flying gets us high again

Hello all you wonderful people,

It has been a lot of ups and back to ground level for the last few weeks. As you saw in our blog of Machupicchu we were high on the high. When you experience something that amazing, often the next steps you take don’t seem that special.

So, we took a step downward… that being Puno and Lake Titicaca… and then planned to again hit the skies at Nasca. We were warned by friends that the “mosquito planes” that fly over the lines have been known to crash which sometimes results in loss of life… tourists’ lives that is. We also met a very young, vibrant couple who were from England and their government told them not to fly over Nasca and they didn’t. Some would think them wise.

We on the other hand, decided to book our trip as soon as we arrived in Nasca… for the next morning. I was only a little apprehensive… emailing both my daughters that I loved them and to take care of themselves… we were flying in the morning over the Lines.

We awoke to a perfect day for flying… the sun was out, the sky was clear and there was no wind to speak of. Our tour people came an hour early for those very reasons. We traveled to the airport in a taxi with two young men from Germany and were whisked through the airport, went through security and out to the tarmac we went… no looking back now. We walked with the co-pilot to the number 8 spot where our plane stood waiting for us.

Don and I got to climb in first… we were at the back of the plane… but room enough to even stretch out a bit. The two guys climbed in through the pilot’s door and settled in. The pilot and co-pilot buckled themselves in the front two seats and within minutes we were off.

It was amazing! It didn’t feel like we were in a tin can and there was no rattling, just smooth sailing. We climbed to a good altitude and started exploring the vast desert plain. There are over 800 lines and 300 geometric figures (geoglyphs) and over 70 spectacular animal and plant drawings. The lines, best seen from the air, are thought to have been etched by three different cultures: the Paracas people 900–200 BC, the Nascas 200 BC–AD 600 and the Huari settlers from Ayacucho at about AD 630. We didn’t see them all, but what we saw was mind boggling.

The plane had a set course (this keeps accidents down) and our first siting was the whale at 63m in length, our next figure was the astronaut, which unfortunately we didn’t see (it was on the side of the mountain and somewhat in shadow… our German friends did see it, so not all was lost). The plane ride was about 35 minutes and we saw more than a dozen figures and tons of lines. I, of course, loved the hummingbird at 96m long and there was a spectacular monkey figure with quite the spiralling tail around 110m. You can see lots of pictures following my musings.

There are a number of theories of why the lines are here. Some think it was a ceremonial centre with the lines used in rituals to ask for water for the region. Others think the lines were some sort of vast pre Inca calendar. Others even think the Nasca’s floated about in hot air balloons, as you can only see the lines from the air. Who really knows… I just appreciate that they are still there and we were able to have the experience of flying over many of them.

And… we landed safely. We felt great. The flying gods were with us that day… we had a great time, saw lots of lines and figures in great detail and it was the only perfect flying day of the four days we were in Nasca. Thanks flying gods.

May you, too, find your perfect flying adventure.


exploring the peruvian altiplano

After two weeks in the Sacred Valley, including two more days exploring Ollantaytambo and a final overnight in Cusco, it was time to see what else the high plains of southern Peru had to offer. The next big attraction for most visitors to this region is Lake Titicaca, the biggest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world (steamships used to run north to south, connecting Peru and Bolivia). By the way, the name is not a rude reference: in a local ancient language is roughly means “puma chasing a rabbit”.

It was a four hour bus ride from Cusco to Puno, the launching point for tours of the lake and visits to the famous floating Uros Islands. They are a group of islands essentially manufactured by using big blocks of root-bound dirt as anchors, and building up layer upon layer of reeds until you have a base that is several meters thick – and every six months they add another layer to the top as the bottom reeds underwater rot away. Each island is home to several families, and the islands are arranged side by side with varying gaps between them, and one main canal down the centre.

Our tour guide introduced us to a number of island residents who showed us how they built the islands and the many other uses they have for the reeds, and then we were matched with a family and invited into their reed-thatched homes. Except it was really just a sales pitch – there was nothing personal in the “home”, it was more like a tiny gift shop filled with all kinds of souvenirs made from the reeds. We did take them up for a leisurely ride across the main channel in a large reed boat, but the whole thing seemed completely contrived. Whatever reasons their ancestors had for living on the lake seemed lost and now it was all about putting on a show for tourists; what was once probably a proud and independent way of life has been reduced to the status of theme park attraction. We felt badly to have contributed to this travesty.

Our day tour continued to Isla Taquile. It was a long climb to the top of the island for a panoramic view of the lake and across to the snow-covered mountains of Bolivia. Otherwise, the island didn’t have much to offer. The tour included lunch during which we were not impressed to learn that girls and women on the island are expected to keep their heads down and covered, and not respond to strangers – with no such restrictions on boys and men. The 2-1/2 hour boat ride back to Puno was pleasant enough, but after all, it’s just a big lake. We won’t be recommending this tour to others.

Puno itself did not have much to offer – just another cold and dusty little town, choked by the high level of air pollution that is created by a complete lack of anti-smog regulations, or lack of enforcement if there are any rules. Cars, trucks, and buses of every shape and size constantly spew out thick clouds of blue or black smoke – it’s difficult to walk down some of the narrow streets because there is so much exhaust in the air. It was like this in every town we visited in southern Peru except Aguas Calientes where cars are not allowed in the street. However in Aguas Calientes, it is the train that blasts blue smoke into the covered market area next to the train station. Throughout our time in southern Peru we wondered how such high levels of air pollution affected people’s health, especially when the air is so “thin” to begin with. Can’t be good.

After Puno and Lake Titicaca we headed north to Chivay, enroute to Cocla Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world (the deepest canyon is also in Peru, but difficult to get to). Colca was also promoted as the place to see condors. Unfortunately, the day tour only takes you the shallow end of the canyon; much less impressive than the Fraser canyon or along the Coquihalla highway, and not a condor in sight. Since then, we’ve suggested to other travellers that the day-trip is not worth it and they might consider the overnight trip that takes visitors further up the canyon but does involve a four-hour trek into the canyon (and four hours back up hill!). On the way from Puno to Chivay we did see quite a few wild vicunas – a relative of the llama but on the endangered list in Peru. It is illegal to kill them although people catch them to shear them for their highly valued wool.

From Chivay we headed further north to the colonial town of Arequipa. It is also known as the “white city” – from the white volcanic rock cut into blocks for the government buildings, churches, and homes. Our two-night stay included a free walking tour of the historic centre, during which we visited the old Jesuit church and school, a colonial home (now a bank), and the very famous Santa Catalina Convent (founded in 1579). This five-acre complex was where the wealthy sent their second oldest daughter (the first was expected to get married right away) – so girls as young as twelve would be sent here, required to live in virtual isolation and silence for up to one year depending on when they announced their vows. They would then spend up to four more years inside this walled city-within-a-city.

In the early years they were allowed to have fancy furniture, expensive dinnerware, and other home comforts, including one or more slaves to cook and clean (then later, servants).  In one of the main rooms there is a large sculpture of Christ, post-flagellation. When we asked if this image was intended to encourage self-flagellation our guide said it was in the past but the official word is that it is no longer the practice (about 20 nuns still live on site), although she suspected it did continue in some form. Nevertheless, Arequipa was finally a city that was both warm and interesting to wander through. We could have stayed longer if we hadn’t already booked our next bus trip and hostel stay.

From Arequipa it was a nine-hour bus ride up the coast to Nazca. This was the most harrowing ride of our year so far – surpassing the moments of terror we experienced in small buses in Guatemala.

We were in one of the big two-level buses – right at the front over the driver with a big window in front of us. Perfect we thought. Then again; perhaps not. First, the scenery from Arequipa to Nasca is comprised almost entirely of sandy rock-covered mountains sloping into the oceans, with no vegetation except in the small river valleys we crossed every once in a while. The narrow highway is cut into the side of the mountains and comes complete with hairpin turns, eroded sections with one lane left, fallen rock on the inside lane, no guardrails, and big trucks simply stalled in the middle of the road. Second, our drivers were hell-bent on passing everything in sight, and took the widest possible turns around every blind corner. In our front seat over the driver, it felt like we were headed over the edge at every turn and from our raised vantage point we were sure we could see much further ahead than the drivers, who frequently pulled out to pass and then had to withdraw when we could see it was clearly unsafe to try.

It might not be such a big deal if only our drivers were doing this – but every other driver on the road coming towards us was also hell-bent on passing – and once a huge dump truck attempting to pass a bus and barrelling toward us on our side of the road had to slam on the brakes, coming to a stop just a couple of car lengths ahead of us and leaving a 20m stretch of burnt rubber behind.

We’d been warned that flying over the Nasca Lines might be risky. As it turns out, the bus ride to Nasca was a far more harrowing and risky venture. Stay tuned for our next post: fearlessly flying over the Nasca Lines!

inca sunrise

Yes, we are crazy! We got up at 4am to dress, grab a quick breakfast and scoot down to the bus station in the dark and it was exhilarating! The bus negotiated numerous switchbacks up a steep slope to drop us 25 minutes later at the entrance to Machupicchu where we waited in line for a few minutes with the 300 or so other early birds, eagerly anticipating entering the grounds of this incredible ancient Inca city. As we rounded a corner just past the gate I caught my first sight of Machupicchu and I was blown away. We have all seen pictures and you will see many at the end of this blog, but the experience of being here is unparalleled.

We climbed to the top of the terraces that were for agricultural use and took lots of pictures as we waited for the sun to peak over the distant mountain ridge and light up the city. The numerous terraces around the city were used to grow multiple crops and were designed to face the sun year round. The Incas cultivated pumpkins, squash, tomatoes, peppers and other indigenous tubers, such as yacon, which is used to treat diabetes.

We were very fortunate as the sky was clear and it was not too cold. There was a loud cheer as the sun edged over the ridge; we all knew it would soon turn the whole city on. The light from the sun was blinding. I watched for a minute or so and closed my eyes and just enjoyed the light on my face. I sat there as the colour red washed over me and it was fabulous! (I know it was the blood in my eye balls, but the experience was awesome).

More pictures were taken as we watched the sunlight work its way across the city, and then we started our exploration of the site. We decided as we were already so high up, we would do the trail to the Inca Bridge. It was on the other side of the mountain and quite a trail. As it was not crowded it took about 20 minutes to walk there. We were very impressed with the construction of this ancient trail 500 metres above the valley floor. There were places where, if you slipped, you would meet you maker sooner than you expected.

On our return to the city, we had to strategize our day as there was so much to see.   We started at the highest point of the ceremonial area, passing through the quarry and into the main area of temples. Royalty and the Priests lived in this area as it was higher and made with more precision than the worker and servant area. Many temples and sacred spaces are located in the ceremonial area; we enjoyed seeing the famous Temple of Three Windows and the Principal Temple, which was damaged by earthquakes. Pictures show the damage to the Principal Temple was there in 1912 when Hiram Bingham returned to Machupicchu to do an archaeological dig. He had discovered Machupicchu the year before.

The correct names for these particular temples have been lost, but have been named for their particular features… the Temple of the Three Windows has three windows… hence the name.

We then climbed more steps to the observatory which is the home of Intihuatana. This four sided stone is made of bedrock and though scholars don’t quite understand what function it served, this stone carving is considered by one tour book writer to be the world’s first truly abstract piece of art.

Off to find the Sacred Rock we went. On the way we saw half a dozen Llamas grazing in the Plaza Principal which is now a lovely green grassy plaza. The Sacred Rock is a very large rock in the shape of Yanantin Mountain, one of the many mountains in the area. Every day, until a couple of years ago, hundreds of people would spread their arms across the stone to feel its energy. We can’t do this anymore as it is protected and surrounded by ropes so no one can get too close. Since I couldn’t touch the rock, I put out both hands towards it, as close as I could reach. I could feel the energy emanating from the rock and it was very cool to feel the energy coming into my hands… yeah!

We walked around for quite a few hours and looked at so many wonderful buildings … the Royal Tomb and the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Condor, waterfalls… to name just a few.

We were looking for what is called the Mortars… it took a while, but we eventually found them. The Mortars, also known as the Astrological Mirrors, were really interesting.  These two sculpted stone slabs, embedded in the ground, are circular and concave in order to hold water. The modern day thought is that they were filled with water and used as earthquake detectors. Another speculation is that they were mirrors to view constellations.

There was so much to view and to think about that we were in Machupicchu from 6:15am until 2:00pm. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there and were reluctant to leave. This visit is definitely a major highlight of our year.

This is the end of our fifth month on the road and we have enjoyed being in the moment. We are thoroughly looking forward to the next seven months.

Love and happiness to you all!


valle segrado de los incas

We are now firmly in the sacred valley of the Incas, in thin air some 3400m above sea level. Cusco is our base camp, and Don’s oldest son Christopher and his girlfriend Tiffany have joined us for our exploration of the valley and Machupicchu (it’s one word here, not two).

We started with purchasing a mandatory boleto turistico each, which gives us access to Inca sites near town and up the valley, and then stuffed ourselves into a little Renault taxi for the 8 km ride to Tambomachay, often referred to as the Inca Baths, and sometimes thought of as an ancient resort for the ruling class. It features an underground water source that has never ceased to flow into what used to be the bathing pools (must have been cold though!). We then walked along the road back towards town for the next attraction, Pucapucara. It is known as the Red Fortress but the current thinking is that it was less a fort and more likely a checkpoint and perhaps roadhouse for Inca leaders and commoners on their way up the valley. It does have a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, so no chance of a sneak attack here.

Several kilometres further we reached Qenqo, an outcrop of rock set in a low bit of land on the side of a hill. the Incas cut pathways and staircases into the rocks, and made use of underground areas for what some travel books suggest were either human or llama sacrifices, but our guide the following day said this was where the Inca mummified their dead from throughout the valley, prior to further ceremony and then burial. A large monolith at one end of the outcrop that faces an amphitheatre likely featured carved images at one time, but the Spanish conquistadors so hated and feared Inca culture they destroyed everything they could find. Sadly this was the case at all the sites we visited – often all that remains of a once powerful empire are the foundations. But even these are often strikingly impressive.

The last stop on our self-directed trek was the fortification at Sacsayhuaman, the largest of the four sites with its unique set of zigzag walls, wide ceremonial grounds, and numerous other structures. The walls, which run for 360m, feature stones that had to be brought here and sculpted to fit perfectly together, some as high as 8.5m and weighing as much at 130 tons. There is some speculation that this was primarily a temple to the sun, rather than a fort, based in part on the discovery in 1982 of the graves of priests buried on site.

Unfortunately, between Spanish destruction, general looting, and the fact builders were allowed to truck away the carved stone for construction right up until the 1930s, much remains unknown about this site. Nevertheless, from the top one gets a panoramic view of the entire city of Cusco.

To reach sites further up the valley we signed up for a day tour, first stop, Pisaq. This incredible site is set on a mountaintop with massive, terraced agricultural fields running halfway down one side, another fountain that taps into an underground stream, and across a narrow valley behind, a wall of holes in the rock that once housed hundreds of mummies, long since looted by the Spanish for the silver and gold items usually buried with the deceased. At the top of the mountain was the astronomer’s residence/workspace – a very important figure in the Inca hierarchy. The tour stopped in some small colonial towns for us to wander through markets, and later enjoy a buffet lunch, but the next Inca site was the almost as incredible ruins at Ollantaytambo. More terraced fields and mountaintop construction – and a view of buildings and huge carving in the mountainside across the valley.

The temple of the sun at the top features six huge carved stones arranged in a row like a wall; you can barely make out relief-carved pumas probably defaced by the Spanish. At the base of the whole site is the Temple of Water – the fountain here is fed from melting glaciers several kilometres away which our guide optimistically states “will never disappear”. We were told that it was here that the bodies processed at Qenqo were brought for final rites involving water, before being taken to Pisaq for hillside burial (about 65 km away). The city below was laid out by the Inca in the shape of a puma, and according to our guide, about 80 percent of the buildings and houses there now are built on Incan foundations.

Our last stop for the day was the colonial town of Chinchero for a visit to the old church, built on the foundation of a destroyed Inca palace, and featuring another panoramic view. The palace was home to one of the last Inca rulers to resist the Spanish invasion and they made sure no sign was left here of the Inca.

The visit to Chinchero included visiting a local home/workshop for a brief demonstration of traditional wool dyeing and weaving techniques, and of course a pitch from our tour guide to buy from their vast stock of sheep and alpaca wool clothes, blankets, and stuffed llamas! These past two days involved climbing more crooked and rocky steps than we thought we might see in a lifetime – hopefully we’re hardened up and ready for Machupicchu!

A shout out to Jeremy W. today – Happy Birthday!