Vida Huancaína

Our adventure in the Andes


Cousin Adventures: Machu Picchu!

The majestic Incan ruins of Machu Picchu were the last and most impressive stop on our gringo trail itinerary!

Machu Picchu!!

Machu Picchu!!

We departed from Cusco via a bus/train combination operated by Peru Rail that takes you through a river valley to the town of Aguas Calientes.  The tiny town is built up between the mountains were the ruins rest and alongside the Urubamba River.  It’s really not much more than a place for tourists to gather before heading up to Machu Picchu, and it is the most expensive town that we have visited in all our time in Peru because every supply has to be brought into the town by the train. IMG_5145

from right: train tracks through the middle of town, rushing Urubamba River, and bridges connecting the two sides of town

from right: train tracks through the middle of town, rushing Urubamba River, and bridges connecting the two sides of town

I had visited Machu Picchu 10 years ago as part of my semester studying abroad in Ecuador; Chris had visited 5 years ago during his first pre-dissertation field work trip to Peru; and it was our cousin’s first trip. It has changed SO much since my first visit.  The amount of development along the route from Cusco, and then the town of Aguas Calientes itself was just astonishing.  The train 10 years ago had hard wooden benches, and I purchased corn on the cob with cheese from a woman selling it from a bucket.  The train now not only has fold down tables laid with table runners and center pieces to accompany the hot meal that is served, but it also has entertainment including a local dance performance and a fashion with the staff modeling alpaca sweaters and ponchos made exclusively for the railway by one of the top alpaca knitwear producers in Peru (yes, you read that right, a fashion show).

clockwise from top right: fancy table spread inside the train, sorority posing with Machu Picchu seal on the train, view from the panoramic windows inside the train, and posing with train again

clockwise from top right: fancy table spread inside the train, sorority posing with Machu Picchu seal on the train, view from the panoramic windows inside the train, and posing with train again

Our train arrived to Aguas Calientes around 1 pm and we wandered around the town (for all of the 15 minutes that it takes to walk through it) and then rested up for our early morning journey to the ruins.  We were up at 5:30 am, purchased our bus tickets, and were on the bus up to the entrance by 6 am.  The bus ride takes approximately 30 minutes on a very winding road that zig zags up the mountain.  You can also hike to the entrance, but we opted to pass on the hour-long (or possibly more) hike to save our energy for exploring the ruins!

Being the height of the rainy season, the ruins were shrouded by misty clouds, ever shifting in shape and allowing you to see only portions of the ruins and surrounding mountains at a time. Armed with our rain jackets, we went off to explore the ruins. Many independent tour guides were waiting outside the entrance upon our arrival and we negotiated with a lovely guide to show the three of us around.  She guided us through the ruins, explaining how the ruins were built by the Incas in the 1450s, but was abandoned to help fight against the Spanish after their arrival in 1533.  The ruins were then re-discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham of Yale University with the help of a local family who lived at the bottom of the mountain.  Despite all the years that the ruins passed without occupants, the majority of the stonework buildings remain intact and even the fountains still flow with clear, fresh water.

windows looking through windows

windows looking through windows

misty morning

misty morning

here come the natural lawnmowers!

here come the natural lawnmowers!

llamas and ruins!

llamas and ruins!

fountain still flowing with water

fountain still flowing with water

The Incans used a trapezoidal design in their building construction, making the buildings extremely resistant to earthquakes.  The mountain is covered with large boulders and stones, which were used as the building material.  To carve out the rocks, they chinked out holes into the large stones covering the mountaintop, filled the holes with branches soaked in water, and as the branches dried the rock would break apart.  From there, the rocks were sanded down using sand until they could be used.  The buildings of the common people had more jagged stones, whereas the temples had the most polished stones, almost smooth to the touch.  And, quite amazingly, some were built in concert with the large boulders with stones sitting just perfectly atop the boulder.

example of how they carved the stones, by putting wet branches into those small holes

example of how they carved the stones, by putting wet branches into those small holes

buildings worked into the existing rock on the mountain, even jutting out above the abyss

buildings worked into the existing rock on the mountain, even jutting out over the edge

buildings built on top of existing rocks and boulders

how on earth did they manage to build on top of that big boulder?!

houses of the commoners

houses of the commoners

three windows

three windows in a temple building

template of the condor (see that rock on the ground?  the piece pointing towards you is the nose of the condor and the wings are the big rocks rising above it)

template of the condor (see that rock on the ground? the piece pointing towards you is the nose of the condor and the wings are the big rocks rising above it)

It’s thought that the sight was chosen for its strategic location, high up for protection, alongside the Urubamba River for water, and the abundance of building materials scattered over the mountaintop. The city had incredibly good urban planning, with different sectors designated for certain activities–crops, animals, textile and pottery production, a marketplace, and more.  To protect against erosion, terraces were built up the sides of the mountain and then the main buildings were placed on the top of the mountain.

our guide said this rock is in the shape of the sight of Machu Picchu and was used to plan the city

our guide said this rock is in the shape of the sight of Machu Picchu and was used to plan the city

fortification terraces extending down the mountainside

fortification terraces extending down the mountainside

agricultural terraces

agricultural terraces

My favorite part of the entire visit was climbing up the watch tower to catch a glimpse of the entire sight, including Wayna Picchu, or the Young Mountain, the rises up at the other end of the ruins.  We watched the clouds shift across the ruins, sometimes completely obscuring the surrounding peaks, and listened to the rushing waters of the Urubamba River rising up from far below.  It was such an incredible moment, sitting together with my family, looking out over the ruins of Machu Picchu and imaging the energy that it must have taken to built such an incredible place so high up in the mountains with such precision to leave it standing more than 500 years later.  A humbling and special experience that I will treasure forever.


cousins and terraces

cousin in a window!

cousin in a window!



with the hubby

with the hubby


so happy!




This post is dedicated to our dear family friend who we lost yesterday.  Her kind, generous and caring spirit will be missed.  In her memory, I share with you this little hummingbird we saw in Cusco that was just happily chirping away.  I know how much she would have loved to have seen it.  You’re forever in our thoughts and memories.


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Cousin Adventures: Cusco

Cusco was the third stop on our gringo trail adventure. The city sits high in the Andes at 10,000 feet/3,000 meters above sea level and is the jump-off point for Machu Picchu. Hosting tourists from all over the globe, the city is well-maintained and offers everything that a gringo could want (at an escalated price, of course, for a captive audience).  Vendors and restaurant-owners shout loudly at visitors, luring us to purchase their goods or enter their establishment for lunch.  It’s a bit of an offense to the senses, leading us to avoid the main plaza and other highly-touristed areas as much as possible.

Cusco's main plaza

Cusco’s main plaza

plaza at night

plaza at night

We visited a few sights around town, starting with one of Chris’ favorites in all of Peru–the Museo de Art Precolombino.  The museum has a subset of objects, including pottery and carved wooden artifacts, that were originally housed in the Museo Larco in Lima.  Our favorites of all the examples were from the Mochica people.  The Moche lived in the northern, coastal region of Peru, and Chris and I had actually seen an example of one of their elaborate pyramid tombs during our trip to Chiclayo last year.  Their pottery incorporates anthropomorphized animals, and the museum had pieces that represented birds, deer, and llamas (Chris’ fave it the duck and mine are the llamas in the below photo collage).  The museum is really well done, with interesting displays and wonderfully written little blurbs about each piece that not only include information, but also evoke thoughtful emotion.

Museo de Arte Precolombiano

Museo de Arte Precolombiano

top left: carved wooden objects, others: examples of pottery, including the Mochica's anthropomorphized animals like birds, deer, and llamas

top left: carved wooden objects, others: examples of pottery, including the Mochica’s anthropomorphized animals

The second sight we visited was Qorikancha.  If there is only one sight you visit in Cusco, this should be it.  It is a great example of how the Spanish usurped the Inca’s power by taking over the location and the meaning of the place.  Qorikancha was a principle religious site founded by the Incan king, Manko Kapac, and then revitalized and adorned with gold under the rule of Pachakuti.  The Spanish looted all of the gold decorations and built a Catholic monastery on the grounds, on top of the Incan foundation and around remnants of the old religious site.  These remaining examples of the Incan architecture are absolutely spectacular.  The Incans perfectly carved out pieces of stone so that they fit seamlessly together without mortar, and then polished them by hand to an absolutely smooth sheen (I don’t think you’re supposed to, but cousin and I touched it just to see how smooth they are!).  It’s just incredible.  And that they’re all standing, completely undisturbed by multiple large earthquakes since their construction in the mid-15th century, is just remarkable.


you can see the multiple layers of construction, with the perfectly square stones of the Incas on the bottom, the less precise Spanish architecture, and the modern buildings that house the present-day museum


view of Cusco from the site


Spanish colonial architecture of the monastery


remains of the Incan temple inside the monastery


look how perfectly those hand-carved and polished rocks fit together!


more views of the remaining Incan temple inside the monastery

We stayed a few blocks off the main plaza at an adorable bed and breakfast called El Balcón.  All the rooms on the second floor are connected on a long balcony from which you get the most spectacular views over the city and surrounding mountains. One afternoon we were even treated to a view of a rainbow extending high above it all. We highly recommend El Balcón for a lovely little spot close enough to everything, yet just far enough away to be peaceful and relaxing.

a cup of coca leaf tea is offered to guests to help with the altitude

guests are offered a cup of coca leaf tea upon arrival to help with the altitude

the balcony at El Balcón

taking in the view from the balcony

rainbow over Cusco

rainbow over Cusco

Next up, the final installment of the “Cousin Adventures” series and the main event, Machu Picchu!

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Cousin Adventures: Arequipa

The second stop on our gringo trail tour was Arequipa!  The city sits in the shadow of the conical, snow-capped Misti volcano and is called the White City because many of the buildings are constructed from a white volcanic stone called sillar.  We visited during the rainy season, so unfortunately we were not able to see Misti because it was covered by clouds.  Bummer.  Yet we did manage to see some of the lovely sillar buildings, including those surrounding the main plaza.

IMG_4574 2 IMG_4609 IMG_4615 IMG_4643 IMG_4651

Another prominent sillar building in Arequipa is the Monastery Santa Catalina. The monastery is one of the best examples of colonial construction in the city, protected from newer architectural influences by its high walls and its closure to the public from its opening in 1579 until 1970.  The sillar walls are painted with a range of natural paints from deep ochre to cobalt blue.  I just couldn’t get enough of the beauty of the space, with the bright colors and potted geraniums everywhere.  I’ll let the photos speak for themselves on this one. IMG_4772 IMG_4678 IMG_4686 IMG_4689 IMG_4697 IMG_4708 IMG_4715 IMG_4719 IMG_4722 IMG_4726 IMG_4727 IMG_4729 IMG_4732 IMG_4754 IMG_4760 IMG_4723

I wish I could be surrounded by those colors every day.  The peaceful stillness of the monastery was just breathtaking.  If you ever find yourself in Arequpia, the Monastery Santa Catalina is a must-see.

Next stop on the gringo trail… Cusco!

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Cousin Adventures: Lima

We just had our first visitor here in Peru–my lovely cousin!  We planned a two-week itinerary on what we jokingly call the “gringo trail.” It hit all of the big sights, while also strategically increasing in altitude along the way to allow for ample time to adjust as we climbed higher into the Andes. The plan was to start in Lima (the capitol city), then fly to Arequipa (the “White City”), then fly to Cusco (the jumping off point for Machu Picchu), then finally fly to Puno (on the shores of Lake Titicaca).  Despite all of our best efforts, our plans were thwarted on many fronts: my cousin’s arrival to Lima was delayed a full day due to a medical emergency on one of her flights, then 2 of the 3 of us were struck down in Arequipa with what we later referred to as the “stomach plague,” and then our flight from Cusco to Puno was cancelled without warning.  Long story short, we didn’t make it to all the planned sights and actually ended up rebooking our tickets to end the trip a few days earlier than originally planned.  Yet, despite all of the hiccups along the way, we did manage to see some beautiful places and make some great memories!

So, let’s start with Lima!  It’s the middle of the hot and muggy summer season in the capitol city, a nice respite for both our American visitor, as well as for us Huancayo-dwellers who are in the middle of the rainy/winter season (it’s still crazy to me how two places only 123 miles/197 km apart, as the crow flies, can be experiencing opposite seasons at the same time!). We started and ended our tour in Lima, taking in some of the museums and local must-sees, as well as eating some of the delicious local cuisine.  Chris and I had been waiting to visit some of these locations until we had visitors, so they were new for us as well! No tour would be complete without walking down the malecón (boardwalk) in the Miraflores district. The view of the expansive ocean, as well as the gardens lining the walkway, make it a must-see location.  We made a particular point one our first day together to walk the malecón, where we stopped at Parque del Amor (Park of Love) to take in the mosaics with romantic quotations woven into them. Then we taxied over to the Barranco neighborhood in the afternoon to have our first ceviche together at Canta Rana, walked across the famed puente de suspiros (bridge of whispers), spent some time relaxing in the air-conditioned Barranco Beer Company, and then finished up our first day at La 73 to introduce my cousin to her first pisco sour!  It was quite a packed first day in Peru, and I was so busy visiting that I didn’t get very many photos!


paragliders over the malecón


cousins at parque del amor!


tu de este lado y yo del otro como dos remos / you on this side and me on the other like two oars


pisco sours! cheers!

On our way back through Lima at the end of the trip, we hit up some sights further downtown.  Our first stop of the morning was Museo Larco, which houses a large collection of pottery, jewelry and textiles from indigenous groups all over Peru spanning nearly 5,000 years.  The artifacts were collected by Rafael Larco, who founded the museum and is also considered to be the father of Peruvian archaeology. My favorite part of the permanent exhibit was the textiles, particularly the display of different knitting and weaving tools.  Did you know that cotton was domesticated in Peru some 4,500 years ago and was used to make textiles?  I always think of camelid fibers when I think of Peru, but I guess I should also include cotton! The collection also includes two quipus, which are thought to be the Inca’s method of recording countable information since they did not have a written language (though we still don’t know how to read the quipus).


Museo Larco


gold and garment displays


clockwise from top left: remnants of a textile; a quipu; a textile made from cotton and camelid fibers; and knitting and weaving tools

left: pottery from Moche/Huari epoch 800-1300 AD / right: maternal representations

left: pottery from Moche/Huari epoch 800-1300 AD / right: representations of motherhood

Rounding out our time in Lima, we stopped by the Plaza de Armas, the central plaza, to take in the Spanish colonial architecture, the Cathedral, and the government buildings that surround the square.  Then we walked over to Hotel Maury, famous for being the inventor of the pisco sour!  The pisco sours weren’t as good as those we have tried at other locations in Lima and throughout Peru, but the atmosphere was lovely with a dark wooden bar and large modern paintings depicting colonial ladies and gents.

Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas


Plaza selfie!


bar at Hotel Maury

Though our time was shorter than anticipated in Lima, I think we were able to hit up quite a few of the must-see spots and soak up some culture!

Up next on the “gringo trail,” the “White City” of Arequipa!

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Huancahuasi is our new favorite restaurant in Huancayo!  It’s a restaurante turístico (tourist restaurant) that serves up delicious local and regional dishes and drinks, with a backdrop of truly huancan (Huancayan) decor.


a very traditional decoration, braided corn hanging from the ceilings

corn with husks braided together, a very traditional decoration, hanging from the ceilings…and a not so traditional Santa dressed in local clothing 🙂

We have been back three times since we discovered the restaurant in December, have tried many different things on the menu, and have loved them all.  Our favorites include the rocoto relleno (kind of like a stuffed bell pepper, but the rocoto pepper is native to this area of the world (and decidedly spicer) and is stuffed with ground beef and spices and covered with Andean cheese), quinoa tamale (a traditional tamale, but the masa (dough) is mixed with quinoa), and conejo picante (spicey rabbit).

To wash it down, Huancahuasi has a variety of drinks like chica morada (a sweet juice made from purple corn) and chica de jora (a fermented corn drink). They also serve up cocktails with regional influences, like a coca pisco sour (your traditional Peruvian pisco sour with a bit of coca leaf tea infused into it).  Yummy.


rocoto relleno with accordion potatoes


arroz con pato (rice with duck) and a pitcher of chica de jora in the background

We recommend going on a Saturday or Sunday when there are even more choices on the menu, including the super delicious regional specialty pachamanca (we made one with our host family in the backyard last year during Semana Santa).  We’re going to try to go to Huancahuasi as many times as possible to try as many dishes as possible before we leave!

Now we’re off for a couple weeks to travel around Peru, and we plan to try as many regional specialties as possible!  Check back in a couple weeks for the full report.