Realm of the Incas & Land of the Warm-Valley People

Wednesday — April 1

When I started to read Peter Frost’s guidebook, Exploring Cusco, I already knew that the language spoken by the Incas was Quechua. What I didn’t know was that the word Inca is a Quechua term that applies to the ruling emperor of the ancient civilization and not really to the people of the land. So, while we will be visiting the "Realm of the Incas" during the next two weeks, we will also be visiting the land of the Quechuas — the modern day name applied to the native people who speak the language. In its plural form, Quechua means “Warm-Valley People” — hence, the title of my blog entry.

Perú has long been on our "must-visit list." Tomorrow’s flights — Washington DC / Atlanta / Lima — will finally get us to Perú.

Day one of our trip will end in Lima, Perú.

After a good night’s sleep in Lima (cross your fingers), we will continue our journey to the city of Cusco, from where we will launch our explorations into Andean Perú.

Using Cusco as a base, we will explore the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu before we move on to Lake Titicaca.

A closer look at the Cusco - Sacred Valley - Machu Picchu portion of our itinerary.


  • April 2: Travel from Washington DC to Lima (via Atlanta)
  • April 3-6: Cusco
  • April 7-9: Sacred Valley
  • April 9-13: Machu Picchu
  • April 13: Cusco
  • April 14-16: Lake Titicaca
  • April 16-17: Lima
  • April 18: Return to the US

So, off we go tomorrow!

Footnote: the information about Quechuas meaning “warm-valley people” comes from the Victor W. Von Hagen book, Realm of the Incas.

Next Up: Travel Day — Leg One to Atlanta

Travel Day — Leg One to Atlanta

Thursday — April 2

Greetings from the Delta Airlines Crown Club at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL). I’m on my own at the moment. Mui’s in one of the phone cubbies, doing a job interview that came out of nowhere. In fact, there were two interviews that popped up suddenly on Tuesday. He managed to get one scheduled for yesterday and agreed to do the other one as a phone interview during our layover in Atlanta today.

But I am getting ahead of myself — let me go back to the beginning of our travel day.

You’d think that a 10:00a flight would mean that we’d sleep in for a bit this morning. But no; we were up at our usual time … 4:00a for Mui; 5:00a for me. The cab was at the door at 7:00a and 30 minutes later we were at Delta’s first class check-in counter at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD). No, we weren’t trying to avoid the regular check-in lines. For once, we managed to snag first/business class award tickets — hence the access to Delta’s Crown Club, which, in light of Mui’s interview, turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

We begin our travel day with overcast and drizzle at Dulles International Airport.

Flight 1295 took off on time and was uneventful. In fact, the only hiccup thus far today was having to switch mobile lounges at IAD when the first one developed an engine problem as it was departing the main terminal. The first class seats on the MD-88 were quite comfortable – not too deep for my short legs. Service was minimal for the short flight — some snacks and drinks. For a while there, I wasn’t sure we’d get any service at all; it was a bumpy flight all the way to Atlanta.

We landed at ATL a few minutes after our scheduled time to find the weather similar to what we had left behind in DC — overcast and dreary. The pilot wasn’t joking when he said we would be landing on the runway farthest from the terminals; we had a long taxi to reach concourse T. Nor was he kidding when he said that our arrival gate was the farthest one out; we had a considerable hike to the underground rail system that connects the concourses. To keep the trend going, we stayed on the train until the last stop – concourse E.

After dropping off our carry-on bags at the Crown Club, we went to get a bite of lunch. Concourse E has only two sit-down eateries – a sushi restaurant and a TGIF; the rest of the eateries are in the food court. Since I prefer my fish cooked and not raw, we ended up at TGIF. A couple of appetizers proved to be plenty for us.

Time to wrap things up and go to the gate for our Lima flight … more later.

Next Up: Travel Day — Leg Two En Route to Lima

Travel Day — Leg Two En Route to Lima

Thursday — April 2

You know what the best thing was about the Crown Club at ATL? The thimble-size chocolate mousse cups and brownies Mui found at the buffet that was laid out shortly before we left the lounge. But those yummy goodies are things of the past; time to focus on the here and now aboard Flight 235.

We had our second travel hiccup of the day at gate E5 where boarding for our 6 hour and 6 minute flight to Lima was delayed by 20 minutes due to the late arrival of our aircraft from England. This in turn meant that the required security sweep for our flight got off to a late start. Then, like dominos, the delays started to pile up — a minor maintenance issue, late arriving connecting passengers, etc., etc. Before we knew it, the time was 6:45p — well past our scheduled departure of 5:15p. The silver lining is that we are terminating our travel in Lima tonight. But the delay means we’ll be losing a precious hour of sleep from what was already going to be a very short night. Good thing we’re staying at the Ramada Costa del Sol at the airport and not at a hotel in the city!

Once our Boeing 767-400 was free of the shackles binding it to terra firma, the overcast and drizzle that had followed us from DC to Atlanta was finally behind us. Flying over a bed of fluffy white clouds, we enjoyed the blue skies until they were replaced by the inky darkness of nightfall.

A sea of clouds stretches out as far as the eye can see.

I may be just 5'2" (1.5 m) tall, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate
the extra legroom that comes with flying in business class.

The flight was a bit bumpy until we got over Florida, causing dinner service to be delayed. The evening meal began with cocktails and warm-from-the-oven mixed nuts, which we enjoyed as we flew over Havana, Cuba. We were then served a delicious, spicy soup; humus and fresh rolls; and baby spinach salad. Next came the entrée — steak and shrimp for Mui; mushroom ravioli for me. The crowning touch was dessert — vanilla ice cream topped with hot fudge, nuts, and a dollop of whipped cream.

I have to say, it wouldn’t take much for us to get used to traveling like this on a regular basis .

For now, good night from somewhere in the skies en route to Lima.

Next Up: Travel Day — Welcome to Lima

Travel Day — Welcome to Lima

Friday — April 3

We landed at Aeropuerto Jorge Chavez in Lima at 11:45p last night, just as the pilot had projected when he took off from Atlanta. It took us another hour to get through the airport formalities, with the longest time spent waiting for our bags to show up on the baggage carousel. We took heart from the fact that we were not alone. Finally, about 45 minutes after having gone through passport control, our bags loaded on a cart, we were headed towards the dreaded green light/red light process at customs. I wasn’t dreading going through because I had something to hide, but because I seem to always get the red light when I hit such buttons, thus necessitating a bag search. This time I passed with flying colors. Mui was right on my heels, taking advantage of my green light.

It was getting on towards 1:00a when we crossed the connecting bridge to the Ramada Costa del Sol. Check-in was quick and painless. For the first time in our travels, we had our passports photocopied — necessary proof for the hotel so that we don’t have to pay the 19% IGV (tax). This is a process we will be repeating for each hotel stay in Perú.

The hotel may well lack the charm and ambiance of a boutique hotel, but being attached to the main terminal at the airport, it has one thing going for it — location, location, location. Room 237 was clean, quiet, and had the most important element we were looking for — comfortable beds! The room was like a sauna when we first entered it — no surprise since the temperature when we landed in Lima was 81F (27C). We immediately turned on the AC. In the 15 minutes or so it took us to get ready for bed, the room was cool enough that we actually needed to use the covers.

At one o’clock in the morning, we didn’t need charm and ambiance.

The last thing I remember was that the clock display read 1:30a and we had a 5:30a wake up call.

Next Up: Day 1 — Cusco Here We Come

Day 1 — Cusco Here We Come

Friday — April 3

The Airbus 319 that is taking us to Cusco is only half-full. Once the doors were closed, I moved to Row 23, leaving our assigned seats in Row 19 to Mui. We’re back to the reality of coach travel; no more spacious seats for us until we are aboard the flight that will be returning us to the US in 14 days’ time. In the meantime, being able to spread out helps and I can comfortably work on this blog entry.

We could have used a few more hours of shut eye when the wake up call came at 5:30a, but like the good travelers that we are, we got up and started preparing for the day ahead. By 6:30a, we were in the lobby, partaking of the breakfast included in the price of our room. The buffet was fairly lackluster, but we weren’t very hungry anyway. After exchanging the free pisco sour coupons we’d been given at check-in for a couple of bottles of water, we made our way back across the connecting bridge to the airport terminal.

With our online check-in boarding passes in hand, we made our way to the bag drop off counter. The LAN agent didn’t blink an eye at the weight of our bags — two days earlier, and we might have had to pay a charge, but as of April 1, domestic passengers are authorized two pieces each for a total of 50 lbs (23 kg). That task taken care of, we moved onto the next one. In Perú, departure taxes are not included in the airfare, so we headed off to pay the aeropuerto tarifa (airport fee). Mui whipped out the first of four envelopes I had prepared for these fees before leaving home and soon we were on our way with a couple of centavos for the difference between the actual fee and the $12 payment we made. Once we were through security, we had a very short wait at the gate. Before we knew it, we were onboard LP 73, winging our way towards Cusco.

A quarter of the 50-minute flight is already over. That we have snacks to munch on is a reminder that we’re not flying a US carrier. The take-off from Lima did not afford any scenic views — the city was blanketed by smog. That’s OK; we made up for the lackluster departure scenery as soon as we left the city behind. I was surprised by the rolling, verdant mountains and valleys dotted with the red roofs of settlements, rivers snaking throughout. I guess I was expecting a more alpine-like scenery.

I didn’t have to wait long for my scenery expectations to be met. In fact, I can barely take the time to type as my eyes are constantly being drawn to the Andean landscape that is spread out against brilliant blue skies dotted with puffy, white clouds. The mountains are downright spectacular — jagged peaks crowned with snow; glaciers flowing down from mountain tops; emerald green lakes glinting in the sun. There is quite a bit of terminal moraine as well — evidence that many of the glaciers are in retreat. One mountain is particularly impressive. I can’t help but wonder if it might be Salcantay, the 38th highest peak in the Andes and the 12th highest in Perú. From the looks of it, it certainly fits the bill. Maybe Vidal can help me identify it.

Spectacular Andean scenery en route to Cusco.

The Andean peaks disappeared as suddenly as they appeared. The snow-capped mountains have been replaced with verdant valleys and a patchwork of farmland. There are a great many switchback roads running up to the highlands. I just might need my Dramamine as we drive around these roads! I’ve been so looking forward to this trip. The scenery I’ve enjoyed in the last 30 minutes has just whetted my appetite for exploring Perú.

We’re on final approach into Cusco. Houses and all kinds of other structures are clustered everywhere. From the air, this town looks to be much bigger than I expected. In a little bit, I’ll be finding out if that’s the case from the ground as well … more later.

On final approach to landing in Cusco.

Next Up: Day 1 — Laundry Time!?!

Day 1 — Laundry Time!?!

Friday — April 3

My plans for Cusco did not include laundry. At least not as the first activity upon arrival in a city filled with lots of interesting things to do. The plan was to check-in to the hotel, rest a bit — something we don’t usually do, but at 11,000 ft (~3,350 m) above sea level you need to adjust your pace a bit — and then go for a stroll around the city. Best laid plans and all that — sigh!

So, why am I sitting in a room in which every available surface is covered with damp clothes, waiting for Mui to return from a nearby lavanderia (laundromat of sorts)? It seems that our bags were amongst the ones we saw sitting in the rain at the airport in Atlanta. We noticed our bags were a bit damp when we collected them in Lima last night, but we were too tired to pay much attention. I’m sure you can imagine my reaction when I opened the bags a little while ago to find the contents ranging from damp to downright soaked!!! I’m not sure why we didn’t line the bags with a plastic liner like we usually do. Maybe it was because on all those trips where we did take the precaution, we never had a problem. We’ve learned a lesson that we won’t soon forget.

I have about an hour before Vidal comes to pick us up for a stroll around Cusco; might as well put the time to good use and add to the blog by going back to our arrival in the city that the Incas considered to be the “navel of the earth” — the capital city of the great empire. (That “navel” thing … must be a literal translation; it should probably read “center.”)

We were wheels down at Aeropuerto Velasco Astete at 9:40a. With the aircraft only half-full, and most passengers staying aboard to continue to the next destination, we were off the plane in no time. It didn’t take us long to get our bags, and within a few minutes, we were outside the terminal where Vidal was waiting for us as promised.

A private van took us into town and up into the San Blas neighborhood where our hotel is located. We received a warm welcome at Los Apus. No sooner were we seated at one of the tables in the enclosed courtyard that cups of fresh-brewed Mate de Coca (tea made from coca leaves) were placed in front of us.

Let me explain about the mate. This is an herbal tea indigenous to the Andes. The tea is made from the leaves of the coca plant. Yes — the same plant used to make cocaine. Coca leaves, which can be chewed or used to brew a tea, help to increase the absorption of oxygen into the blood. That, in turn, helps to combat altitude sickness. Hence its common use in Andean Perú and other South American countries.

Mate de coca helps increase the absorption of oxygen into the blood, thus helping to combat altitude sickness.

(Put your mind at ease — in the minimal quantities we will be ingesting, we are in no danger of getting hooked. I could quote all kinds of scientific facts, but I’ll keep it simple. Here’s how Wikipedia explains it: “The leaves of the coca plant contain several alkaloids including cocaine; in fact, they comprise the sources for cocaine's chemical production, though the amount of cocaine in the leaves is so small, around 0.2%, that in order to make a gram of cocaine, 500 grams of coca leaves would be needed.”)

As we sipped our coca tea, Vidal took care of getting us checked-in. Soon, we were completing the registration forms and having our passports photocopied — thus saving on the 19% service fee that is normally charged by hotels. In the meantime, our bags were taken up to Room 202, which I had specifically requested because it has a small balcony. After we sipped another round of coca tea and finalized plans for the afternoon, Vidal left us to get settled in.

Cusco abounds with hotels in every price range. Aside from a clean room with a private bath, we had one criteria that played a role in choosing Los Apus over other hotels — availability of central heating. Most of the hotels in Cusco — indeed in Andean Perú — do not have this amenity.

So far, we’re happy with our selection. The hotel staff has been friendly and welcoming. Although they speak very little English, we’ve managed to communicate our needs. Our room, though on the “cozy” side, is clean and pleasant, with a rustic décor that is enhanced by a beamed-ceiling. The en suite facilities are in an enclosed area built to look like a tile-roofed hut — quaint and cute. Compared with the size of the room, the facilities are spacious with a raised shower, which Mui quickly became acquainted with when he banged his shin against the riser — no worries; he survived the minor encounter, but does have a handsome bump to show for his run-in with the tile. The balcony is small and narrow, and there’s not much of a view since it overlooks the street, but it’s always nice to be able to step out to take a look around and get some fresh air.

Room 202 at Los Apus — cozy, cute, and has central heating.

Room 202 at Los Apus — the beamed ceiling adds a rustic charm.
(edge of tile-roofed enclosure for the facilities visible at the bottom of the picture)

Room 202 at Los Apus — spacious, clean, en suite facilities.

Mui has returned from the lavanderia with the news that our clothes will be ready first thing tomorrow morning. While he was out, he also bought some bottled water to fill up our camelbaks for tomorrow. We’ll also be using the bottled water to brush our teeth. We don't usually do this when we're traveling, but this was a consistent theme in my pre-trip research, so we’re going to follow the advice.

It’s just about time for Vidal to come back to escort us around Cusco and help us get the lay of the land. We’re going to wait for him in the courtyard and maybe sip some more coca tea to help speed up our acclimatization to altitude. We’re also taking Diamox (acetazolomide) to help with this process. So far, aside from feeling incredibly tired — no surprise; we've had about 4 hours of sleep in the past 36 hours — we have no adverse symptoms of altitude. Knock on wood that this continues. More later …

Next Up: Day 1 — Who is Vidal?

Day 1 — Who is Vidal?

Friday — April 3

I’ve made several references to Vidal, so let me take a minute to introduce him. Vidal Jaquehua is the founder and manager of Adventure Holidays Perú, the small Cusco-based company with which we made all of the arrangements for our trip.

We had the good luck of meeting Vidal at the Adventures in Travel Expo in Washington DC in March 2008. We were immediately charmed by his friendly demeanor. When he spoke of the experiences awaiting us in Perú, his eyes shined with enthusiasm. The glowing recommendation two of his former clients gave us while we were visiting Vidal’s expo booth was all the encouragement we needed to ask him for an itinerary/quote.

Although we did get itineraries/quotes from other companies as well — some small, some big; some Perú-based, some US- or UK-based — we quickly concluded that we wanted to work with Vidal to organize this trip. His willingness to listen to what we wanted, offer suggestions, and prepare an itinerary for a trip that matched “our” travel style were the determining factors in our decision. That he gave us a good price was a factor as well, but was not nearly as important as his flexibility and promptness in responding to us throughout the planning phase of this trip.

If I were to say that “We would highly recommend Vidal’s services” now, you might counter with, “But, he hasn’t even guided you yet.” True. However, I have first hand information from another couple who used his services in February and from the two women he guided on the Inca Trail (he is a licensed guide). I have no reason to suspect that our experience will be any less “wonderful” than theirs was. That said — I’ll wait to give my official endorsement after we conclude our trip.

Vidal and Mui enjoying lunch at Yaku Mama's Grill located on Plaza de Armas in Cusco.

Next Up: Day 1 — A Stroll in Cusco