Exploring Peru and Machu Picchu

Trip of a lifetime continues for Alaska couple

Part two in a four-part series.

As senior citizens, we initially worried our dream trip to Peru and Machu Picchu might be too demanding. Don, 80, and I, 72, weren't couch potatoes, but we weren't marathon runners, either.

We had never used Smithsonian Journeys and Audley Travel before, and although the itinerary promised we would be met by a private driver and English-speaking guide at every stop, we couldn't help but wonder "what if...."

After our plane landed in Lima on December 20, our anxiety melted away when we saw a smiling Peruvian holding a sign: 'Donald and Laurel Bill.' Our driver grabbed our bags, handed us bottles of water, and 30 minutes later dropped us at a restored historic mansion in the bohemian Barranco district.

Lima: A delight for the senses

The garden view from the open windows in our room was amazing, but I worried mosquitoes would find their way in. However, the innkeeper explained there are no mosquitos in Lima – probably because it doesn't rain there. The tropical desert metropolis gets moisture from a mist they call "garua."

For the next two days, we explored the city of 11 million people – who have learned how to turn two-lane highways into five-lane speedways with cars, buses, moto-taxis, motorbikes, and pedestrians all thinking they have the right of way. We visited a few museums and saw mummies, incredible gold pieces and pre-Inca pottery.

We toured the Basilica of San Francisco, adorned with intricate baroque embellishments. After descending into the catacombs below, we learned the macabre yet fascinating history of Lima's underground burial chambers where thousands of bones lay at rest.

The ruins of Huaca Pucllana, an awe-inspiring pre-Columbian adobe and clay pyramid dated between 200 and 700 AD, was fascinating. Located in the heart of the city, archaeologists still are excavating the site and we saw holes where some of the mummies on display in museums had been found.

A culinary excursion topped off our time in the Peruvian capital. We tried treats like shrimp cerviche, lomo saltado, aji de gallina, and of course, Pisco sour. People from both Peru and Chile claim the alcoholic beverage as their national drink and kept trying to make us say their Pisco sours were the best.

Cusco and Sacred Valley: Andean culture thrives

We landed in Cusco on Dec. 24 and were greeted by crisp mountain air and vibrant Andean culture at 11,000 feet above sea level. Our hotel, the Palacio Del Inka, was built on the foundations of the Aclla Huasi (home of the chosen virgins of the Incas). Original Inca stone walls lined the lobby.

To help acclimate to the high altitude, we slowly walked along narrow cobblestone streets near our hotel. We soon were among throngs of people who had come down from the mountains to check out the brightly colored alpaca-wool shawls and blankets, silver jewelry, ceramics, and other items stocked in stores on this busiest shopping day of the year.

We spent the next day resting, adjusting to low oxygen levels, and enjoying Christmas dinner in the hotel restaurant. The feast included grilled alpaca, a traditional Peruvian dish.

The next morning, we drove to the ruins at Ollantayambo. Despite the altitude, we found the pace of exploration manageable with our patient guide. He gave us plenty of opportunities to catch our breath as we climbed more than 200 stone steps in varying heights. Once we made it to the top, the view from the sun temple was stunning. The Incas never completed construction of this ceremonial center because Spaniards invaded the country in the 1500s.

We spent two days exploring the Sacred Valley and looked forward to recuperating at the Sol Y Luna near Urubamba each evening. We thoroughly enjoyed our casita, the resort's gardens, and its horse shows. When the manager learned Don was a birder, he ordered a taxi to take us to a private home where hummingbirds often showed up. In less than an hour, Don saw eight new species to add to his life list.

Machu Picchu: A dream comes true

The day before we left for Machu Picchu, we toured Maras and were fascinated by the ancient salt mines with 7,000 terraced ponds shimmering in the Andean sun. The 900-year history and significance of salt mining in the region came alive as we wandered through this unique landscape. We also stopped at Moray to see its mysterious deep circular terraces. Ancients planted different crops at each level to see what new things might grow at various depths and temperatures.

Finally, our pilgrimage to the legendary Machu Picchu began with a two-hour train ride from Ollantaytambo to Agua Calientes. Lush jungle scenery, Inca ruins, and a rushing river accompanied us along the way. Excitement filled the train, too, when colorfully costumed and masked Peruvians danced their way through our car as a band played traditional music.

Once at Agua Calientes, we headed to Hotel Inkaterra Machu Picchu to drop off our luggage. As we approached the lobby, a bright-red Andean cock-of-the-rock flew across our path as if to celebrate our 50-year-quest to see one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

We then took a short bus ride up a mountain and climbed more uneven stone steps along a switchback path. Suddenly, the breathtaking panorama of the ancient hidden city spread out below us – a sight that will forever be etched in our memories.

As we made our way through the intricate stone structures and terraced hillsides where lamas grazed, our guide again showed patience with our slow progress. He was so pleased that we appreciated his heritage and were struck by the sheer grandeur of the ancient citadel.

Our 10-day journey through Lima, Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu was not without its challenges. Sometimes we struggled for air at high altitudes and often needed to rest during hikes among ruins. But we found age was no barrier to experiencing the magic of this incredible country and looked forward to our next stop: The Galapagos Islands.

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