Yes we are home, no I haven’t kept updated on our blog. I’m hoping to finish the last 6 weeks soon! More to come!
Almost everyone has heard of Machu Picchu, the famous Incan ruin (it’s one of the wonders of the world), but what I didn’t know before going to Peru was that it is full of Incan and Pre-Incan ruins. While staying in Cusco for 3 weeks, we spent the weekends exploring The Sacred Valley, which includes Machu Picchu, but also enjoyed seeing many of the other ruins and incredible beauty the Sacred Valley has to offer.
The number of people who can visit Machu Picchu each day is limited and we had purchased tickets for the first Saturday we were in Peru. Unfortunately, a few days before this Jeromy got sick with altitude sickness so we had to put all of our plans on hold until he got better and we figured out if we would even be able to go. On Friday afternoon, we sent Jeromy off to Lima and sea level elevations to recover by himself, at which point, I had to figure out how to get to Machu Picchu the next day. It doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but to get to Machu Picchu from Cusco you have to take a two hour bus/taxi ride, then take a train for 1 1/2 hours to Aguas Calientes, a small town in the valley below Machu Picchu. Then it’s a 20 minute bus ride to get there from Aguas Calientes.
Believe it or not, that’s the easy way to get there! Many people chose to hike the Inca Trail, a 4-5 day hike through the Andes Mountains ending at Machu Picchu. I’ve heard it’s amazing, and I would love to do it someday, but it is very difficult, and while our kids have hiked and walked a lot on this trip (12 miles in one day in Paris) we figured it was just too much for Luke.
So after Jeromy headed out, I hurried to buy train tickets that evening. As I was purchasing the last 5 tickets for that night, someone else on the internet purchased them before me! Fortunately, I was able to get tickets on a train early the next morning, but I had to find a hotel to stay in that night in Ollantaytambo, the small town by the train station two hours away.
So, I packed the boys up and we headed out to hire a taxi to Ollyantaytambo, a two hour windy ride through the mountains of Peru. We were all a little on edge but we were so exhausted from our crazy week it didn’t matter. We got in about 11:00 pm to Ollyantaytambo and went straight to sleep to be ready for our train ride early the next morning.
The next morning we took the train along the Urubamba river to Aguas Calientes and through the Andes Mountains. When we arrived, we met up with our friends The Hassleblads who came to Peru to see us! (and maybe Peru too) There couldn’t have been a better time to have visitors! It had been a long week and seeing friendly faces from home buoyed me up more than they will every know! They have three sweet kids and my kids LOVED having kids to play with!
After finally arriving, we were ready to see Machu Picchu! We bought our bus tickets and made our way up. When seeing a wonder of the world, it’s always a question if it will live up to the hype. Well, for me Machu Picchu did! It was as beautiful if not more so than any picture I had seen. We hiked up and down the stairs exploring the different areas. While I was in the hostpital with Jeromy, the boys had watched a couple of documentaries on Machu Picchu, so they informed us of the things they could remember, but we mostly just wandered around taking in the majesty of the place.
We spent two nights in Aguas Calientes and so the next day we explored the town, then let the kids just play. It was great for me to have some adult time and for them to be able to run around and play with friends again! We loved having the Hasslebad’s there with us!
The next day we headed back on the train and then a taxi to our apartment in Cusco and another week of Spanish classes. The next weekend, we headed out again to explore some of the lesser known, but still very impressive ruins in the Sacred Valley.
The small rural town of Chinchero was not high on our list, but we thought we would stop there on our way to some other sights. We are so glad we did! Not only did it have some beautiful ruins that were almost completely empty besides ourselves…
We were also able to play with some animals which in Peru are considered dinner,but in the United States we consider pets! Hope they didn’t get too attached. Alpacas and guinea pigs are on almost every Peruvian menu!
After the crowds at Machu Picchu and the busyness of Cusco, this was nice way to experience the more peaceful side of Peru.
Maras Salt Ponds
The Maras Salt Ponds are an engineering marvel, especially considering that Peruvians have been obtaining salt from these ponds by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream, long before Peru was a country, even long before the Incans. There are intricate channels funneling the water to the hundreds of different ponds in the system. The families who work the ponds let the water out after a period of time and then harvest the salt from the walls.
Local families still harvest salt from these ponds today. With new families in the community able to petition the local leader for a pond to use if they are interested. The size of the pond depends on the size of the family and the owners of the ponds who have been working longer are able to have the ponds closest to the community.
Moray is an area near Maras which has several Incan circular agricultural terraces. In the largest circle there is a difference of almost 30 degrees Fahrenheit from the top to the bottom, because of this and other factors it has been conjectured that the Incas may have used these areas to test crops in different climatic conditions.
I feel like we just scratched the surface of all the Sacred Valley had to offer, but with limited time, and children’s attention spans, we couldn’t see everything.
Someday, I’d love for Jeromy to see Machu Picchu so we can explore more of the Sacred Valley together!
Traveling on a bus through Peru may sound like a harrowing adventure, but before you start imagining us on an old rickety bus packed with people, chickens, and goats, I should make clear the buses we rode on were actually the nicest buses I have ever been on; with reclining seats, movies, and beverage service!
Cusco to Puno
We got up early and said farewell to Cusco, our home for the past three weeks. Our family has never been morning people, and we were all feeling the same way that morning…none of us were going to miss early morning flights, train, and bus rides when this trip was over.
I was a little nervous about doing this stretch of the trip without Jeromy. I was comfortable in Cusco and felt very safe there. I wasn’t as confident with the rest of the areas around Peru though. Parker told me I had nothing to worry about. He (and Tyler) were bigger and taller than almost any Peruvian! They could keep me safe! While that’s true, I was a bit more on edge during this leg of the trip until we met up with Jeromy.
After about 8 hours we arrived in Puno, Peru. We didn’t see much of the town, it was just a jumping off point for our exploration on Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. And it was high! Over 12,000 feet above sea level!
We started our two day tour of Lake Titicaca from the docks in Puno. Our first stop was at The Uros Floating Reed Islands of Lake Titicaca. They explained that for protection the original people left the mainland and took to living on reed boats. Over the years, the boats grew in size and scope and eventually turned into floating islands. If you are interested in how to make a floating island, here is a short tutorial.
- Start with a base of the root system from the reeds. These will float and form the base of your floating island.
- Connect the roots together to form the size of the island you desire.
- Place a layer of reeds on the island.
- Place another layer in the opposite direction.
- One more layer the other way again.
- Anchor it down with large rocks, and start building structures.
- Every three months a new layer of reeds needs to be added. Each island can last for about 30-40 years before having to build a new one.
- You have your floating island! In this last picture you can see they placed themselves and in the middle a tourist. If you look close you will see how tall the tourist is compared to the locals!
We had a great time visiting the islands and learning more about the people who live there. As of 2011 about 1200 Uru lived on the archipelago of about 60 artificial islands. The islands have anywhere from about 3-10 families on each one depending on the size of the island. They cook their food with fires placed on stones and tiny “outhouse” islands are nearby where the ground root absorbs the waste.
Tourism is the main industry today and helps supplement their hunting and fishing to survive. One benefit to a floating island is that if you are getting sick of a nieghbor, you can just cut their section of island off and solve your problem!
After visiting the floating islands we headed back to the boat and rode further into Lake Titicaca to Amantani Island where we had arranged a homestay with a local family there. Amantani is populated by about 4000 people and is a roughly circular island of about 6 sq miles. There are no cars on the island and since no machines are allowed, all farming is done by hand.
Our stay started off rough when Parker, who had a stomach bug and had started vomiting earlier in the day, threw up all over their courtyard. He was on his way to the bathroom, but didn’t quite make it. We got it all cleaned up and he headed back to bed not showing his face again until the next day, when thankfully, he felt much better.
Since Parker was feeling sick, we didn’t venture too far from the home, but Tyler and Luke had a great time playing with the daughter, Caterina, of the the family we were staying with. They spoke no English and only a little Spanish (The people on this islands main language is Aymara, the third official language of Peru). We spoke no Aymara and only a little Spanish. So while we weren’t able to communicate a lot with them, they were great hosts, preparing delicious meals and surprisingly nice accommodations (flush toilets and comfy beds!).
Tyler and Luke spent the day playing with 7 year old Catarina. They played with the sheep, caught butterlies, and met her donkey. They didn’t have any common language, but still managed to have a great time together.
The next day we said goodbye to our hosts and headed to explore the nearby island Taquile. We were able to walk across the incredibly hilly island, along the way learning from our guide about what life is like for the local people who lived there. In Peru everything is hills and at over 12,000 feet above sea level, it was a bit of a hike, but the views were great and the people so welcoming. The people of the island live in a society of community collectivism following the Inca moral of do not lie, do not steal, do not be lazy. As with Almantani island, the economy is based on fishing, tourism, and farming on the pre-incan terraces still in use today.
Puno to Colca Canyon
On the ride from Puno to Colca Canyon we had a variety of stops along the way. We saw many llamas, alpacas, and vicuna’s. This baby vicuna was so cute, although it was a bit of a workout trying to get a selfie with it!
But the best part of the ride was that half way through we were finally able to meet back up with Jeromy! He had flown down to Arequipa and taken a bus from there. After 2 1/2 weeks apart, it was so great to be together as a family again!
The Colca river runs through the Colca Canyon and was a beautiful backdrop to our stay there. The canyon itself is one of the deepest in the world at 10,725 feet (more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon). We stayed in the small town of Yanque. While there wasn’t a ton to do there, we enjoyed relaxing and exploring around our little village.
- Horseback riding
- Hot Springs (look the other way boys…the locals don’t always wear swimsuits!)
- Pre Incan Ruins and terraces
- The main square with children dancing
- An active volcano
On our last day there we started our bus ride by traveling further into the canyon to a popular viewing point that goes by the name of Condor’s Cross. While the canyon itself is impressive, many people come to this area to get a good view of the Andean Condor, the largest bird in the Western Hemisphere. We were able to see at least 10 while we were there swooping over our heads and even sitting on the rocks near us.
Colca Canyon to Arequipa
Our ride from Colca Canyon to Arequipa went quickly and we spent our first dinner in Arequipa at TGIFridays. The boys were in heaven as they scarfed down the familiar tasting food! After that, we went back to eating the amazing Peruvian food that gives Peru the reputation of having some of the best food in the world!
I was surprised by how different the architecture in Arequipa was to that of Cusco and the other areas I had been in Peru. It definitely has a more European influence evident in the architecture and the colors.
We toured The Monastery of Santa Catalina that was built in 1579 from the ash of these volcano’s past eruptions. It was so interesting to learn about how a cloistered nun lived during those times and the changes that have occurred over the years, where it still functions today.
While monasteries are interesting to Jeromy and I, they aren’t on the kids list of most exciting places. So, one afternoon we were delighted to find a bouldering gym right near our apartment! The boys had a great time shaking off some of the cobwebs of their rusty climbing skills, and it got them even more excited about returning home to their climbing gym there.
I was really happy we took the time to take the bus through Peru and see some of the more out of the way places there. It was a great way to travel and see the more of this enchanting country!
In a text to my family after the first five days to Cusco I wrote, “I think Cusco is rejecting us.” It really did feel that way. At the time of my comment, Jeromy had been in the hospital for two days with severe elevation sickness, Tyler was in the same hospital in the room next door and Parker had been seen by a doctor the day before, plus prescribed antibiotics for a sinus infection. It was definitely one of the low points of the year.
In response to the text my sister-in-law wrote, “I think you better get out of there as soon as possible!” While that ended up being the right course of action for Jeromy who ended up flying to Lima two days later, I am really glad the rest of us decided to stay. After the first terrible week, our time in Cusco ended up being a really wonderful experience. I am hoping that at some point in the future, when he doesn’t have some unknown atypical pneumonia in his lungs, I can bring Jeromy back to show him all the things I loved about Cusco and the surrounding area.
Let me back up a bit though…we arrived in Cusco on a beautiful sunny day, and had arranged a driver from the airport. He took us right to our Air BNB apartment in the Lucrepata area of Cusco. That day, we got settled in, had our first walk around town and dinner at a delicious restaurant. I immediately fell in love with this beautiful city!
A few days in, we were in language class and Jeromy started acting really strange. He had been feeling short of breath and had a bad headache for the preceeding several days, so I suggested he go see the doctor at the school.
The headache and shortness of breath actually aren’t that uncommon in Cusco which sits 11,400 feet above sea level. All of us had these mild symptoms of elevation sickness the first few days until we got adjusted. The problem was, Jeromy’s symptoms just kept getting worse and when he started forgetting simple things, I knew it wasn’t a good sign.
He waited until the class break, then headed down to see if they could help him. They did a couple tests and immediately escorted him over to the hospital. When he arrived his oxygen levels were only at 60%! This is very bad (typically 98%+) and he was immediately put on oxygen treatment, which after a couple of hours usually solves the problem rapidly. Well, after 4 hours of oxygen, Jeromy’s levels had barely increased at all. The doctors ran a bunch of tests to see what the issue could be but weren’t able to find the cause.
The next day, Jeromy’s oxygen levels were still low, and they still couldn’t figure out what to do. We had some friends who were living in Lima on a mission for our church and I contacted them to see if they would be able to send some missionaries over to give Jeromy a priesthoood blessing (special prayer). They showed up right away and although they only spoke Spanish, we both felt the comfort of the Holy Spirit as they blessed him.
About 10 minutes after they left, a man came walking into the room who we didn’t recognize. He introduced himself as a doctor at the hospital who specializes in altitude sickness. He had just seen the missionaries leaving the hospital and as he is a member of our church, he asked them what they were doing there. They explained they had come to visit Jeromy and give him a blessing. The doctor felt impressed to come in and check in on Jeromy to see how everything was going. After looking through his lab results and chest x-rays, he came up with an answer that the other doctors hadn’t considered yet. Pulmonary edema, or water in his lungs and it just so happens, because this was his specialty, he knew the best way to treat it! This truly felt like a miracle to us and an answer to our prayers. He was able to get Jeromy into a hyperbaric chamber and that immediately helped him feel better.
Although he felt a little better, it didn’t solve the underlying issue that he was not adjusting to the elevation and the water, and maybe atypical pneumonia, in his lungs would not likely go away if he continued living at the high elevation. So once he was stable enough, Jeromy left directly from the hospital, to the airport, and spent the next 2 1/2 weeks in Lima until he could meet up with us again at lower elevations.
In the meantime while Jeromy was in the hospital, Parker was suffering from a severe sinus infection. So Karen, the incredible doctor from our Spanish School, was able to Facetime me from the school while she examined Parker.
I have to say, I don’t know what we would have done without Karen. She was so helpful and an amazing doctor. She spent hours with Jeromy as they tried to find the source of his issues. I am so grateful we had her with us through this ordeal!
The second night Jeromy was in the hospital, Tyler started having severe abdominal pains and shortness of breath. So at midnight, we stumbled out into the street, looking for a taxi to take us to the hospital. The only good thing about Jeromy being in the hospital already was that at least I already knew where to go! We finally found a cab and the driver sped quickly to the hospital while Tyler was curled up in pain, crying next to me in the taxi. They admitted him and put him in the room right next door to the Jeromy! Fortunately, after a night of oxygen therapy and some fluids, Tyler felt better the next day, but I was feeling pretty strung out!
To top it all off, while it was probably the worst few days of our trip, it was also the most expensive! Those Peruvian hospitals are not cheap!
We fell into a simple routine while we were there. We would get up each morning and have breakfast at our apartment before heading down the hill to our Spanish School. After school, we would get lunch at one of the many delicious restaurants in Cusco, and then we would spend the afternoon visiting various museums, markets, historic sights, etc. After dinner we would head back home where we would do our homework (it had been a few years since I’ve had to do that!) then read (me) or watch YouTube/Netflix/Amazon for the night. The next day we would repeat, sometimes having to do normal life things like buying groceries and getting our haircut as well.The weekends, we spent exploring outside of Cusco in the Sacred Valley.
Amauta Spanish School
We loved learning Spanish at Amauta! I was a bit nervous at first that we would be bored having 4 hours of class a day for three weeks, but the instructors kept us all engaged and enjoying ourselves. We also had two different instructors each day (but they stayed with us for the week), which helped us learn different accents and each had different teaching styles to keep it interesting.
Luke had his own teachers and they taught him through activities like throwing a multicolored ball to learn colors and coloring pictures of the different feelings. Luke did have his days where he was a little stubborn and chose not to learn, but overall he was able to learn a lot and have fun doing it.
Parker and Tyler were in a class together. Their class was the most interactive with trips to museums or the market, as well as learning numbers playing bingo and colors using Jenga blocks. They would have homework every night, like me, and did it themselves without any prompting! This is exactly the opposite response I get when I ask them to do schoolwork.
I have always enjoyed learning, and I am often reading and trying to better myself, but I hadn’t been in a classroom setting for 17 years! I really loved it and I went from not speaking any Spanish to being able to communicate. I’m not fluent or anything, but I know enough now to get around and have a basic conversation. I also really enjoyed getting to know the other people in my class.
The school also provided evening activities, access to doctors (this really came in handy when Jeromy was in the hospital), a welcome tour to orient us to Cusco, and a “graduation” ceremony on our last day.
Overall, we had a really positive experience and learned some Spanish as well! Muchas gracias a nuestros maravillosos profesores!!
Afternoons Exploring Cusco
By the time we arrived in Cusco, the boys were getting pretty tired of sightseeing and it was hard to motivate them to want to do anything. So after Spanish school each day I would give them the option of doing our more structured school (math, English, etc.) at our apartment or exploring the city. Although they didn’t really want to sightsee, it was better than school, so off we went to explore Cusco!
Immediately from our first walk through, Cusco had me hooked! It was this incredible blend of ancient Incan culture and ruins (many of the walls, that buildings are built on today, were from Incan times) Spanish influence and churches, local Quechua people, and the modern tourist industry all melded together creating a fabulous tourist destination and place for us to spend 3 weeks.
Cusco is said to have been created in the shape of a puma and was considered by the Incas to be the belly button of the world. One of their most important temples, The Sun Temple, was built there and we were able to tour through the ruins. As with most of the Incan ruins, they were torn down when the Spanish came in and Catholic churches were built over them. However, over the years, many of the ancient sites have been restored.
Everywhere we walked we were reminded of the Incas as we looked at the amazing walls built to perfection. No mortar was used and each rock was cut perfectly to fit with the rocks around it without any spaces. Below is the picture of the smallest rock we found (fitting perfectly), and one that has 15 different edges! I was told each year the people in the city clean the walls with toothbrushes to help preserve them. Not only is it amazing they were able to move these rocks in the first place (Some are huge!), after centuries of earthquakes, and wear, they are still standing. It’s amazing to see what they were able to accomplish without any of the equipment and knowledge we have today!
Our favorite spot in Cusco was visiting Sacsayhuaman. They are Incan ruins that sit in the hills overlooking Cusco. These surpassed the other ruins because they had some really fun natural slides and tunnels we could explore through! Always a hit with kids. The slides were fast but fun! The boys couldn’t wait to go back and bring their friends Sophie, Soren, and Leif to play with them there.
While the Incas are the foundation of Cusco, when the Spanish came they left their imprint on Cusco forever. Gorgeous, Catholic churches and cathedrals, decorated in Incan gold and silver, dotted the city. The general architecture was also strongly influenced by the Spanish.
The influence of the Spanish permeates the culture, for example, a majority of the people in Peru are Catholic and many speak Spanish. But not everyone speaks Spanish. Quechua is also a national language of Peru and many of the native people still only speak that, or speak both. They have adopted the religion, but many traditions of their local Quechua culture are still practiced. For example, we were told that if someone had a new home, they would have the Catholic priest come over one day to bless the home, and another day the local medicine man would then be invited over to also bless the house. They have found a way to blend the two cultures that works for them.
We loved seeing the colorful local people as they wandered around in traditional dress with their goats, llamas, and alpacas. I know it was mostly to make money from the tourists, but they were always kind and helpful to us, and I loved all the vibrant colors of their traditional clothes.
We did go to the local market one day as well. The boys had gone with their teacher from school and I had wanted them to take me for awhile. The problem was they refused to go right before a meal because they told me I wouldn’t be able to eat afterwards. I thought they were exaggerating it a bit, but after seeing skinned and fried guinea pigs, a man cutting a goats head in half with a saw, and just experiencing the smells, I understood their hesitation and appreciated their consideration for my comfort a little more!
If all the local culture wasn’t enough, there were tons of amazing restaurants to eat at. A couple of our favorites were The Sport’s Bar and Jack’s Cafe. The waiters got to know us and were always willing to let me practice my Spanish with them.
Perhaps one of the things we enjoyed the most was going to the Choco Museo. We signed up for a class on making chocolate and they took us through from the very start! Not only did we learn a lot about chocolate, we had so much fun doing it! Our teacher let us know that you have to dance during many of the steps of making chocolate and played the soundtrack to make us all join in. We had a blast and were laughing most of the time!
- Start with a cacao pod.
- The beans are then fermented and dried. We didn’t participate in this part, but we did taste them. They were not very good!
- The next step is to roast the beans (while dancing of course).
- After the beans have been roasted we had to shell them.
- The shells can be made into a chocolate shell tea that while it isn’t amazing tasting, is still pretty fun!
- Once the shells have been removed it is time to crush the beans into a powder. We had a contest to see who crushed it the best (while dancing of course) and Parker won! Of course, having Rhyasen heritage, chocolate is in his blood so that makes sense!
- Following the crushing, the chocolate is then ready to be used in any of the amazing ways it can be consumed. We even tried it the way the Mayans used to drink their hot chocolate with chili powder. Thankfully it wasn’t completely authentic, we opted to use milk instead of the blood they would have used in the past! As we mixed it up, of course, we had to dance!
- Milk, sugar, cocoa, and cocoa butter are then all combined together to form delicious milk chocolate.
- We filled molds with some of our favorite fillings, preparing them to have the chocolate added.
- One scoop in the molds and one in the mouth seemed to be the common consensus in our group!
- We finished off the chocolate in the molds with a little dusting of powdered sugar on Tylers.
- The next day we returned for our hardened chocolates. We did a pretty great job, they were delicioso!!
Cusco was amazing! One of my favorite cities on our trip. The only down side was we didn’t have Jeromy there to experience it all with us. At least he was able to be there for a few days with us, and I’m convinced we can try again, just maybe not for a few more years!
One last picture for you…