The ancient history of Peru is not really that ancient, not the way you may think, but certainly unique. When travelers ask to go to Peru, it is usually all about Machu Picchu, with maybe some other secondary sites of interest. Of course, Machu Picchu is the crown jewel of Peru, and I will talk about it further, but Peru has a rich history well beyond and before the Incas. We will get to all that later.
What I want to share was the experience of traveling to Peru during this worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. This trip was programmed for 2020 then moved to March 2021 and finally to September 2021. As we neared the date of travel, I became somewhat skeptical that it would actually happen, and thought that it would likely be postponed again. I was in regular contact with my ground team in Peru, and they kept me up to date on the safety protocols. I came to learn that Peru is, in fact, a very safe place with strict protections and a populous eager to provide a safe destination for travelers. With this information in hand, I was able assure our group of 18 that the trip would happen and was safe. In addition, we were able to arrange the vast majority of our services as private to keep us in a bubble as much as possible. Our group was very diligent about wearing masks, sanitizing, and wearing double masks and face shields where required.
We started out in LIMA with a short city tour and a visit to the Larco Museum. Peru has done an excellent job of preserving and documenting the Incas but also the cultures and histories long before the Inca civilization took root. The Incas built their success, technology, and culture from the best of the cultures that came before them. We often think of the Inca’s as ancient, but the empire stood relatively recently, dating to the 1200-1500’s. Learn more by visiting the Larco Museum.
From there we caught our first in-country flight to Cusco. The flights are full, and you must wear a double mask both in the airport and on the flight. The airport and flight staff strictly enforce the rules to provide the safest experience possible. Even though social distancing was not always a possibility, we felt secure throughout the airport and on our flight.
No beverages or food services were provided on flights, which further prevents folks from taking off their masks. Drinking and eating items purchased at the airport was discouraged, and the attendants are diligent in enforcing the protocols for everyone’s protection.
On arrival to Cusco – we whisked out of the airport to our bus that was waiting for us across the street, as they still have not allowed any locals close to the airport to receive flights. Our two hour drive to the Sacred Valley was uneventful and we arrived to the Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel near the town of Urubamba. The time of our flight resulted in our initial drive being in the dark, but we were still able to take in some sites. On our way, we saw the future airport being built in this area of Peru. It is still years away from being completed but is much needed for this area due to the growth of tourism.
Pro tip – Drinks lots and lots and lots of bottled water, as that really helps with the altitude. Do not drink the local water, in fact, don’t even brush your teeth with it. You are at 11,000 feet in Cusco and just slightly lower in the Sacred Valley. And although Coca tea really helps to adjust to the altitude, don’t drink it at night, because it will keep you awake! Instead, drink Munya tea.
DAY 1 in the Sacred Valley
On our first full day, we visited the Salt Pans of Maras. The viewing point gives you a great place to see the entire salt flats. During this dry season, the terraces looked to be covered in snow, or crystals. The view is truly stunning. This is my third visit here, and now they don’t allow you to walk through the actual flats anymore, due to visitors leaving more than just footprints. The new viewing platforms still offer an up close and personal experience. We happened to be there during a “harvest” of the salt, and it was amazing to see how much salt is produced by a single pan. Of course, I had to buy salt to bring home – from table salt to bath salts to a new black salt for smoking meat. I can’t wait to try it!
Pro Tip: Visit in the dry season for the best views of the flats.
We also visited the Terraces of Moray. Some say they were built by aliens, but once the guide shared his information, it all made sense. The terraces, laid out in a combination of nearly perfect circles and ovals, are the product of Incan ingenuity, using lessons from the pre-Incan civilizations to the south. The terraces were used to acclimatize crops to growing in different altitudes and weather conditions as a kind of agricultural lab. Plant a seed in the lowest terrace, let it acclimate, then for the next planting, raise it to the next terrace, and so on. Pretty soon you have corn that can grow high in the mountains with no problem. There is 55 varieties of Corn, and over 4000 varieties of Corn in Peru!
The highlight of the day, if I had to choose, was a visit to a local community called Misminay, where we learned about their way of life and enjoyed “chicha” a local beer type of drink made of fermented corn. It comes in an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic version. The non-alcoholic version is purple, for those who are interested in trying it, but prefer not to imbibe alcohol. The alcoholic version we tasted is somewhat similar to sour beer but is not for the casual drinker. In my opinion, it is an acquired taste.
It is easy to assume that life is difficult for the people of Misminay, but truthfully, they are happy with their way of life. Their language is the ancient language of Quechua which was spoken during the time of the Incas, and which has seen a resurgence in recent years. It is nothing close to Spanish, so thank goodness our guide could translate! If you really want to immerse yourself, they offer overnight stays. It seemed a bit different to experience this local culture in a remote area of Peru with all of us in masks including the indigenous people, but Peru has mask mandates that require everyone to wear them indoors and out, and the entire populous seems to take these restrictions very seriously. I appreciated this, as I certainly didn’t want to test positive and have to quarantine.
We started early in the morning with a drive from our hotel to the town of Ollantaytambo. I have been there numerous times, but this time there were no crowds, allowing our group to experience the small town without the hassle of hundreds of other tourists. This is where they have the Inca Fortress, an in-point for the Inca trail, as well as the rail station to take you to Machu Picchu. The fortress tour guides you along a series of one-way routes to reduce crossing other travelers not in your group and supporting social distancing. I got a bit winded climbing as it was just day two for us in the Sacred Valley but loved that it was not at all crowded as it has been in my prior visits.
There were not as many street vendors selling their wares either, but instead they offered an organized market to shop for the local goodies, especially their colorful textiles of all sorts. As I mentioned, the train station to Aguas Caliente is also in this town, so we bought our face shields for about $3 and headed to our INKA RAIL train ride.
Pro-tip: Try to buy the shields ahead of time, as this was one area where the sudden crush of vendors made for a chaotic experience. Many hotels and pharmacies offer them around the same price, but if you can’t snag one ahead of time, know that you can always grab one near the station. Just have your money ready and make sure the person you pay hands you the shield first.
Pro-tip: Ensure you have purchased your tickets and assigned seats prior to arrival.
After boarding, it’s a 1.5 hour trip through the valley, traveling from a more arid climate to the cloud forests that surround the citadel just before pulling into Aguas Caliente, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. You actually go down in altitude to 9000 feet. On all my prior trips, this train station was covered up with passengers, but not on this trip – we were it. It felt almost like a ghost town, but once we exited the station, the small town came to life. It was still not at all crowded, but ready for guests to return. We boarded our bus to the citadel of Machu Picchu, and 30 minutes later, we were enjoying a lovely lunch at the top before entering into the citadel.
Our entry time was the last time slot of the day and they limit you to about two hours. The route you take is controlled to keep the numbers to a minimum, so as we reached the top and stood over the citadel of Machu Picchu, I was amazed at its beauty with hardly any people in sight. In fact, there were more Alpaca and Llamas wandering about than humans! It was a spiritual moment for me to experience Machu Picchu this way. I have been six other times, but this entry experience was the best.
Pro-tip: Skip the morning entrance! Stick to the afternoon!
Our guide was wonderful, and took us around the citadel, pointing out in detail the history of this amazing city. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We returned back to town for a lovely overnight stay at the InkaTerra Lodge. I have also stayed at a number of other hotels in the town of Aguas Caliente, all of which exceeded my expectations.
Pro-tip: Pack just an overnight bag and leave your larger bag behind as the train has VERY limited storage.
Our third day included a second entrance to Machu Picchu, this time in the morning, and although it was busier, it was still not as crowded as in prior years. Rumors have it that they will keep the post pandemic numbers for entry – they used to allow 6000 people, but now they only allow 3000 per day. By the way, they require a face shield on the bus up and down from the citadel but once in Machu Picchu, just a face mask, which you can take down briefly for pictures.
We then took the train and our bus back to Cusco for two nights.
While in Cusco, we enjoyed a walking tour through the San Blas region and to the beautiful cathedral, and then had free time to shop for souvenirs. Each store we entered took our temperature and provided hand sanitizer.
The rest of our visit to Peru was an extension to Arequipa and the Colca Valley.
Part of the group left after this basic trip to Peru, and the rest of us extended to Arequipa and Colca Canyon. I have never been to this area of Peru, so it was a must-do for me. I wanted to go to the Condor Cross to watch the condors soar on the thermal air. I was not disappointed – it was beyond my expectations. The Colca Valley is a beautiful region that is 75% agriculture and still uses over 40% of the pre-Inca terraces for farming. The Colca Canyon is home to the condors, which take flight around eight in the morning for a short time at our eye level, before flying higher to scavenge for food. I learned that they don’t flap their wings but rely on the thermals to fly, which is so amazing. We also visited a few local communities, and again, their pride in their lifestyle allowed me to understand a bit better about their way of life. We only spent two nights in this area of Peru before heading back to Lima. We visited the second largest city in Peru, Arequipa. Our time was very limited, so we only had time to visit their historic convent and enjoy a fabulous lunch. If you can add another night to your trip, that would be ideal.
Pro-tip: You cross over 16,000 feet on the ride to Colca, so drink lots of water and go slowly. The drive is a solid three hours on a good highway. Once in the valley, you are back to a reasonable 9,000-11,000 feet. Arequipa is at about 7,000 feet.
In closing, I want to stress that Peru is more than just Machu Picchu. Pre-Inca and Inca history is apparent throughout this country, and you will never tire of seeing Inca terraces and structures. The terrain in the Andes is quite challenging, including the altitude, and they mastered it.
If you are interested in learning more about Peru, reach out to us at Condor Tours & Travel – www.condortoursandtravel.com or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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