Travels in South America (Part I): Peru

It’s been two weeks since my sister and I have been home from our trip in South America, and I’m still awed by all the places and adventures we were able to fit into our two weeks of travel. Our journey took us through Peru, Chile, and Argentina — all three beautiful places to explore. We did a lot of hoping around, which was perfect for this trip, but a part of me wants to go back to one or all and really settling in to a single country for a longer period of time, so that I can get to know it in depth.

Since I have a ton of photos, I’m splitting this post into three parts, starting with Peru, where we visited Lima, Cusco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu.


Our experience of Lima was a colored by how exhausted we were after our red-eye flight. But with only one day to explore the city, we wandered through the main city center. The Plaza Mayor was crowded — with two events happening simultaneously. At the Palacio de Gobierno some sort of changing of the guard was going on, with soldiers in dress uniform marching and parading horses while trumpets blared. On the other side of the square, a procession accompanied by music was pouring out of the Catedral de Lima — large pavilion after large pavilion, each held aloft by four men or women proceeded out of the entrance of the cathedral. They held elaborate pedestals adorned with the images of the Virgin, Christ, and various saints. The procession was accompanied by dancers in brightly colored, traditional Peruvian dress. The trumpets from the government building clashed together with the music from the cathedral in a wonderful cacophony.

Later we stopped in at Choco Museo to try drink hot chocolate flavored with chile. Afterward, our explorations took us to Casa de Literature Puruana (House of Peruvian Literature). Inside was a library with an old printing press on display, as well as museum exhibits introducing two Peruvian poets — Magda Portal and Louis Hernandez. All of the displays were in Spanish, of which I know only a little. Nevertheless, I’m excited to go looking for their work and for the opportunity to learn more about them.

We ended our day at the Basilica de San Francisco, a church and convent which houses underground catacombs.

Basilica San Francisco, Lima, Peru.
Basilica San Francisco, Lima, Peru.

Basilica San Francisco, Lima, Peru.
Hanging out by the giant door of Basilica San Francisco.


When my sister and I arrived in Cusco, we were immediately struck with how beautiful this city was, bowl shaped with mountains all around. And I was struck by immediately feeling a bit sick. With Cusco at over 11,000 ft above sea level, it was definitely the altitude — although I was grateful that it didn’t hit me as hard as it often hits others.

As soon as we arrived, we needed to hire a taxi to carry us two hours to Ollantaytambo for our scheduled train to Machu Picchu. That would prove to be an interesting adventure, as a teachers strike was going on in the middle of town, causing havoc with the traffic. We hired a taxi from a stand at the airport and the woman at the counter lead us out to the airport gate, which had been closed by police. After about 10 minutes they let a group of people through, and the woman(whose name I wish I remembered, because she was awesome) climbed into the hired cab with us.

Thus began the driver’s attempt to get us through the city, in which he:

  1. started on the main road, only to find the traffic totally stopped,
  2. then tried to find his way up a side street, which was also totally blocked and had a number of cars pointing multiple directions in an automotive puzzle game of traffic,
  3. so our driver gets out of the car and runs up the road, leaving the woman and my sister and I still in the car,
  4. when he returns several minutes later, he gets in because traffic is moving, except for the VW van right in front of us, driverless and blocking the road,
  5. at which point our driver gets out of the car and starts to climb into the stranger’s car to move it,
  6. and my sister and I stare at each other and laugh because we don’t know what else to do,
  7. before the driver returns and yells at our driver before moving the van out of the way,
  8. our driver returns climbs back in the car and drives down the street for about 10 feet,
  9. before the traffic stops entirely again,
  10. and our driver again jumps out of the car to see what the deal is,
  11. when he returns, he drives us back out to the main road and turns in the opposite (and presumably wrong) direction,
  12. he zips the car along narrow, cobbled streets,
  13. scraping the side of the car along the stone pillar of a bridge as he makes a sharp turn,
  14. and travels uphill, further and further from the direction it seemed we were supposed to be going,
  15. as we reached the top of the hill we got a beautiful view of the city,
  16. and out driver stopped to talk to another driver, who must have indicated that we couldn’t get through that way,
  17. because we turned around and found another narrow, single-lane road to drive up,
  18. which is blocked by cars coming down the opposite the direction,
  19. there’s not enough room for the other cars to turn around,
  20. there’s not enough room for our driver to turn around,
  21. we’re all just nose-to-nose in an impass,
  22. until our driver backs down the hill,
  23. weaves back through the same streets we started out on,
  24. and TAPS A PEDESTRIAN just trying to cross the street,
  25. but the pedestrian just accepts the bumper to the thigh with barely a glare and keeps walking,
  26. and the driver brings us finally back to the main road we started out on.

I’ve never seen driving like we saw in Peru. No one bothered much with rules. Our driver was just one example. Many others were pulling onto the opposite side of the road — into oncoming traffic — in an attempt to get through. It was… interesting.

So, where did that leave us. We were stuck, but we had our feet. The woman told us to grab our bags — we were going to make a run for it. She led us down the road to a city square where a line of police in riot gear were facing a crowd of teachers holding picket signs, and she then led us through the line of police and down another street.

After a little bit of speed walking, she stopped a random cab and we all hopped in. More wild driving through the streets until we reached another spot, where we got out again and the woman loaded us into a third car with our final driver of the day, who drove us the final two hours to Ollantaytambo — where we caught our train in the nick of time.

I really, really wish I remembered the woman’s name. Without her getting in the car and leading us through the chaos, we would have missed our train. She was fabulous.

Upon returning to to Cusco after visiting Machu Picchu, we a short amount of time to explore the city. On our first night, we saw a candle vigil held by the striking teachers outside of the cathedral, which was followed by a march. My sister, being a teacher herself, had a conversation with some of the teachers and some of the locals who were in sympathy with the teachers. The essence of it is that the teachers’ income is so low, it’s difficult for them to viably make a living — something that sounds very familiar.

The Plaza de Armas in Cusco is beautiful, with cathedrals and government buildings and crooked streets and museums. There’s also a great draft bar, Nuevo Mundo, which features some phenomenal bar food and giant menu of craft beers, all of which are from Peru.

The beautiful mountain city of Cusco.
San Cristobal, Cusco
Hanging out in the bell tower of San Cristobal overlooking the city.

Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley, which is essentially the valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu, the is filled with more archeological sites than a person can physically see in short time we were in Peru. We scheduled a private tour, which was excellent. A few of the places we visited the Moray agricultural ruins, the Moray salt mines, the Ollantaytambo ruins, and a site where a woman showed us how they cleaned wool and spun and dyed it into yarn using natural plants and insects.

Moray, Peru
Moray was a site that the Incas used for agricultural experimentation. They would start crops at the bottom level and then move them up tier by tier to acclimatize them to higher altitudes.
Maras, Peru
The Maras salt mines have been in use since before the Inca period. The water feeds from the salt-rich mountains into the pools. As the water evaporates, the sale it left behind. Maras is owned by the community and a certain number of pools are assigned to individuals or families.
The ruins of Ollantaytambo.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu beautiful not only for its Inca ruins, but for the phenomenal mountains surrounding it, some of the most beautiful in the world. Having a tour guide is great for learning more about the site (and as of July, it’s also mandatory). Machu Picchu features brilliant engineering design, such as interlocking stones in some places to protect against earthquakes, stepped terraces designed for agriculture, and areas built for sound amplification.

In addition to the archeological site, there are a number of side trails that can be explored, including Huayna Picchu mountain and Machu Picchu mountain. My sister and I hiked Machu Picchu mountain, an incredibly strenuous climb consisting of hundreds of steep, uneven stone stairs all the way up. Everyone on the mountain, even the athletic, were miserable making their way up those steps. It turned into a universal camaraderie as we all turned to each other, shook our heads, and joked and griped about how awful those stairs were.  BUT the views were gorgeous and it was worth all the pain — even though we were sore for days afterward.

Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu, Peru – archeological site.
Machu Picchu, Peru
In addition to carving bricks and stonework from a quarry on top of the mountain, the Incas sometimes also used the natural shape of the existing stop in the construction of Machu Picchu.
Huayna Picchu mountain
At the archeological site with Huayna Picchu mountain in the background.
Machu Picchu Mountain
Looking down on the archeological site and valleys from the height of Machu Picchu mountain.
Llama, Machu Picchu, Peru
Many llamas were wandering around the site, just being chill.

Between the gorgeous landscapes and the great people we met (both locals and travelers from around the world), Peru was among my favorite experiences during the trip. Next up, I’ll share a bit about Chile.

2 Replies to “Travels in South America (Part I): Peru”

  1. Finally catching up on these travel diaries. I enjoyed the glimpses on Twitter while your vacation was in progress, and it’s fascinating now to get the more detailed story. The taxi traffic tale is epic! What an amazing trip!

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