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  • Andrew
  • May 14, 2017 03:04:17 AM
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Travels with Andrew, Heide and Lachlan. Stories, photos, tips and recommendations for family travel.

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RTW – Cusco

We used Cusco as a base to see the surrounding area, Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo and the Peruvian Amazon. We also had some logistical tasks to complete in the aftermath of our unfortunate incident in Lima, e.g. buying some replacement gear and picking up my new U.S. passport. After all this activity, we eventually had a […] The post RTW – Cusco appeared first on Airports and...

We used Cusco as a base to see the surrounding area, Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo and the Peruvian Amazon. We also had some logistical tasks to complete in the aftermath of our unfortunate incident in Lima, e.g. buying some replacement gear and picking up my new U.S. passport. After all this activity, we eventually had a couple of days to actually do some sightseeing in Cusco.

Cusco Sightseeing – Day 1

Our first day of sightseeing started in the Plaza de Armas. We had actually visited or crossed the Plaza multiple times on our previous days in Cusco, either on the way to somewhere we were going or to eat at one of the restaurants on the square. As we were in sightseeing mode on this day, we spent a bit more time here checking out the sights, including the statue of Pachacuti, an Inca ruler.

Cusco
Statue of Pachacuti – Plaza de Armas, Cusco

The Plaza was busy with tourists and locals.

Cusco
Plaza de Armas, Cusco

We saw some processions associated with a local religious festival. We never figured out exactly what it was all about, but it was very colorful and loud.

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Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Moving on from the Plaza, our next stop was the Machu Picchu Museum. It probably would have been helpful to see this place before we went to Machu Picchu itself, but it was interesting nonetheless. The museum displays interesting artifacts from the site. It describes Machu Picchu as a retreat for the Inca ruling class. Our guide at Machu Picchu had given us a different explanation, describing it as a university for the youth of the Inca ruling class. Our takeaway is that no one really knows for sure what Machu Picchu was. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take pictures in the museum.

Our next brief stop was to see the famous twelve-angled stone. This is an interesting example of Inca stonework on one of Cusco’s many stone-lined streets. We had to wait a while for a chance to take a picture without any people posing in front of it, this is a popular Instagram spot.

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Twelve-Angled Stone

Qorikancha

Next, we headed to one of Cusco’s major sights, Qorikancha. This was one of the most important Incan temples, yet another “Temple of the Sun”. In typical style, the Spanish built a church, then later a convent on top of the temple, asserting the dominance of the Christian religion they imported to South America.

qorikancha
Convent of Santo Domingo

There are remnants of the original Inca structures remaining. The Spanish used them as storerooms and for other utilitarian purposes. When the Spanish first arrived here, they found rooms lined with gold and golden statues in the gardens. Of course, all this treasure ended up in Spain.

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Inca Rooms – Qorikancha
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Examples of Inca Stone Construction Elements – Qorikancha, Cusco
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Qorikancha

Perhaps the most impressive Inca stonework we saw at Qorikancha was an external curved wall section. This has survived multiple major earthworks over the years, showing how robust Inca stonework is.

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Curved Inca stonework at Qorikancha

Cusco Cathedral

Our last stop for the day was Cusco Cathedral, located on the Plaza de Armas. We found the plaza even busier than it had been earlier that day. We stopped and watched a group perform a traditional dance right outside the cathedral.

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Traditional Dance – Plaza de Armas, Cusco

We were not surprised to learn that the Spanish built the cathedral on the site of an Inca temple. This was part of the effort to replace Incan religious practices with the Roman Catholic religion brought by the Spanish.

Unfortunately we couldn’t take pictures inside the cathedral, which houses many impressive works of art. Probably the most famous of these is the painting of the Last Supper which includes local delicacies on the dinner table. As well as local fruits and drinks, the scene includes a chinchilla (often mistakenly thought to be a guinea pig, which is the more famous rodent dish served in Peru).

Cusco Sightseeing – Day 2

The next day we decided to look for a breakfast that was a bit more interesting than the meager offering included in our hostel room rate. The first place we tried was closed, but a nearby cafe had a good breakfast menu, so we feasted on eggs, bacon, hash browns and pancakes.

After lingering over our breakfast for a while, we had to decide what to do with our last day in Cusco. After consulting the map apps on our phones, we made the decision to walk to Sacsayhuaman, the major Inca ruins in Cusco. This site sits at an elevation of 3,701 m or 12,142 ft, about 300 m or 1,000 ft above Cusco’s already high altitude. However, based on the maps it looked like we were already at a higher altitude than Cusco’s base elevation, so we thought that the walk to Sacsayhuaman would be relatively flat.

Unfortunately, we were wrong. The route to Sacsayhuaman from the cafe descended all the way down to the level of the Plaza de Armas, before heading up some steep steps to make the elevation back again. After our stair-climb we came to an outlook with a great view over Cusco. We were happy to find some benches there to recover from our unexpected climb.

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View of Cusco on our walk to Sacsayhuaman

Sacsayhuaman

We still had bit of a climb left, so after we had recovered somewhat we continued on to Sacsayhuaman. When we arrived, we discovered that our multi-site Cusco tourist tickets had expired a couple of days previously. Also, we didn’t have enough cash with us to buy the individual ticket, and they didn’t take credit cards at the ticket office. It was looking like we had made a punishing hike at high altitude for nothing. Fortunately, after hearing our tale of woe, the people in the ticket office took pity on us and let us in. They did, however, make sure to punch all the other unvisited sites on the ticket to make sure we didn’t try the same trick anywhere else.

After a final push up yet another hill, we finally made it to Sacsayhuaman. We were greeted by massive walls made with some giant stones.

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Sacsayhuaman, Cusco

This is an impressive place, with three-tiered zig zag fortifications.

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Sacsayhuaman
sacsayhuaman
Sacsayhuaman

Next to the main wall is a large open area, used today for reenactments of Inca ceremonies.

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Sacsayhuaman

Cristo Blanco

A trail leads from Sacsayhuaman to Cristo Blanco, a large statue of Jesus that is visible from all over the city and illuminated at night. By this stage we were running out of sightseeing steam, so we didn’t make the additional trek for a closer look.

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Cristo Blanco, Cusco

Like many Inca sites, it’s not known exactly why Sacsayhuaman was built. It served as a fortress during conflict between the Incas and the Spanish, but it is also likely that it was also used for ceremonial purposes. The Incas reputedly laid out the city of Cusco in the shape of a jaguar, with Sacsayhuaman as the head. As a nod to this legend, fence posts at Sacsayhuaman are topped with cute cartoony jaguar heads.

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Fencepost – Sacsayhuaman, Cusco

After seeing Sacsayhuaman we rewarded ourselves with hot chocolate and coffee at a cafe with another amazing view over the city.

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View from our post-Sacsayhuaman cafe

Sufficiently recovered, we started on the steep walked back down into the city.

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Heading back to Cusco from Sacsayhuaman

Our route back to the city center took us through the San Blas area. At San Blas church we got a close up view of the fireworks we had been hearing throughout our time in Cusco. These fireworks appeared to be associated with some kind of church festival. However, the timing of the firework blasts seemed pretty random to us.

Killing Time in Cusco

We had already checked out of our hostel, but the bus to Puno (our next destination) wasn’t scheduled to leave until 10 pm. We killed some time with a leisurely lunch at a hipster burger joint. The service was very slow, but under the circumstances we didn’t mind an extended break from wandering around Cusco.

After lunch we did some shopping. Heide bought the obligatory llama-decorated sweater. It started raining, so we spent some more time looking at souvenirs that we had no intention of buying.

After the rain stopped, we still had a lot of time to kill, so we headed to a shopping center. We figured it would probably have a food court where we could sit and have a treat. It turned out to be a little mini-Akihabara with gaming and anime stores and even a maid cafe. It was interesting to see a little outpost of Japanese culture in Peru. We had some treats, then decided we should have a light dinner before getting on our overnight bus. With a few hours left to kill, we headed back to the hostel. We sat in the courtyard charging phones and poking around online until our taxi arrived at 9pm to take us to the bus station.

Cusco is definitely more than a just a gateway to Machu Picchu. It was the administrative and religious capital of the Inca empire, and is major city today. Although it’s very touristy, this does have some advantages, e.g. there is a wider variety of restaurants here than anywhere else in Peru other than Lima. There is plenty to do and see here, so I would recommend including a couple of days to explore Cusco in any Peru itinerary.

The post RTW – Cusco appeared first on Airports and Sunsets.


RTW – Peruvian Amazon

When we were researching our itinerary for Peru, we discovered that the Peruvian Amazon was a very short flight from Cusco. This prompted further research to see if there was a way to see it that would fit our budget. We found a lot of lodges that looked amazing, but were too expensive. Other cheaper […] The post RTW – Peruvian Amazon appeared first on Airports and...

When we were researching our itinerary for Peru, we discovered that the Peruvian Amazon was a very short flight from Cusco. This prompted further research to see if there was a way to see it that would fit our budget.

We found a lot of lodges that looked amazing, but were too expensive. Other cheaper options aimed at backpackers seemed like they didn’t offer enough of a wilderness experience to make a side-trip from Cusco worthwhile.

Eventually we came across the website for Chuncho Lodge. Their tour itineraries looked like they provided good opportunities to see the Amazon wildlife and environment, and the accommodation looked rustic but comfortable enough. After reading their positive reviews online we contacted the lodge and signed up for a four-day program.

Getting to the Peruvian Amazon

After our time in Ollantaytambo, we headed back to Cusco for one night. Leaving our large luggage at the hostel, we packed just what we needed for our Peruvian Amazon adventure and headed for the airport. It’s a short flight (about an hour or so) from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, which lies on an Amazon tributary and is the gateway to the Tambopata Reserve and Lake Sandoval. We were looking forward to seeing some nature, if nothing else as a change from all the Inca sites we had covered in our recent travels.

Despite the horror stories we had heard about cancellations and delays involved with domestic air travel in Peru, our LATAM flight left on time and the airport wasn’t too chaotic. We were glad that we had opted to fly, rather than taking the overnight bus.

We had our first sight of the Peruvian Amazon from the plane as we approached Puerto Maldonado.

Peruvian Amazon
The view from our flight to Puerto Maldonado

We were met at the airport by staff from Chuncho Lodge who took us to their office in Puerto Maldonado. After some lunch and some paperwork we got in a four wheel drive vehicle to head to the lodge. After a little while on a nice sealed road, we turned off onto a dirt road and things got interesting. It turned out that the road to the lodge was under construction, being upgraded so farmers could more easily get their produce to market. This meant we had to wait at several one-way sections, and drive through some very dodgy temporary detours. Eventually we made it to the river, where we got on a boat for a short hop to the lodge.

Our Peruvian Amazon Lodge

We were met at the lodge by the owner, Jorge, who showed us to our room. It was everything you’d expect from an Amazon lodge, with mosquito nets and a thatched roof.

Chuncho Lodge
Our room at Chuncho Lodge

Our guide (confusingly also named Jorge) was out with some other guests who had arrived before us, so Owner Jorge took us for an introductory walk in the rainforest. We saw some very big trees, and some very small insects, plants and even a cool type of fungus.

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Spiderwebs in late afternoon sunlight
Peruvian Amazon
A massive tree near Chuncho Lodge
Peruvian Amazon
An interesting fungus

Our introductory walk took us to the lodge’s canopy tower (the tallest in the region). Lachlan and I made it about halfway up before deciding to head back down, but Heide made it all the way to the top. Unfortunately, she didn’t have her phone with her, so we didn’t get any photos from all the way up.

Chuncho Lodge
Canopy tower, Chuncho Lodge
Chuncho Lodge
View from halfway up the canopy tower, Chuncho Lodge

When we got back from our walk with Owner Jorge, it was time to go for a night walk with Guide Jorge. This walk focused on the small things that come out at night. This included tarantulas. Jorge took great pleasure in skillfully luring them out with a stick.

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Tarantula

After a basic but satisfactory dinner, we slept well after our day of travel and rainforest exploration.

Macaw Clay Lick

The next morning we were up at 4:30am for the long boat ride to the clay lick. Along the way we saw the sun come up over the river.

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Sunrise on the river

We also saw some capybaras. The capybara is the largest rodent in the world. It looks like a super-sized guinea pig. Unfortunately, the early morning light, the moving boat and the distance made it hard to get a good photo of them. So here is a bad photo:

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Capybara

When we eventually arrived at our landing point, we faced a challenging walk in to the clay lick. Some unseasonal rain the week before had left sticky mud that we had to navigate to get to the clay lick observation point.

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The muddy trail to the clay lick

We all managed to stay upright, but there were some close calls along the way as our boots tended to want to stay behind each time we took a step. Eventually we arrived at the observation point to find the clay lick covered in parrots.

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Parrots on the clay lick

The different species of parrot would take turns on the clay lick.

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There were a few macaws high up in surrounding trees. There was still some early morning mist which made photography challenging.

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Macaws in the mist

Gradually, the mist started to clear, and more macaws arrived in the area. At this stage they were still either circling around, or staying high in the trees.

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Macaws
macaws

Eventually some macaws moved down to the clay lick.

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Macaws on the clay lick
macaw on clay lick, Peruvian Amazon

The macaws were a lot more cautious than the parrots, often flying away from the salt lick spooked by something that we couldn’t perceive from our observation point.

macaw

By this time the morning haze had cleared, and it was easier to photograph the macaws in the trees and in flight.

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macaw

Return to Chuncho Lodge

After eating a simple breakfast which had been brought from the lodge for us, the sun was pretty high in the sky and the number of birds in the area had decreased. It was time to head back to the lodge for a siesta after our early morning start.

After lunch we went for another guided walk on the trails surrounding the lodge. We saw some monkeys, but they were way up in the jungle canopy so I didn’t manage to get a photo.

The other highlight of the walk was a chance to try our hand at luring a tarantula out of its hole. Unfortunately, this proved to be too difficult for amateurs such as us, so Jorge had to take over so we could see some more of the hairy beasts.

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Lachlan tries “fishing” for a tarantula

There were some other lodge guests with us who hadn’t been to the canopy tower yet, so that was the last stop on our walk. Lachlan and I stayed down below, while Heide went to the top again. This time she had her cell phone with her, so she was able to document the view. The group at the top of the tower saw a toucan and a woodpecker, but the camera phone wasn’t up to the task of capturing these.

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View from the canopy tower – Chuncho Lodge

Lake Sandoval

The next day we had a more reasonable wake-up time. After breakfast we headed back to Puerto Maldonado. After lunch at the Chuncho Lodge office we were driven to a dock where we boarded a boat to Lake Sandoval for part two of our Peruvian Amazon adventure.

While on the boat trip, we became aware that once we disembarked we would have a three kilometer walk with our luggage ahead of us. If we had realized this earlier we could have left some of our belongings at the Chuncho Lodge office. Nevertheless, we soldiered on and at the end of our forced march we were very happy to see the canoe that would take us to our Lake Sandoval lodge.

Lake Sandoval
Departure point for the canoe ride to our Lake Sandoval lodge

Our Lake Sandoval wildlife experience started before we’d even made it out to the open lake. Shortly after we left the dock we spotted a small caiman lurking in the shallows.

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Caiman, Lake Sandoval

Reaching the open lake we saw a line of tortoises photogenically arranged on a fallen palm tree.

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Tortoises, Lake Sandoval

The lake itself is an amazing sight, surrounded by seemingly impenetrable jungle.

Lake Sandoval, Peruvian Amazon
Lake Sandoval, Peruvian Amazon
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Canoe selfie, Lake Sandoval

As we were in the final stretch of our journey to the lodge, we saw movement in the water ahead. It turned out to be Lake Sandoval’s famous giant river otters. Our guide had been very careful not to promise that we would see them, as they can be elusive. We were very fortunate to see them early in our time at Lake Sandoval, as it turned out we didn’t see them again after this.

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Giant river otters, Lake Sandoval
giant river otters
giant river otter, Peruvian Amazon

Lake Sandoval Lodge

After this excitement, we landed at the lodge that would be our home for the night. We had read some reviews that mentioned that the lodge for the Lake Sandoval part of the tour was more rustic than Chuncho Lodge, but we found the lodge they put us in about the same. It had a great screened hammock area which was perfect for a siesta after lunch.

There were nature viewing opportunities right at the lodge, including a large praying mantis.

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Praying mantis, Lake Sandoval

Lake Sandoval Sunset

After our siesta, we headed off for a canoe trip around the lake. Although this involved a long time sitting on a hard wooden seat, the scenery and wildlife made it worthwhile.

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Tortoise and butterfly, Lake Sandoval

We mainly saw birds on our voyage, including the amusingly-named stinky bird. More formally known as a hoatzin, this brightly-colored bird ferments vegetation in its stomach. This enables it to detoxify certain leaves that form part of its diet. It also has the unfortunate side effect that gives it its common name.

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Hoatzin, or Stinky Bird

We saw other, less stinky birds as we continued on.

Lake Sandoval, Peruvian Amazon
lake sandoval

As the sun crept lower the breeze subsided, leaving picturesque reflections on the lake.

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Lake Sandoval

The decreasing light made it harder for the camera to capture birds in detail, so I went for more artsy silhouette shots.

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lake sandoval

At one point we came across a heron with amazingly intricate coloring.

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Rufescent Tiger Heron, Lake Sandoval

While we drifted close by checking it out, it decided to join us on our canoe, riding with us for quite a while before heading back to its perch overlooking the lake.

heron, peruvian amazon

We stayed out on the lake until after the spectacular sunset.

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Sunset, Lake Sandoval
sunset, lake sandoval

Leaving Lake Sandoval

The next morning after breakfast we packed up and loaded up the canoe for the journey out from Lake Sandoval. We took our time and did some more nature viewing along the way.

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Leaving Lake Sandoval
Cocoi heron

The most interesting thing we saw on the canoe ride from the lodge was a group of bats hanging out on a palm tree.

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Bats, Lake Sandoval

After the canoe ride, we saddled ourselves up with our luggage for the three kilometer walk back to the river dock. Our Peruvian Amazon nature experience hadn’t quite finished yet, as we saw a toucan up in a tree next to the boardwalk along the way.

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Toucan, Lake Sandoval

We also saw the famous blue morpho butterfly. Unfortunately, all attempts to capture the vivid blue wings with my camera were unsuccessful. I had to settle for a shot of the reverse side of its wing (an interesting pattern, but not what this guy is known for).

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Blue morpho butterfly

These distractions helped pass the time on our walk, and before too long we were on the boat headed back to Puerto Maldonado. After saying our goodbyes at the Chuncho Lodge office, we headed to the airport in a taxi. Unexpectedly, there was a lounge there that we were able to access with our Priority Pass membership. We enjoyed the air conditioning, some snacks and a sneaky beer (for me) before boarding our flight back to Cusco.

The Peruvian Amazon – is it Worth it?

We were definitely glad we made the side trip to the Peruvian Amazon and would recommend it if you have a few days spare in your Peru itinerary. It wasn’t as luxurious an experience as some of our adventures in Africa, but Chuncho Lodge is a good budget option that provides an authentic Amazon experience.

If you have more time and want a more in-depth Amazon experience you can check out some of the other lodge options in the Tambopata Reserve area. As well as a bit more luxury, some of these lodges are deeper in to the reserve which can mean better wildlife viewing opportunities.

If you have even more flexibility, you could also consider the lodges in Iquitos (accessed via flights from Lima). Iquitos is right on the Amazon River itself, as opposed to the tributary that we visited. There are also options to visit the Amazon in Brazil and Ecuador.

Whichever option you choose, seeing the amazing biodiversity of the Amazon is definitely a bucket-list activity. Even if you’re staying in a luxury lodge, there will be some discomforts and possibly some scrambling around in the mud. However, it’s worth it to see this place that is so important to the world’s ecosystem. Tourism provides economic benefits with a lower impact than many of the other economic activities in the region. Also, most of the tourist operators seem to be working to preserve the environment. It’s obviously in their interest to preserve the things their clients come to see. So, do your research to make sure you travel responsibly, then go visit the Amazon.

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RTW – Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo is best known as the place where you catch the train to Machu Picchu, after a taxi or bus ride from Cusco. Most travelers don’t spend any time here, but it’s well worth spending a night or two here if you have the time. We decided to spend a couple of nights here, which […] The post RTW – Ollantaytambo appeared first on Airports and...

Ollantaytambo is best known as the place where you catch the train to Machu Picchu, after a taxi or bus ride from Cusco. Most travelers don’t spend any time here, but it’s well worth spending a night or two here if you have the time. We decided to spend a couple of nights here, which allowed us to do Machu Picchu as a day trip, avoiding the need to spend a night in Aguas Calientes, the tourist trap town at the base of the mountain famous for expensive food and mediocre accommodation.

Ollantaytambo Inca Ruins

The main attraction in Ollantaytambo is the Inca ruins. These impressive terraces are the site of a rare victory by the Incas over the Spanish. However, this victory was short-lived, and soon after this battle the Spanish returned in more force and took the site.

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Inca Ruins at Ollantaytambo

We headed to the ruins first thing after breakfast, but the sun was already bright and warm. After paying our entrance fee, we consulted a helpful map to plan our visit. We took a picture of it on a cellphone so we could consult it as we proceeded through the site (there’s the helpful travel tip for this blog post).

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Map of the Ollantaytambo Inca Ruins

Although Ollantaytambo lies at a lower altitude than Cusco (another good reason to spend some time here rather than basing yourself in Cusco the whole time you’re in the region) it did take a serious effort to climb the large terraces.

Once we made it to the top, we could see some of the interesting detail of the structures that once stood here.

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Inca stonework at Ollantaytambo

The site was actually used by pre-Incan residents, although it’s hard to visualize exactly how, given the state of the pre-Inca area.

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Pre-Incan area – Ollantaytambo

We waited our turn to take the obligatory photo in a classic Inca doorway.

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Ollantaytambo Inca Ruins

Sacred Valley Views

The strenuous climb up the terraces rewarded us with some spectacular views of the Sacred Valley, and across the town of Ollantaytambo. On the mountainside opposite we saw Inca grain silos. You can walk up to these and visit them up close, but we decided to be content with this long-distance view.

Sacred Valley
Sacred Valley view from Ollantaytambo Inca ruins

We also caught a glimpse of a snow-packed peak further into the valley.

Sacred Valley
Ollantaytambo Inca Ruins

Temple of the Sun

The map promised we would be able to visit the Temple of the Sun at the top of the terraces. It turns out that this temple was never completed, so it’s more like the Construction Site of the Sun.

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Temple of the Sun site – Ollantaytambo

There is a wall with some interesting features that gives a hint as to how impressive the Temple of the Sun would have been if it was completed.

Ollantaytambo
Unfinished Wall of Six Monoliths – Ollantaytambo

The Descent

What goes up must come down, so after exploring the site for a while we were ready to begin our descent. Although it wasn’t as hard as the climb up, we did have to tread carefully on the way down over the uneven rock steps.

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Ollantaytambo Inca Ruins

We came down a different route to the way we had climbed the terraces. Reaching ground level we passed through a ceremonial area with various water features.

Ollantaytambo
Ollantaytambo Inca Ruins

On our way out of the site we saw a llama relaxing in the sunshine. We’re not sure why he wasn’t up on the terraces like the ones we saw at Machu Picchu. Maybe he was on a break.

Llama
Llama at Ollantaytambo Inca Ruins

Other Things to Do in Ollantaytambo

After our visit to the Inca ruins, we stopped in at the Choco Museo. The Ollantaytambo branch is smaller than others in Peru, e.g. Cusco, and is more of a store and cafe than a museum. There is some interesting information about chocolate production, and they are generous with free samples, so it’s worth a stop. We enjoyed some chocolate beverages which helped us recover from our climb up and down the terraces.

Later in the day we took a walk through town to see a viewpoint back down the Sacred Valley. We found the viewpoint pretty underwhelming compared to what we had seen from the Inca ruins, and the light wasn’t good for photographs. At least it got us out of our hotel for an afternoon walk before dinner.

The other main activity in Ollantaytambo is climbing to the ruins on the mountainside opposite the official Inca ruins site. This has the advantage of being free, but due to a lack of time and energy we decided not to check them out.

There is a small Plaza de Armas which you will inevitably come across looking for food or other necessities. Unfortunately, it isn’t as impressive as others we saw in Peru, even in towns smaller than Ollantaytambo.

Where to Eat in Ollantaytambo

There are quite a few restaurants in town, but no particular stand-outs. When the weather is cold, as it was when we were there, a good option is to head to one of the town’s pizzerias where the wood-fired oven is located in the dining room.

Where to Stay in Ollantaytambo

We stayed at Peru Quechua’s Lodge Ollantaytambo, and were very happy with it. It was one of the nicest places we stayed in Peru, with lovely hosts and a good breakfast. It’s a little bit of a walk from the center of town, but this means it’s nice and quiet.

There are quite a few other options in town, mostly small guest houses in the cobblestoned back streets.

Wherever you stay in Ollantaytambo, it’s definitely worth considering as a base to see Machu Picchu. You could also base yourself here to see other Sacred Valley sites. It’s a much more peaceful alternative to the hustle and bustle of Cusco. Don’t forget to build a day into your itinerary to see the Inca ruins, and enjoy wandering the mostly quiet streets of this historic town.

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RTW – Machu Picchu

After our day trips from Cusco, it was time to visit a major site on our Peru itinerary – Machu Picchu. We decided to do this a bit differently to the way most visitors do it. Instead of spending a night in the town of Aguas Calientes and joining the crowds at sunrise, we booked […] The post RTW – Machu Picchu appeared first on Airports and...

After our day trips from Cusco, it was time to visit a major site on our Peru itinerary – Machu Picchu. We decided to do this a bit differently to the way most visitors do it. Instead of spending a night in the town of Aguas Calientes and joining the crowds at sunrise, we booked an afternoon entry time to Machu Picchu and did it as a day trip from Ollantaytambo, a small town at the northern end of the Sacred Valley. Most people experience it as a place to catch the train to Machu Picchu after taking a taxi or minivan there from Cusco. However, we decided to stay there for three nights to give us time to do our Machu Picchu day trip and also spend some time exploring the ruins at Ollantaytambo, which are impressive in their own right.

Train to Machu Picchu

We had time for breakfast at our hotel before making our way to the train station. Whether starting from Cusco or Ollantaytambo, the train is the most popular way to get to Macchu Picchu. Diehard budget travelers can take a minivan most of the way and walk along the train tracks into Aguas Calientes to save some money. Even though the train tickets were quite expensive for a fairly short trip, this was the way to go for us.

We had time for a cup of coffee at the station before our train showed up.

Machu Picchu Train
Our train to Machu Picchu

As we were traveling in the morning and it’s a very scenic ride, we paid a bit extra for the Vistadome service on PeruRail. The carriages have large side windows and roof window panels for peeks at the mountain peaks. The train follows the Urabamba river for a large part of the journey.

train to Machu Picchu
Urabamba River seen from the train to Machu Picchu
PeruRail Vistadome
Heide in our PeruRail Vistadome car

Along the way we passed the starting point for the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. We could see trekkers and porters starting their journey.

Inca Trail
Inca Trail starting point

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes is the small town at the base of the mountain where Machu Picchu is situated. It exists solely to service the more than one million tourists that pass through each year.

We had some time to look around before we had to find some lunch then board our bus to Machu Picchu. As we headed toward the town square we stumbled across musicians and kids in fancy dress getting ready for a parade or ceremony.

Aguas Calientes
Getting ready for the parade – Aguas Calientes

It turned out that the town was celebrating the anniversary of Machu Picchu’s declaration as a “Wonder of the World”.

Aguas Calientes
Getting ready for the celebration – Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes
Parade – Aguas Calientes

After watching some of the celebrations, it was time for us to find some lunch before heading up the mountain. This proved to be a bit difficult, as all the options were very expensive (a shock after how cheaply we had been eating everywhere else in Peru). We wandered the narrow streets for a while looking for a reasonable lunch option.

Aquas Calientes
Aguas Calientes

In Peru the best deal is generally a restaurant’s “menu del dia” or menu of the day. Most places the restaurants display these proudly to lure in customers. In Aguas Calientes we quickly realized that restaurants have these special menus, but don’t advertise them. In one case, a restaurant host covered up the special menu so we wouldn’t see it. Needless to say we didn’t eat there.

We eventually found a place with decent online reviews who reluctantly admitted to a menu del dia that had some options that sounded OK. As a bonus it had a nice view.

Aguas Calientes
Our Lunch View – Aguas Calientes

Entering Machu Picchu

After our lunch, we joined the queue for the bus to take us to Machu Picchu for our 1pm entry time. The Peruvian government has recently introduced timed entry tickets to try and spread out the tourists throughout the day. Despite this, the morning time slots are still the most popular. Part of our reason for choosing an afternoon time was to avoid the worst of the crowds.

We had arranged for a guide in advance from the same company that organized our Southern Valley day trip from Cusco. Following a bus ride featuring some extreme hairpin curves and steep drop-offs, we arrived at the entrance to Machu Picchu where we met our guide. After a brief wait for the clock to turn over to 1 pm, we entered the site wondering if it would live up to the hype.

Once inside, we had a bit of a steep climb up some terraces before our first view of this iconic sight.

Machu Picchu
Just inside the entrance to Machu Picchu

Soon we were presented with the classic view of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
The obligatory family portrait

Talking to other visitors, we discovered that the whole site had been engulfed in cloud until after noon. There were people still there after 1pm who had been waiting since early morning for the clouds to lift so they could see the ruins. This further reinforced our decision to opt for an afternoon entry time.

After some time contemplating this classic view, we moved on to the next viewpoint to view the site and the surrounding valleys from a different angle.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

Wildlife

As we headed down to explore the site in more detail we met some of the non-human inhabitants. “Wildlife” is probably the wrong word for the llamas, as they are domesticated and kept in pens overnight. They do a good job keeping the grass short. Also, they pose nicely for photos.

llama - Machu Picchu
Llama – Machu Picchu
Llama - Machu Picchu
Llama – Machu Picchu

We also saw some vizcacha. These are a rabbit-like rodent that likes to hang out in rock crevices at various places on the site.

vizcacha
Vizcacha – Machu Picchu

Exploring Machu Picchu

Our tour continued with a closer look at buildings in the different areas of the site.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

As we made our way through the site, our guide told us about Machu Picchu’s role as a kind of university for elite young Incas. Interestingly, we later visited the Museo Machu Picchu in Cusco which didn’t mention this, instead describing the site as a retreat for Incan royalty.

Whatever the real story, this is obviously a site that was of great significance to the Incas. There are temples and buildings displaying the fine Inca stone work that was reserved for places of religious or royal significance.

machu picchu
Temple of the Sun
machu picchu
Temple of the Three Windows
machu picchu
Fine Inca stone work
machu picchu
Royal Tomb

One downside of our afternoon entry time was that there were a couple of temples and sites that we couldn’t enter. There was so much to see here that we didn’t think this was too much of an issue.

We continued past the residential are of the site and saw the Sacred Rock, used for Inca rituals.

machu picchu
Sacred Rock

From this end of the site we had a great view of Huayna Picchu. Limited tickets are available each day to hike to the top for an alternative view of Machu Picchu (note: we did not do this – it’s really steep).

huayna picchu
Huayna Picchu

At this point, our guided tour finished and we were free to wander by ourselves for a while. We spent some more time checking out the architectural details of this amazing site.

machu picchu
Machu Picchu
machu picchu
Machu Picchu

We made a new friend, a stray dog who attached himself to us for a while.

machu picchu
New friend

Leaving Machu Picchu

We noticed that the weather was starting to close in again. Also, our brains were full after seeing so much of this amazing site and hearing so much information from our guide, so we decided to make our way to the exit. On the way we passed through the terraces we had looked down on when we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu.

machu picchu
Machu Picchu terraces

We were very glad to sit in our seats for the bus back down to Aguas Calientes. We found a place to get a drink to kill some time before our 8:50pm return train, and ended up staying there for dinner rather than wandering around in search of more budget options.

Finally it was time to head back to the station. We had booked the cheaper train service back to Ollantaytambo, figuring as it would be night time we didn’t need to pay extra for big windows. We were a bit surprised that the return train turned out to be a rattly single carriage. It did get us back safely to Ollantaytambo where we got a taxi back up the hotel to our hotel. We fell into bed around 10:30, exhausted.

To sum up, Machu Picchu is a must-see in Peru. It’s expensive, inconvenient to get to and you will have to deal with a lot of other tourists. You should go anyway to see it for yourself if you have the opportunity.

The post RTW – Machu Picchu appeared first on Airports and Sunsets.


RTW – Day Trips from Cusco

We had to rearrange our itinerary a bit due to our extended time in Lima, so we ended up doing a couple of day trips from Cusco before we saw much of the city itself. Arriving in Cusco The long bus ride from Arequipa on our Peru Hop bus was made more tolerable by our […] The post RTW – Day Trips from Cusco appeared first on Airports and...

We had to rearrange our itinerary a bit due to our extended time in Lima, so we ended up doing a couple of day trips from Cusco before we saw much of the city itself.

Arriving in Cusco

The long bus ride from Arequipa on our Peru Hop bus was made more tolerable by our downstairs seats. While we were waiting for the bus (at an ungodly early hour) some other passengers gave us a tip that these were better than the seats upstairs. We managed to grab the last few downstairs seats and enjoyed the extra space they provided. After just a couple of short stops (including a surprisingly decent buffet lunch), we got in to Cusco after dark. Peru Hop provided a taxi to our hotel, which was a nice touch. We found a cheap restaurant nearby to quickly eat before falling into bed, exhausted.

Lakeside viewpoint on the road from Arequipa to Cusco

The next day was mostly taken up with administrative tasks, including work on the insurance claim resulting from our incident in Lima. We did get out for a while to check out the Plaza de Armas and get an incredibly cheap lunch at the San Pedro Market. At 5 soles (less than USD 1.50) each for soup, main course and a drink this was the cheapest meal we’d found so far on our trip.

plaza de armas cusco
Statue of Pachacuti (an Inca ruler) – Plaza de Armas, Cusco
plaza de armas cusco
Church La Compañía de Jesús – Plaza de Armas, Cusco

Day Trips from Cusco – Southeast Valley Tour

The next day we did the first of our day trips from Cusco. This was a guided tour of the valley south of Cusco. This area is less visited than the Sacred Valley, but has some interesting sights. We first heard about it from one of Heide’s tennis coaches in Houston. He is from Peru, and told us that when in Cusco we had to see the church in Andahuylillas, known as “The Sistine Chapel of the Andes” for its murals, gold leaf altar and decorated ceiling.

In our pre-trip research we found a tour that included Andahuylillas from a company with good reviews online. After breakfast at our hotel, our guide picked us up and we were off on the day’s adventure.

Tipon

The first stop was the Inca site of Tipon. This place has the usual terraces, but also features a complex system of canals and decorative waterfalls.

day trips from cusco
Terraces at Tipon
day trips from cusco
Looking back over the valley from Tipon
day trips from cusco
Waterfall at Tipon

It’s thought that Tipon was a site where ceremonies took placed, based on the stonework and decorative features.

day trips from cusco
Wall detail – Tipon

One of the advantages of a guided tour is that you have someone to take pictures of the whole family.

cusco day trips
Tipon

Pikillacta

Our next stop was Pikillacta. This is the largest pre-Inca site in the region. It takes a bit of imagination to picture the city in its heyday, as a lot of it consists of piles of rubble and broken walls.

cusco day trips
Pikillacta

A feature that is intact is the system of passageways incorporating city walls that protected the city and controlled access.

cusco day trips
Pikillacta city walls

The city was located in a strategic position overlooking a valley with access to water.

Pikillacta

There are also parts of the site where a more focused excavation has occurred. These are thought to be the areas where the priests and rulers lived.

pikkilacta
Pikkilacta

It was interesting to see a pre-Inca site and see how different it was from the Incan ruins that are so prevalent in Peru.

Andahuylillas

The last stop on the first of our day trips from Cusco was Andahuylillas. The village itself is fairly small and unassuming. As we approached the church, our first clue that this place was something special was the line of souvenir stalls outside it.

andahuylillas
Andahuylillas

As we approached the church itself there were some external decorations that hinted at what we would see inside.

andahuylillas
Andahuylillas – the “Sistine Chapel of the Andes”

Before we went inside our guide lined us up for the obligatory family photo outside the church.

day trips from cusco
Andahuylillas

We had been looking forward to seeing this place since before we left on our trip, and we weren’t disappointed. The interior murals, decoration and altar were all a step up from any church we had seen so far in our travels (and by this stage we had seen quite a few). Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take photographs inside, but you can check out this link to get an idea of what we saw.

Overall, this was a good tour, and we’d definitely recommend Exclusive Inka Tour if you’re interested in any of the day trips from Cusco they offer.

Day Trips from Cusco – Sacred Valley

The second of our day trips from Cusco was a “taxi tour”. This is where you hire a taxi to take you to a number of sites which you then visit by yourself. The taxi driver waits for a set period of time for you at each place. The driver doesn’t act as a tour guide, but you can hire a guide at each of the sites if you need one. We did a taxi tour that took us from our accommodation in Cusco to our hotel in Ollantaytambo. This would be our base for our visit to Machu Picchu.

Chincheros

Our first stop was the town of Chincheros. This is an interesting mix of Inca and Spanish colonial style. The town sits at an even higher altitude than Cusco, and we had to climb a hill to get to the main square. It was quite a workout for us first thing in the morning.

chincheros
Stairway to Chincheros main square

In typical colonial style, the Spanish built their church on top of an Inca palace. It overlooks the square where artisans sell their wares. We weren’t there on Sunday, which is the busiest market day. However, there was still a good selection of crafts, especially woven goods, at good prices. Although we were tempted, with our limited luggage space we decided against making any purchases.

day trips from cusco
Chincheros
chincheros
Church entryway – Chincheros
chincheros
Bell Tower – Chincheros

There is a large open area next to the main square with great views of nearby mountains.

chincheros
View from Chincheros

After our scheduled half an hour here, we made our way back down the stairs to move on to our next location.

Maras Salt Mines

Our next stop was to see the more than two thousand salt evaporation pools at Maras. Our driver stopped at the top of the valley so we could look down and get an overview.

day trips from Cusco
Maras Salt Mines

After driving down into the valley and paying our entrance fee, we made our way past the multitude of souvenir stalls for a closer look at the salt pools.

maras
Maras Salt Mines
maras salt mines
Selfie time at the salt mines
Maras Salt Mines

On our way back to the car we stopped to buy some salt, and some salt-infused chocolate. These were inexpensive, albeit temporary souvenirs of our visit to this interesting place. Unfortunately, visitors can no longer walk out among the salt pools, but the Maras Salt Mines are still well worth a visit.

Moray

The most spectacular site we visited on this tour was the Inca site of Moray, famous for its circular terraces.

day trips from cusco
Moray

As we looked down into the terraces we saw a group who were looking to adsorb some mystical energy by making a circle of their own.

moray

We made our way down the pathway into the terraces for a closer look, and a view looking up from the “bowl” that the terraces sit in.

moray
Terraces at Moray
Moray

There is a second “bowl” that is a bit less restored than the one you see when you first arrive. It’s interesting to see the areas that are in the process of being restored.

moray
Moray – areas under restoration

As we made our way out of the site it was interesting to see the patterns formed by the stone staircases between each terrace.

moray
Moray

Our taxi driver took a family portrait for us. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as good a photographer as our guide from the previous day’s tour.

moray

Arriving in Ollantaytambo

We had one more bonus stop before arriving at our hotel in Ollantaytambo. We pulled over for a quick stop to check out the Skylodge. These are accommodation pods that are accessed by climbing a ferrata route of iron rungs up the cliff face. When your stay is over, you zip-line back to the valley floor. Unfortunately, they were out of our budget, otherwise I’m sure we would have been up for the challenge of staying here …

skylodge
Skylodge – Sacred Valley

We finally arrived at our hotel in Ollantaytambo after a full day’s sightseeing. As we checked in to our room we could see a glimpse of some more Inca ruins, but these would have to wait for another day. After a stroll around the historic cobblestone streets to find some dinner, we fell into our beds, resting up for the next day’s adventure – Machu Picchu.

ollantaytambo
View from our hotel – Ollantaytambo

Although a lot of people come to Cusco to see Machu Picchu and maybe some of the city itself, it’s definitely worth it to allow a bit more time to do some day trips from Cusco. The tours we did were interesting in their own right, and also gave us context for the things we saw later at Machu Picchu.

If fully guided tours are out of your budget, then consider a “taxi tour” – we booked online with Taxidatum, but you could also arrange it directly with a taxi driver if you meet one you like, or your accommodation may be able to organize it for you.

The post RTW – Day Trips from Cusco appeared first on Airports and Sunsets.


RTW – Colca Canyon Tour

As well as the city itself, the other reason to visit Arequipa is to do a Colca Canyon tour. This is one of the deepest canyons in the world at 3,270 meters or 10,730 feet. As well as the stunning scenery, these tours provide an opportunity to see the increasingly rare Andean condor. Colca Canyon Tour […] The post RTW – Colca Canyon Tour appeared first on Airports and...

As well as the city itself, the other reason to visit Arequipa is to do a Colca Canyon tour. This is one of the deepest canyons in the world at 3,270 meters or 10,730 feet. As well as the stunning scenery, these tours provide an opportunity to see the increasingly rare Andean condor.

Colca Canyon Tour Options

There are two main decisions to be made when deciding which Colca Canyon tour to take from Arequipa. First, you need to decide whether you want to hike down into the canyon (and back up). You can do a 2 day or 3 day trek, both of which involve a hideously early (like, 3am) pickup time on the first day of the tour.

With neither the fitness or the desire for such a trek, we opted for a tour that included viewpoints along the canyon rim. You can do this in one day, but the pickup time is also ridiculously early as it’s a long way to the canyon. We chose a 2 day tour which included an overnight stay in the nearby town of Chivay before visiting the canyon. This allowed for a more reasonable departure time and also more stops to see things along the way.

This chart does a good job of comparing the various tour options if you’re considering a Colca Canyon tour.

Leaving Arequipa

We had time to grab some breakfast at the hostel before our 8:30am pick up for our tour. After some driving around town to circle back to pick up some passports that one of the other passengers had left at their hotel room, we headed out of Arequipa towards Colca Canyon.

Not too far out of town, our guide (the fabulously named Victor Hugo) suggested we keep an eye out for vicuña. These are the wild relatives of llamas and alpacas that produce an even finer wool than either of their domesticated cousins. Soon enough we came across a group close enough to the road for us to get a good look.

vicuna
Vicuña

As we pulled away after our photo op, Victor told us about the annual ceremony where they are rounded up and brushed (not sheared) to retrieve the incredibly valuable wool.

The scenery surrounding the vicuna was a barren desert landscape.

colca canyon tour
Desert and Vicuna

There were some interesting rock formations, and some stunning views of Misti, the volcano that towers over Arequipa.

colca canyon tour
Rock formations on the way to Colca Canyon
Misti

We also came across a group of llamas with a photogenic mix of colors.

llamas
Llamas

We made a brief stop at the Patapampa Pass. This was the highest elevation we would encounter on our Colca Canyon tour, at 4,910 meters (16,109 feet). As it’s located on a high plateau, looking out from the viewpoint doesn’t really give a sense of the altitude, but trying to walk around and breathe up there definitely did.

colca canyon tour
View from Patapampa Pass
patapampa pass
Patapampa Pass altitude marker

Chivay

Around midday we approached the town of Chivay where we would spend the night. Before our final approach we stopped at an overlook looking down on the town.

chivay
Chivay

We arrived in Chivay and headed straight to a restaurant for a buffet lunch. The deck of the restaurant offered a nice view of the town and a volcano in the distance spewing ash into the sky. The local populace seemed unconcerned by this sight, so we followed their lead and didn’t worry too much about the possibility of being buried under tons of volcanic ash while we slept.

chivay
Chivay – our view from lunch

After lunch our guide took us on a walk through the town. We saw the market, a series of statues commemorating traditional dances from the area and the Plaza de Armas.

chivay
Chivay Plaza de Armas

In the Plaza we saw a tree that had been carved with a crucifixion scene.

chivay

After our walk we checked into the hotel and had a brief rest before heading to the thermal baths.It was a bit cold getting in and out of the hot pool, but it felt good to soak after the miles we had covered on bumpy roads in the preceding weeks.

colca canyon tour
Thermal baths – Chivay

As we left the baths, we saw a nice sunset sky.

colca canyon tour
Sunset – Chivay

When we returned we had some free time before dinner. We chose to nap rather than do any more exploring, as we were feeling the altitude (about 3,600 meters or 12,000 feet) and the effects of our overnight bus ride from Nazca.

Dinner was a very touristy affair with local music and dances (with the obligatory audience participation).

chivay
Dinner and a show – Chivay

Colca Canyon

Even though we were close to the canyon, we had an early start the next morning, setting the alarm for 5:00 am to make it to breakfast at 5:30 am. The early start allowed us to beat the crowds traveling from Arequipa on one day Colca Canyon tours. It also meant that we could make a few stops on the way to the canyon.

We stopped at a couple of villages, including one where the local folks had set up an early morning market with souvenirs for sale, alpacas to take pictures with (for a fee) and traditional dancing. It was all a bit much this early in the morning.

One of the villages had a church that had been badly damaged in an earthquake. The passing tourist trade provides some income for the rebuilding fund, but it seems like restoration will be a slow process.

colca canyon tour

After a while we came to the beginning of the Colca Canyon. We stopped at a viewpoint to look over some agricultural terraces as the rising sun lit the peaks in the distance.

Condors

Our guide was very careful to manage our expectations about whether we would see any condors. As with any wild creature, there is always the chance that they won’t turn up. Nevertheless, we were hoping that we wouldn’t be spending a few hours staring into the canyon at nothing.

Before we got to the main condor viewpoint, we stopped at a site where condors are known to roost on the rocks. Sure enough there were a couple of juvenile condors posing nicely for us in the morning sun.

condor
Condor
condor
Condor

After this photo stop, we moved on to the main viewing point for condors, Cruz del Condor.

colca canyon tour
Cruz del Condor – Colca Canyon

We piled out of the bus and were confronted with an amazing view deep into the canyon.

colca canyon tour
Colca Canyon

Soon, however, we were distracted from the scenery by the arrival of a couple of condors.

condor
Condor – Colca Canyon
condor
Condor – Colca Canyon

We decided to move down to the lower viewpoint to see a different angle into the canyon.

colca canyon tour
Colca Canyon

As the morning warmed up, more condors appears, flying closer to us.

condor
Condor – Colca Canyon
Condor – Colca Canyon
Condor – Colca Canyon

Looking back towards the higher viewpoint we could see multiple condors riding the thermals coming up from the canyon.

Colca Canyon condors
Condors – Colca Canyon

Canyon Rim Walk

Because we saw so many condors so quickly, we didn’t need to spend as long as the tour allowed for at the viewpoint. This allowed us to make an extra stop for a walk along a nearby canyon rim trail. Looking down at the trails walked by participants in the the trekking tours reinforced our decision to take the non-trek option. Our guide told us that he used to lead these treks but had to give it up due to problems with his knees caused by the many descents and climbs to and from the canyon.

colca canyon tour
Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon

Our guide knew the perfect spot for the obligatory “standing on the edge of the canyon” pic.

Colca Canyon tour
Andrew and Heide at Colca Canyon

As we walked back to the bus we took one last look back at the canyon. Despite the early mornings and the altitude, our Colca Canyon tour was a great experience. We were fortunate to experience some great weather and see a lot of condors. This was one of the highlights of our Peru adventures.

colca canyon tour
Colca Canyon

We made one last stop in a village we had skipped on the way to the canyon. This was mainly for a bathroom break, but of course there was a village church to check out.

colca canyon tour

This one featured an impressive carved wooden alter, so was well worth a quick visit.

We then headed back to Chivay for lunch, before hitting the road back to Arequipa. This was a long drive, with only one bathroom stop and we dozed most of the way.

We arrived back in Arequipa before 5:00 pm, then headed out for a quick dinner. We were in bed before 9:00pm to be ready for our 5:00 am pick up the next morning for our bus to Cusco.

The post RTW – Colca Canyon Tour appeared first on Airports and Sunsets.


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