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High on Cusco, Peru

During our time in Peru I wondered why we had never visited before. I wish we had taken our kids here for one of our family vacations. They would have loved parades, riding four wheelers to ancient ruin sites, zip lining, biking, rafting to Machu Picchu, surfing on sand dunes, or getting kisses from llamas.

A trip to Peru can be a history lesson, but it is also seeing a way of life that is simple and beautiful. As a bonus, it can be less expensive than a ski vacation or a trip to Disney!

We found all of this and more in our visit to Cusco. As the Capitol of the Incan Empire, Cusco has over 400 Incan sites in the surrounding area. During our visit we took guided tours to the most significant sites. We met our travel agent, Jose ( who gave us better rates than can be found at the store front agencies and even came to our hotel to help us plan our stay.

Though Cusco and the surrounding areas are about 11,300 feet above sea level, we did not have any problems with the altitude. Travelers to Cusco are greeted with a big bowl of coca leaves as they step off the plane at the airport to help with altitude sickness. Coca tea is available at practically every hotel and restaurant. Coca leaves and candies are on sale everywhere. If a traveler experiences problems, most hotels provide free oxygen if needed.

Even though we flew in to Cusco from the Pacific coast, it took us just one day to adjust to the elevation. Just to be sure, we purchased a small bag of coca candies to help if needed. It may be purely psychological but after our hike on Cotopaxi we are convinced that they work! We thought it was funny that our new addiction was the hot topic at Thanksgiving with our family back home (our dealer on the Trail, thanks Marie!).

We took three tours and spent a total of $81 each for the tours and $56 for the entry fees to the historic sites. One of the tours even included a full buffet lunch! If we had purchased our Inca Trail trek locally, rather than online, we would have saved hundreds of dollars.

Each tour included a stop at a nearby village for shopping and a tour showcasing a local handicraft. We learned that Peru has the purest silver in the world and visited a silver jewelry maker. We also visited a village renowned for its textile weaving. We watched women spin, dye, and weave alpaca. One intricate piece can take a month to complete.

We visited a factory that specializes in Alpaca textiles. We learned how to tell the difference between a llama and an alpacas, how to spot a fake alpaca garment, and the differences between alpaca, baby alpaca, and my favorite, the extra soft vicuna alpaca.

A vicuna sweater can cost around $1,000 USD, because vicuna alpacas cannot be domesticated or farm raised. Vicuna alpaca will die if they are held in captivity. They have to be in the wild, to be happy. It was fun to see them frolicking on the hillsides.

Our tour of the Sacred Valley took us past snow covered glaciers and the rushing waters of the Sacred River. We drove by too many Inca ruins, walls, and terraces to count. Unnamed Inca ruins dot the Peruvian landscape and line the roads and highways.

The sites that we visited were simply breathtaking. Its hard to believe that after 600 years, the Inca’s canals still work perfectly today. Their engineering skills are such that hillside terraces and walls are still intact and being used to present day.

One of our first stops was Pisac a small village known for it’s handicrafts, markets, and the Pisac Archeological Park.

The historic site was an Incan Citadel with ancient temples, plazas, and agriculture terraces. The views from the top stretched across the Sacred Valley below.

It was interesting to see how the Inca’s used the hillsides that were to steep for farming to bury their dead. Most of the tombs were raided for their gold and precious artifacts, but a few tombs were found intact and are now on display in a Cusco museum (along with my hat, after 4 months it is time to say adios).

We also visited the Ollantaytambo ruins, a massive Inca fortress with large stone terraces on a hillside.The agricultural terraces were stunning from the distance, but even more remarkable when walking on them.

The complex at Ollantaytambo includes the huge Sun Temple and the Princess Baths fountain. The village’s old town is an Inca-era grid of cobblestone streets. The village is unique in that it is the only remaining Inca village still occupied today. The houses and buildings are on two levels, the bottom levels are Inca structures and the second story is from the Spanish Colonial era.

We also visited the Moray ruins, famous for it’s circular terraces. The descending circular terraces allowed the Inca to grow many different crops in the high mountain environment that would not otherwise grow.

The unique design created micro climates suited to specific crops. Taking advantage of the shape of the valley and the cool mountain winds, the Inca were able to grow things that are only found at much lower elevations.

We also enjoyed a visit to the Inca salt mines. The pink salt that is mined is known to chefs around the world. The local village owns the mine and the Inca canals and terraces are still in use today.

Our visit at sunset to Iglesia de Andahuaylillas was also memorable. This colonial Catholic church which was built on an Incan temple. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the church but we can say that the native converts to Catholicism used a mixture of artistic styles to ostentatiously decorate every square inch of the church. They were apparently filled with the Holy Spirit because the church is so gaudy that it is beautiful.

We want to thank our guide Karen, who was funny, articulate and knowledgeable, without her we would not have known what we were looking at. Even though Karen is a devout Catholic she was able to be objective about the destruction of so much of the history and culture of her ancestors.

Our week acclimating in Cusco, visiting museums and historic sites was perfect preparation for our upcoming four day hike of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

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