Lima, Cusco, Quito, and the Sacred Valley


Of my two-week South American adventure late last fall, the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu were definitely the highlights. But that’s not to say I didn’t have a terrific time in some of the other nearby cities and villages and stay in some really remarkable lodgings, so I want to tell you about those.



Our group tour began in Lima, a city of nearly 10 million people and the capital of Peru. The traffic in Lima is memorable in the sense that it takes pretty much forever to get from point A to point B, not unlike any huge city. Our tour guide, Oscar, was a bit apologetic for the traffic and for the lack of public transportation.

I arrived in Lima late in the evening after three flights: Des Moines to Charlotte, Charlotte to Miami, Miami to Lima. The time zone in Lima is the same as it is in Iowa, so it just feels like a long day of travel, not a disoriented time warp like you get when you cross the ocean to Europe or Asia. After landing, our mountain of luggage was loaded into a motor coach, and our late-night drive to the Westin Lima Hotel just reinforced the fact that the United States exports the worst food in the world: The streets of the city were lined with bad fast food and “casual” restaurant chains from the U.S. It’s a national embarrassment.



The first full day in South America began with a late breakfast at the hotel (a very swanky place, by the way; the rooms were all sleek and glassy and modern) followed by a city tour.




Two memories stand out from that tour: The Museo Larco, an archaeology and art museum with a phenomenal selection of pre-Columbian pottery, was made even more interesting by Oscar, who was giddy with excitement to see that some of the exhibits had been returned from a tour. He truly was an expert on the history of the ancient civilizations, especially pre-Inca. (“Inca, Inca, Inca,” he said derisively at one point, like Jan Brady would say, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”) The Incas, he said, were great, yes, but they took most of the best ideas from the earlier civilizations whose art and technology were much more groundbreaking.




The other cool thing we visited was the Plaza de Armas, which is one of several squares in Lima but perhaps the most important one as it contains the Government Palace among other beautiful buildings.

The next morning we had a 4 a.m. wake-up call (I never need the wake-up call, but it’s nice to know it’s there), breakfast at 4:30, and on the bus by 5:10 a.m. to head back to the airport for an early flight to Cusco. This schedule reminded me that I was NOT on vacation…I was on an adventure. And adventurers apparently need little sleep.

The flight over the Andes was spectacular, with jagged, snow-covered peaks jutting through the clouds.



We didn’t spend much time in Cusco, just a visit to the Church of Santo Domingo. Then, following a lovely lunch and some time for shopping at an open-air market (see pictures below), we headed to the Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel.






The Aranwa was one of the highlights of the trip. I think part of its charm was the fact that you have to travel down dirt roads past farm fields and stop for cows on the road and then go through a Jurassic Park-like gate into this amazing oasis-like place. The Aranwa resort has a spa, and lovely artwork, a few high-end shops, outdoor pools, a chapel, two restaurants, a bar, and luxurious rooms. But what I liked best were the outdoor spaces with lush, tropical plants, flowers, birds, and llamas (or maybe they were alpacas). And it’s nestled in the valley, so you can see the mountains in all directions. After three days of travel and not much sleep, the Aranwa (below) felt incredibly restful.


A full eight hours in a comfy bed did wonders for my mood, and I was ready to tackle a full day of sightseeing. We started with an exhilarating climb at the Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo (below). Oscar said this climb, with steep terraces at an altitude over 9,000 feet, would be a test for us before we traveled to Machu Picchu the next day. Indeed, it was a heart-pounding, lung-expanding experience for this girl. But I did it, and the views were amazing.




After that climb, I was ready for some lunch. We ate in a lovely spot (below) – another oasis along a bad road – with gardens and Peruvian horses.


After lunch we stopped at an artist’s studio – quite a place – and at a sort of tavern that served freshly brewed corn beer (here’s an example of the corn they use, below). This stuff is an acquired taste, I will tell you, but the small amount I drank was not all that bad. The locals prepare the corn beer every few days, and when it’s ready they put a little flag outside their business so people know they can stop there for a pint or two.


A weaving demonstration in the village of Chinchero was one of those tourist stops you often get on a group tour, but I actually loved the naturally dyed alpaca wool and the beautiful scarves and blankets and sweaters that the local women were making.



Another amazing meal at our hotel, and then it was time for another early departure…this time for Machu Picchu. Read my blog post here.




The day we left Machu Picchu was another long one, starting with a full-on early morning downpour and a mid-morning tour in the rain, which left me wet from my hair down to my socks. After lunch at the Machu Picchu lodge we took a shuttle bus down the mountain, followed by a mid-afternoon train ride from Aguas Calientes and then a motor coach ride to the city of Cusco.


It was dark when we arrived in Cusco, and I was exhausted. We checked into our “hotel” – the Belmond Monasterio, a building whose origins began in 1592 and, after an earthquake, was updated in 1650. My, my, my. I thought the Aranwa would be the highlight of the trip, hotel-wise. But this place was equally wonderful. I have never slept in a room so quiet. I think the walls were about four feet thick. And the central courtyard (below) and the walkways lined with arches…stunning! I was giddy with happiness the whole time I was there. (The chapel, above, is actually part of the hotel.)



The hotel had a huge, beautiful bar area (above) and a lovely dining room. The first night we stayed there I was too tired to eat. So I just sat in the bar with friends and drank some wine. That seemed about right.


Our only full day in Cusco was relatively laid-back. We got to sleep in – breakfast at 9 a.m.! Yes! – followed by a light walking tour of Cusco, the Inca Empire’s former capital and South America’s oldest continuously inhabited city. I thought it would be a small place, but it actually has a population of about half a million people. We visited the main plaza – a lovely place, above – and then took a motor coach to Sacsayhuamán, Incan ruins (below) that are impressive in their scale (some of the building blocks for the walls are 33 feet high and weigh 360 tons) and memorable in the sense that the name is pronounced sort of like “sexy woman.” By this time I was sort of tired of ruins. But I liked the llamas/alpacas and the panoramic view of the city.



Our afternoon was “at leisure” so my friend Cindy and I took off walking to see if we could find local handcraft shops at which to bolster the local economy. We walked and walked and walked, only to find the big craft mall was a piece of crap. But the walk was fun, and we did find some shops – and an adorable French coffee shop – along the way.



That night a bunch of us met in the hotel bar, and I drank a pisco sour and then went with two couples to a Peruvian fusion restaurant just down the street. I don’t remember what I ate, but I know it was delicious because everything I ate in Peru was fresh and inventive and healthy and wonderful. I can’t remember being in a country where the food was so consistently good.




My next journal entry was at 3:50 a.m. two days later. The early mornings on this trip were becoming legendary, and at this point I had begun to lose track of the days. We left Cuzco very early and took a flight to Quito, Ecuador – with a three-hour layover in Lima – which pretty much took all day. I know we arrived at our Quito hotel after dark, exhausted from travel. And it was a Swissotel – nice enough but definitely without the character of the monastery or the Sacred Valley resort. We ate dinner together at the hotel. And then I repacked all my clothes to prepare for the super, super, super early flight to The Galapagos the following morning.

You can read about my Galapagos adventures here. I loved everything about that place.

After Galapagos, the trip definitely went down hill. Machu Picchu was the early peak, and the Galapagos cruise was chance-of-a-lifetime amazing. So anything else would be disappointing. That’s not to say that Quito was a bad place, because it was really quite beautiful. But after four days on a boat I was tired, and the idea of more bus tours did not thrill me, and all my clothes were dirty, and I was ready to go home.

We arrived back at the Quito Swisshotel in the evening. I bought some cheese and crackers at the “supermaxi” (a grocery store, not a feminine product) down the block and ate them in the lobby bar, with drinks. And went to bed at 9 o’clock.



We had just one more full day in Ecuador, so we made the best of it. The next morning we toured Quito, the first entire city to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site. We visited a lovely plaza and saw some kind of governmental changing-of-the-guard ceremony (above). Apparently they do this every Monday. There were lots of men with guns, and horses. We toured a couple more places in the city.


Then we took a very long bus ride to what felt like the top of the world; the restaurant we went to for lunch was literally above the clouds, and we ate more wonderful food. (I am ruined for quinoa for the rest of my life; we ate such fantastic quinoa salads and soups practically every day for two weeks. And fresh figs with cheese. Wow.)


Quito is high in the mountains and is really lovely and right on the equator. I would like to go there some time when I have clean clothes and a better attitude.



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