By Phil Winter, Photography by Phil and Janet Winter

There are worse places to "waste" an afternoon.

We sat on the highest terrace at Machu Picchu and watched the clouds boil over the mountains. The Sun broke through occasionally spotlighting a mountain or the valley below. For one brief moment, the spotlight landed on the ruins, and I was able to capture several images. The image here is a composite of three separate images, hurriedly stitched together in Photoshop. The sunbeams and lighting on the ruins are real.

No photograph can do justice to Machu Picchu. It impressed me as being much larger and much steeper than can be shown in photographs. At around 9,000 feet elevation, walking around the ruins was a breathless work out.

This image was taken from where most photographs of Machu Picchu are taken – on the top terrace on the southwest side. Other views are possible, but require steep mountain climbing that is beyond my ability, particularly at that altitude.

Getting to Machu Picchu and our other stops in Peru is a little more complicated than flying to Disney World. You have to fly into Lima, then change planes for the hour flight over the Andes to Cuzco, where the Inca adventure begins!

While Lima is the capital of Peru and home to some one-third of Peru’s population of 28 million, Cuzco is much smaller, and was the center of the Inca Empire. Indeed, the buildings in the old section are built on the ruins of Inca buildings. The stones are assembled without mortar, and have a “fit and finish” that would make Mercedes Benz blush.

After arriving in Cuzco, our superb guides took us via bus to the Sacsayhuaman (pronounced,"sexy woman") ruins above the city. These ruins were originally a huge fortress. Here, you can see the best of the Inca stone work. Unfortunately, The Spanish removed much of the stone work to build Cuzco in the valley below.

Cuzco is nestled on a plateau at 11,000 feet between two mountain ridges. When we first got off the plane, I felt a little light-headed, but that passed quickly with the help of a hot cup of the Coca Tea dispensed at the hotel. It tastes a little odd, but is supposed to help with the altitude. Since we had no more problems with the altitude, who am I to argue?

The center of town, the Plaza de Armas, has two cathedrals, many shops, and restaurants. Here are some images taken there.

We had a full day in Cuzco to wander around and acclimatize to the altitude. In addition to the Plaza de Armas, we wandered up the narrow, cobblestone streets (Note the fine Inca stone work!) to the San Blas district. San Blas is less “touristy” than the Plaza, but we still encountered numerous “street entrepreneurs.” More on this later.

Here in San Blas, I like the primitive method of carrying goods, juxtaposed with the "Internet" sign.

The next day, our guides picked us up for a full-day’s adventure to the market at Pisac, and then on to the ruins at Ollantaytambo. After saying it a few dozen times, it almost starts roll off your tongue! Oly-an-ty-tambo!

I go nuts in a market, and this one at Pisac was the most colorful and exciting I’ve ever seen. Here are a few of the many images I shot.

The old woman attracted my attention because of the colors and the reflection of the spoon. The little girl, well what can I say?

Being Sunday, the Mayors (Mayordomos) gather at the church in their most colorful costumes, along with a number of children blowing Conch shells, creating a bizarre cacophony.

This is your normal butcher shop in a Peruvian market. The lady was doing a brisk business! The more or less "intact" thing is probably an Alpaca, no doubt very fresh. Alpaca is a delicacy in Peru. It tastes like mild Venison, but is very tender. I'm not sure what the other "cuts" are.

Given the size of her knife, I used my zoom lens at its fullest extent!

Then it was back on the bus to head north to Ollantaytambo, via the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Although, the Incas never called it that. The river running through the Sacred Valley is the Urubama river. Sounds like something out of Raiders of the Lost Arc, doesn’t it? This view looks northwest, toward Machu Picchu, and is only one of many beautiful scenes along the river.

While the ruins at Ollantaytambo are not as well known or as spectacular as Machu Picchu, they are still quite large, steep, and very important in Inca history. Most people think of Machu Picchu as being the only Inca ruins – the “Lost City of the Incas.” In fact, there are Inca ruins all over the place in and around the Sacred Valley, as the Inca empire once stretched from Ecuador to southern Chile and Argentina.

Ollantaytambo is a small village, but seems to have adapted to tourism without losing its authenticity. Our small group was privileged – through our guide – to be invited into a resident’s home. This home, like most we saw, consisted of a perimeter wall made of reddish adobe brick. This wall formed the back wall of several small buildings, allowing for a courtyard in the middle.

Our host invited us into a building he used for cooking and storage. The floor was dirt, and a small fire warmed a dinner. The only light was a dim bulb in the ceiling and sunlight streaming in the door. In the middle of the floor several dozen Guinea Pigs scurried, squeaked, munched on reeds, and ran between our feet. Even though it was quite warm, two cats cuddled so close to the fire I expected SCC – Spontaneous Cat Combustion. Oddly, the cats ignored the Guinea Pigs. In Peru, Guinea Pigs are not pets! More on this later!

Here, our host shows off some of his colorful hand made items.

In two alcoves in the back wall were flowers and lit candles illuminating the skulls of apparently long-deceased ancestors. Such internment goes back to pre-Inca times.

Yum! Cuy on the hoof! (Guinea Pig).

A word about the Incas is overdue here. The word “Inca” really means “king,” and there were 13 Incas, from about the 12th century to the 16th. So referring to the people of that time as “Incas” is like referring to the ancient Egyptians as Pharaohs. The people of that time were actually a tribe known as Quechua (ket-chu-wa). Nowadays, the Quechua are quite proud of their heritage, although there are no pure-bloods left. But in many areas, the Quechua language is still the primary language, althogh many can converse in Spanish as well.

From Cuzco, we took an early train to Machu Picchu. The four-hour trip displays some of the most fantastic scenery imaginable – sheer canyons, high plateaus, snow-covered mountains, and boiling white-water rivers. Nearing Machu Picchu, the mountainous terrain suddenly changes from high, arid plateau to dense jungle within about a mile. Machu Picchu is actually in the edge of the jungle. The over-used phrase “impenetrable jungle” is not an exaggeration. That’s one reason the Spanish never found Machu Picchu, and most Inca never knew it existed!

The train stops at the base of Machu Picchu at the tiny village of Aguas Calientes. My first impression reminded me of a Mexican border town, with its rows of ticky-tack souvenir shops. Restaurants were literally lined up next to each other advertising the same food – Pizza, Guinea Pig, and Alpaca, among other things. But we found the town quite enjoyable. It was clean and the people were very friendly, particularly the restaurant owners who thrust a menu in front of you to get you into their establishment.

I couldn't resist this young fellow reading his book on the sidewalk in Aguas Calientes. I asked his mother, "Fotograph su bambino, OK?" "Si." She then wiped his face with a tissue, and I got several nice shots!

After spending a day at Machu Picchu and half of the next day shopping and photographing in Aguas Calientes, we caught the train back to Cuzco. Early the next morning, we got on our bus for the day-long trip to Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

We made several stops along the way to Puno, the most interesting being at the pre-Inca village of Pukara, which sits on a plateau about 12,000 feet high. Puff! After a guided tour of a museum, I had a few minutes to stand in the middle of the street and photograph people. This image shows what happened when one of our group went into a small store. Children crowded the door begging for candy or money.

Just north of Puno, is the industrial city of Juliaca. With about 150,000 people there are about 40,000 “Triki Taxis” like the ones shown here. The town reminded me of cities in Taiwan back in the early 70’s – crowded, noisy, dusty, smoky, and jammed with every imaginable vehicle, whose operator makes up his own traffic rules. We found Puno much the same. Here we are in Puno, after our Triki Taxi ride.

We stayed at the Libertador Hotel (as we did in Cuzco) on a small island just outside of Puno. The next morning our guide, Milton, took us on a 15 minute boat ride to the floating islands, formally known as the Uros Islands. The people here are not Quechua, but Aymara, and they live and work on piles of floating reeds. They make their homes, island, and boats from the reeds and even eat the reeds. They also fish. Sometimes the floating islanders “raft up” their islands, if they’re neighborly with the other island’s residents. But the night before we were there, a strong wind broke a pair apart, and one island was blown about a quarter mile away.

Although this is a tough existence, based mainly on tourism and fishing, it is not without a few modern conveniences. A number of the thatched huts sported solar panels on poles outside. Inside was a control panel for charging a deep-cycle battery. One hut we saw had simple lights, a TV, and a small stereo.

In Puno, we did at least three things I never thought we’d ever do. The first was taking a ride in a Triki Taxi, the second was having a lunch of Cuy (kwee) – Guinea Pig, and the third was getting a ride in a reed boat. The Triki Taxi was fun, but when my driver charged into a crowded intersection, I thought my life would flash before my eyes. The driver was a little guy (as are most Peruvians), but he managed to pedal my rotund bulk uphill for about 6 blocks at 12,500 feet, and he was hardly out of breath.

I thought the reed boats would be flimsy and wet; they weren't. The were solid, stable, dry, and appeared to be quite heavy.

I knew we could not leave Peru without tasting the delicacy of Cuy. I ordered a half portion for my meal while Janet ordered grilled chicken, just in case. This photo shows what I got – a Guinea Pig, split down the middle, fried, head and all. Once you get by the road-kill appearance, it doesn’t taste bad. In fact the taste and texture are a lot like chicken.

In the afternoon, we were again privileged to visit a farmer’s home. The men of the house were out tending the herds, but a grandmother, mother, bambino, and brother welcomed us. We visited their kitchen, bedroom, and storage room, and even spent some fun time with them. But this is a hard, hard life. The only things I saw in the house that would have been out of place 500 years ago were a flashlight and a battery powered radio. There was no water at the house. Every morning, someone has to walk about a mile to a spring to fill two, large clay pots – and carry them back. As shown here, most cooking is done outside. If its raining or cold, there’s a cooking hut, which also serves a sleeping space when the temperature really drops. It gets cold in the winter at 12,500 feet.

In this image at left, both the puppy and the bambino pull at the long braids of the mother's hair.

The next morning, our guide took us to the airport in Juliaca for our departure on a 22 hour trip back home. I shot these images from our van as we rolled through the market at Juliaca.

The Peruvian airline, Aero Continente, is good, although they were an hour late leaving, which is not uncommon. The 727 took a loooong time to claw its way into the air at 12,500 feet. Whew!

When I first saw in national publications the cute pictures of colorfully dressed Peruvian children (or adults) with their lamb, puppy, or Llama, I thought, wow, it must be hard to get such images. The reality is, it’s hard not to get such images. Here, I made a deal, mostly by pointing at my camera, with the older woman. As I was getting set up, the children appeared out of nowhere. When it came time to pay, I paid the woman, but the children had their hands out too. Even the Llama put a hoof out! The image was taken in front of the San Blas church in Cuzco.

We hope you've enjoyed this Peruvian travelogue!

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