By Maria Lenhart
Among mist-shrouded peaks, the first glimpse of Machu Picchu, the mysterious citadel with its stonework terraces cascading down an emerald mountainside, never fails to enchant those who make the winding journey by trek or train to get there. This enchantment holds true for much of Peru, a country where the legacy of its ancient people is found not only among the ruins, but in the living culture as well.
Machu Picchu is a star attraction in seven great tours offered by AAA’s Member Choice Vacations, some focusing solely on Peru and others also venturing into neighboring Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. All provide the chance to savor the tastes, sights and sounds of one of the world’s least altered and most authentic regions.
A day or two in Lima, Peru’s seaside capital city, allows travelers to get acclimated before tackling the high-altitude Andean splendors ahead. There’s also a city center that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with superb examples of Spanish Colonial architecture, including the ornately Baroque La Merced church and Casa de Aliaga, the elegant home of a 16th-century conquistador filled with antique treasures.
The chic district of Miraflores provides a more contemporary vibe, where restaurants serving “new Peruvian” cuisine are making Lima one of the world’s up-and-coming culinary destinations. Ceviche, Peru’s classic concoction of impeccably fresh seafood marinated in lime juice, remains a favorite with locals and visitors alike. Popular in Peru and Ecuador is the pisco sour, a piquant cocktail made with egg whites and local brandy.
The journey into the Inca world begins with a flight from Lima to Cuzco, a city perched high in the Andes at over 11,000 feet. In the interest of altitude adjustment, tours momentarily leave Cuzco behind and descend the hairpin turns into the Urubamba Valley, more commonly known as the Sacred Valley of the Incas, the agricultural heart of the Incan Empire that flourished prior to the Spanish conquest of the 1500s. Remarkably, European influence has had little impact here, especially on the local language, which is Quechuan, not Spanish.
Village women attired in brimmed hats and hand-woven skirts in vivid swirls of pink, orange and red walk along the road with llamas and alpacas. Farmers plough the fields with teams of oxen. This sense of timelessness is especially felt in Ollantaytambo, an Inca village continuously inhabited since the 15th century. Its cobblestone streets and adobe homes lie beneath a hillside of magnificent stone terraces, temple fountains and baths.
Browse among the stands in the handicraft market in villages like Piscac where heaping piles of soft alpaca scarves, blankets and sweaters are irresistible temptations. Stop by Awana Kancha to engage with local artisans demonstrating the traditional practices of weaving and dyeing.
From Ollantaytambo, the Machu Picchu Vistadome train follows the Urubamba River deeper into the valley, the landscape transitioning to semi-tropical jungle as it reaches Aguas Calientes, where a shuttle heads up a steep hill to the Machu Picchu entrance gate. While iconic, much-photographed sites sometimes fail to live up to their hype, the opposite is true for Machu Picchu. Following along its pathways, stopping to peer through strange trapezoidal windows and observe wild viscachas, a relative of the chinchilla, scampering among the stones, is an otherworldly experience that cannot be replicated on social media. The fact that the so-called Lost City of the Incas was hidden from outsiders for centuries and its origins remain a mystery — some scholars believe it was a royal estate built around 1450 — only adds to its spell.
From Machu Picchu, it’s time to head back to Cuzco where complex layers of colonial and pre-Colombian history offer even more intrigue. This is especially evident in the Santo Domingo Convent, a 17th-century structure built on top of Coricancha, a sacred temple honoring the sun. Its Inca stonework still remains beneath the Baroque edifice. Above the city, Sacsayhuaman is an Inca palace complex designed in the shape of a puma’s head that is believed to have taken 70,000 people over 50 years to build.
Quito and Galapagos
Even more extraordinary experiences await by continuing on to Ecuador, with its stunning capital city of Quito and the living laboratory of evolution known as the Galapagos Islands.
Like Cuzco, Quito was built on the foundations of an Incan city and, like Lima, its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Considered among the finest representations of neo-Gothic architecture in the Americas, Quito’s fabulous Basilica del Voto Nacional was built to resemble Paris’ Notre Dame. However, instead of gargoyles of nightmarish creatures, it’s festooned with monkeys, pumas, iguanas, tortoises and other Ecuadorian animals. Just outside the city, the “middle of the world” is marked by the equatorial line monument and museum.
From Quito, there are several options for visiting the Galapagos Islands, including flying to Santa Cruz Island for a four-night cruise on the M/Y Passion, an exclusive 14-passenger yacht. Heading for Black Turtle Cove, there’s a lazy sail through a lagoon where rays and turtles swim beneath the mangroves and pelicans and herons swoop and dive for the fish below.
Each island in the archipelago that so fascinated Darwin and other explorers harbors its own secrets. Genovesa Island is a birder’s dream, with red-footed boobies trotting around prickly pear cacti and flocks of tropical birds taking shelter in the dramatic lava cliffs. Snorkeling off uninhabited Marchena Island at Punta Espejo brings encounters with pods of dolphins, sea turtles and rays, while a walk across the lava beds of Santiago Island reveals plant fossils and penguins waddling along the shore.
At Bartolome Island, a wooden staircase leads to the island’s summit for stellar views. A sandy beach below is a haven for nesting sea turtles. Santa Cruz Island, a habitat for flamingos, black-necked stilts and iguanas, is also home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which runs a breeding program for giant tortoises.
Heading home, it’s time to relax with a pisco sour and plot the next return to Earth’s fascinating middle ground.
Explore the ancient world with AAA Member Choice Vacations! Call 800-750-5386 for details.
(Traveler Spring 2020)