You can always see the mountains in Cusco. (Margaret Brown)
You can always see the mountains in Cusco.

Margaret Brown

Travel Journal: My Trip to Peru!

June 6, 2019

Day 1

Lima

Today was our first full day in Peru! Surprisingly, I woke up on time even though I only got about 4 hours of sleep. At breakfast, there were these small round things that tasted really good. They looked like hash browns, but I’m not sure what they were made out of. Maybe potato? The outside was crispy and the center was almost liquidy, so I think there might have been cheese inside.

Cusco

The first thing that I noticed when we got on the bus in Cusco was that all the colors here seem more vibrant. The mountains and the sky are specific shades of green and blue that I’ve only seen in postcards. It’s as if we got dumped into a picture from a travel brochure. Maybe that has to do with the thinner altitude? Or maybe the fact that it’s been so dreary back home, so everything looks brighter.

I got to try coca candy, which is actually pretty good. It reminds me of green tea. I also tried a coca leaf in the airport. Apparently you’re not supposed to chew on it, and you’re definitely not supposed to swallow it (ask Caroline). I wish someone told me that I only had to suck on it before I started chewing because I still have bits of coca leaf stuck in my teeth.

Erica Luo
A rainbow outside the hotel!

After taking a nap and eating lunch, we had the chance to visit the market across the street from the hotel. The market is held inside a warehouse-like building that’s about the size of a normal grocery store. There are some vendors outside along the street but the majority are inside. The stalls are pretty small, but there’s so much to look at in each one. The items inside are just as colorful as the scenery outside. Some of the stalls have stacks and stacks of textiles and others are full of silver jewelry. I like the silver rings with stones in rainbow order.

I really want to try some of the food they’re selling in there, but I don’t want to get sick. I bartered for the first time ever—it’s a little awkward, but I got some pretty good deals. Crossing the street here is an adventure because the drivers only see the lights as suggestions.  

It currently feels like someone is trying to drive a nail into my forehead every time I take a step, so hopefully that’ll go away by tomorrow. I’m not sure if it’s from lack of sleep or the altitude, or maybe a combination of both.

Dog count: 6


Day 2

Margaret Brown
Incan architecture on display at the Sacsuayhuaman ruins.

Today after touring some ruins, our group was blessed in a traditional ceremony. The man who conducted it told us a bit about Peruvian religion and compared Catholicism to Incan beliefs.

Erica Luo
The blessing bundle.

He said that typically, Catholicism is very somber and serious, but the Incans saw religion as a celebration. As he explained this, he placed a handful of confetti and sprinkles in the bundle he was preparing for us. I thought that was very wholesome and pure.

Plaza de Armas

After lunch, we visited two churches–La Basílica Catedral and el Convento de Santo Domingo –the second of which is built on top of Qorikancha and the Temple of the Sun. Our tour guide, Ana María, showed us some paintings inside La Basílica by indigenous artists. Even though the local people were forced to paint European and Catholic depictions, she showed us how the artists were able to hide symbols inside the artwork. For example, in the painting of the Last Supper, traditional foods like cuy (guinea pig) and corn are at the table and Judas is depicted as Francisco Pizarro. In another painting, the Virgin Mary’s body is triangular, like a mountain, and there are pumas, snakes, and condors in the background.

The second church had some of the remains of the old temple, so we got to see the locks and joints carved into the stones. Apparently these allowed the buildings to shift during earthquakes so they didn’t fall over. I wonder if people still use those techniques when they build structures today.

There are so many dogs here, including puppies. I‘m a little disappointed because we haven’t seen any cats yet.

Dog count: 121 (includes dogs from previous days)

Day 3

We went on a two hour bus ride in order to get to the rafting site today. The scenery here is beautiful, and I love seeing the mountains around us. I also really enjoy seeing the wildflowers growing on the side of the road. It’s a little weird seeing flowers that are normally sold at Home Depot just growing out of the ground.

Urubamba River

While we were rafting, our guide Jose pointed out the Sky Lodges hanging on the side of the mountain. I think he said something about being able to zip line down instead of hiking, but I think it would be cooler if there was a water slide that ended in the river. There were a lot of kids playing along the banks of the river, and we waved to all of them. All of the kids are really cute here.

My group got to swim in the river at the end of the trip, and the water was surprisingly refreshing. I got some in my mouth, but I think I’ll be okay. I spoke to Caroline Dent about her thoughts on the rafting trip:

“I would’ve liked to flip but I was way too focused to be scared. I liked that it was exercise and you needed to rely on your own body to survive. The water was really refreshing, [It] felt a lot purer than in the States. I was a little disappointed in myself [because] I was pretty out of breath, but I’ll chalk that one up to the sorroche (altitude sickness). I drank a little too much of the water, which I would not recommend.”

After rafting, we had lunch at the prettiest restaurant I’ve ever been to. It was right on the river, and there was a great view of the mountains surrounding us. There was a beautiful garden, and two alpacas just eating grass and chilling. I ate about 10 of these small donut-like desserts and laid down in the grass, so I’m feeling pretty good.

On the way to the weaving cooperative, we noticed that many buildings have mysterious symbols painted on the sides. Connor and Broderick think that they belong to political parties. We’ve seen a lot that belong to a party that we’ve decided to call “Shovel Man.”

Erica Luo
Shovel Man advertisements.

Cat count: 4 (finally saw some cats!)

Dog count: 388

Day 4

Oropeza

Ada bought us some chuta today while we were driving to the market in Pisac. Chuta is a type of bread, and its name means “to pull” because you’re not supposed to cut it into pieces. We got it in a town called Oropeza, which is supposedly the bread capital. They host a bread festival every year in October, which I plan on attending, one way or another.

Today features our very first food review, courtesy of Caroline Dent: “So let’s first start with the size of this [chuta]. This bread was an absolute unit—when I say I like a thick piece of bread that is what I mean. It was bigger than my head! Second, I want to draw attention to the glaze: it was a sweet glaze so it’s a sweet bread. I couldn’t tell you what exactly the spices were, [there was] cinnamon I’m told, which is a delicacy. It was absolutely delightful! Now you tear off a hunk of this bread— don’t even get me started on the animalistic, pure, elated joy of tearing off a hunk of this sweet bread with your hands like a beast. Then you take a big huge whiff: it smells like heaven. Then you take a bite of that bad boy and it’s just the right amount.”

Ana María told us that Quechua is a phonetic language; so many words are based on the noises the objects make. For example, the word for baby is “wawa” and the word for guinea pig is “cuy” because they squeak. It was a little unfortunate to learn that after we just tried some cuy, but oh well. After that, she explained that guinea pig meat is very rich, so doctors prescribe cuy soup to cancer patients help them replenish proteins that they lost while fighting cancer.

Ada told us she was going to teach us how to salsa dance because we were playing Marc Anthony on the bus. I’m expecting her be to true to her offer.

Ollantaytambo

After lunch, we hiked up Ollantaytambo and the granaries directly across from it. On the way to the trail to the granaries, dog #734 started following us. We’ve been saying “no toca la roca” because we’re not supposed to touch the ruins. However, the dog was running all over the rocks, so we named him Toca. He followed us all the way to the top, and all the way down. He kept up really well for such a small dog. It made wonder if the animals in Peru have more efficient lungs than the ones back home.

Dog count: 745
Cat count: 8

Day 5

Sacred Valley

Breakfast was very entertaining this morning. Grace ate a cube of butter because she thought it was cheese. I think the orange juice is better here; it’s not as sour. I’m normally not a huge fan of orange juice, but I drank a lot this morning. There was a new type of round bread at the buffet, so I had Caroline give another review:

The bread at breakfast.

“[This is a] hockey puck piece of bread, which is a satisfying shape, but you don’t want hockey puck texture. This one, however, is nice and light and fluffy. It’s very easy to split in half like an English muffin… The texture is phenomenal; it smells great— it’s somewhere in between a white bread and a wheat bread, and when you add salted butter it’s just delightful. Out of 7, it’s a 5. It could be exceptional, [and] it’s not exceptional, but for breakfast bread in Peru, [it’s] very successful.”

Today was our first day at the school for the service part of the trip, and the kids there are adorable. I helped pack school supplies and toys in backpacks we collected back in the U.S. We also helped paint and sand the walls of the school, so now I have paint dust in my nostrils and lungs. However, the kids were super excited to receive their bags and play with us, so that makes up for it. Caroline had to show one little girl how to use floss because she thought it was candy.

Back at the hotel, Grace and I had to blast the space heater in order to dry her clothes, so hopefully we don’t burn the hotel room down! We’ve noticed that none of the hotel rooms we’ve stayed in have tissues, and that all the toilet paper is scented.

Dog count: 1000 (!!!)

Cat count:  19

Day 6

Sacred Valley

Ernesto is going double the speed limit. We passed a speed limit that says 40 km/h, but the speedometer at the front of our bus just went up to 80. Normally I’d be worried, but our bus driver Ernesto is a god, so it’s okay. Our bus is always way ahead of the other bus because he drives so fast, and he also passes people, even though the roads here only have one lane in each direction. He also whips up and down the mountains. Switchbacks have nothing on Ernesto.

I also have to give him a shoutout for helping out at the school without being asked. He helped paint yesterday, and today he helped us laminate the textbooks for the kids. He’s a great guy.

We had a little more time to play with the kids today, which was nice. A group of three girls followed me around while I was painting, and I also sat with them at lunch. Today we tried a pork dish at lunch, which means it’s time for another food review with Caroline!

“So let’s discuss lunch on day five of the Peru trip. Let’s start with the banana. I don’t know if it’s a banana [because] this [one] is smaller. I hate bananas. I have a personal vendetta against bananas, okay? They’re terrible and I hate them, but this is a cooked banana that they threw in a broiler or oven or something, I don’t know. It was absolutely delicious! It was a little [odd because] it’s black on the outside and yellow on the inside. I was like ‘I don’t know if I want to put that anywhere near my mouth’ but oh my Lord, you peel that exterior away and you get lots of deliciousness in the middle. Don’t even get me started on the pork, okay? They just gave us straight hunks of pork! You could just chow that baby down and the skin was crispy, extremely crispy. I didn’t have utensils so I was eating everything with my fingers, but it really enhanced the dining experience— the primal pleasure of eating without a fork is unmatched, I strongly recommend it”

Unfortunately I spent too long eating so I didn’t have any time to play with my girls before we had to leave. I wish we got to spend more time with them. We also had to leave our guide Ana María before we got on the train to Aguas Calientes.

Dog count: 1332
Cat count: 29
Whip count: 48 (The whip count is a tally of the number of times Ernesto passes someone or makes a difficult turn on a switchback.)

Day 7

Aguas Calientes+Machu Picchu

Margaret Brown
On the streets of Aguas Calientes.

It’s Machu Picchu day! The hotel we’re staying at is right next to the train station, so I did not sleep well.

There were two sauces that were similar to caramel offered today at breakfast. One was normal caramel colored, and I think the other one had chocolate mixed in or something. Both of them were delicious.  

The bus drive to Machu Picchu was surprisingly uneventful. I was expecting a narrow road in the middle of a mysterious jungle, but it was just a normal one. The most “exciting” part of the ride was when we had to squeeze by another bus that was heading down the mountain.

Margaret Brown
We made it to Machu Picchu!

I’m not really sure what I was expecting when we actually got to Machu Picchu. It looked exactly like the pictures, which is good? It was obviously impressive, but I was expecting it to be a little more impressive, if that makes sense. It’s always an odd feeling when you get to finally visit somewhere that you’ve heard about so many times. It’s hard for me to imagine people actually living there. I only saw one llama, which was a little disappointing.

Towards the end, our tour guide Darcy showed us a carved piece of stone sticking out of the ground. It turned out to be the top half of the Inca cross; the bottom portion is formed when the sun hits the rock and creates a shadow on the ground. Darcy said this was meant to represent the idea of duality: one half exists on the earth, and the other in the underworld. The Incas think of everything. It’s wild how someone was able to figure out where to place the stone and carve it so it aligns perfectly with the sun. I wonder how long it took them to do it?

While we were visiting, Alan Garcia, one of the former presidents, shot himself because he didn’t want to be arrested for corruption. Surprisingly, no one at the site seemed very upset, but maybe that’s because most of the people were tourists. I felt a little weird because Garcia’s death probably holds a lot of historic significance, but it happened while I was waiting for the bus at Machu Picchu. It was a very odd combination of events.

We had extra time after lunch, so Ada brought us to a waterfall and we got the chance to swim in it. The water was FREEZING and I think I hurt my ankle trying to navigate over the slippery rocks, but it was still worth it.

Erica Luo
The waterfall within the cloud forest.

It was nice to have the chance to cool off after hiking through the cloud forest for half an hour. Although the Incan ruins were amazing, I still think the most impressive part of Peru is its natural beauty. It’s so cool that you can travel down from the mountains and go straight into subtropical forests. I wish we could’ve spent more time at the waterfall, but we had to head back.

Someone had set up models of Incan terraces along the side of the trail—some of them had plants in them, and others were being used as fountains. Seeing those made me really happy for some reason. They were just satisfying to look at. Whoever made them had even made the effort to make each little pebble fit perfectly.

Cat count: 31
Dog count: 1348
Dog count disclaimer: we’ve definitely seen more than 1348 dogs, but we’re a little tired of counting now.

Day 8

Aguas Calientes+Sacred Valley

Today we got to sleep in and we had extra time to eat breakfast (yeehaw). We got a little creative with the breakfast options. I mixed the orange juice with mango juice, and Sophia and Margaret put the chocolate caramel stuff in their coffee. We would recommend both options.

We passed an archaeological team working on the way back from Aguas Calientes. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more.

Margaret Brown
A view of the snow-capped Andes on the train ride back.

On the bus ride back to Cusco, we stopped at a chicha bar to try some chicha, which is a type of corn beer. (Disclaimer: The alcohol content is very low.) We tried two kinds: the original and one mixed with strawberries. Here are Caroline’s thoughts:

“Let’s talk about chicha. Absolutely remarkable. We’re going to start with my thoughts on the kitchen. [It] had Ekeko in it, [and] he’s basically the God of luck and joy so that’s how you know it’s gonna be a good day.

Let’s get into the appearance of the chicha. So we got a pink one and a yellow one…That pink one was a smoothie and smells a bit like yogurt… Anyway, she poured it into this little thing, we learn all about it and it’s pretty phenomenal. Then you hit that sip [and] you think you know what it’s gonna be like. I’ve had kombucha and I’ve [smelled] beer— I don’t quite know if it’s gonna be a hybrid of the two.

It was absolutely phenomenal, okay? It was a little sour and it was a little bubbly. There was a nice foam on top that was reminiscent of a steamed milk in your latte, but it was in your beer.

Let’s talk about the pink one. The pink one was a seasonal delicacy. Apparently it only lasts for about a day and a half because the strawberry doesn’t ferment very well, but oh my… that strawberry chicha— MMMMMMM. MMMMMMM.  Highly recommend strawberry chicha.”

Margaret Brown
Sophia attempts to get the coin in the frog’s mouth.

There was a little frog game set up outside the chicha bar, and we had the chance to try it out. It’s kind of like cornhole: there’s a small table-y structure with holes carved into the top and backboard, with a frog in the middle.

The goal of the game is to toss a coin into the frog’s mouth, but you can also try to get it in the holes. Each hole has an assigned point value, and whoever earns the most amount of points at the end of the game wins. I’ve played cornhole before, but for some reason, this game was way more engaging. There’s just something about that frog…

Cat count: 36
Whip count: 66

Last day

Cusco

We’re back at the first hotel across the street from the original market. I honestly think I’ve spent more time at the market than at the hotel. Oops.

Erica Luo
Cusco from the top of the Pachacutec Monument.

After we went on a little tour of the Pachacuteq Monument, we had the opportunity to visit the San Pedro market. So far, we’ve only visited craft markets, but this one is where the locals shop.

In the outside area, people have their wares spread out on the ground, so we had to dodge those while attempting to stay in a group. The main marketplace was for food, and boy was there a lot of it. There were stacks and stacks of bread, a whole aisle for juice stands, a seafood section, a cheese store, dried fruit, basically any food you could want. The ladies at the juice stands were careful to mention that the juice didn’t contain any ice or water, which I will keep in mind for when I inevitably return to try all the food I didn’t get to try this time.

Caroline and I bought a giant piece of bread that resembled chuta for 5 soles. That’ll be a good airport snack. I also bought 3 merengues for 1 sol (!), and Caroline bought some special Easter pastries with sprinkles. After we left the market, we got to stop by a churro shop that was selling churros with the caramel sauce inside (!!). I was then informed that the caramel is called manjar. As we were eating, I caught up with Caroline to hear her final thoughts:

“All right, so it’s our last day in Peru, [which is a] very sad time. We hit a real market today, and I’m not talking about this tourist thing where they charge you 60 and actually expect 40. I’m talking about a real market with real food and real people. Oh man, was there some good food, fam. We’re talking giant bread, Easter pastries, little meringues, and pop tart-looking crispy things. Amazing.

We’re going to talk about this bread we got for five soles. Pretty good deal. It’s not a sweet bread, but it’s a very sweet flour, so the bread actually tastes like you’re eating a lovely wheat cloud. We also had the privilege of trying special Easter pastries, which were absolutely amazing, and little meringues. [They had a] very dainty good chew. You hit that chew… and it’s just enough crunch that you feel God’s love. The bread will last you a good like 12 hours because the loaves are so massive. Definitely not supposed to be eaten by one person, but you know what? Things here are different than they are in the U.S., and I think that’s what we’ve learned from these food reviews. You’re not gonna get the same things here that you get in the U.S.”

After lunch, we had one last opportunity to shop at the original craft market, where I spent way too long trying to pick a necklace. I asked the owner of the store, “El pendiente es plata?” But she kept saying, “No, es Pachamama.” I thought I was saying silver correctly, but maybe not. She also said the same thing when I asked about a turquoise pendant.

Unfortunately, we had to bid farewell to Ernesto at the airport before our flight to Lima. I will never meet anyone who shares Ernesto’s ability to pass people and whip through switchbacks.

Cat count: 41

Lima

When we got to Lima, we went to go see a water show at a park, and then we had dinner at 9:30 which was a very odd experience. Lima feels completely different from Cusco; it was almost like we were in a different country. The weather was much warmer and most of the buildings were more modern. The air feels thicker—I’d like to think it’s because we’re at a lower elevation but it’s probably just the humidity. I wish we could’ve stayed in Lima for a couple days and explored the city because it seems like a pretty cool place.

Erica Luo
The fountains in Lima lit up by colorful lights.

Final thoughts: I’m sad that we have to leave, but I’m glad that I won’t have to hoard bottled water anymore. I’m going to miss being able to see the mountains, seeing random dogs in t-shirts on the side of the road, and the colors everywhere. Like I mentioned before on day one, I think it’s really fascinating that so much of the Incan culture and religion is tied to animals and natural phenomena. It feels like anyone can participate in it, no matter their religious background. I’m definitely planning on coming back to Peru at some point so I can eat more bread and try more food. Maybe I’ll even give the Inca Trail a shot!

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