June 2024

  1. Lima
  2. Machu Picchu and Valle Sagrado
  3. Cusco
  4. Tambopata National Reserve

Days 1, 2, and 3: Lima

Lima is a remarkable city in so many ways. Its natural setting is very dramatic: the city is perched atop intricately shaped black cliffs that drop down to meet the Pacific ocean. At the top of the cliffs, a series of parks stretch along the entire length of the city, while at the base of the cliffs, there’s a coastal road lined with surf schools, beaches, bars, and restaurants. With this arrangement by the ocean, there’s always a sea breeze and clean air wherever you go, despite Lima having a larger population than New York City — or the entire country of Portugal!

Walking through the cliff-top parks was so beautiful. As we strolled through impeccably landscaped gardens, we passed a paragliding school, tennis courts, a BMX and skate park, and much more. All of these spots were full of people, and it was interesting to observe daily life. Along the way, we visited the Parque Del Amor, featuring a giant statue of a couple kissing — and plenty of real-life couples doing the same. True to their characteristically romantic and passionate personality, Limeños hold an annual kissing competition for the longest kiss in this park, with the current record holders lasting 40 minutes. Time to start practicing for our next trip to Lima!

Downtown Lima has a colonial flair, but much more grandiose than usual. Lima was the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which included most of the Spanish colonies in South and Central America, and has opulent buildings to match its former political status. We visited the two main plazas, Plaza San Martín and Plaza Mayor, along with many of the historical attractions in the area. Our favorite? Probably the Convento de San Francisco, a church and convent dedicated to San Francisco de Asisi, that is perhaps more famous now for the display of bones in the catacombs beneath the church. The ornate architecture and details were impressive, the old library was very unique, and the catacombs were fun to see, even if a little macabre. Given our recent trip to Morocco, we enjoyed looking for Moorish architectural details, which were everywhere.

We’re staying in Barranco, a beautiful seaside neighborhood filled with large historical homes that have been meticulously preserved. Back when Lima was a much smaller colonial capital, these were the summer homes of the wealthy families who lived in the center of town. These days, a handful of them remain as private residences, and others have been converted to art collectives, museums, and boutique hotels. Our hotel, Casa República Barranco, is one of these lovingly restored mansions, and it features local art in every hallway and nook. In fact, art and creativity are everywhere in Barranco — in its numerous galleries, in the trendy bars and cafés, and in the imaginative murals that can be found throughout the area. What a great neighborhood!

Lima has a sophisticated food scene, with many Michelin-star restaurants and interesting fusions of foods from different cultures. In our first few days, we opted for traditional Peruvian food — we wanted to compare our experiences at Peruvian restaurants back home with the real deal. One highlight for us was a restaurant called Isolina, within walking distance of our hotel, which specializes in traditional dishes. Everything we had was great, including papa rellena (lightly fried mashed potatoes stuffed with sweet and savory stewed beef), causa limeña (a tower composed of layers of mashed potatoes alternating with avocado and chicken salad), and an appetizer platter of ceviche, fried octopus, corn, and sweet potatoes. For dessert, nothing beats the churros we got (twice!) at Churros Virgen del Carmen in the historical center of Lima. Unlike other churros we’ve tried, these are made from hand-rolled dough wrapped around a gooey interior of dulce de leche. Incredible!

Ceviche, fried octopus, corn, and sweet potatoes at Isolina.

Isolina restaurant.

Days 4, 5, and 6: Valle Sagrado

We’re in Valle Sagrado, a valley deep in the Andes mountains that has been inhabited since pre-Incan times because of its fertile soil. Nestled in a tiny village, our Airbnb is a recently-built cabin that has a gorgeous modern design, with lots of windows looking out at the valley and the surrounding mountains.

We visited the town of Chinchero, which is known for its traditional textiles. At one of the collectives of textile artisans, we got to see first-hand how they wash, spin, dye, and weave the fiber gathered from alpacas. Our host pointed out the wide range of colors that can be produced from the all-natural dyes that they make from local plants. When she got to the blue yarns, she explained that the deeper shades required not just a plant-based dye, but also the urine of children. “Why not adults?” we asked. With a straight face, she answered, “It won’t work — there’s too much pisco sour in their pee!” 🤣

(Hint: Pisco sour is an alcoholic cocktail that’s popular in Peru.)

Our next stop was in Moray, where the Incans created beautiful terraced circles that descend deep into a valley. With varying sunlight and differences of up to 5°C (9°F) between upper and lower terraces, they are thought to have been used for farming experiments — a lot like today’s agricultural universities researching the best ways to grow crops.

After Moray, we visited the Maras salt mines, where a subterranean warm spring emerges, carrying salt eroded from higher elevations. More than 400 local families operate as a collective company to produce salt from thousands of evaporation pools. We were amazed from our first glimpse of all these geometric shapes in the middle of the high Andes mountains!

We also visited the ruins at Pisac. We spent quite a while there, but still only saw a fraction of this huge Inca complex that once included agricultural terraces, residential buildings, watchtowers, an astronomical observatory, and more. As we wound our way through the narrow paths and climbed the ancient staircases, we were impressed with the precision of the stonework and the scale of construction.

Day 7: Machu Picchu

We made it to Machu Picchu! Our visit certainly did not go as planned, and it was much more of an emotional rollercoaster than we ever anticipated. But it was all worth it in the end! Our plan was to enter the park right when it opens at 6 am, hike to a viewpoint before sunrise, then watch the first rays of sun illuminate the citadel and mountains in the solitude of the early morning.

Our reality was not quite like that. We did enter the park at 6 am, and we did make it to a viewpoint before sunrise. However, all we could see from the viewpoint was a thick curtain of fog. We knew that we were facing the postcard view of Machu Picchu, but we couldn’t see any part of it. None. We waited, and within half an hour or so, we got a glimpse of a small part of the ruins. We were excited and hopeful, but within a few seconds it was gone. Then we got a brief glimpse of a different part of the ruins before the low clouds blanketed everything again.

These glimpses were fleeting and infrequent, and after waiting more than three hours, we were still looking at a thick curtain of fog. By then, many more people had arrived. Tourists in guided groups had a schedule to keep and were urged to move along after just a few minutes. We heard a women lament to her friend, “All of that money for this? I’m so sad.” Another man was shaking his head and saying, “I can’t believe this. I just can’t.” Tourists without guides could stay put and wait, and as a result a large crowd started gathering behind us. Park rangers here are notorious for ushering people along the trail, but we heard a ranger tell another, “I just don’t have the heart to tell them to move on.”

Then, just as we started talking about giving up ourselves, the thick curtain started to lift, gradually revealing first the Machu Picchu citadel, and eventually, the majestic Huayna Picchu mountain behind it. We couldn’t contain our excitement — we laughed and gave each other high-fives. The lead-up to this moment and the slow reveal made it even more special! Just then, a young man and his girlfriend made their way to the front of the crowd. Right next to us, the guy got down on one knee and pulled a ring from his pocket. The crowd moved back to give them space. The woman said yes and started crying. Her boyfriend started crying too, and the crowd cheered and applauded. So many emotions all at once!

After enjoying the incredible views from several spots on the terraced slopes, we passed through the gateway into the citadel itself. Built for the Inca emperor Pachacuti in 1420, the citadel was inhabited for just over a hundred years, until the Spanish occupation. As we hiked through the well-preserved ruins, we had big smiles on our faces. We will never forget that spectacular first reveal!

Days 8, 9, and 10: Cusco

After spending several days in small villages in the Sacred Valley, transitioning to Cusco felt like moving to the big city. There are certainly more cars and people here, thought it’s still quite walkable and we’ve enjoyed exploring the historic center of Cusco on foot. Once the capital of the Inca empire in the Andes, this city is now known for its Spanish colonial architecture — and its high elevation of 3400 m (11,152 feet). As we wandered through the narrow alleys and across tree-lined plazas, we enjoyed looking at the hand-carved wood balconies, the ornate churches, and miles of clay tile roofs.

There are many fascinating museums in Cusco. Our favorite was the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, where we learned a lot about Incan and pre-Incan culture. We love native art, and we especially enjoyed the ceramics and wood carvings in this museum, many featuring stylized animals or geometric patterns.

As we reached our last day in the Andes, we were reflecting on how great the food has been here. We’ve had many dishes that featured local staples like potatoes, corn, quinoa, beans, yucca, and river trout. Some of our favorites included a traditional quinoa soup, grilled trout on a patty of rice and beans, a quinoa-veggie salad, and grilled octopus with roasted potatoes.

Days 11, 12, 13, and 14: Amazon

We spent the last several days deep in the Peruvian part of the Amazon rainforest, in the Tambopata Research Center Lodge. This lodge operates both as a research center and as a hotel, with the money made from tourism funding the various research projects. To get there, we flew an hour from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, then drove for an hour and a half, then took a small boat upriver for two and half hours. Just a few years ago, before the new road was built, the river journey would have taken two days, with an overnight in another lodge.

Our time here flew by. We spent our days either exploring the jungle on foot wearing tall mud boots, or navigating up and down the river by boat. Our indigenous guide, Timoteo, pointed out unique plants, insects, birds, and monkeys everywhere we went. It was amazing how many species he could identify just from their sounds, and after a few days we learned to identify some of them as well. He also spotted fresh jaguar tracks near our lodge!

In the evenings, we attended talks by the research scientists and learned about various ongoing projects. Each of the projects uses technology to gather data in the rainforest and crowd-sourced citizen scientists and AI to analyze the data. The talks were a great way to understand more about the research here, and also added context for our daytime activities.

Timoteo, our guide to the Amazon.

A black-fronted nunbird.

We went up this observation tower to get a better view of the rainforest canopy.

The southern flannel moth caterpillar, often compared with Donald Trump’s hair. 😊

There was often a caiman lounging near the boat dock.

A scarlet macaw.

Day 15: Lima

To wrap up this trip, we spent one final night back in Lima — and we enjoyed the feeling of familiarity. Throughout this trip, we loved experiencing the highlights of Peru, and we thought the pace of our itinerary was great. But there are so many other fascinating parts of Peru that we didn’t get to see… We’ll have to come back sometime!