MACHU PICCHU, Peru – Once you cast your eyes on the marvel of Machu Picchu and
its setting, it’s immediately clear why this was chosen as one of the modern
Seven Wonders of the World. Having traveled to over 90 countries, I feel safe in
saying that Machu Picchu is incomparable.
The combination of imposing
verdant mountains, wisps of clouds hugging the waists of those jagged edges,
terraced agricultural strips cascading down their sides, a deep and narrow
valley with a forceful, flowing river and the expanse of what was once a proud
city is hard to beat.
I am not the fittest individual. I am over 60, a
smoker who doesn’t exercise, so I was a tad concerned that I would not be able
to enjoy this gem, but I was wrong. Getting there requires a bit of hiking, but
the guide stops periodically to explain things, which allows one to rest a
With thousands of visitors to this fairly remote site daily, even in
the off-season, the Peruvians have worked out quite an efficient system. You
must book in advance due to the limited number of permitted daily entries. Your
ticket is date specific, so you make the climb rain or shine. And it’s worth it,
rain or shine.
The largest city nearby is Cusco, worth a visit in its own
right, although so many people will try to sell you something that just sitting
quietly in the beautiful town square becomes impossible.
is useful for picking up those last-minute things you may have forgotten to
bring with you (such as a rain cover for your backpack), and there are several
restaurants with top-notch ceviche (marinated fish) on the
Alternately, you can try alpaca or guinea pig for dinner – the
former worthwhile, the latter not so much.
Cusco is also filled with tour
operating agencies, and it’s recommended to shop around before choosing one.
There are two serious questions to ask – what does the tour include, and what
does it not include.
I recommend seeing the Sacred Valley, taking a dip
in the hot springs near Machu Picchu and spending a full day at the site itself,
as well as sleeping the night before in Aguas Calientes (you should be prepared
for simple rooms, albeit clean ones). The more intrepid can also walk the Inca
Trail, ending at Machu Picchu.
Another special part of Peru is the
Amazon. Iquitos is the largest city in the world with no road access.
Population estimates vary from 400,000 to 700,000, but it still feels like a
small town. You can fly there, or you can arrive by boat. I decided to try both
experiences, arriving from Lima by plane.
As it happened, I was there for
Carnaval, which in Iquitos is a water-fight. The locals make and sell balls of
dyed clay to throw at each other (after they have thrown water-balloons) which
burst open upon impact. It makes a terrible mess, but everyone has a lot
The local market, located in the neighborhood of Belen, sells
anything and everything. Feel like monkey for dinner? You’ll find it in the
Belen market. Turtle eggs? No problem! Turtle penis to increase your virility?
Lots of options to choose from, as well as a variety of fruit with names you’ve
Belen has two sections. There’s the market and there’s the
floating village. Due to variations in the annual rainfall, the banks of the
Amazon rise and fall with the season. Half of the neighborhood is built
on solid land, but sometimes the lower floors are flooded by the river, so new
footbridges are built every season to allow residents to walk between buildings
at the upper level. Others build their homes on rafts to accommodate the change.
Schools are built on pillars and children arrive in dugout canoes.
a day of meandering through the alleys of the market and drifting through the
neighborhood by canoe, the best way to relax is at the Dawn on the Amazon Cafe,
Bar and Restaurant, run by a former American from Indiana. The fare is both
local and western, with an extremely comprehensive menu. Expats gather on the
terrace overlooking the river for a late afternoon drink, and just watch the
world go by. Serenity is complete.
But if you want to really rub
shoulders with the locals, you should travel the river. Boats leave daily
from Iquitos downstream to Santa Rosa, carrying both cargo and
passengers. Most passengers sleep in hammocks (bring your own) strung up
on the two upper decks. There are a few cabins available for more privacy – bunk
beds, two narrow cots per cabin.
I lucked out, having arrived early at
Puerto Masusa, Iquitos’ main departure stage. I was therefore given the cabin
facing the bow of the boat, which meant that as we moved along there was a
breeze the whole time. The other cabins can be stifling. This also afforded me
the opportunity to stand in the doorway of the cabin and watch the
And there’s lots of action. The primary trade route is the river
itself, so the boat stops every hour or two to unload tables made from balsa and
load everything from sacks of rice to bunches of bananas to live cattle. There
are no actual docks; the stevedores carry everything by hand up and down narrow
planks of wood. The cattle are cajoled on deck with ropes and some intrepid
Two nights and a full day later, you arrive at Santa Rosa,
the Peruvian town at the tri-border area. This is the point on the Amazon where
Peru meets Tabatinga, Brazil and Leticia, Colombia. You can travel among the
three towns without border formalities, but before going any further, you have
to officially exit whatever country you arrived through and officially enter the
I had arrived from Peru, but until I determined my next
destination, I didn’t go to the Peruvian Policia Federale, followed by
Immigration, to “depart.” I simply found a guest house in Leticia (the largest
of the three communities – 35,000 people) and enjoyed my stay. The guest house
is owned and operated by a Colombian man who has lived in other parts of the
world and understands backpackers’ needs.
While there, I organized a
hiking tour into the jungle. Three days and two nights with a local guide who
knows the rain forest well. This is absolutely critical if you want to get the
most out of the experience.
The one thing NOT to take for a hike in the
rain forest is hiking boots. The mud underfoot will suck your boot off in a
second. Top-notch, knee-high Wellington rubber boots is the way to go.
Other than that, you only need to take a change of clothes (long-sleeved shirts
and long pants), a few good pairs of heavy socks, a flashlight and a toothbrush.
The guide and porter bring the rest. It helps if you speak Spanish, which I do
We were three tourists with two guides/porters. They carried the
food, cooking utensils, drinking water, tent, etc. We all carried our
individual small packs. One guide led the way, the Spanish-speaking
German tourist was next so she could translate for us, and the second guide
brought up the rear. Each guide also carries a machete.
birds and various camouflaged insects takes a lot of experience, and doing so
while walking and trying not to trip over tree roots or walk into cobwebs is an
art. There’s no real value in using mosquito repellent because you sweat so much
from the exertion and the humidity that it is immediately washed
And it’s worth every minute! Learning how they make a lean-to from
leaves which stays water-resistant for five years, or arriving at a river with
no way to cross so the guides simply cut down a couple of trees and build a
bridge – these are sights which stay with you for a long time. Taking a shower
late on the second day under a waterfall is heaven, even if the effect only
lasts a short time.
The sense of accomplishment is complete when you get
back into a dugout canoe, paddle through tiny tributaries with lily pads the
size of large tables, parrots nesting above, return to the guide’s village and
hail a water taxi back to Leticia.
I have now officially exited Peru and
entered Brazil. In a day or so, I will board a boat headed for the large city of
Manaus and the better-travelled parts of the Amazon, never officially having
been to Colombia, although I was based there for 10 days.