Peru Travel: Cusco, Maras Salt Mines, Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Humantay Lake, Rainbow Mountain, Lake Titicaca

We began our trip to Peru with great enthusiasm. The day we landed in Cusco, we enjoyed a walking tour of the city. Cusco, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range is at an elevation of 3,400 meters or 11,200 feet. Many of us who traveled together complained of headaches and did not quite realize that it was altitude sickness.

Cusco city was the capital of the Inca Empire from the 13th century until the 16th century Spanish conquest and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983. During the walking tour, at every corner there seemed to be a mystical story and time seemed to have stopped. We walked primarily around the main plaza, Plaza de Armas de Cusco. In the center of the Plaza is a giant statue of Pachacuti, the ninth Inca. During his reign, the Inca empire grew to nearly the whole of Western South America. It was Pachacuti who is believed to have built Machu Picchu as his estate.

It was absolutely incredible to see colonial and pre colonial structures and walls built with gigantic rocks so well placed and infused together, without the use of mortar and cement. While the large cathedral facing the statue of Pachacuti is an amazing example of colonial goldwork and carved wooden altars. We saw a museum and a convent. Soon we all felt tired and in need of food. We enjoyed a good meal at a local restaurant. Our guide gave us instructions on how to get to the hotel. We were trying to navigate our way to the hotel and lost one of our fellow travelers. We found that phones weren’t working well. In desperation, we searched up and down and finally were able to get the phone to work, connected with her and were united again and reached the hotel. 

Every hotel keeps ready coca leaves tea available upon arrival and the locals say it helps get over the altitude sickness faster. However, my headache wasn’t quite subsiding. Next day, we visited an archeological site called Moray in the Sacred Valley. The site had terraced circular depressions that we get to see at several Inca sites. There has been some debate regarding the purpose of these magnificent depressions but many seem to feel that these sites were made for communal farming as they also feature irrigation systems.

We then visited Maras Salt Mines. This awe-inspiring landscape features salt pans that are still used in the same way as at the time of the Incas; different types of salts completely mined by human effort. Apparently this is some of the best salt in the world. We all shopped for different kinds of salts as well as chocolates and other items before returning to the bus for a ride back.

On our next trip, upon seeing the town of Ollantaytambo in the sacred valley on Urubamba River I was so incredulous that I decided Machu Picchu can’t be any more amazing and boy was I wrong.  Massive Inca fortress at Ollantaytambo with large stone terraces was an amazing sight and even more amazing was the gigantic Sun Temple and the Princess Baths fountain.

And yet visit to Aguas Calientes and world renowned Machu Picchu exceeded all expectations. It was absolutely fascinating and for me, the most enjoyable. The town itself is lovely and we enjoyed walking in the plaza. More than 7000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains, Pachacuti is believed to have made this stunning estate for himself and his noblemen and their families and it serves as a mighty symbol of the mighty Incan Empire. It is assumed that Machu Picchu built around the 15th century was not visited by any Westerner till the 19th century. The Incas had no written language at the time and no records exist that point to its exact use. Believed widely to be Pachukuti’s estate, it may have been used for about a 100 years and then abandoned as the Spanish conquerors arrived. Machu Picchu was rediscovered much later and was referred to as the “lost city of the Incas”. At Machu Picchu, it seemed humans were competing with the Gods. If the divine can create such amazing terrain with mountain ranges touching the sky and valleys as deep as eyes can see then what can humans create to elevate themselves and also stay in harmony with pachhe mama ( mother earth) and pache tata (father universe)? Incan citadel at Machu Picchu high in the Andes Mountains in Peru, above the Urubamba River valley is simply breathtaking . Built in the 15th century so high in the mountains, it has sophisticated dry-stone walls that fuse huge blocks without the use of mortar. It’s hard to find words to describe amazing nature in tandem with equally amazing man-made miracle.

My altitude sickness really got stronger on our visit to Humantay Lake, a beautiful, crystal clear lake located at the elevation of 13780 feet or 3850 meters. Its bluish turquoise waters originate 100 percent in the glaciers. Despite it being only a moderately challenging hike, straight steep elevation with quick ascent made it very challenging and we all decided the skip the next day’s adventure. Vinicunca or varicolored, Rainbow Mountain, created from sediments and mineral deposits over millions of years ago is believed to have been discovered only about five years ago. It was fascinating to see Badlands National Park in South Dakota and I was absolutely looking forward to seeing Rainbow Mountain in Peru. But it was not to be. We all needed a break and climbing to even higher elevation wouldn’t do good to any of us. We used the day of rest very well and got a massage and enjoyed some shopping time. I went off to explore the city of Cusco on my own and was looking for one of its well known vegan restaurants, when a man invited me to enjoy the meal at the little eatery I came across. I enjoyed a delicious meal there in an outdoor setting. Later we cut fruits purchased from the local market and enjoyed them while playing cards.

Our visit to Lake Titicaca was very pleasant as well as fascinating. Lake Titicaca is the largest freshwater lake in South America and it is the largest lake at the highest elevation in the world. Titicaca is one of less than twenty ancient lakes on earth, and is thought to be a million years old. Lake Titicaca sits 3 810 m above sea level and is situated between Peru to the west and Bolivia to the east. What was truly fascinating was to see a number of small islands made by humans from braided roots of totora. This dried bamboo like totora vegetation has multiple uses. Besides being used in the construction of the islands, people who live on Lake Titicaca also use it for construction of fishing vessels, for cleaning their teeth, in cooking, and for various other needs. Eating the soft white part of the root provides key nutrients to the people who live on that and other bounty from the ocean. And yet the people sorely lack good nutrition, live an incredibly hard life  and many suffer from osteoarthritis and other diseases. Due to human activities, Lake Titicaca is also highly polluted although in 2018, Peru and Bolivia promised to clean it up and now there is greater awareness to stop further pollution.

Around 4000 people are believed to live on various islands in the middle of the lake. I got a similar feeling of fascination coupled with sadness when I visited floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake at Siem Reap in Cambodia. Humans are meant to live on land, not water and perhaps there is enough land for all our need but not enough for our greed. Then these incredibly poor, marginalized people are forced off the land and are forced to make their livelihood on water, with primary means of subsistence acquired through gawking tourists who pry into the most intimate aspects of  their homes, lives and livelihoods. As I said, it was both amazing and fascinating and very sad.  We then proceeded to climb the top of a small mountain at one of the islands and in an incredibly beautiful setting, we enjoyed a delicious meal. We climbed back down on the other side and boarded our ship to return back to the hotel.

Upon return to the hotel, we went again for a lovely, deep tissue and hot stones massage. I went to the market and had a refreshing glass of pomegranate, passionfruit and ginger juice and in the late evening we reached the airport to board our return flights to the USA

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