By Geoff Jennings –
This might be the most gushing story I’ve ever written. I love Peru. People, food, cultures, mountains, history.It’s all amazing.It’s the first foreign country I’ve ever visited that I thought, “I’d like to come live here for a few years.”

The trip started simply enough.It was Thanksgiving break and I wanted to go somewhere warm with clear water.It was going to be a quick long-weekend type trip.Then American Airlines sent out a flyer promoting cheap flights to Central and South America. We consulted some friends and family, and soon we’d booked tickets to Peru.And the trip had grown to 10 days. And no longer included clear warm water. The weeks before the trip were crazy, super busy with work and life, but we managed to get packed and on the plane in time.Soon enough we were in Lima, and getting a ride to our hostel in “El Centro”, a simple room, but nice enough.We wasted no time and started the walk to the Plaza de Armas. Friday afternoon, and we saw nearly no obvious foreign tourists, mostly just locals out shopping.We ate some boiled quail eggs sold by a street vendor, took photos, and had a nice dinner at a museum restaurant.Good stuff, and soon we were back to our hotelfor sleep.

Day 2 We woke at 3:40 am the next morning, and it was back to the airport for our flight to Cuzco.

Cuzco is a city of 300,000 located at 11,500 feet above sea level.It was the capital of the Incan empire, and is filled with history.Narrow cobblestone roads radiate from the center Plaza, our taxi couldn’t quite make it to our hostel due to stairs.In the road.The best it could do was take us up a narrow street wide enough for one small car and a 2-foot wide sidewalk until the road ended and stairs began.

We dropped our bags off, and headed out to explore.Due to our early flight, it was still early.Walking up the steep roads and steps, you could feel the altitude for sure. We headed to the center of town, the Plaza de Armas (lots of those in Peru), and found breakfast.Coca tea is supposed to help with altitude, and Kim and I had our first cups with breakfast.From there, we visited a nice museum, with a good history of the area and the Incan empire.From there, we headed to the temple of Qorikancha. My old high-school friend Mitch had been to Peru recently, and I’d sort of chuckled when I looked at his photos from Cusco.They seemed really fascinated with the Inca stonework, and I didn’t really get it. I understand now.As we walked through the alleyways on our way, we were greeted with this incredible stone work. The Inca were the most incredible stone masons I can imagine.They shaped huge stones to fit together with incredible precision, and unseen supports behind, with interlocking pieces and structures that have allowed these structures to survive for hundreds of years and through multiple earthquakes.From huge stones to tiny, this was a culture that could build.

On our way to Qorikancha, we stopped for a quick lunch in one of a number of restaurants in a row that offered freshly fried meet, Peruvian fast food if you will.Chicheron is deep fried pork, and ours was served with the gigantic corn we came to love.Qorikancha is an interesting place, and a great example of the building skills on the Inca people.It was originally one of the largest, most well decorated temples, with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pounds of gold.Sadly, that was all destroyed and looted by the colonialists, but some of the amazing structure remains.A Dominican order of monks run a church that resides atop the old temple, so it’s an interesting mix of structures.

From there, we went to a large local market.It was clearly more for the locals than tourists, in a dingy covered structure.Rows were organized by what they were selling, and they had everything from household goods to flowers to textiles to meat and cheese. We found some fun snacks (fruits and cheese) and walked to a different plaza, where we sat and ate.Watching to people, I was surprised that Cusco seemed like a real, living city.Clearly tourism plays a role, but for much of the city it is tangential and much of the city is just going about its business.

After our snack, we went and took some more pictures, then headed to a hotel to meet up with the rest of our team for the Inca Trail (Camino Inka).We walked into the lobby, and I knew it was going to be fun.Our group was from Los Angeles.Melissa had recently celebrated a major birthday, and her brother Nickolaus had bought her this trip to celebrate.They were joined by their friends, Kat and Celeste.Melissa teaches reading to the deaf, while the other 3 work as costumers in Hollywood.I was immediately self conscious about what I was wearing.And, yes, Nickolaus had an amazing array of hats, scarves, and other accessories to wear on trail, so as not to appear as if he were wearing the same cloths.And was wearing designer jeans.

Our guide Alvaro was a bundle of frantic energy, telling us all the last minute details, and within minutes we were all laughing together.It was going to be fun.Soon, we parted company, and Kim and I headed back to the hostel.We grabbed some yummy popcorn and sat and watched some teenagers practice a group dance in an unlit courtyard, then grabbed a taxi home.

Day 3-A surprisingly relaxed start, this was day one on trail.Our guide and a bus picked us up, and then we picked up the others. We’d also been joined by Moti, our guide’s sister who lives in LA, but hadn’t been there the night before. Several hours of driving through the Peruvian highlands brought us to the trailhead, where our porters fed us lunch and organized our gear.Lunch was delicious, and we shouldered our day packs while the porters carried incredible loads.A few hours of hiking brought us to the incredible site of Llactapata, an incredible Inca site.It was a stop on the Inca trail, and likely served an important support role as a large agricultural site and stopover. Our camp was just an hour or so further up the valley, and we settled into a pretty little field.We had some light rain on trail, but nothing bad.

Along the way, and still further into the trail, there were multiple small villages. Still occupied, and living simple agricultural lives, the people are connected only by foot and pack animal. As Celeste led most of the group in an evening Yoga session, I chuckled as I watched the local kids imitating them in the background.

Day 4 Day 2 on trail.I woke early and spent some time taking photographs around camp.A nice breakfast of fresh fruit and eggs, and soon we were on trail.It was hot and humid this morning, and I was sweating buckets.A steep climb and the heat had me moving slow.Most of the group was ahead, and I was thrilled to see a Patagona Gigas, Giant Hummingbird.This is largest hummingbird in the world, with a wingspan of 8.5 inches.Sadly I didn’t get a picture.

I was having a bit of a tough time on the stretch.Hot, humid, steep and altitude, but soon enough, we were at lunch. I relaxed a bit, as the others did Yoga again, we ate, and continued on the trail.Walking through the cloud forest was awesome, and the weather had cooled.Kim and I took our time, with lots of photos.As we approached our high altitude camp (above 12,000 feet) we found a large herd of grazing alpaca.Dinner, laughter, and then a warm sleeping bag.

Day 5 – Day 3 on Trail.

It was a cool, cloudy meeting.I woke early again, and took many pictures of the mountains. Above, some groups of hikers and porters were already making their way up the steep trail above.Dead Woman’s Pass.Alvaro told us this would be our longest day, and the start certainly looked it.We had a light breakfast, loaded up with snacks, and headed up the hill.Wow.Thin air and a steep hill.Even the porters were taking occasional rests, something I saw nowhere else on trail. After a long slog, we reached the pass, nearly 14,000 feet above sea level.A short rest, and we started down the long descent on the other side, walking on the paved stones laid by the Incans hundreds of years ago.

Somewhere along here, it started to rain.Kim and I waited for Melissa, we knew she’d been sick and I didn’t want her walking alone down the steep wet trail. The rain was crazy.It poured. In places the trail more closely resembled a whitewater river.But I wasn’t hot, we were going slow, and I really enjoyed myself.It was gorgeous.

Along the way we visited several amazing Incan sites.One, Kim and I had completely to ourselves.These were amazing ancient structures, full of beauty and mystery.In most of the world, they would be the site, but here they are simply stops along the way to the main act.Wow.Lunch was late, and the weather had cleared. It was a short hike after that to camp, and it was in the most stunning vista. Another good dinner, and sleep.

Kim and I had become concerned about the trip.We’d signed up for a 4 day hike, and the rest of the group was on a 5 day trip.It was clear we were on the 5 day schedule, and it was going to leave little time at Machu Picchu.We still had 5+ hours of hiking the next day, and that would leave little time.We expressed our concern and unhappiness to our guide, and he asked us if we could stay another day.Since we’d planned on a rest/shopping/whatever day in Cusco, we said yes.He set about making the changes, and we set about trying to dry some of our wet stuff.

Day 6 ? Day 4 on trail.

A relaxed start, breakfast, and then we spent some time meeting the porters and posing for pictures with them.I’m clearly not the typical Peruvian size, and their poncho wouldn’t even fit over my head.It was fun, then we packed up and started hiking.Today was a long downhill day. Tons and tons of steep steps.The construction of the trail was amazing.Lunch was at Wiay Wayna.This site was gorgeous.Although it doesn’t quite rival Machu Picchu, had these been the destination, it wouldn’t have been a disappointment.It was an amazing structure, with terracing and upper and lower levers of buildings.I could have spent all day exploring, but soon we were on our way for the final push.We passed through the sun gate mid afternoon, where we got our first views of Machu Picchu.Wow. Wow. Wow.It just blew me away.

As we walked between the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu, Alvaro was explaining a small site where offerings were made, and I saw a huge bird soaring overhead.It took a moment to register.

Condor.CONDOR!I have wanted for years to see a condor in the wild.There are a handful in California, but they are nearly impossible to see.Even in Peru they are rare and still considered to be a good omen today, as in Incan times.I yelled to the group, and we watched him soar overhead, then head across the valley.Sadly, by the time I had the big zoom lens switched over, he was far away, but it was still very, very cool to see.I was really excited, and we kept hiking to the site.We sat overlooking the site, with Alvaro telling us the history. It was great, but soon we were heading down the hill on the bus to Aguas Calientes.After checking into the hostel there, and taking our first shower in 4 days, we joined up with the others for a soak in the hot springs the town is famous for.They weren’t super hot, but still felt nice after the long hike.That night, we celebrated the hike with an amazing French-Peruvian dinner at Feliz Indio.Fun, with more laughter and good times.It was a great evening.

Day 7

Kim and I woke super early and drop our bags off at a different hostel, then caught the bus up to Machu Picchu.It’s one of the 7 wonders of the world, and does get busy.Just an amazing place. To control traffic on the stairs and paths, people are supposed to circulate in clockwise direction, but we were there before the guards were all in place, and took off in a counter clockwise direction.This gave us the unique opportunity to have large chunks of it to ourselves, which was really nice.We ended up getting sent back at one point, but had had some very nice time to explore on our own first.Nice.After a lap and a half of the complex, we saw our group that had shown up later, and Alvaro gave us a nice, informative tour.Too soon, it was time to head down to town, have a quick lunch, and head back to Cusco on the train and via car.The train was unusual, with a fashion show and dancers, and our driver was great in the Taxi.It was a nice trip.

Back in Cusco, we checked into the hostel, then went to dinner.It was Thanksgiving, and we were going to celebrate.We headed to the Inka Grill, where we feasted on Guinea Pig and Alpaca.Both were good, but the Alpaca was amazing. So delicious.It was maybe the best piece of meat I’ve ever eaten.

After dinner, we met back up with our friends (they were on a later train) and talked to them for a bit. They hadn’t eaten dinner, so we went with them, and ordered dessert, a delicious chocolate fondue served with fruit.After dinner, back to the hostel for a well earned sleep.

Day 8 ? Friday.

While millions of Americans were looking for good shopping deals, we were having breakfast in Peru, and meeting up with Kat, Nickolaus, Celeste and Melissa.We’d talked them into joining us for a day on the river.An hour or two in the bus, and we were at a muddy river in the Andean Mountains. The other 5 would be in rafts, but I was excited to have arranged a kayak.The boat was way too small, as was most of the gear, but I had a fun time paddling it, and the others seemed to enjoy the raft.The run was a fun, continuous Class III.Not too tough, but pretty and I was paddling in Peru.Our safety kayaker was telling me stories that made me really, really want to visit Peru for a longer paddling centric trip.It was a fun run, and all too soon (for me) it was over.A sauna and a hot lunch before the bus ride home.

That night, we spent some time hanging out, then met up with the LA gang for dinner.The 1st restaurant we tried was busy, but they suggested another, and it was awesome.Yummy and good and another dinner full of laughter and fun.It was sad after dinner saying goodbye to our new friends, but we did and headed back to the hotel.

Day 9

Another early start, and we flew back to Lima. After finding our hotel, we headed out for lunch.We had perhaps the best value lunch I’ve ever eaten.$6 bought 4 courses and a drink of Chicha, a Peruvian speciality.The meal included soup, cerviche, duck or cabrito (goat) with rice, and a dessert.Amazing and yummy. Peruvian food is great.

After lunch, we went to the Museo de la Nacion, where we saw a good history of Peru, with explanations and examples from many other cultures from around the country and throughout time. We spent a good part of the afternoon here, then stopped by Vivanda (a high end grocery) to grab some snacks for dinner.To bed.

Day 10

We rose at 2:30 am.Ouch.We were picked up at our hotel, driven to the station, and put on the bus. 3.5 hours or so on the bus, and we got off in Pisco.Pisco had been devastated in the recent earthquakes, and the damage was still evident.We were supposed to be met by a driver, but there was no one evident.We waited awhile, and I began to wonder if we’d been ripped off.Uh-oh.Kim tried calling, but we weren’t having much luck.After an hour of standing by the road, sticking out like sore thumbs, a car pulled up.It was a driver.

Raul drove us to the town of Paracas, where we boarded the boat to the Islas Ballestras.This island is an 35 minutes off shore, and covered with an amazing density of birds, including Peruvian Boobies, Inca Terns, Humboldt Penguins- the second smallest in the world, cormorants, and vultures.Sea lions abound too.It was pretty and neat.I was excited to see penguins, having never seen them in the wild before.Fun, and worth the time.

After that, it was a LONG, LONG drive through the southern deserts of Peru to Nazca.It was pretty and neat, but long.Once there, we were taken to the airport for our flight over the Nazca lines. The Nazca lines are pre-Incan drawings and geometric shapes in the desert.Huge and amazing.No one really knows how they were done, or why, and it was very cool and impressive to see. Part of the mystery stems from the fact that they were created by a culture without flight, but can only be seen from the air. Our flight was wild.I think Kim was a little nervous.After the short flight, it was back in the car for another LONG drive to Ica, where we boarded another bus for Lima, arriving home around 10 PM.This was a pretty travel intense day, but worth it to see the Islands and the Nazca Lines.

Day 11– Time to go home.We had a feast for breakfast, packed, and headed to the airport.Sadly, vacation was over, and after a long flight, we were back in San Francisco…

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