With Machu Picchu as the trump card, Peru is more touristy than any other country we visited in South America but it’s not without its rugged charms. From our journey up through Lake Titicaca, Colca Canyon, Arequipa, Cusco to Lima…You know you are in Peru when…
- Ancient ruins are so commonplace they double as playgrounds
- When church service is held atop the deepest canyon in the world and communion is taken with jungle juice
- A national statue is commissioned to be built with a crown of flames and instead is interpreted as a hat of llamas
- You secede from the government by building your own island state out of reeds and rope
- The staple soft drink, Chicha morada, is a concoction of purple corn, cinnamon, and lime.
- The local beer is fermented corn brewed in the bathtub (below)
- You get pulled you over not for a traffic violation but to join in for a town-wide dance party (above)
- Llamas reign supreme
- When the entire taxi stand looks like they were featured on pimp my rickshaw
- You have to spend three days in Cusco museums just to acclimatize to the 15,000-foot elevation
- The stone ruins are so massive and bountiful they put Stonehenge to shame
- Lava rock is so abundant you have to build a city like Arequipa just to get rid of it.
- The ceviche so cheap and plentiful, blue stone crab is a garnish
You cannot say the word “Peru” without someone immediately following it with a comment about Machu Picchu. This means two things regarding the Lost City of the Incas: It is a truly magnificent destination in South America and secondly, it’s the biggest tourist magnet south of the equator. With this in mind and our constant desire to take the road less traveled, we opted to not hike the “Classic Inca Trail” (which was partially paved by the Incans and packed to the gills) and started researching tour companies that could provide an equally cultural experience without as many gringos. After weeks of researching, all signs were pointing to Andean Treks and their Moonstone to Sun Temple five-day trek. With 32-years of experience leading adventures throughout South America, Andean Treks knows the ins-and-outs of the Incan back roads for the most intimate access to the ruins of the Sacred Valley.
Traveling along the Royal Inca Road, which goes from the historic Inca capital of Cusco through the northern villages of the Empire, ending in the majestic Machu Picchu, we made the first stop at the sacred Inca shrine known as Quillarumi (“Moonstone” in the Quechua language of the Incas and the inspiration for our hike’s namesake). Here, our six new hiking mates share a smile and a bit of common jitters before we embark on our five-day high-altitude adventure.
We arrive at the WATA trailhead to meet our hiking crew, encompassing two guides, two chefs, four wranglers, and six horses (hey, you can’t go roughing it too much on a honeymoon!). We weren’t expecting such luxury for a camping trip but the team carried all of our bags, set up all the equipment, and always hiked speedily ahead to make sure camp and meals were ready and waiting upon our arrival.
The hike started along the west bank of the Huaracondo River. After an two-hour warm-up hike, we reached Huatta, a breathtaking pre-Inca fortress dominating the crest of a ridge at 12,645ft. In the forefront of this shot you can see one of the burial areas for the high priests and nobility, and in the distance you can see all the mountains we would traverse in coming days, including the “W-shaped” 15,200ft. mountain pass.
The mountains of Peru are like nothing you will see anywhere in the world–from jagged peaks, to glacier-encrusted horizons to the perfect triangle formations seen in the above photo.
One of the most amazing parts of the hikes was the window it gave us into local life in the mountains, from a women driving a herd of sheep to graze on a terrace to horses loaded down with the day’s potato harvest. We were very excited to hear that much of the food we were eating along the way was purchased from the local villagers who graciously allowed us to camp on their land. Andean Treks is extremely conscious of the footprint they leave, trying to minimize the impact on the land and maximize the benefits for its inhabitants.
Each day was adventurous and breathtaking, but we never hiked to exhaustion. We took plenty of stops to learn about the Incan ruins we were passing, enjoy a hearty snack from the chefs and take in the scenery. Above, the team starts day three with a glimpse at Mount Pinkulluna and the towering Veronica Glacier in the distance.
Descending through the rock fields of the Incan quarry and passing through acres of quinoa fields along the base of the Sacred Valley, we reach the sacred 15th-century town of Ollantaytambo on Day 4. The stone streets wind like a labyrinth, revealing a still traditional Andean way of life. Meandering through, we arrived at the home of the first Andean Treks chef to for lunch and to celebrate the 45k hike we had just completed.
The one seemingly bad thing about not hiking the Classic Inca Trail is that you have to do your final leg to Agua Calientes/Machu Picchu Village by train. Though with Peru Rail’s panoramic windows looking out to the towering peaks, Incan ruins, and the rushing Urubamba River, we quickly forgot this fact.
Wedged between massive mountains and a rushing river, it is amazing to think that a bustling town like Agua Calientes even exists. Upon reaching Aguas Calientes, the first item on our list of things to celebrate was Mike’s birthday. We went to dinner at a romantic Italian restaurant then relaxed under the stars at the town’s famous natural hot springs.
On day five, the day we’d all been waiting for, we woke up before dawn to catch sunrise over Machu Picchu. Our sense of accomplishment and excitement was through the roof as we gazed over the 15th-century marvel and it only got better as the day went on. It is hard to believe that this incredibly complex city took 50 years to build then was abandoned a little over 100 years later to avoid Spanish conquest. Amazingly, the Spanish never actually discovered the city and the site was virtually untouched until 1911 when American historian Hiram Bingham arrived guided by some locals. With 400 undisturbed years and many recent years of painstakingly accurate restoration, Machu Picchu is an impeccable example of the way Incans built, farmed, worshiped and lived.
Touring the temples, houses, terraces, and shrines of Machu Picchu is at the heart of a visit to this UNESCO heritage site but for a real sense of its grandeur and ingenious construction, you must climb Huayna Picchu. Yep, that massive peak behind the citadel, also said to be the nose the sleeping Incan (turn your laptop sideways, you’ll can see his profile!) Not exactly for the faint of heart, Huayna Picchu is a 1,080-ft ascent from Machu Picchu—and we mean straight up! Using our hands, knees, and ropes when available, we hiked the very windy tiny stone stairs and ledges leading up to this dizzying Incan site.
Way below our feet you can see the clearing in the trees lies Machu Picchu. After five days of hiking through the most extreme and beautiful mountains in Peru, the feeling we had sitting together above the legendary Machu Picchu was as fulfilling as a honeymoon gets.
For more on the full five-day trek, check out our blog on our sponsor’s site, Honeymoons.com/blog/HoneyTrek.
Before heading to the volcanic stone-town of Arequipa, we thought we’d spend a day hiking the “nearby” Colca Canyon. Perhaps this section of Lonely Planet was a bit vague or we just wanted to believe this could be done in a day trip, but this town was about two connections and two days away by bus. We realized this only after we landed at the halfway point in northern Nowheresville. This day seemed like it was turning out to be our first botched endeavor of the HoneyTrek but instead it became one of our favorite adventures to date.
We were about two hours from the start of Colca, the deepest canyon in the world (at 13,650 feet, it’s more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), so we sucked up our pride and shelled out the dough for a private car. Our driver was actually enrolled in tour-guiding school so he was quite knowledgeable about the area and how to maneuver the curves…and cows in the road.
The cross placed at the start of Colca Canyon, filled with condors soaring in its updraft, gives this lookout point its name, Cruz del Condor. It happened to be a saint day so a group of locals had adorned it with flowers and gathered for a service. We stood in the back, mentally translating the Spanish sermon, admiring the intricate embroidery of the ladies’ garb, and noticing the bottle of jungle juice being passed around the crowd while some celebratory bottle rockets were going off. Church has never looked so fun.
We took the short hike around the ridge, carefully peeking down to the river below while trying not get pushed over by our canine escort.
Though this wasn’t the smartest idea, this little ledge hovering over the canyon was calling our name. To feel the wind pushing up from the bottom, mixed with a little vertigo made this vantage point quite a rush.
We continued our drive popping into small towns like the stone village of Yanqui. Most of the old houses were crumbling beneath their weight or had been overtaken by creeping vines…two of our favorite characteristics for a self-guided photo hunt.
Passing through the village of Achoma, we got pulled over. Not by a cop but a band of dancing elderly Peruvians. A cute old lady literally comes to our window and says, “Ven aqui. Vamos a bailar!” Essentially, get out and dance. Before you know it, Mike and I had a pint of homebrew in our hand and we are doing the South American Hava Nagila. For some reason they kept telling us to drink faster, just thinking they wanted to get us completely trashed but then we realized there was only one glass for the entire group (germaphobes, try not to think about it) and we were hogging our turn with our cautious sips. Down the hatch it went. Then the ancient shot master comes up to us, he insists on having corn liquor shooters with him. So within the hour we were proper tipsy, rocking out to this strange triangular harp-guitar with our 30 best new amigos. Classic.
Having so much fun, this couple insisted we stay the night in their house. Though we were tempted to abandon our driver, miss our bus back, and spend a raucous night in the village, we decided it was best to go while the going was good.
Finally we get back to Arequipa and pick the cheapest hostel in the book. When we told the taxi driver where we were going, he literally said “are you sure you want to stay THERE?” We started to have second thoughts but got there and realized this towering pink complex had the best views in town! Using all three of our roof decks, we enjoyed our breakfast each day looking out to the snow-capped El Misti volcano that hovers over town.
The star attraction of Arequipa is the historic Santa Catalina Monastery. Founded in 1579 by the Dominican order and built entirely out of sillar volcanic stone, this five-acre plot houses three cloisters, a network of streets, a square, church, art gallery and eighty houses where the nuns lived…and some still do. Walking through this walled city is like slipping into an abandoned world.
The Santa Catalina nuns were famous for their baking so most of the apartments had these incredible kitchens with their cast iron pots and wooden spoons still out and ready for a bake-off.
The central square with arched passageways along its perimeter, grand fountain, and cathedral was spectacular. We stopped to admire the church one last time before we caught our overnight bus to Cusco, the Inca Capital.
Everyone knows about Lake Titicaca, even if just for its socially awkward name, but what puts this massive high-altitude lake on the map is its culturally significance for both Bolivia and Peru. The famous Uros Floating Islands and the Incan religious site Isla del Sol are two major draws to this 12,507-feet high lake and what brought us to its launchpad cities of Copacabana, Bolivia and Puno, Peru.
To get to the peninsula of Copacabana, Bolivia our minibus was floated across on a boat. This would be fine but when its pitch black at night and the driver unexpectedly tells you to get out and hop on a dingy while your luggage floats across on a barge, it sort of throws you for a loop. Nevertheless, we got to this beautiful lakeside town with ourselves and luggage intact.
A hike up the city’s Mount Calvario gave great perspective on the town and vastness of the lake. For locals its a weekend hotspot to pay homage to the 14 stations of the Cross and enjoy the outdoors. If you get a chance to take this hike, we suggest taking the more scenic and challenging back route up, then the stairs down.
Pilgrims travel from Bolivia to pay homage to Copacabana’s Virgin of Candeleria but more interesting us was its quirky bi-product: La Benedicion de Movilidades or “blessing of the vehicles.” Cars come fully decked out in streamers, carnations, stuffed animals and other accoutrements for the lord and priest performing the ceremony of safe travels. Here, we were lucky enough to see a car pastor perform the christening on this minivan and plenty of other gussied-up vehicles waiting in the wings.
The shore was packed with food vendors but this ceviche stand was calling our name. Fresh fish from the lake is cured in lime and topped with these corn-nut-style nuggets, this may have been the best dish we had in all of Bolivia.
Across the shore from Copacabana lies Isla del Sol, birthplace of the Incan Sun god and home to over 80 Incan ruins. The island is usually a day trip for tourists but it’s absolutely worth an overnight—for the unreal sunsets if nothing else.
Though most of the tour operators want to sell you a ticket to the north side of the island, we loved the quiet and calm of the south shore. Our cliff-side B&B, Jjacha Inti, had spectacular views and it was close enough to the shoreline that we could watch the boats come in and the mules get packed for their daily deliveries.
There are no cars or roads on this island, just an ancient system of walking trails. We rambled up and down through traditional towns, beach coves, and terraced farms, getting a look into this fascinatingly isolated culture.
The labyrinth-like Sacred Rock is the island’s main attraction. The stone structure is in good condition despite the abundance of cows and pigs making home of its corridors.
There is something magical about Isla del Sol, even if the roaming miniature llamas are swaying my vote.
Our journey across the Lake Titicaca continues to Uros, Peru’s floating Islands. Built entirely out of totora reeds and rope, these pre-Incan man-made islands were created as a defensive strategy to keep mobile in case of invasion. Today, this exceptional community still survives off fishing, trade, and now tourism. This small reed structure is the Uros toll booth for curious boats passing through.
Around 44 islands comprise Uros and with 2-10 people living on each. For every family to make a bit of money from tourism and not to have their daily lives totally disturbed, the island communities take turns hosting tourists a couple times a week. On our tour we visited two islands, learning about their homes, crafts, and life on the water.
Layers and layers of these reeds are bound together to form the buoyant floor. Constantly soaking in water, the the lower reeds start to rot away so new layers must be added every few months to keep the homes afloat. A major part of the men’s tasks is to simply maintain this vulnerable landmass, while ladies mostly tend to the crafts and cooking.
We fell in love with Lake Titicaca. Which part did you like best?
Please post any ideas in the “Add New Comment” section below, or email us at MikeAnne@HoneyTrek.com