and It’s Unexpected Surprises Part I

October 11, 2018.

A friend asked when I got back from my trip to Machu Picchu, “did I encounter any surprises while visiting the Inca site.” I asked, “what do you mean, surprises?” She replied, “oh, things that you didn’t expect.” My husband and I, along with our long-time friends, preferred to travel on our own. So, without the expertise found in tour companies, I had to do a lot of groundwork familiarizing myself with our destination. I enjoy a leisurely pace that pulls the maximum experience possible while touring a place. I do my research before arriving, who doesn’t these days with the abundance of “information sharing” over the internet. The itineraries I strive for are seamless, enjoyable and as low stress as possible(I don’t think that you can ever eliminate stress when you’re in new, unfamiliar surroundings). So, when my friend asked this question, I have to admit there were a few surprises.

Jimmy, our guide, arrived at the hotel at 8:00 a.m. sharp. Our friends were already in the lobby when I came down with my husband. Enthusiasm was bursting from every part of my body. I was finally going to visit one of the most exceptional city ruins in the Andes. Jimmy, tall, lanky and of both Quechua and Spanish ancestry, met us the prior afternoon to coordinate our hike.  We had taken Peruvian Rail’s, Vistadome, from Ollantaytambo which had the last train station available going into the narrow Urubamba Valley to Machu Picchu’s nearest town, Aguas Calientes.   We wanted to have a good night’s sleep before our all-day hike the next day.

We were staying at Hatun Inti Boutique Machupicchu. I read reviews online and felt confident that we would have clean, comfortable accommodations. It turned out to be a great hotel. The six-story hotel overlooks the Urubamba River. It is ideally located between the train station and the buses that drive up the switchbacks to Machu Picchu. The staff was exceptionally helpful. They had a porter waiting for us at the train station to carry our bags. They recommended great restaurants and called our guide to notify him of last-minute changes we made in our schedule.

As we began our walk to the bus terminal down a narrow road that ran along the river, my excitement erupted, and I grabbed Sheila’s hand swinging it back and forth like a child. She glanced at me surprised but knew the reason. She had been my partner in crime in convincing our husbands that this trip needed to happen. It took 20 hours, four modes of transportation, and a lot of patience from our beginnings in Las Vegas. October was considered “off-season” for Machu Picchu. I was all about avoiding crowds and saving money, but when we arrived in Machu Picchu, I began to wonder was there really a “slow time”? According to Jimmy, we were lucky to have a relatively “light-traffic” day.

The bus from Aguas Calientes deposited us in front of the Snack Shop adjacent to the Machu Picchu Lodge. We had just experienced what had to be the most spectacular mountain excursion ever taken. In the misty, grey morning, we watched from the comfort of our sturdy, Mercedes Benz bus, soaring tee-pee shaped mountains pass by stacked tightly together. Valleys plunged below us while wisps of clouds hung on verdant, green covered pinnacles. I was in a world that I had never seen before. The window fogged up as rain began to fall. I took a quick look over the side of the bus and saw how close the wheels were to the edge of the road. I hoped the rain would not cause us to slip on the muddy track. Everyone on the bus seemed to be engaged in excited chatter, oblivious to the steep switchbacks we were taking. I decided to concentrate my gaze on some distant horizon, telling myself that the driver did this all the time. I had to be in competent hands. And I was.



Exhilarated by the drive up the mountain, I eagerly scaled the narrow, ascending path behind the park’s main pedestrian entrance. Visitors were strung along the trail. Most were keeping a steady pace up the mountain. I skirted around an older woman, holding tightly onto the arm of her daughter. A young couple stopped to catch their breath, and two teenage boys waited respectfully for their parents.

With each labored breath, I pushed forward on the steep, uneven stone steps. The rain had become an intermittent drizzle that finally ceased.  As I made a turn along the path, I still couldn’t see the city of Machu Picchu. The trail cut into the slope. Embankments clad in tropical vegetation hid the ruins from view. I turned around and glanced at my husband, Sheila, and Ken who had fallen behind. They were concentrating on their footing, taking slow, intentional steps. We were embarking on one of the most sought out destinations in the world.

The trail finally stretched out into a straight, flat, pathway with guardrails. We had reached one of the wide, agricultural terraces. I took a moment to catch my breath and regroup. Our guide, Jimmy, was waiting for us. A 2000 foot drop to the Urubamba River separated us from a range of lush, green mountains on the other side of a winding valley. Jimmy explained how important the mountains were to the Incas. Their religious beliefs stemmed from their presence. Standing amidst these giants, I could understand their views.


A thatched-roof hut stood just ahead of us. The locals called it the Guardhouse. We veered off to climb an additional set of granite stairs that ascended further on a hillside.  Taking our time navigating them, we reached a viewing platform and got our first full look at Machu Picchu, spreading out below us. Symmetrical, precise, peaceful, otherworldly and beautiful were just a few of a jumble of words that popped into my head.


As we stood on the ridge overlooking the city, Jimmy seemed to give us a measuring look and then asked, “Are you interested in seeing a secret back entrance to Machu Picchu? It’s about a 25- minute walk. It leads to the Inca Bridge, which is an engineering feat in itself. Few tourists take the trail because of the time involved.”

My “Indiana Jones” instincts kicked in. I knew nothing about this part of Machu Picchu. Were we going to go where few had traveled?  I immediately responded, “yes!” But there were three other people in my party I had to consider. My husband was not a big fan of heights, and my girlfriend faced physical challenges with her knees. If they said, “no,” I would have to defer. The trail was rated “easy” on the range of difficulty hiking it, Jimmy explained as more questions were asked about this particular route. Cutting through the jungle, drop-offs were tempered with encroaching vegetation. Jimmy felt that it was well worth our time, and eventually, everyone was in for the extra mile. Phew!

The Inca Bridge Trail takes you out of the park. A park custodian’s hut sits along the trail. Once you have passed the ranger, you are officially out of the park. Your entrance ticket for Machu Picchu must be stamped in order for you to get back in and your names are written down in a ledger. This made us a little wary. It seemed like a lot of formality! What were we really getting ourselves into? Jimmy explained that this trail was thought to be the route to Vilcabamba, the last stronghold for Manco, the Inca ruler who eventually fell to the Spanish conquistadors.  Inca forces used this route for sneak attacks and were able to retreat behind an impenetrable draw bridge.

We maneuvered between large rocks, walking on compact dirt at times and granite flagstone at other times. As we wound our way through the jungle, my heart rate increased, breathing became strained. Needless to say, the trail rated as “easy” was still a workout. Machu Picchu is at an elevation of 8,000 feet. We were above the city. The altitude was taxing. I was grateful that the day was overcast. The morning remained relatively temperate.


Jimmy walked out in front, his hands intertwined below his green backpack.  He was at ease in his surroundings. As we rounded a bend in the trail, the right side fell away to a deep canyon below. Low stone walls alternated with guard rails along the edge, but at times there was nothing to guard against the sheer drop-off. We were scaling the side of a mountain. I glanced back at my husband to see how he was managing. His mouth was grim, and he looked a little pale, but he didn’t say anything. Jimmy stopped at a wide turn out in the path so that we could take in the view that stretched out before us.



We found ourselves suspended between a sheer rock face wall rising behind us and tropical foliage descending below us. The mountains split open to reveal a myriad of ridges, slopes, and sheer cliffs. A river meandered thousands of feet below looking like a thin ribbon of brown against the gigantic base of the towering mountains.  No wonder the Incas believed that gods presided here.


The trail rose and fell, expanded and contracted. It was a good thing that few tourists cared to visit this side of Machu Picchu as we found ourselves walking in single file on some parts of the trail. Finally, we came to a promontory and stopped. A few hundred feet ahead and below us stood the bridge. From our vantage point, the view was spectacular. Like popsicle sticks, tree trunks had been cut into uneven, swollen planks, spanning a 20-foot gap in the trail. A sheer rock wall towered over the bridge, and a 1000-foot drop fell below it. A tall, wooden gate, recently installed, blocked the entrance to the bridge. Age and deterioration made it unsafe to use.

As we gazed on this spectacular work done by the Incas who had chiseled away granite to create this breach in the trail, Jimmy asked if we wanted to turn around or finish our journey to the gate. The trail descended rapidly. Uneven and interspersed with jagged rock it hugged tightly against the cliff wall. On one side of the trail, there were no guard rails and on the other, iron stakes were hammered into the rock face with a cable strung along to create a type of hand railing. I was going the distance. The rest of my party stayed behind.


Jimmy walked with an ease that said that he had done this 100 times over. I grabbed onto the cable when the trail became narrow and steep. Some workmen were at the gate reinforcing the door. Jimmy explained that a tourist recently slipped through the wooden slates and crossed the bridge. Fortunately, he didn’t get hurt. But a German tourist had fallen to his death standing too close to the edge to get a photo.

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Later, I watched a video my husband had taken with his cell phone of me reaching the bridge.  I wondered if he was recording me because I had managed quite a feat or did he feel that he had to document the possible last moments of my life? He never confirmed one or the other when I asked.

Walking to the Inca Bridge was unplanned and a nice surprise that our guide was instrumental in creating.  I was glad that he showed us this important part of Inca life.












Restaurants showcasing Peru’s unique Foods

Waiting for us in Peru was not only exceptional sights to see but also culinary wonders that had our small group passing plates around to share in these new discoveries.

Growing up, I ate typical American dishes found in the Midwest. My mother, who worked outside of the home, stuck to the basics. We had hamburger-helper, Mac N Cheese, roast beef and mash potatoes(on special occasions), pork chops, and a couple of chicken dishes. She rarely ventured out and tried new recipes. I viewed food as something necessary. I never saw it as something to explore. But I had an adventurous streak.

In 1964 a new drink and fast food hit the market in full force. We were living in Montana at the time. It was a year later that I saw the drink on the menu at a small hamburger joint. Intrigued by the name, I insisted on ordering it.  It was a soda called Mountain Dew. My folks were hesitant. The last thing they wanted to do was spend money on something they knew nothing about. When we tried that first sip, we were surprised how smooth, refreshing, and satisfying the sugary drink was.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, which had been founded in Kentucky thirty years earlier, was making its way across the nation as a franchise in the ’60s. Utah and Montana were granted independent franchiser rights before the Colonel sold the company. We drove in our pickup truck to the first franchise in Libby, Montana.  That bucket of chicken was the best chicken I had ever tasted.  Again, a new food-inspired joy. These things weren’t considered fine dining, but they were sure satisfying. I must have learned along the way that trying different foods could create incredible experiences.

What happened next changed my view on food. Food was more than discovering new and unusual flavors and textures; it was also connecting family and friends. Conversations developed over the subject of food. Opinions were shared, and the realization that we had the same impressions brought us closer together.

As I got older, I found myself slipping into the frame of mind that nothing could surprise me any longer. Food, however, was the exception. Food can bring wonderment back into your life when you thought you had tried it all.

When I read food blogs on Peru, I was excited to find out that it had risen to the status of a world-class food destination. Famous chefs were flying down to Peru like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern to explore this new culinary star, while Peruvian chefs were becoming known worldwide (Astrid and Gaston to name one).  Armed with suggestions by bloggers from Peru and visitors abroad, I prepared a list of foods to try.

Our arrival in Peru was scheduled for 10:30 pm on a Friday. It was an ideal time to get a nightcap before going to bed. We intended to go to the hotel bar and have Peru’s famous Pisco Sour. Unfortunately, our plane had to circumvent a hurricane category storm, which pushed our arrival back two hours. When we finally got to our hotel, it was 1:00 a.m., and all we wanted to do was go to bed.

With no schedules to meet the following day, we had a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, the Sonesta Hotel El Olivar de Lima. They offered an international style buffet with a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs and sausage, waffles, cereals, breads, and cold cuts. The breakfast was delicious, but not the Peruvian eating experience I was anticipating.

By the early afternoon, we were ready to explore the city. We headed to Larcomar, an outdoor shopping mall built into the cliffs of the Costa Verde(Green Coast) in the district of Miraflores. Ready for lunch, we stepped into Popular de Aqui y de Alla’, a restaurant that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. Known for its exceptional cocktails, we were ready to dive into the cultural experience waiting for us in the form of a Pisco Sour.

When we requested the alcoholic drink, the waiter shook his head no. “No es possible,” he announced. We were confused. Wasn’t the bar open for lunch? We soon learned the country was under a mandatory “dry” period. To our chagrin, national elections were taking place through the weekend!

(As a side note: Most Latin American countries require establishments serving alcohol to shut down the bars during elections. No alcohol can be sold. The business faces a stiff penalty. A risk of the government taking away their license to operate is a real consequence).

Our expectations were shattered. Of all the weeks that we could have visited Peru, we chose the week of elections.  The good news was that we arrived near the end of the process. The bars would open on Monday. We took a moment to reset our expectations and focused on the next culinary star in Peru, Ceviche.


Peru has one of the best fishing grounds in the world, and ceviche is the pride of Peru. We ordered a combo of raw grouper, scallops, and octopus topped with fresh onion. Lime juice, used to “cook” the raw fish, sat generously in a pool at the bottom of our plates. Chunks of sweet potato and roasted, crunchy corn kernels accompanied the meal. It was a refreshing explosion of citrus, starch, and spice. We enjoyed ceviche twice during our stay in Lima.

Lomo Saltado was the next culinary treat.  Served in many restaurants in Peru, it is a typical national dish. Close to our hotel was a restaurant named Tanto. It was getting a lot of praise on Yelp and TripAdvisor. After a busy day of walking and biking around Miraflores, we were ready for a hearty meal. We asked the waiter for his recommendation. His immediate response was the Saltado.

Lomo Saltado is stir-fried beef with onions and tomatoes served with yellow potato fries and rice with corn. When I think of stir fry, I imagine thin, slightly chewy meat. At Tanto, this wasn’t the case. The thick slices of beef were fabulously tender. Interestingly, I did order this again at another restaurant and found out that not all Lomo Saltado’s are equal.


Curious about the produce we don’t get in the U.S., I booked a small group tour titled “Lima Colors and Flavors Walking Tour” through an online company, Viator. I believe this was the best decision I could have made. Prompt in picking us up at our hotel, our guide, Natalie, was cordial, informative, and flexible. When we wanted to deviate from the itinerary, it wasn’t a problem. The morning became a little too cold and damp for us, so we suggested stopping at a coffee shop in Barranco, a district in Lima. Drinking our lattes in the comfort of the shop, we were able to break formality and get to know one another.

Natalie took us to an outdoor food market. It lined a narrow street where pedestrians and cars vied for passage. Produce spilled out of small stores and sat in crates on the sidewalks.



We sampled fruit I had never heard of like granadilla, luwma, pithahaya, and chirimoya. Natalie showed us how to open passion fruit. Taking her knuckle, she tapped the hard outer shell and cracked it open. Inside were globes of transparent clear jellies, each with a dark seed in the middle. They looked like fish eggs. Visually, it wasn’t appealing, but when we put the seeds in our mouth, the juice exploded into a sweet and sour symphony of flavors.


In Cusco, we inadvertently stumbled onto a gem of a restaurant. Our original choice was not open for another two hours, and we were hungry. Fortunately, I had a backup. It was MAP Cafe. We found the restaurant inside the courtyard of a Pre-Columbian Art museum. The restaurant typically requires reservations. It had only one sitting for its guests that night. The host was exceptionally helpful and secured a table for us. The only one, in fact, that was available as we soon learned as we watched the dining room fill up for the night.


MAP Café soothed us. We had had an active day walking among Inca ruins. With a comfortable elegance and friendly staff, we felt at ease. Starting with their signature drinks, followed by sophisticated and tasty courses, we couldn’t help but fall into a state of bliss. We choose French Onion soup topped with a flaky, puff pastry. Jim had the Lomo de alpaca, which we all tried. I took the safe route and order the beef medallions and potatoes. The menu was inspired by local ingredients with a chef that took great pride in his craft. With the exchange rate, this “high-end” restaurant was surprisingly affordable.


French Onion Soup


Lomo de Alpaca

Finally, the hot ticket in the town of Aquas Calientes(now Machu Picchu Town) was Indio Feliz. Our hotel receptionist recommended it, and we thoroughly enjoyed the food. It seemed to be a kind of mecca for world travelers.   Pinned to the walls were foreign currencies, business cards, and letters of praise.  Inside was a collection of antiques and strange odds and ends.



Be prepared to sit back and relax. It took 45 minutes for our dinner to be served.  I had the mango chicken.  Moist and tender, I would order this dish again.  Jim, who is not a dessert person, ordered the orange pie after our meal.  All of us took a bite and were in agreement that the custard and citrus combo was delicious.


Mango Chicken
Orange Pie

We did enjoy the Pisco Sour several times during our visit to Peru. I love the frothy whipped egg whites that sit on top of the drink. A refreshing, limey drink that uses Pisco(a type of brandy), fresh lime juice, egg whites, simple syrup, and bitters.

The culinary experience of Peru was as delightful as its sights.


Gran Hotel Bolivar



We jumped into the tour company’s white van waiting for us outside the Cusco Cathedral and slowly made our way through the narrow streets. We were heading to the nearby ruins of Saqsaywaman. Located only a few miles from the town center, we ascended along the edge of a mountain road. We rose above the terra-cotta rooftops and brown stucco homes. In the background, I could hear Sheila engaged in a question and answer exchange with Jose. I was mesmerized by my new surroundings, gazing through the Eucalyptus trees that occasionally obscured the town below. The sights seemed so vivid. Clarity was exponential. I wondered if it was because the air at this altitude was free of pollutants or the coca leaves, I had chewed earlier, enhanced my vision. I should have read up on the effects of raw coca leaves more thoroughly!

Saqsaywaman was the vision of Inca Pachacutec, according to the chronicler, Sarmiento (1572).  When Pachacutec took power as king, he reorganized the city of Cusco into the shape of the powerful puma.  Saqsaywaman was to be the head.  In the ancient local language, Saqsaywaman means festooned head.   The monument stood on the rounded mountain tops overlooking the city.

At four in the afternoon, a small crowd of tourists still poured into the ticket entrance. Even in mid- October at this late hour, it was hard to avoid crowds. Once inside the park, I understood why. Mammoth rocks, some of them the size of a two-story house, formed walls that zigzagged along the contours of the mountain. Later I would learn that these rocks were estimated to weigh over 100 tons. Placed together like a jigsaw puzzle, I wondered how they were positioned one on top of the other.


Jose explained that Saqsaywaman was still the subject of debate regarding its purpose. Evidence in the complex indicated that it was used as a religious center; however, its strategic position and description of lookout towers, noted in the 1533 chronicles of Pedro Sánchez, Pizarro’s secretary, suggested it was used as a fortress. Whatever the reason, it was impressive.

Garcilaso de la Vega in 1609 described Saqsaywaman the best when he said, “…the power and majesty of the Incas was the fortress of Cusco, the grandeur of which would be incredible to anyone who had not seen it, and even those who have seen it and considered it with attention, imagine and even believe that it was made by enchantment…”, from Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru. As with other perplexing sites that used megalithic construction, Saqsaywaman seemed to be built by a race of giants.

Llamas grazed on a wide grassy field that stretched out before us. Tourists were scattered throughout the complex. Their bright-colored clothing breaking up the grey of the rock. We veered off to the right and approached a sizeable graded area. The ground was inlaid with blocks of stone. They formed geometrical shapes, but it was the fluid, circular design that left me with an eerie recollection. I had seen it before. The thought nagged at me until a vision of a wheel that served as a passage to other worlds finally hit me. Could it have been the blueprint for the gateway used in the movie “Stargate”? Wow! Was it a coincidence, or had a writer visited this site, using the design in his story?  Or was I simply watching too many sci-fi movies?

Garcilaso de la Vega, who is noted for his all-encompassing book on the culture of the Incas, described one tower’s interior walls plated with gold and silver, “…with animals, birds, and plants imitated from life and fitted into the wall, serving as a kind of tapestry.” He goes on to say that “The towers went as far below ground as they did above it. Tunnels were made… There were so many underground passages….that one entering the maze soon lost his way…”

It is speculated today that the Inca may have used these passages to whisk away some of their gold when the Spanish began to pillage the town. All I could think of was how much had been lost in history.


Check out YouTuber Barry Kusuma’s Sacsayhuaman The magnificent Inca fortress, Cusco Peru, or type Sacsayhuaman drone. The aerial video, that’s about a minute, shows a great view of the towers’ foundations.

We eventually made our way to a viewpoint that overlooks Cusco. Here we could grasp the vast city as it spread along a basin and crawled upward onto the mountain slopes. Near us, groves of trees swayed in the gentle breeze. After taking a few “shelfies,” we meandered on dirt paths, dropping down from the elevation of the viewpoint, passing the tops of walls, and stepped through giant doorways to the field below. Stopping along the way to take photos in front of the massive stones, we could hardly comprehend the effort it took to create this complex.


Garcilaso de la Vega talks about “the Weary Rock” that was so massive that it took 20,000 men to pull it up to the Saqsaywaman site.  Using cables and ropes, it was dragged up steep slopes.  At one point, the bearers became careless and lost hold of the stone, after which it rolled down the hill, killing some 3,000 to 4,000 men.  Garcilaso said the story came from a verbal tradition handed down to him, as was the custom to remember notable events.  The complex had been built before he was born.


Making our way along the length of the bulwark of three successive walls in the complex, we ended up at the far end of the fortress.  Quechua women standing in traditional costumes were waiting to sell their wares. Montera hats adorned their heads. Short jackets in pinks and reds sat on their shoulders while black skirts wrapped around their legs. Their skin was weathered from the elements. Their broad smiles beckoned a playful manner with the folks visiting the ruins.

I was enchanted with a group of women that stood behind a roped-off area, waiting for photo opts. Standing with their llamas and alpacas by their sides, I noted how docile the animals were. One was holding a baby alpaca in her arms. My love of animals drew me to them, and I asked how much they wanted for a photo. One of the women yelled out an amount that I couldn’t understand. I expressed my confusion. Another woman spoke, “she said whatever you can afford.” I dug in my pocket and found a couple of pesos. I stepped over the rope to pose with the women and suddenly had a baby alpaca thrust into my arms. It was a surprise but a pleasant one.


We found ourselves beside a dirt parking lot. Jose paused for a moment and asked if we would be interested in walking a little further across a ditch to an enormous statue of Jesus, the Cristo Blanco. It loomed over the town.  More climbing was involved, but we were going to see as much as we could.

My lungs stressed against the thin air as we traversed the rocky terrain. Jim was ahead and eventually disappeared from our sight. Sheila and Ken were behind me, taking the narrow trail with slow strides. The walk took us about 10 minutes. When we reached the base of the statue, more Quechua women were waiting to sell their items. It was near the end of the day; they sat in quiet slumber with merchandise spread on the ground.  One woman lounged on her side, a friend talking softly into her ear.  I noted the deep folds of wrinkles on her face and wondered what stories she could tell.  There was a loveliness in the whole scene.  An intimate, relaxed exchange that exuded peace.

As I looked beyond her, I saw my husband at the base of Jesus. He had lifted his arms up in supplication. I didn’t know how to interpret this. Was he elated that he had conquered another set of hills? With little time to adapt to the altitude, we were managing quite well. Saqsaywaman is even higher than Cusco at 12,120 feet.  Or had the imposing Christ compelled him to repent his sins?  Jose, slightly out of breath himself, began his narrative. My ponderings fell to the wayside.

We took one more look at the valley below us, the city peacefully residing under the grace of the Cristo Blanco. Instead of driving down the mountain, Jose led us on a pilgrimage.  Following a creek, we descended to a trail that met the road we had used.  Through narrow passageways, we passed stucco homes, rambling stone staircases, tiny restaurants that commanded excellent views of the city below. Eventually, we arrived at our hotel and said our goodbyes to Jose. It was an exhilarating day.


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Travel Tips:
Our guide had the right idea when we walked back into town. We had the opportunity to familiarize ourselves with our surroundings. Our hotel wasn’t that far, but the uphill climb to Saqsaywaman would have been difficult.

We stopped at a roadside food stand. A woman was boiling corn. The kernels are gigantic, like everything else in this land. It was served with a wedge of white cheese and was delicious!  I highly recommend it.

Bring a bottle of water even if your time at Saqsaywaman is short.  Keeping hydrated made a huge difference.

In my last post, I had mentioned that we chewed on the coca leaves offered at the airport.  I believe it helped in our ability to move in the high altitude.  There were no life-altering effects.  Since it is an ingredient in making cocaine, all of us were a little wary, but as a dried leaf, it’s properties are harmless.  Some folks claim that they don’t even notice any effects.  If you want more information, take a look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coca.


Cusco and the Cathedral

The tension slowly ebbed away as I sank back into the aircraft’s comfortable, leather seat.  Beside me, my husband had pulled his baseball cap over his eyes to rest.  Beyond him and across the aisle were two men in business casual attire engaged in conversation.  I was sitting in an upgraded seat due to an unexpected email from Avianca Airlines.  They had a policy of offering unsold first-class seats to current ticket holders using a bidding system.  The bid started at $45.00.  If your bid was accepted, Avianca would notify you a few days before the flight.  I thought, “what the hell, I’ll start the bid.”  Now it seemed like a well-deserved luxury.

Boarding the airline in Lima, however, had proved to be far from pleasurable.  The flight was delayed.  The first announcement assured us that the plane was only 20 minutes late.  When 20 minutes passed,  an update declared that the aircraft was on its way and now 30 minutes out.  Yikes!  I had scheduled and prepaid for a personal tour in Cusco shortly after we landed.  I thought I had allowed enough time, but that window was closing.  As I nervously calculated the hour and a half in the air, with about thirty minutes to drive to our hotel, along with an unknown time delay checking-in, the best-case scenario was showing up late.   Worse, our tour could cancel altogether.

My thoughts began to race as anxiety slowly slipped in.  Sitting in the waiting area of the airport terminal, I pulled out my itinerary to see how I could rearrange our schedule for tomorrow.  What I had for today’s plans couldn’t be missed.  Getting a hold of the tour company served as another problem.  Their number wasn’t dialing through.  How was I going to notify them of the delay?  I took a deep breath.  Wasn’t this vacation suppose to be fun?

Finally, in the air, I allowed myself to relax.  I had no choice.  I would deal with our schedule once we landed.  The brown, barren hills of Lima had long ago disappeared.  I was now gazing down on the rugged summits of mountains, a spattering of them capped in white.  Dressed in browns and greens, the Andes gave me some concern.  Valleys plunged thousands of feet to subtropical climates.  Would the severe temperature differences between valley and mountain affect the air currents?  Were we in for a rough ride?   The plane, however, glided smoothly through the clear atmosphere, and I happily sat back, enjoying the view.


As we neared our destination,  the tight range of mountains opened up to reveal a large depression or bowl marked with golden hills and clumps of trees.  It was the heart of the Inca Empire, Cusco.  At two in the afternoon, the airport was quiet.  We made our way to the main exit and were surprised to see a barrel of dried coca leaves available for the taking.  My husband grabbed a handful and stuffed the leaves in his pockets.  I took a few, chewed on them, and (when no one was looking) gracefully spit them out.  Although they were known for alleviating altitude sickness, a common malady for visitors, the taste was grassy and bitter.  I wasn’t a fan.

At 11,100 feet, Cusco is one of the highest cities in the Andes.  Travel books, blogs, and companies emphasize the importance of acclimating once you arrive to avoid the possible onset of headaches and nausea.  There are a few ways to do this.  Drink a lot of water.  Take it easy the first day or two or consume coca leaves by sucking on coca candy, drinking tea, or chewing on the dried leaves.   I personally liked the tea which I had later.

Taxi cabs were waiting behind steel fencing for the disembarking passengers.  Drivers stood by their vehicles, waving to get our attention.  There was no queue, so we walked toward a van that could fit the four of us and our luggage.  I had found out what to expect as a charge to our hotel while researching sites on the internet.  Twelve dollars was the going rate.  Asking the price before getting inside the cab gave us leverage.  We didn’t have to bargain. The driver quoted us the fair rate.

To our surprise, a stranger jumped into the front passenger seat and rode along with us.  Was he a co-driver?  After some pleasantries were exchanged, we found out that he was selling tours around Cusco.  Wow!  These guys were aggressive.  We kindly explained that all our tours were set up through SunGate Tours.  Still insistent that he could help us, he asked us when we were leaving Cusco.  We said in five days.  He then arranged to have a cab pick us up and take us to the airport on that day.  Before we knew what was happening, a sale was made!

Our hotel, the Casa San Blas Boutique Hotel, was on the northeast side of the city.  I wanted to stay in a place that was indicative of the area, authentic and intimate.  Once a rambling colonial house, the hotel extolled its homey atmosphere, homemade breakfasts, and welcoming and caring staff.  Built on a hill along with other tightly packed buildings, it was in a colorful district called San Blas.  With a mix of shops, art studios, and residences, it sat on a street that was a few blocks away from the busy historical town center.

Entering the small lobby, we were fortunate enough to find the receptionist available to check us in promptly.  I noticed a refreshment counter where again coca leaves were offered with hot water for brewing the tea.  I would soon discover that it would be a common staple in the Andes.  The staff took our bags to the third floor where our rooms had panoramic views of the city.  We had just enough time for a quick break before representatives showed up from SunGate Tours.


The Plaza de Armas was the first stop on our afternoon tour.  Walking along the narrow cobblestone street in front of the hotel, we got to know Jose, our tour guide.  Growing up in Cusco and a teacher by profession, Jose would prove to be a wealth of information.  As we emerged from the street flanked by white stucco buildings, tall stone foundations, and colorful markets, a large town square opened up in front of us.  It was awe-inspiring in its grandeur.  Sheila and I immediately pulled out our cameras, taking shot after shot.  The Cusco Cathedral loomed beside us with its gothic bell towers, heavy, green wooden doors, and decorative columns.  Our husbands politely listened to Jose, but I was distracted by the beauty of the sights, and Sheila had drifted away taking photos.



Surrounding the Plaza, buildings in Alpine fashion housed luxury shops, restaurants, and bars.  A few buildings incorporated the massive stone foundations left behind from the days Cusco was an Inca capital.  Spanish colonial architecture, however, dominated the square with the abondance of towering churches close by.  In the middle of the square stood a golden statue of Pachacuti, the Inca leader, remembered for his expansion of the empire.  Flowers and manicured lawns radiated out below him as he stood with authority, his left arm raised towards the mountains, and in his right, the staff that legends say sunk into the ground, determining that Cusco would be the center of his kingdom.


Locals and tourists alike mingled in the square.  Safety seemed to be well thought out by the city as security was always present on the streets and in the square.  My husband, however, was later approached in a bathroom bar by a man who wanted to know if he was interested in a snort of cocaine.  Just finishing up a line to carry him through the evening, he apparently thought that sharing was a friendly gesture.  To some, maybe.  My husband kindly declined.  Underlining that safety, the drug element lurked.

I wanted to explore every corner of the plaza, but Jose guided us to the entrance of the Cusco Cathedral.  Inside, we couldn’t help catch our breath in awe.  Vaulted ceilings arched at least 30 feet above us.  Along the left wall, altars rose from floor to ceiling.  Baroque in style, gold-leaf covered the entirety of the shrines, dressing every crevice and corner, inset and raised panel, twisted columns, and decorative corbels in sunlight.  The contrast in the cavernous cathedral was stunning.

We steadily kept moving through the cathedral.  Numerous paintings in dark renaissance form, stylized furniture in blackened cedar, rooms that branched off from the main sanctuary, and finally, a crypt were quickly viewed.    We were amused by one massive oil painting depicting the Last Supper.  In the middle of the table, was a roasted guinea pig on a platter.  It must have had more meaning for the locals than a loaf of bread! There was much more to see, but we had one last attraction to visit before closing time.  It was the spawling ruins of Saqsaywaman.

Cusco with the Plaza de Armas seen from Sacsayhuaman
Coca Tea

Travel tips:

Avianca allows passengers to obtain boarding passes over the internet or on their App 24 hours before departure.  Our hotel could print them from their office.  This saved us a lot of time at the airport by bypassing check-in lines and going straight to the gate.

Not all the airlines in Peru board passengers from inside the terminals.  I watched out the porthole as we taxied away from the pedestrian bridge and saw passengers walking across the tarmac to board economy driven airlines.  If this is important to you, check your airline carefully.

For more information and an excellent source to use as a self-guided tour when sight-seeing the Cusco Cathedral, check out http://www.qosqo.com/catedral.shtml.



Ollantaytambo, Peru


The Van lumbered its way over the cobblestone road, climbing upward from the Sacred Valley to the town of Ollantaytambo. It jostled us around like Mexican jumping beans; the rattling sound inside made it hard to hear Jose’s exposition of the area we were approaching. I watched out the side window as a brief shower created a blurry scene through the glass. A long, stone wall from the days of Inca occupation rose on my left; newer, stucco buildings flanked our right. We were officially entering one of the oldest continuingly occupied cities in the Valley.

Golden hues were painted on the town’s buildings; red tiles adorned the roofs and massive dark grey blocks of stone decorated the base of structures. I had never seen a more colorful community. As we drove further, the traffic increased. Our van came to a halt. I shifted in my seat to see the cause.  A delivery truck was slowly crossing over a one-lane bridge, bypassing a river moving swiftly from the foothills on our right. The water, opaque in color, slammed over boulders. I found it a welcome sight against the parched, rocky hillsides of the mountains that surrounded us. With anticipation, I leaned forward as the van advanced in its queue. Built into the steep slopes, I looked for the fortress that contained some of the most baffling structures in the Andes.

Ollantaytambo did not have the recognition that Machu Picchu garnered.  In fact, several tour companies bypassed this exceptional complex, with offers of days trips from Cusco to Machu Picchu via a non-stop train.  We were going to see artifacts found only in Ollantaytambo.  As we rounded a bend, the low adobe buildings parted. Towering above us was a network of stone terraces, imposing megalithic walls and temples. My first thought, “was it built by giants?”

We had started from Cusco around 9 am, climbing out of “the navel” that the Inca aptly used to describe the bowl-like depression the city sat in and crossed the Altiplano, a 13,000-foot plateau, between Cusco and the Sacred Valley. The elevated landscape induced amazement as it brought us closer to the heights of the snowcapped Andes. Little grew on the Altiplano other than short grasses, trees clustered in gullies, and potatoes (3,000 varieties, no less, pointed out by our guide when I asked about the solitary plow standing in a field). When we started to descend on switchbacks, the appearance of ancient terraces drawn like geometric artwork across the slopes opposite the valley was no less astounding.

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Sheila kept Jose busy with her list of questions as we drove along the countryside.  She wanted to know about the political climate in Cusco.  I assumed this line of questioning was brought on by the many political campaign posters plastered along the roadside.  Elections had taken place while we were in the country.  After some prodding, he did admit that corruption was unavoidable.  Those in power, the wealthy, stayed in power.  I was content to look out the window and watch the landscape change from villages to rolling hills to plunging valleys.  The land was neutral, people weren’t.

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As my gaze followed the network of terraces and stairways built into the mountain,  I couldn’t help grow perplexed at the contradictions I saw. The Incas were small people, only 5 feet by most accounts. Why would they build such massive structures? Granite blocks weighing more than ten tons were placed one on top of the other with tight precision. No mortar was applied on these walls, yet other structures had the sloppy paste. How did they transport these insanely heavy stones to the top? Archeologists can find no evidence of the wheel or pulleys that would have assisted in moving these megaliths.


The scenery in the valley had also thrown me into a reasoning frenzy. The mountains were dry and barren with patches of cactus, scrub bush and dusty, draping plants that I couldn’t identify. Yet, the valley floor was covered in verdant, green carpets of healthy crops, towering trees, and flowers. Mirco climates are typical in the Sacred Valley, but so close together was unnerving.

Our driver stopped near the main entrance. We grabbed our rain jackets before we disembarked. With clouds hanging over the mountains and a few sporadic raindrops falling, we didn’t want to be unprepared. Jose guided us through the vendor’s stalls lined up in front of the site. The bright pinks, oranges, purples, and reds that the local Indian population preferred, stood out against the greys and tans of the granite hillside. These open-air markets were at every popular archeological attraction we had visited. They were a distraction, but I was getting used to them.


The cobblestone courtyard had another distraction that was unique to Ollantaytambo.  Narrow channels of running water imbedded in the ground cut through the vendor’s stalls.  Gingerly stepping over them, I recalled that explorers often noted the engineering mastery of water diversion by the Incas.  The soft sounds of the refreshing mountain water made a pleasant reprieve against the harsh landscape.

We reached a tall door cut into a wall that fronted the complex and presented our tickets. Walking into a spacious plaza, we stood a moment, taking in our surroundings. No wonder the Spanish called Ollantaytambo a Fortress. It seemed impenetrable, towering above us and commanding a strategic view of the valley below. It was here that Manco Inka in 1536 held off the Spanish army in an attempt to regain control of his empire.  His rebellion failed and he fled into the mountains.  Slowly slipping into the hands of foreign manipulation, the Inca empire would have puppet leaders installed by the Spaniards until it would fall altogether by 1572.

Almost going unnoticed were the gigantic, stones interspersed with empty spaces standing on the grass. Displayed along a line, I wondered why they were there? What was their intended use? Some of the rocks were cut as tall as a 6-foot man.

Our objective was to climb some 200 steps to the top, where the renowned Temple of the Sun stood. Stairs flanked the terraces which were cut at 12-foot depths into the slope. Sheila declined the climb, stating that she needed to save her knees for our next stop. Besides, she noted, there were plenty of ruins to explore at the bottom of the complex.  I couldn’t blame her. Our time was limited.  We had a train to catch at 3:30  that would take us to the subtropical realms of Machu Picchu.  We were going to move fast if we wanted to see Ollantaytambo’s notable artifacts.


Temple of the Sun


The clouds began to break as we made our ascent. My heart pounded in my ears and strained against my chest. At an altitude of 9,000 feet, Ollantaytambo is higher than our hometown of 2,200 feet. With slow, deliberate steps we made it. The orientation of the Temple of the Sun was stunning. With the ability to view the valley in a 360-degree turn, little is hidden. Sunlight, in all its brilliance, transformed the landscape into vibrant colors. A sense of being suspended between the bright blue sky and dewy, green fields below struck me as some technicolor wonderland. My attention to Jose’s narrative faded as the sight before me of intersecting valleys, and imposing mountains vivified. At one end of the Sacred Valley, a snowcapped mountain stood guardian while the bases of mountains crisscrossed to close off the other end. An elemental power that the Inca must have sensed seemed to generate here. No wonder they saw themselves as gods.


The Sacred Valley



Ollantaytambo seen from the Temple of the Sun

Ollantaytambo’s ruins indicate that it was a holy place. Temples and purifying baths are scattered around the grounds. A Spanish chronicler and priest, Padre Bernabe Cobo, supported this concept when he investigated the local religion while living in Peru during the 1600s. Through interviews, he was told about a place where the Incas believed their first god appeared.  Below the fortress, a series of shallow terraces create a window depressed into the ground. Once a year, the sun’s rays pierce between the mountains to light up the rectangle during the winter solstice. In Inca mythology, it is here, referred to as “the house of the dawn” that the first ruler appeared emerging from the underworld to lead the people.

The “otherworldly” was a concept hard to ignore. Both light and shadow, mountains and rivers, stones and plants come together to blend elements into a mythical world. We walked among extraordinary structures carved out of the granite hillside.  An enormous throne sits at the edge of the ceremonial platform, overlooking the valley.


Six 12-foot slabs of rose granite stand verticle as part of the unfinished Temple of the Sun, weighing around 50 tons each. Archeologists can only guess how they got there. A menacing face, two stories in height, is seen carved out of rock on Mt. Pinkuylluna across from the religious complex. Jose informed us that this was a holy man, Tunupa, who unified the Inca through teachings of civility, and the “right” way to live. The legend says that Tunupa eventually walked to the sea and disappeared. It was another mystery in Inca history.

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After exploring the spur of the mountain, Jose had an idea. Would we be interested in walking along the mountain slope and into an adjoining valley? The trail was used by the Inca arriving from the East. We would see a guardhouse and then descend to the royal baths. I eagerly agreed to the impromptu suggestion. Jim, however, was starting to feel the nagging effects of Acrophobia and asked to be pointed to the nearest exit off the hilltop. Ken and I took a moment’s pause.  Were we all heading down? With assurances that he could navigate the stairway alone, Jim insisted that we continue.

As we set off, I noted the small sign staked into the ground, “Cuidado. Zona Peligrosa” Be careful. Dangerous Zone. I watched my footing as the uneven paving stones snaked around the sharp juts of rock that made a wall on my left. Rope and posts served as a guardrail for the dropoff on my right. Jose and Ken pulled ahead and stopped at the guardhouse. Discussing the construction of a high wall that was precariously built on the edge of the path, Jose pointed out the ingenuity of these long-standing structures. Built to endure earthquakes, it was one of the reasons that the walls were still standing. I couldn’t help but stick my head through one of the portals that overlooked the valley. The air remained calm and clear. Sounds seemed to dissipate in the vast spaces while the valley floor disappeared between interconnecting mountains.

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Our hike eventually took us down a long, stone staircase where Jim and Sheila waited. Together we walked across the plaza to the royal baths, found in a maze of low, crumbling walls. Water still flowed through them. Precise, decorative lines carved into one of the fountains seemed like it was made recently and not hundreds of years ago.  How did its craftsman manage such a smooth surface and intricate lines?  We finished our tour by the Princess’s Baths. One could spend days here but we had a train to catch to Machu Picchu.



I took a last look at Ollantaytambo. The contrasts inherent in the landscape and manmade structures must have empowered the Incas and awed the first explorers.  Only in the Andes did this seem possible.


Brief travel tips for Ollantaytambo:

  1.  It is an easy day trip from Cusco, about 40 miles or a 2-hour drive.  Roads are in good condition.  Switchbacks and narrow mountain roads increase drive time.
  2.  There are numerous travel companies in Cusco, I saw many situated around the Plaza de Armas in the Historical district, where you can inquire about a private or group tour.  Everyone speaks English!
  3.  If you want to explore independently, Uber is available along with traditional taxis.  Make sure to get a price with the taxi drivers before agreeing to go with them.
  4.  Ollantaytambo is clean and has many eateries.  I would have loved to spend an entire day here.

Aguas Calientes, the Town at the Base of Machu Picchu


Aguas Calientes seemed to be on very few itineraries when I researched traveling to Machu Picchu. I was perplexed. Located at the base of Machu Picchu mountain, Aguas Calientes had optimum access, with only a 20-minute bus ride to the Inca citadel. Aguas Calientes, furthermore, had an intriguing feature. With my smattering of Spanish, I knew the name to mean, literally, water hot. Did it have hot springs nearby? Location and the ability to relax in hot pools after an arduous hike in and around the ruins were two features that drove me to book a few nights in this town.

Many tours for Machu Picchu originate in Cusco. The schedule entails a short drive to Poroy which has the nearest train station and riding a train. The problem with starting from Cusco is that time at Machu Picchu is drastically shortened. We would spend six hours on a round-trip train ride and around four hours on the mountain. I had studied ancient Latin American civilizations since high school. Fascinated by the cities left behind, I had dragged my husband over the years to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza(on our honeymoon), climbed the steep pyramids of Tikal in Guatemala, wandered the grounds of Chacchoben, Mexico and pondered the Heiaus in Hawaii. My attraction to these enduring structures and the people who built them never waned. A trip to Machu Picchu warranted more than four hours.

I suggested that we board the train at Ollantaytambo, a town located two hours from Cusco in the Sacred Valley.  This gave us an opportunity to tour Peru’s countryside before taking the only means of transportation to Aguas Calientes.  There are no roads stretching into the narrow canyon leading to Machu Picchu.  Our longtime friends, Ken and Sheila, were on board for this extended adventure.  At 5:00 p.m., we reached the end of the line for Peru’s rail system and was welcomed by the hotel porter. As a courtesy, the hotel sent a staff member to carry our luggage. Other than the buses that drive up to the ruins, there are no automobiles in Aguas Calientes.

We wound through a make-shift market crowded with colorful souvenirs, alpaca scarfs, gloves and caps, jewelry, bags, and much more. Reaching a flight of stairs, we descended to a thoroughfare marked by a set of train tracks that ran in front of our hotel, the Hatun Inti Boutique. The tracks weren’t a good sign.  I silently prayed the trains stopped service during the night.

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The lobby doors were wide open to the late afternoon air, revealing a spacious lounge with artwork and a bowl of dried coca leaves for consumption. With their known properties in alleviating altitude sickness, the coca leaves seemed to be a standard in most hotels situated in the high Andes. The staff welcomed us and checked us in promptly. We were assigned rooms away from the trackside with views overlooking the river.  My concern for noise eased.  Stone stairs wound along one end of the building, floor candles were used to light the dark passage.  Entering our room on the third floor, I happily noted the spacious layout with a sitting area, large bathroom with shower and jacuzzi, fireplace, and balcony.  I pulled open the door, allowing the sound of rushing water to spill in. Jim and I plopped down on the soft, white linen-covered bed.  It was time to relax.






As the afternoon turned to early evening, we pulled ourselves away from the hotel and explored the town where train lines ended and jungles began.  Signs directed visitors to thermal baths tucked high into the hillside.  Unwilling to climb more hills, we decided to walk along the tracks that followed the Urubamba River.  As we walked further into the gorge, we heard the roar of water. Because we were at the end of Peru’s dry season, the river was low and seemed hardly responsible for the noise. We soon came to a bridge that crossed a tributary tumbling through town with a force that could sweep away anything in its path. Its white, churning waters expelled a fine mist into the air that cooled our faces and carried the fresh mountain air.

The tracks came to a dead end, and we crossed a dirt road making our way into the center of town. The evening was quiet. We found a plaza where a few locals were enjoying the night. Children played around a fountain while parents watched. A small church stood at one end. The bars, restaurants, and shops that surround the plaza were empty. As with most of the architecture in Aguas Calientes, there was a mishmash of old and new, corrugated roofing with questionable supporting wooden poles beside new stucco and tile.


We were getting hungry and decided to backtrack to Mapacho, a Peruvian restaurant recommended by our hotel. When we stepped inside, the climate changed. Busy with locals and tourists, the sound of excited voices and laughter filled the dining room. We were quickly seated. Our waiter came to our table, upbeat and talkative.

Most Peruvians are friendly and conversational. Luis was no exception. As he took our drink orders, he asked where we were from. Nevada seemed to confuse him, but when we said Las Vegas, he knew the gambling and entertainment mecca of the United States. Ken wondered if Luis was a native of Aguas Calientes.  The town was so remote; we wanted to know why people stayed. Our waiter was delighted by the question.

“Oh, sir, that is a long story. Give me a few minutes, and I will come back and tell you.”

We were surprised by his response. Luis genuinely wanted to share his story. Our food, in the meantime, was served, and Luis continued to work other tables, but by the end of the evening, he returned.

“I’m originally from Venezuela,” he began. “I finished college and had hoped to get a job as an Accountant, but the situation in my country is very bad. I was concerned about my wife and child.  I wasn’t finding work, and it was hard to buy things. I could not tell my family that we would be O.K in our country. A buddy of mine is working in Lima. I contacted him and asked if he could help us. We were glad to get out of Venezuela, and so here I am waiting tables.”

Wow! We didn’t know what to say.  He told us that Peru was experiencing a sharp increase in immigrants from Venezuela. Folks were experiencing ever-increasing shortages of food, clothing, jobs. We appreciated this exchange characterized in conversation and interest of others.  We talked until closing time and finally said our good-byes.

In the morning, we fueled up with our hotel’s impressive breakfast buffet of meats, cheeses, fruits, and bread.  Eggs were made to order, coffee was served, and views of the river were enjoyed.


Shop owners were busy cleaning sidewalks as we headed out to explore Machu Picchu.  We walked along a dirt road to the bus terminal.  The morning was overcast with heavy clouds, but the “rain gods” were kind.  We experienced an intermittent drizzle that soon ended for the day.

By the evening, we were winding our way through the interior of Aguas Calientes to find a popular hangout.  Feliz Indio was packed when we arrived. The restaurant walls were plastered with business cards and foreign currency, giving a sense that this was a “must stop” by the consummate traveler. The food was exceptional, but the service was slow (The downside of a super popular establishment).  Our waitress apologized for the wait. I just wanted to collapse into my comfy bed at the hotel.  After dinner, Sheila and I were eager to walk back to our rooms, leaving the guys to enjoy their last night in Aguas Calientes.




Pineapple Chicken with Jamaican Rum Sauce


The guys headed off for a “night-cap” at one of the many bars around the main square. Walking into a room with only a few patrons, the bartender was delighted to have new customers.  He suggested a popular Brazilian rum drink, Cachaca 51.  Mixed with sugar and lime, Jim and Ken later told us about the new drink they discovered.   With little else to do but watch 80’s music videos on a flatscreen TV, the guys soon called-it-a-night.

Was Aguas Calientes generally a quiet, sleepy town or was it simply our timing, visiting in October?  It is well prepared to receive travelers with many options for lodging, eating and touring.  We welcomed the slower pace from busier schedules we faced on our Peruvian trip.  Set in the midst of the rugged, green mountains of the Andes with rivers tumbling past town, it is a picturesque scene.   Its location was ideal for the extended time we wanted to spend on Machu Picchu.