Well, what would be going to Peru without also getting to experience world-wonder Machu Picchu and the great Amazon? These weeks, I had those opportunities! (This is also a good time to travel as the kids don’t have school for two weeks due to Independence Day coming up and their mid-school year break.)
For the first adventure, we headed to Cusco and Machu Picchu. I actually met up with some fellow USF alumni and we all had the best time exploring these Inca ruins. We flew into Cusco Saturday afternoon but caught a bus and headed straight to Ollantaytambo, a town in the Sacred Valley in between Cusco and Aguas Caliente (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo). Ollantaytambo is a beautiful, historic, small town with lots of offer. We were fortunate to have one whole day in Ollantaytambo, where we went hiking, checked out a local market, enjoyed the local foods, and made a few local friends. In the evening, we headed to the train station to catch a 2 hour train heading to Aguas Caliente, where we would enjoy the following day in Machu Picchu.
And Machu Picchu is everything it claims to be: large, impressive, and ever so beautiful. The history, the architecture, the agricultural terraces, the beauty of the Andes, it’s all so awesome. When we arrive at Machu Picchu in the morning, we make our way to the entrance to Wayna Picchu (a mountain just behind Machu Picchu village that’s the famous mountain in the iconic photos). Hiking Wayna Picchu is not for the faint of heart; the rock steps are quite steep and narrow in some places and there are a lot of steps. Once at the summit, however, the view makes the scary steps totally worth the climb. There’s also something about seeing such a famed, historic place that fills your soul with the kind of excitement that can only be experienced firsthand.
Once back to Machu Picchu village, we found a tour guide and enjoyed the rest of the day learning more about the Incas, their architecture (there is no mortar in MP, all the stones are shaped to fit together perfectly); the way the Incas worked with the solstices and agriculture; how MP was lost and rediscovered just over 100 years ago; it was fascinating. It was a great day.
We visited Cusco after Machu Picchu and it is a really beautiful town; we easily could have spent an extra day or two there. It also has a great history with ruins of its own, with museums, food, markets, everything.
Trip 2: Iquitos and the Amazon
The second trip on my agenda was to the city of Iquitos, located in the north of Peru in the Amazon Jungle. It is the largest city in the world inaccessible by road, it can only be reached by plane or boat. It’s an interesting city. Some of the guide books made it sound small, but it is a giant place. And I don’t think I’d call it a built-up or well developed city, although it looks like it was trying to be at one point in time. The main mode of transportation is by mototaxi (there is a sea of mototaxis, actually, like hundreds of them), and none of the buildings are exceptionally tall. There’s a huge library with all things Amazon, a few fancy cafes, a cathedral, a Museum of Indigenous People, and a few other gems, but nothing too extravagant. It’s quaint in a giant, dusty, hot, haggling at markets, crowded streets kind of way.
If I’m honest with you, the main reason I went to Iquitos was to catch a glimpse of the selva (what the jungle is called in Peru). The thing about Peru is that about a third of the country is selva so I didn’t have to go that far north to see it; but the thing that makes Iquitos interesting is it is boarded by three rivers, one of them being the Amazon. So we’ve got the Amazon River and the Amazon Jungle; there are worse places to be.
So among the usual tourist and sight seeing ventures, we spend a day hiking in the selva. A tip of advice: if you go hiking in the selva, wear boots. Throughout our hike, the path became very muddy in places and slightly difficult to hike in. We tried to buy boots beforehand, but the market didn’t have any. We should have gone to another market. But between slipping many times because the bottom of my Nikes were caked with mud and trying to catch my balance by grabbing a tree with a bunch of spiky caterpillars on it, we saw wild potatoes in the jungle (yes, potatoes; they were purple), a few birds, some butterflies, two small snakes, banana trees, medicinal plant vines, more caterpillars, sugarcane, and a man carrying a pig. Hiking in the mud really sucked at the time. And as we were heading out of the selva, it started to rain. But it was a great experience and a fun adventure. Oh, and our tour guide was a local. Where he was raised in Iquitos, the selva butted up against his barrio and the selva was his backyard. It was definitely an interesting day.
As exciting as all of this sounds (and it was, don’t get me wrong), I was really shocked with how much trash and pollution are common throughout Iquitos. Even 2.5 hours into the selva, there were plastic Coca-Cola bottles on the ground. The river had so much plastic washed up on the shoreline. The neighborhood we stayed in had trash lining either side of the street for at least a mile. And the air isn’t so great from all the exhaust from the hundreds of mototaxis. It was really sad to see so much trash. The Amazon has problems of its own with regard to deforestation. And the Amazon River, I was lucky enough to take a boat ride down a small part of it, but’s not nearly as pretty or romantic as it sounds or you may see in some pictures. I think my first suggestion would be to invest in a recycling facility. And if there is one (I should look into this), then to invest in its capabilities. Iquitos has the potential to be great. If I’m not mistaken, it is the most visited jungle city in Peru. A little sustainable tourism investments could go a long way; and not just a few eco-lodges, the city could use some help, too.
All in all, I’m very thankful for the opportunity to explore more of Peru, even if they were two of the biggest tourist areas here. But truly, how could you come to Peru and not go to these places.