As our last post detailed, we’ve spent the past 8 months teaching with VIPKID while traveling the world. Our destinations have been guided by cheap flights and bucket list activities – which led us to Peru and its world wonder (Machu Picchu) in late February!**
Arriving in Peru was a breath of fresh air. We loved our time in Europe and feel so blessed to have traveled so much during our time there, but many of the places we lived in or visited felt a little too “easy.” A lot of people spoke English, quite a bit of the food was familiar-ish, we were usually in large cities, and we just didn’t have as many, “Wait, WHAT?” moments. The exceptions to this were our trips to Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt – noticeably, places mostly outside of Europe (part of Istanbul is in Europe, while part of it is in Asia). We did love the architecture, museums, and accessibility of Germany, France, Romania, and Italy, and overall had a very positive time in each place – but… when we arrived in South America we were just excited to be in a continent that felt “different” again! Peru was definitely a highlight of our travels.
We started our trip in Cusco, which is at an elevation of 11,200 feet (3,400 meters). I had read countless blog stories of horrible altitude sickness hindering people’s trips, so I was kind of freaking out. Luckily, we had plenty of time to adjust and basically just spent the first two days taking it easy as a preventative measure. No altitude sickness for us! One thing we did do was a free walking tour, which taught us a lot about the local architecture, native plants, culture, and history of the area.
On the tour, we visited San Pedro Market, Palace of Pachaquteq (famous 9th ruler of the Inca Empire), and three town squares. Our guide gave super helpful advice on which food places were safe for “gringo stomachs” and which souvenirs were authentic (hint: the $30 alpaca sweaters at the market are synthetic, not alpaca 😉). They also shared some really interesting stories, such as that the San Pedro market was designed by Gustav Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel) and that statue of Pachaquteq was originally mixed up with a different statue and sent to the wrong location. However, I couldn’t find much online to back up these stories so I’ll leave their veracity up to you to decide. 😄
Some random facts we learned on the tour that are actually verifiable: (1) the rainbow flag we saw everywhere is the regional flag – not the LGBQT flag, which has one less stripe. (2) On the day of our tour, the town was celebrating “Men’s Day,” one of the events leading up to Carnival. Suddenly the cannon shots, balloons, and weird stuffed figures in the streets made a lot more sense!
After 2 days in Cusco, it was time to take the train to Aguas Calientes, the tiny town that serves as an access point to the famed Machu Picchu. The train ride there was absolutely gorgeous. We were on the cheapest train, but even that had windows on the ceiling that gave you an immersive view of the mountains passing by.
We had an afternoon to kill, so we decided to stretch our legs and go find a nearby waterfall. The path there was kind of random – you walk a little bit out of town, then follow the train tracks for about 45-minutes. Thankfully there were lots of people with backpacks heading to the partnering campsite, so we knew we were headed in the right direction.
Once we got to the start of the nature path it started to rain and we had not brought our jackets due to the initial sunny weather. Luckily, the park sold these super attractive ponchos to keep off the worst of it! 😉
The park walkway itself was beautiful. Los Jardines de Mandor focuses on growing diverse native plants in a very natural-looking environment, so you feel like you’re walking through a jungle but can still identify the plants thanks to helpful little labels. There are two areas where you’re allowed to swim, but the rainy weather was a little chilly so we decided against it. When we reached the main waterfall, it stopped raining! We were able to enjoy the walk back with good weather, which allowed us to look around a lot more and admire things we had missed on the way. I definitely recommend this to anyone who has some time to kill in Aguas Calientes. That night we feasted at Mapacha, where I tried some delicious alpaca skewers!
The next morning, we got up bright and early for our Machu Picchu excursion. At that time, it was cloudy and a little damp from some recent mist, which was beautiful but had us worried about the visibility at the top of Huayna Picchu (our main hike of the day). We were thankful that the fog kept us kind of cool as we huffed and puffed our way up the mountain. I have to admit, we felt better seeing various people before and after us struggle as much as we did with the elevation!
Thankfully, once we reached the peak the majority of the clouds had cleared and we had an incredible view of this ancient civilization’s home. The hike was 100% worth it for sights like this. We spent a bit of time exploring the different view points at the top and munching on some snacks before making the much-easier trip down.
Having gotten our aerial viewpoint in, we spent another hour or two wandering around the inside of the ruins and heading partway up the Sun Gate. We were constantly turning around and finding another beautiful viewpoint! It was really amazing to be right inside the fairly large ruins, which looked super small from the top of Huaynu Picchu. And we got to see some llamas casually hanging out! 💕
After returning from Machu Picchu/Aguas Calientes, the main other activity that we did while in Cusco was a day trip to hike Humantay Lake. (A bout of food poisoning interfered with our plans to hike Rainbow Mountain as well, but we had heard that a lot of the photos are highly edited and that it is not actually that colorful anyways). We did this as part of a “guided tour,” but really their main helpfulness was transportation & a walking stick. Since there was only one guide and a group of about 30 people, he stayed at the back of the group to support the slowest hikers. He told everyone to follow the trail to the top and that we would all meet there at a certain time. What he failed to mentioned was that there was a second (more difficult) trail that branched off midway. Well… about half of our group, including Tommy and I, ended up on that trail completely clueless. When we saw the second half of our group on a different section of the mountain, we realized our mistake and just ended up following a cow and some locals for the rest of the secondary trail. Whoops! Still beautiful, anyways.
The view of the lake at the top was absolutely stunning. It was the most vivid blue water I’ve ever seen. I had always assumed that the photos online were edited to amp up the colors (and some are), but these are straight from my camera and really look how it did in person! The clouds did obscure parts of the surrounding mountains at times, but they cleared enough to enjoy the stark contrast of harsh greys and whites with the serene turquoise water. We even heard and saw a small avalanche from a distance!
Our next destination in Peru was Iquitos, the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road – thanks to the incredible Amazon, it is only accessible by plane or boat! Keep an eye out for our next post to hear more about our time in the rainforest. 👀 💕
**Some of the most popular Peruvian activities such as Peru Hop and the Inca Trail are closed during February because of heavy rains. Lowest season = cheapest flights.