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Posts tagged ‘machu picchu’

does guinea pig taste like chicken? ;)

Unfortunately I was too much of a ‘fraidy cat to be able to answer the question.  Enrique was very keen for me to try guinea pig and I wish I’d been faster with my lens as we drove by some stalls with roasted guinea pigs trussed up in display.

It was Sunday and I was informed that a roasted guinea pig is a Sunday dinner staple.  Apparently guinea pig was part of the staple Inca diet.  It’s usually the most expensive item on the menu.  What I learned on the Sunday drive was that the guinea pigs on menus in Peru are not the tiny pet rodents you likely imagine.  I don’t know what they feed the guinea pigs in Peru but they grow up to look more like a miniature suckling pig!


I may have passed on the guinea pig but I ate ZERO pizza and noshed on local produce everywhere that I travelled.  And there is lots of wonderful food in Peru so it’s easy to eat really well.

aquas calientesI’ve already mentioned a couple of places.  Another culinary highlight was my surprise chef’s tasting menu!  I had been lured in by the promise of prawns flambéed in Pisco.  Aquas Calientes is full of pizza joints so I didn’t ask to see the menu until I was already seated.  That’s when I discovered it was a four course tasting menu with no prices…

But I had just been hobbled by my “trapped on the balcony” experience so I wasn’t keen to do a lot of aimless walking… especially since the vast majority of the offerings were pizza J

It ended up the first course was quinoa quiche floating on creamed corn accompanied by prawns flambéed in Pisco.  It was showy and delicious.  There were two choices for each course.  My next treat was crema of lisas with alpaca jerky; accompanied with native potatoes and Huacatay oil.  Lisas wasn’t translated on the menu and it doesn’t google so I am guessing it just means smooth and creamy.  A crema is a creamy soup, one of the big treats of Peruvian cuisine.  Anyone with a love of potatoes (like me) is in for a joy ride in Peru where there are so many varieties.  Apparently huacatay is an Andean herb.

For the main course, I had trout.  The other options involved mushrooms – mushrooms being the food in know in 20 languages so I never make the mistake of eating them, there was no other choice.  But trucha in Peru is a delight – and you should eat so much you don’t need to translate it anymore 🙂  As you can tell, I had them photocopy the menu for me because it was so delicious and I wanted to remember the details so it was trout fillet topped with meuniere sauce, accompanied by polenta gratin and grilled vegetables.

By the time I got to dessert I needed to run up Machu Picchu to wear off all the calories so I went for the tartare of fruits accompanied with bananas flambéed in Pisco on a fruit coulis.  The more indulgent option was Quillabamba’s Chocolate Passion accompanied with ice cream.

The meal was phenomenal… and when the bill finally arrived… about $35.  And I even tried some Peruvian wine!  (I would recommend the Peruvian pisco and the Chilean wine…)

The restaurant is called Manka and it’s in the Casa del Sol boutique hotel in Aquas Calientes.  a great luxury option that I am sure costs less than the Sanctuary Lodge.


The meal was quite amazing.  The restaurant claims to be celebrating Peruvian cuisine and it certainly lives up to its word.  So many of the special foods of Peru all in one meal!  Trucha, prawns, alpaca, quinoa, potatoes, corn, local herbs, chocolate, bananas and flatbread!  Writing about the meal brings back such spectacular memories.  The service was also first rate and I sat beside the bubbling Urubamba River as I stuffed my face with all of this delicious food at a leisurely pace 🙂

Peru is definitely foodie paradise.  Fresh seafood all over the country.  Local specialties.  A mind-blowing variety in corn and potatoes.  It feels like a grand adventure infood sacred valley fine dining even if you forego the guinea pig… next time 😉

machu picchu planetm style ;)

OK, I appreciate it seems a little crazy to tackle Machu Picchu three days in a row, all using a different approach… but that is the curse of the overly analytical 😉  On the plus side, I have lots of insight and advice to offer others.

I felt a little guilty staying at the Sanctuary Lodge.  That is the insight you gain by being on the ground in foreign countries talking to locals.  I am still a newbie to travelling in developing countries but naively always hoping I am doing something that will provide me with a lot of pleasure and also – for bonus karma points – help the local community.

What I have learned is that you need to pay attention to how your dollars are spent.  As a spoiled western traveller it is easy to go five star and put all your funds into the pockets of multinational corporations who hardly need your support as they employ their international tax advisors to avoid paying their share of the infrastructure from which their profits flow.

Peru taught me to pay more attention next time to do my best to support local entrepreneurs and assist the local economy in moving forward.  I also find most of my expensive hotel experiences have been a bit soulless (Claridge’s one of the only exceptions – DO put it on your bucket list!).

The Sanctuary Lodge was a bit more soulful but that was due to the interactions with the staff.  It certainly isn’t a “must do” but one night is fun.  You get to take pictures of Machu Picchu from your hotel room.  It is not the Sheraton at Iguazu Falls though.  The park opens at 6am and closes at 5pm and staying right outside doesn’t offer much of an advantage over the bus from Aguas Calientes.

at guardhouse watching MP wake up...

at guardhouse watching MP wake up…

It did allow me to roll out of bed a bit later than round one and be in line before 6am so I could wander around the site almost alone.  I had already stood at the famous spot to watch the sunrise so instead I climbed to the Guardhouse for a great view of the tourist descent on Machu Picchu…

David had kindly offered to be my unofficial guide once his official tour was done.  When he was helping me figure out the travel arrangements for my solo travel plans in the Sacred Valley we’d discovered he was going to be in Machu Picchu doing an early tour the same day I would there – and he would be free by 9am… so no need for me to hire a stranger as a guide.

Since breakfast was included in my room rate, I scored some food post Machu Picchu and pre-David meeting.  Since I had been travelling alone, I had been eavesdropping and couldn’t tell how challenging the hike to the Sun Gate was but I knew David would be able to give me advice I could trust.

proof of hike :) view from sun gate

proof of hike 🙂 view from sun gate

He said it wasn’t that hard and the chance of dropping off a cliff thousands of metres was pretty low so I signed up.  It really is worth doing.  It’s good exercise and the view from the top is spectacular.  (It’s where the serious tourists who hike the Inca Trail first appear at Machu Picchu – it’s recommended not to do it first thing in the morning to give them a chance to pass through).  I would highly encourage you to sign David up as your guide J  As in the Sacred Valley, he was knowledgeable, patient and charming.

He also seems to be part mountain goat.  He grew up in the neighborhood.  So it’s great to watch him in action but I liked to stand a little further from the edge for photos 🙂

Once we had checked off the Sun Gate, he took me to the Inca Bridge.  I think the English girls I met later in the day had the name right – they asked, “so, did you go on the scary bridge?” 😉

remember - he is a professional :)

remember – he is a professional 🙂

Of course, David thought it was nothing and wanted me to take photos of him posed precariously on the edge showing how steep the drop off is.  In the end, I decided to brave it and went right to the end.  There is a cable next to the cliff you can hold as you cross.  It’s wide enough for at least a couple of people but not much more.  The view is spectacular though as long as you don’t suffer any vertigo.

scary AKA inca bridge

scary AKA inca bridge

Having burned some serious calories prior to noon, I figured I deserved lunch in the sun at the Sanctuary Lodge peeking out at the Andes.  I asked David to join me and got more insight into local culture.

It was almost too much but I went back in the afternoon to score some final shots of Machu Picchu.  It was nice to be so relaxed and I took photos of a couple of English girls and gave them my tips.  I then had them yelling “hello” for the next hour or two as we traversed Machu Picchu until close with most of the tour groups already back on their bus.

The perk of spending SO much time at Machu Picchu was that I was totally relaxed by night three.  Since I was staying at the Sanctuary Lodge and only had to walk a handful of feet to dinner, I dressed up.  It got me into some interesting conversations as a backpack and trekking attire is the norm.

The highlight of the Sanctuary Lodge experience was the pisco tasting I discovered by reading my mini English newspaper at breakfast.  I am always fascinated by local specialties and pisco is a Peruvian thing.  I understand the Chileans are trying to copy but only Peruvian pisco really counts 😉


If you appreciate spirits, it’s definitely worth having a bartender tour you through Peruvian piscos.  The food at the Sanctuary Lodge is also wonderful and the service is first rate.  I tipped my pisco guide really generously.  That’s the one thing that I think does work.  Bring lots of US dollars in small bills when you travel.  In Peru people wanted soles so that made it easier but in most countries crisp US dollar bills buy more than you might expect and you know the cash is going directly to a local you like rather than to a bank account in the Caymans.

Just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything I took the Vistadome train back to Cusco the next day.  I think it’s worth trading up from the Expedition as the price difference is small but the service experience on the Vistadome is at a high caliber.  PeruRail definitely offers some of the best rail service I have ever experienced.

isn't he handsome? ;)

isn’t he handsome? 😉

The train service included entertainment – music, fashion show… and a dancing lion in traditional costume.  I really would have been content to just watch the lion and take photos.  But, no, I became part of the show!  I just don’t say “no” very well… and someone needs to participate.  I feel bad for the performers when everyone rejects them… I have now danced impromptu for an audience on four continents – only two to go! (both are in the plan in the next year)


A word of warning – dancing backwards with a lion on a moving train when you don’t know the steps will test your balance!  But you will make the guy in the lion suit very happy.  He will growl at you – or was it a purr?  I am pretty sure it was a loud, aggressive purr… but I already had a dinner date when I got to Cusco 😉

the decadent trail to machu picchu

It is always a bit of a challenge trying to suss out the truth about travelling to an exotic foreign locale from an armchair, even in the age of google.  I wanted to make sure I walked away from Machu Picchu satiated, not ready to book the return trip to see it properly.

So I decided to add on some extra days on my own to my g adventures trip.  I figured I would know the ropes by then and travelling solo in a foreign country is always a small adventure.

my spot on the train

my spot on the train

I don’t have that much practice yet travelling solo in developing countries where I don’t speak the language so I go high end to reduce risk.  That’s how I ended up on the Hiram Bingham train bound for Machu Picchu and the Sanctuary Lodge.

Enrique had coached me on how much the taxi should cost and pointed out the train station on our drive back to the hotel the previous night.  The rainy season had washed out part of the track so the train was departing from a different station, which added complications.

If I missed that train, my whole plan unwound so I was really grateful when David offered to read the information from PeruRail to make sure I knew how the alternate plan worked.  Things are looser in Latin countries so I have learned to pay attention and ask questions.  It was a good idea I think as it ended up there were only 3 of us waiting at Wanchaq station for our bus ride to the alternate starting point for the train journey.

Just to be sure I was on the right minibus, I confirmed it with the handsome man who seemed to be in charge.  Yes, we had

sumptuous sacred valley

sumptuous sacred valley

a private minibus tour of the Sacred Valley!  I could bounce around the bus trying to get shots of the gorgeous landscape out of the window.  Not an easy task.  And the early morning light was not ideal.  But it made the journey fly by – and got me chatting with Javier.  It turned out that he was the manager of the train!  I hoped I hadn’t taken up too much of his time but he was exceptional at his job so he looked out for me on the train, making sure I got the full experience.

For someone who spent her early youth devouring everything Agatha Christie ever wrote, there is something about travel on Orient Express trains that just speaks to me.  The journey on the Hiram Bingham is shorter than on the Andean Explorer but it is more luxurious and the scenery possibly a little more spectacular (there is so much glorious scenery in Peru it is tough to rate without just giving it all 5 stars :)).


If you love trains, you will love the Hiram Bingham.  It’s one of those trains originating from the era when trains were the equivalent of air travel in first class.  As on the Andean Explorer, I had my own table, complete with white linen tablecloth, romantic lighting and plenty of space for all my camera equipment.


scenery from the train

scenery from the train

Of course we were called to the bar car for a free Pisco Sour well before lunch.  The Pisco Sour was excellent but I was again more intrigued by the chance to actually shoot the scenery without glass (and reflections) marring the shot.  We also had musicians and dancers entertaining us.  It seems like everyone in Peru likes to dance 🙂

Once that was over, it was time for brunch.  Brunch was really a sumptuous three course lunch.  More trucha!  Everything was delicious.  Since you pay a lot more for the Hiram Bingham train, the alcohol runs freely.  I tried to get my money’s worth but still preserve the ability to do some serious climbing once we got to Machu Picchu.  But it likely helped numb the pain in my damaged toes 🙂

I have only one regret re: my trip to Peru.  Next time I will try and pack more like a backpacker and bring a mostly empty suitcase!  Because I was a wimp and not doing the Inca Trail, I could afford to bring more luggage – but the train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu is ill-equipped to handle luggage so it was a challenge to figure out how to deal with it.  But if you take the Hiram Bingham train, you don’t have to worry about it!

The service is truly first class in every way so my luggage was whisked away in Cuzco and reappeared later in the day in my hotel room at the Sanctuary Lodge.  Decadent but oh so pleasant 🙂

If you take the Hiram Bingham train, you are also whisked from Aquas Calientes (where the train arrives) to Machu Picchu via private bus.  Once you arrive, you are assigned a guide who will tour you around Machu Picchu for an hour or two and then you will have time to explore on your own.  What I discovered by accident is that almost everyone books a tour to travel around Peru so if you book directly with PeruRail you may have the good fortune I had and have your “group” tour be comprised of 3 people!

This time I saw Machu Picchu in the afternoon and the guide was even better than the previous day.  As a reward for a tiny amount of exercise, we were then treated to an extravagant afternoon tea in the Sanctuary Lodge.  There was so much food (and choice) afternoon tea also served as my dinner that night.

you gotta have a tourist shot ;)

you gotta have a tourist shot 😉

Once afternoon tea was complete, most guests were whisked back to Aquas Calientes by private bus to take the Hiram Bingham train back to Cuzco.  It sounded like a lot of fun and I think I may have missed out but my armchair travel planning had me booked into the Sanctuary Lodge for the next two nights.


So I had to reluctantly say goodbye to Javier…  that’s when I found out he was the manager of the train.  So that gave me confidence my exceptional journey was likely just the norm.  I had watched him move around the train and schmooze with everyone during afternoon tea as part of my personal entertainment.  It’s always a delight to watch someone doing his job exceptionally well.

And there is something about Latin men… I don’t know how they learn it.  They seem to love their mothers – and I think that translates to women in general.  There is a sense of chivalry that runs deep.  And they know that not everything in life has to be logical and practical.  They understand the value of flirting to civilization.  As an incorrigible flirt, I like to think I inspire them a little 😉

You should go check it out for yourself.  Book a trip on the Hiram Bingham.  Check Machu Picchu off your bucket list.  And say “hola” to Javier 😉

hobbling around machu picchu…

machu picchu before sunrise

machu picchu before sunrise

It was hardly how I had envisioned my first visit to Machu Picchu.  When one is trapped on a tiny balcony behind a heavy wooden door worried about hypothermia, one tends to kick at the door rather hard trying to be heard.  That might work well in steel toe boots.  Unfortunately, while my Sketcher running shoes are brilliant for travel, they are super lightweight because they are mostly made of mesh…

So my toes looked like a battered housewife the entire time I was in Machu Picchu and I couldn’t take a step without pain.  At least the mesh was stretchy so I had to wince to put them on but the mesh stretched over my swollen toes.  The silver lining 🙂

I did indulge in a debate with myself regarding the day one game plan, especially since I had the luxury of three days at Machu Picchu.  I had already signed up for a 4am wakeup call and 5:30am start before I realized how swollen and bruised my toes would be…  I decided I needed to pretend I was a professional athlete and just suck it up.

Had my toes been in proper health, I could have likely seen it all in the five hours or so allotted by my g adventures tour so I would definitely recommend the independent tour if budget is more limited.

My guide had forgotten his ID so I took the bus from Aquas Caliente to Machu Picchu alone but it is an easy trip and there are lots of other tourists to follow.  It is not a bus trip for the timid – all switchbacks on narrow mountain roads where the drivers almost stop so that they can pass.  But the scenery is stunning – especially in the wee hours of the morning before the sun has woken up.

the bus from aquas caliente to machu picchu

the bus from aquas caliente to machu picchu

sunrise at machu picchu

sunrise at machu picchu

The big highlight of the first day was watching the sun rise.  Wagner, my guide, positioned me in the optimal spot.  My photography skills are not really up to shooting directly into the sun but it was spectacular to witness.

Since I had two more days to experience Machu Picchu I headed back to Aquas Caliente early and discovered a wonderful French bakery.  Then it was back on the train to Ollantaytambo where Enrique collected me.

I felt bad because I didn’t see him at first and was worried I had been left to my own devices again.  But David had told me Enrique was collecting me and they were both so amazing at their jobs it seemed unlikely…

The trip back to Cusco took quite a while so I sat in the front and we chatted while he told me more about Peru, his family and stopped or slowed down so that I could try and get photos.  Connecting with locals makes all travel journeys so much more rewarding.

The official end of the tour struck the same note.  I had left a bag at the hotel and it was already in my room!  Then I went to the restaurant where I had my first meal in Cusco – Tupananchis.  The food was excellent and they had promised me a free drink if I came back.  I was very impressed that they remembered and the food was just as excellent the second time.


Establishing connections – and becoming part of the fabric of a place – is one of the greatest pleasures of travel.  That theme will continue to be explored as we discover Machu Picchu from new perspectives…

machu picchu three ways…

I had been dreaming of Machu Picchu for most of my adult life so wanted to make sure I spent enough time to not feel like I rushed it.  I gather that almost everyone goes to Peru on a group tour so I confused a lot of people trying to explain what I was doing and attempting to confirm details since I was doing most of it solo.

It did sound a little nuts!  But I really saw Machu Picchu!  And left feeling satiated and relaxed about my experience.  My recommendation would be to spend a day less than I did but I do have lots of great shots – and most of them look like I wasn’t surrounded by other tourists.  So there were payoffs 🙂

And it is a really gorgeous, incredible place so you can spend some time there without getting bored. So, on to the story…

My g adventures tour included a visit to Machu Picchu.  In the end, I got to spend quite a few hours there and it was a great way to end the tour.  Because I thought I would only get a couple of hours and I had read about the Sanctuary Lodge when it opened, I decided to book it so that I could spend some more time after the tour.  It is ridiculously expensive so it was a big debate whether to book for one night or two… but I decided to go for the longer visit so that I wouldn’t feel like I’d rushed Machu Picchu.  I think one night is enough – but it provided a chance to do Machu Picchu in a third way!

aquas calientes - great setting

aquas calientes – great setting

My first experience of Machu Picchu was the most typical.  I took the basic PeruRail train from Ollantaytambo station in the Sacred Valley to Aquas Calientes, the holding pen for Machu Picchu tourists.  The hotel in Aquas Calientes was the highlight of the g adventures tour and I would highly recommend it (Andina Luxury).

it was a great view!

it was a great view!

What I would not recommend though is going out on the balcony to take a photo of the Urubamba River!  Well, you can, but prop the door open!  I’ve now been to some interesting locations solo – and I do have people get excited about the risks I am taking.  But I am one of those weirdos who is constantly doing a decision tree in their head and likely have a more sophisticated understanding of risk management than some hedge fund managers…

a shot from the balcony

a shot from the balcony

So I never really have any adventures.  Nothing that would feature in the screenplay of a thriller anyway.  My travel generally lends itself to great plot points for a rom-com…

So it was a surprise to find myself hobbling around Machu Picchu for three days!  Due to my own stupidity, it ended up being fortuitous that I had the third day.  Life works out 🙂

There isn’t much to Aquas Calientes.  It exists to service tourists bound for Machu Picchu.  But I am always interested in what makes places tick so it was fun just wandering around.  And it is in this spectacular setting surrounded by mountains with the Urubamba bubbling beneath them.

It was all fine when I was snapping photos through the hotel room window.  But that never yields the best quality photo.  All of a sudden I realized I had a tiny balcony that was positioned directly over the river with the mountains as a backdrop.

It was all wonderful as I was crouching and laying on the balcony floor to try out different shots.  But it was a small space so there were only so many options… it was time to go and check out the pisco sour I had seen advertised next to the hotel and work on my blog…

But that was when I realized I was LOCKED on the tiny balcony over the river.  I watch lots of cop shows – but I never get myself into situations like that… normally I check the door to make sure it isn’t locked before I go onto a balcony… but I had become reckless in my confidence in my ability to travel in emerging economies.

Of course this had to be the best hotel of the lot, with lots of heavy wood, including the door.  But not fancy enough there was likely turndown service. I was supposed to meet my Machu Picchu guide at 7pm so that meant there was a chance someone would come looking for me in three hours… but that’s a long time to be trapped on a tiny balcony – and it was going to get colder when the sun set…

I figured making noise might help.  I started yelling “help”.. and regretting I had glossed over that word in my Spanish guidebook thinking it was unlikely I would need it… I had no idea if anyone could hear me through all the wood.

No one was coming… so I thought maybe I should kick at the door as that might be noisier.  If I sounded like a crazy rock band and someone came because I was causing a disturbance, that was OK… if only I was on the noisy side facing the train station…

There was no traffic on the river.  The tranquility of nature has its downside…  Luckily checkout was about 9am because everyone was headed for Machu Picchu so at least someone would likely eventually find me and I was unlikely to die of hypothermia – but I would be cold.

So I started checking my surroundings, seeing if there was some way I could alert someone to my dilemma.  I could actually look into the next room if I performed some ballerina type positions on the balcony.  And there were two ladies sitting on the bed in the next room!  At first they just thought I was being friendly and waved at me.  I kept trying hand gestures to get one of them to come to their balcony.

It worked!  But of course I didn’t speak Spanish so was just hoping I could make enough hand gestures to explain that I was locked on my balcony and see if they could get someone to come from reception to release me.

It took some time… time moves really slowly when you are trapped on a tiny balcony… but she eventually arrived.  And then she closed the door with the two of us on the balcony to confirm it was now unlocked!  NOT how I would have done it… but at least she was likely carrying a mobile phone…

That pisco sour tasted so great!  Especially because I was checking out the Urubamba from a large restaurant filled with other people, not frozen in the middle of the night while trying to sleep sitting up on my tiny balcony…

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