By Theresa Russell
A long ago encounter with Lake Titicaca in geography class sparked a lifelong desire to see the lake, visit its floating reed islands and hike the Inca Trail. A flexible itinerary of Southern Peru visited several different areas, including Arequipa, the Colca Canyon, Puno and Cusco.
Arequipa, the White City
Surrounded by three volcanoes and known for its buildings made of white volcanic stone, the colonial town of Arequipa boasts an impressive main square, the beautiful Santa Catalina ex-convent and the final resting place for Juanita, the Ice Princess. A teenage sacrificial victim frozen for 500 years, her well-preserved body was released from her icy grave by volcanic activity.
Colca Canyon and the Condors
A popular overnight trip from Arequipa makes it way to the Colca Canyon, well known for its condors. As we climbed high into the mountains, our driver advised us to drink coca tea or chew on coca leaves to counter altitude sickness. Our quick climb into higher elevations had an effect on some of our fellow travelers, but we didn’t dare ignore the suggestions to fortify ourselves with the coca leaf concoctions. Whether it was psychological or physiological, we never did suffer any effects from altitude.
We passed by fields with llamas, alpacas, guanaco and vicuña, which produces the finest and most expensive wool. Arriving in Chivay for the night, we prepared ourselves for our exploration of the Colca Canyon, one of the deepest in the world, and dreamt of the Cruz de Condor where we hoped to see many of these revered birds. The next morning with the popular Peruvian folksong, El Condor Pasa, playing in our heads, we searched the sky when we arrived on the southern edge of the canyon. We hoped for warm weather that allows these large flying birds to soar on the thermals. We patiently awaited the appearance of the condors, finally spotting a few in the distance, but due to the cool weather didn’t see as many as anticipated. However, we still appreciated our visit to their stunning mountainous territory.
On the western shore of Lake Titicaca, Puno would be a high point of the trip, both in altitude and experience. Nearby in the lake are several floating islands called the Uros islands, which are man-made entirely of reeds and anchored to the lake bottom. We visited the people who lived there and learned of their lifestyles.
Onto the island of Taquile, we climbed and climbed for an outstanding view of beautiful Titicaca, the highest navigable mountain lake in the world.
The Andean Explorer
From Puno,we splurged on the Andean Explorer, a scenic train to Cusco. In addition to commentary on the scenery, we listened to traditional music and enjoyed a pleasant lunch en route. Our journey ended in Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu.
We stayed in Cusco just long enough to get our bearings and repack for our upcoming 4 day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, a dream of ours for many years. We successfully and uneventfully completed the trail despite warnings that we were too old or too out of shape to accomplish it.
We had seen many photos of Machu Picchu, but not one of them portrays the real grandeur of this special place. Perhaps it seemed more magnificent to us because we awoke at 4 am to reach the site early in the day. Or maybe it was because we had hiked 24 miles and climbed our final steep set of stairs to see Wayna Picchu rising in the distance.
Whatever the reason, we found that digital imagery could not capture the essence of Machu Picchu.
The Sacred Valley
Colonial Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu, makes a great base for exploring the Sacred Valley. The full-day organized bus tour visiting several Inca sites and weaving villages originates in Cusco and is the best way to see the area without a car. We felt a sort of mysticism seeing sites like Ollantaytambo and the Pisac ruins just outside of the market town of the same name.
The vibrant colors in the markets and on traditional clothing perfectly illustrated the vividness of this fascinating land and culture.
About Theresa Russell
Claiming her lust for travel began on her first journey through the birth canal, Theresa is genetically programmed to travel and to have fun doing it. She especially enjoys adventure and experiential travel and always finds something at a destination to write home about.