Incas, Machu Picchu, Amazon & more: The unforgettable Peruvian Odyssey

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13.05.2016 & 14.05.2016

After a breathtaking 10 days in Galapagos Islands with sea lions, penguins, sharks, marine iguanas, land iguanas, blue-footed boobies and more, we embarked on our Peruvian journey with Machu Picchu and Amazon rainforest as the main bucket list items. 3 flights (Galapagos-Guayaquil, Guayaquil-Lima & Lima-Cusco) and 20 hours later, we landed in Cusco, the gateway to Inca ruins in Peru. We got a lovely glimpse of the Andean mountains from the plane.

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To avoid a potential sickness due to Cusco’s height, we immediately took a taxi and descended to Ollantaytambo (2 hour ride from Cusco airport), a picturesque town situated in the sacred valley of the Incas. With a four day local Quechua festivities of dance and music in full-swing we truly lucked out. Ollanta (as the locals call it), is where the Incas retreated to after the Spanish conquered Cusco. It has a lovely small town relaxed feel with a cute town square, narrow cobble-stoned streets, lovely view of Inca ruins, street food and gorgeously dressed Quechua people.

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The relaxed atmosphere just sucked us in so we decided to take it easy today and simply watched the festivities and enjoyed local food and beer at the town square. Oh, and Mika enjoyed the Choco museum where we learnt the fascinating process of how Chocolate products are made from.

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15.05.2016

The morning was spent in exploring the beautiful ruins of Ollantaytambo. This is where Manco Inca, the valiant native leader who lead the resistance against Spanish conquistadors, defeated the Spanish by building high terraces and flooding the plains. We were reminded of our Rajasthani fortresses from where the valiant Rajputs fought the Mughals.

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In the afternoon, we did a VERY steep but rewarding hike to Pinkuylunna, where the Incas built some remarkable storehouses. This hike is not for the faint-hearted and in the end we were rewarded with some breathtaking views of the Ollanta town and the valley as well as a fascinating meeting with a German couple (with 3 small children!) who were also on a 1-year world trip, just like us !! Our resolve grew stronger after meeting them – if they can do it with 3 SMALL ones, we surely can pull it off with a TEENAGER!

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By evening, the anticipation of visiting Machu Picchu the next day was building up and we spent our time calming ourselves down, praying to God for a sunny weather and requested our hotel owner for a breakfast takeaway at 5 am.

16.05.2016

The 4:30 am alarm reminded us that the BIG day has arrived. After picking up our breakfast bags, we began our stroll to the Ollantaytambo train station at 5 am.

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Getting to Machu Picchu is an logistical adventure in itself. First you have to take this train from Ollanta – this is a very busy gateway to Machu Picchu and train tickets are usually sold out months in advance. We had booked ours 4 months earlier so it was an easy boarding at 5:30 am in a VERY IMPRESSIVE compartment offering beautiful views over a short 90 minute journey. Wait a minute, you have only reached the foothill town called Aguas Callintes. We boarded a 30 minute bus from here to one of the top modern wonders of the world. The excitement of entering the monument means you are willing to forgive basic tourist facilities (water refill stations, toilets WITHIN the complex – there is one at the entrance only and eating options – there is ONLY ONE very expensive restaurant).

9:30 am: We had seen the picture post card view of Machu Picchu ruins against the Huayna Picchu backdrop, a million times but nothing prepared us for the first breathtaking view. As suggested (wrongly) by other bloggers we took a million useless pictures in the first 5 minutes (there were better pictures to come from higher viewpoints) but what the heck – this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip! As you walk to higher terraces, the views start to get exponentially better. Meha’s prayers had been answered as we had been rewarded with an embarrassingly gorgeous day 🙂 We spent most of our time sitting at various vantage points and gawking at the ruins (the best views are from the top) as well as analyzing and concluding that its the dramatic backdrop of Huyana Picchu mountains which gives Machu Picchu its awe-inspiring view, not the ruins itself. Mika loved playing with the llamas.

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As the scorching sun blazed, our bodies and energy started drooping around noon. We were glad that we had spent most of our time at the higher view points, since coming down to the ACTUAL ruins can be bit of an anti climax as the views are not as gorgeous. We pulled ourselves to see the Inca architecture including the sun temple and it was all over by 2 pm.

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Voraciously hungry (I could have killed and eaten a Llama), we immediately departed the complex and took the bus down to the foothills. Mika’s favorite pesto pasta was ordered and cold coca cola has never tasted better – I kid not. We utilized the free wifi and then argued with the restaurant over the astronomical 20% service charge which was immediately brought down to 10! It was difficult to believe that it was time to board the 6 pm train back for a day that we had been dreaming for years. The real adventure was yet to come. The train was delayed by 3 hours with a huge collateral advantage of befriending a bunch of Brazilians and Russians with whom we had animated discussions on politics, state of our nations, why we all are still underdeveloped nations and so on. Everyone was amazed that we as Indians had taken a year off to travel and we grinned. What fun. Anyway, we arrived back to Ollanta at 11:30 pm thanks to Peru Rail, and crashed.

In hindsight it sounds incredible that Machu Picchu went undiscovered till 20th century (till an intrepid American explorer Hiram Bingham discovered it). So cool, otherwise the marauding Spanish conquistadors would have destroyed it. What makes Machu Picchu so special is how they chose the perfect site and built a city so high up amidst the mountains ???

17.05.2016

We bid good bye to the Sacred Valley and headed to Cusco, a 2 hour taxi ride. Our first stop was the salt mines of Maras . The Incas built hundreds of salt pans and harvested salt from spring water. It is quite a sight. Mika tasted and found the salt a tad too salty for her liking!

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We then headed off to Moray where the Inca’s Agricultural laboratory is situated. They built concentric circles and planted different seeds at different levels in different micro-climates to evaluate the right developmental conditions of plants. Ahead of its times.

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We decided to have our lunch in Chinchero which truly was a ghost town with everything being shut, today being a holiday. We managed to find a Sukhsagar-style local eatery which offered us the best Peruvian local food of the trip at a princely sum of $7 for the three of us. With our tummies full, we wandered through the beautiful town of Chinchero – the streets, ruins, weaving ladies and an old church being the highlights.

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We reached Cuzco around 4 pm and called it a day. I also had to face Meha’s wrath as the hotel was the tiniest of the trip, our misery exacerbated by lack of windows and having to carry our suitcases over 2 floors.

18.05.2016 & 19.05.2016

After the laidback small town base of Ollanta, the big city feel of Cusco shocked and disappointed us. It was the capital of Inca empire from 13th to 16th centuries, so important enough to be explored. We visited the most famous inca ruin called Sacsaywaman (I know what you are thinking as all dirty minded folks do). Cusco was designed as the head of Puma with the Sacsaywaman being its head. The zigzag fortress walls of Sacsaywaman functions as Puma’s teeth. Very cool. Through readings and museums, we learnt that the Incas revered Puma. We were getting Inca overload by now, so we decided to skip Pisac.

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We also visited the cool and artistic San Blas area as well as the main square Plaza de Aramas which has a bunch of lovely cathedrals. A visit to the cultural centre yielded some great ethic dance performances.

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20.05.2016

To prep for our impending Amazonian jungle adventure, we decided to visit the famed Ccohahuasi Animal rescue center. We were fascinated by Condors, Macaws & Pumas to name a few.

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It’s time for our flight to Iquitos via Lima.

21.05.2016 & 22.05.2016

Iquitos is one of few cities in the world which can only be reached by plane or boat (no roads!). It’s the gateway to Peruvian Amazon. The city taught us the underbelly of the illegal trading of Amazonian animals, in the world (in)famous Belen market. We did not have the heart to see it so we skipped and focused on visiting 2 animal rescue centers – Manatee center and Pilpintuwasi Butterfly farm. It is heartwarming to witness some good samaritans spending their lifetime in educating the local population about the ill effects of animal trading and nurturing the rescued animals. The museum of the Native Amazonian taught us about their costumes and cultures. Wait… Indian autorickshaw-style “mototaxis” were literally everywhere !

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23.05.2016, 24.05.2016, 25.05.2016

Our Amazonian jungle adventure began with Geyner , the affable guide of Libertad Jungle Lodge, picking us up at Iquitos at 9 am. A taxi ride later (2 hours), we reach Nauta, a tiny village where we boarded our boat. 90 minutes on the Amazon, and we reach our lodge, a community run project run by the local villagers. This will be our home for the next 4 days while we explore the Amazon.

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Amazon was truly an unforgettable adventure with some experiences we had only read in books – getting wowed by pink and grey dolphins, exploring and holding a Caiman in the dark of the night, getting frightened by Tarantula spider, spotting Macaws in the wild, eating a worm on the jungle trek, catching Piranha and then eating them, watching Amazonian waterlily (world’s largest leaf) and much more. The boat and guide were at our disposal all the time. Meha had, ironically, the best and freshest vegetarian food of the whole trip so far, here in the middle of Amazon jungle. We made friends with the villagers and felt completely at home.

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Thanks for reading. We now head to San Francisco to meet dear friends Vipin, Jagdeep and their lovely children Riya and Sachi, for a much needed family down time. See you in YellowStone after a week.