In September of last year, I and my mother took a trip to Peru. Seeing Machu Picchu was a bucket-list request of my mother’s, who is having problems with memory loss. I myself am not an experienced international traveler. So it was kind of a daunting proposition to me, but on the other hand I had seen the Lord of Sipan exhibit when I lived in New York, and I was really excited about seeing not just Machu Picchu but (if I could) the many other Mesoamerican ruins in Peru.
Under the circumstances, we were definitely going to go with a tour. But my feeling is that, if you just want to go see Machu Picchu (and you should; it is amazing), you can do it fine on your own–but I’ll talk more on that further down.
Anyway, we did this tour with Road Scholar, and they were excellent. They really do try to make the trip as educational as possible (and that tour might as well be called Archaeology Nerds Visit Peru, so that was a good thing).
We started out in Lima. I have friend who is a tall, red-headed, white Midwestern man and who visited Machu Picchu a few years ago, and he had a horrible time in Lima–he was on his own and everyone assumed he wanted cocaine, hookers, or some combination of the two (and it didn’t matter where he was or if there were small children nearby). I was with a tour group of older people, so I had a wonderful time in Lima–we saw some very cool museums (the quality of the artifacts are just much higher than what you’ll see in the U.S.) and cathedrals, and we never got hassled.
So I do think Lima is worth spending some time in, but you’ll definitely want to arrange for a driver and a guide (the city is HUGE and pretty hard to get around in) or maybe hook up with a tour for that part of your visit.
Then we flew up to the north coast of Peru, which is just studded with ruins. It has the same magical combination as Egypt: A dry-as-dust desert where everything is preserved, combined with large rivers coming off the Andes that allow for some very productive irrigated agriculture.
The Brujo Complex is in the background–the ground is so dry it looks like the moon, and the woman buried in there was so perfectly preserved that her tattoos are still visible. In the foreground is a freakin’ SUGAR CANE field. The other big crop is freakin’ RICE. (If you don’t know anything about agriculture, those are two of the most water-intensive crops around.)
You MUST have a guide to go to most of these ruins. Don’t screw around with that–Peru is sick and tired of having its treasures looted, and Americans with bad attitudes are not looked upon with favor. Before you buy any ceramics in the north coast, check to make sure there is some kind of stamp on the bottom to indicate that they are of modern manufacture–they go through all your luggage when you fly out of there, and if you’ve got something questionable, you’re going to be missing your flight and spending some quality time in a room explaining to the nice men there that you are not a smuggler.
(I should also note that they do NOT mess around when it comes to objects in your carry-ons that might be used as weapons–tiny scissors, crochet hooks, you name it. They are much more diligent about this than in the United States.)
So, was it cool?
Yes, it was very cool. Our guides were great. It’s not like there’s tons of signs around explaining every last thing, so having an informed guide is really key. Ours had some kind of license/seal of approval to indicate that they actually knew what they were talking about. Unfortunately I don’t know what that’s called or what to look for, but if you’re on your own down there, maybe talk to one of the museums and see who they recommend? Like nerds everywhere, Peruvian Archaeology Nerds all seem to know each other, and you definitely want one as your guide.
Then we went to
Why bold? Because Machu Picchu is awesome.
And the Incas’ genius for combining the two:
When you go to Machu Picchu, look out the windows and into the caves–there is all kinds of awesomeness to be discovered.
We spent two days there, and I could have happily spent many more. Our first day there we spent with the group and a guide, which was a nice introduction to the site. (Our tour group provided our guide, but they are available on site as well.) The second day was a free day, so my mom and just went poking around the site, as you are free to do (within limits).
Machu Picchu is totally the kind of place where you could just go there on your own and pick up a guide or explore on your own as you see fit. Just be aware that it’s popular (the U.S. summer is the high season), so you usually need to get tickets in advance. If you want to go off the main site to, say, check out Huayna Picchu (we didn’t have the time, but I would love to in the future), you need a ticket for that, too. Also, it’s pretty rugged, so dress appropriately.
The main thing you need to be very, very aware of when you go to the Andean region of Peru is
The altitude is NOT to be trifled with. When we went to the region, we flew into Cusco (11,000 feet) and spent the first night in the Sacred Valley of the Inca (9,000 feet). People in our party immediately got sick, and they were sick for days. Thankfully my mother and I were fine (we had planned ahead and spent some time at high altitudes in the U.S.), but “fine” is a relative term–we didn’t need a doctor, but we were staying on the second floor of the hotel, and climbing up that one flight of stairs was just excruciating.
I do hope to go back to Machu Picchu one day, and here’s how I would do it.
1. Fly into Lima. Sea level.
2. Fly to Cusco. 11,000 feet.
3. Immediately flee Cusco for Machu Picchu Pueblo (the town at the base of the ridge Machu Picchu is on). 7,000 feet.
4. Spend a leisurely day recovering from all that travel and acclimating in Machu Picchu Pueblo, which is a very pretty little resort town. 7,000 feet.
Seriously, people bitch and moan about this place like it was the Seventh Circle of Hell. “The shopping sucks!” “It’s expensive!” Get a grip–it’s delightful!
5. The next day, start visiting Machu Picchu itself. 8,000 feet.
Only after gorging myself on the glory that is Machu Picchu would I move on to the Sacred Valley of the Inca and up to places like Chinchero (12,500 feet!!!) and Cusco. Those places are well worth a visit, but oh my God are they high, and you will feel it no matter how fit you are.
What about coca-leaf tea?
Go ahead and drink it–it contains so little cocaine that you would have to drink it by the gallon to get any effect. Green tea is more stimulating. I drank coca-leaf tea in the morning and still had to drink as much coffee as I usually do. People drank it, got on the bus, and fell right asleep.
Is it some kind of miracle cure for altitude sickness? My mom would say yes–she felt much better after drinking it. I’m going to point out, though, that one of the main causes of altitude sickness is dehydration–that’s why you’re supposed to start drinking a lot of water in the two weeks before you go to the Peruvian Andes, and why you’re supposed to really guzzle water on the flight there. My mom didn’t do any of that, because drinking a lot of water means that you always have to pee. I drank a lot of water, plus I drank a lot of coca tea (because I wanted to encourage my mom to drink something), and I didn’t feel like coca tea did anything special. (It may have helped, but I didn’t feel some instantaneous or dramatic benefit.)