A Peruvian adventure

Written by Lamar Marchese
Photography by Lamar Marchese

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A village man wearing the “chollo”, the knitted hat with earflaps, now very hip in the Pacific Northwest, and a knitted wool poncho that is only worn by men.

Peru wasn’t high on my “bucket list,” but when the alluring brochure crossed my desk in February 2014 touting “The Great Amazon River Cruise,” I was smitten. I’ve always loved exotic places and all things nautical, so when the opportunity presented itself for small ship cruising on a fabled river, it didn’t take long to sign up.

Sweetening the deal even more was an add-on tour to Machu Picchu immediately following the cruise. The trip also benefitted the non-profit World Wildlife Fund and was operated by Natural Habitat Adventures, an experienced specialist in luxury adventure travel.

I recruited my wife Pat and daughter Julia, signed the documents, and made arrangements. We were off to Peru in June 2014 for the first stop on a 15-day odyssey that traversed the country from the Amazonia north to the Andes in the south with Lima in between.

LIMA

After a restful night at the Casa Andina, we were off on a whirlwind city tour of Lima, the capital of Peru. With a New York City-sized population of nine million, Lima is home to one quarter of the country’s entire population. We met our charming Italian-Peruvian head guide, Renzo, and set off for the Love Park, known for its center statue of entwined lovers. You have to appreciate a culture that dedicates a public park to love.

The ornate central cathedral and the adjacent Plaza de Armas, where a local festival was taking place, were our next stops followed by the Museo Larco, which houses an outstanding collection of pre-Columbian arts and crafts. Lunch at the museum café introduced us to pisco, the high octane Peruvian brandy.

IQUITOS & THE AMAZON

After lunch, we flew to Iquitos, the jumping off port for the cruise. A beat down former rubber boom town, one can reach it only by air or water. It was dark when we boarded the Estrella Amazonica, our floating home for the next eight days. A 143-foot cruiser with 15 cabins and a maximum capacity of 30 passengers, the ship has air conditioning everywhere, big cabins, and sliding glass doors for viewing the passing scenery.

We cast off that night on the brown, silty, north-flowing Amazon heading south against the current, 300 miles away from our final destination, the Pacaya Samiria Reserve.

Llamas roam the grounds at Macchu Picchu, keeping the grounds cropped and fertilized. They also provided the only pack animals the Incas had in the construction of Macchu Picchu.

Llamas roam the grounds at Macchu Picchu, keeping the grounds cropped and fertilized. They also provided the only pack animals the Incas had in the construction of Macchu Picchu.

Daily excursions took us in shallow draft skiffs up close to the river banks for optimal wildlife viewing. Our native-born naturalists, Uciel and Segundo, helped spot wildlife along the shore with numerous sightings of bird life. Three-toed sloths slowly answered their cues as did troops of squirrel monkeys and the aptly named howlers. The river itself is home to abundant marine life—huge catfish, the much over-hyped piranha, and both gray and pink dolphins. Jumping into the river to swim with them was quite a thrill. 

We also visited two small villages, one of them ambitiously named Nuevo York. After the students of its one-room elementary school welcomed us with a song, Uciel organized an impromptu Hokey Pokey lesson for the kids with many of us turistas dancing along in perfect harmony. A second village visit introduced us to a shaman, Maestro Juan, who blessed us with chanted words and tobacco smoke, another of those transcendent travel moments.

After we completed our 600-mile voyage up and down river, we returned to Iquitos and disembarked with raves about the staff, the itinerary, the food, and the fact that everything went off flawlessly.

CUSCO & MACHU PICCHU

Our little crew of Amazonian adventurers gather in the rain forest within the roots of a giant fig tree.

Our little crew of Amazonian adventurers gather in the rain forest within the roots of a giant fig tree.

After a layover in Lima, we were off next morning to Cusco where we met our guide, Francis, and checked into the elegant Hotel Libertador, a restored colonial palace that once was the residence of Spanish Governor Francisco Pizarro.

We spent a day touring Cusco, the former capital of the Inca Empire. Cusco, which means “navel of the earth” in the indigenous Quechua language, sits at 12,000 feet above sea level. Next morning, the six of us in the tour group, plus Francis and the driver, headed down the Sacred Valley of the Incas, following the same route of the Inca kings.

That afternoon we explored Ollantaytambo, and from there we boarded a train next morning for a scenic ninety minute ride along the swift Urubamba River to awaiting buses for the short hop to the Machu Picchu National Park, a World Heritage Site and the most visited destination in South America.

The scarlet Andean Cock of the Rock is the national bird of Peru, and its scarlet plummage matches the red of traditional Andean clothing.

The scarlet Andean Cock of the Rock is the national bird of Peru, and its scarlet plummage matches the red of traditional Andean clothing.

The early morning cloud cover was still hugging the surrounding peaks when we arrived. You’ve probably seen pictures of Machu Picchu, but there is nothing like the majestic reality of actually being there. The setting itself is spectacular with the lower Machu Picchu build site set between two larger peaks. Clinging to the slopes and leading up to the site are row-upon-row of stepped terraces where imported fertile soil once provided fresh food for the court. All the terraces, walls, temples, and houses were made of hewed stone fitted together so precisely that the builders used no mortar.

What a wonderful, exhausting day as we clambered up stone steps—sometimes on hands and knees—to the very top level of Machu Picchu. Francis provided commentary that helped immensely in understanding what we were seeing as we wandered through a mystical city once home to important religious ceremonies that included a winter solstice rite in which priests would tie the sun to a hitching post.

The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Hotel was spectacular, with private casitas nestled in a nature garden. Tiny orchids bloomed, and our guide, Maria, pointed out the Andean Cock of the Rock, the brilliantly crimson national bird of Peru.

Framed by the terraces and clouds, there is a lone tree in the plain at Macchu Picchu. In the early morning, the clouds still cling to the peak before burning off in the late morning.

Framed by the terraces and clouds, there is a lone tree in the plain at Macchu Picchu. In the early morning, the clouds still cling to the peak before burning off in the late morning.

We returned next afternoon to Cusco for the farewell dinner and a taste of cuy (coo-ee), the Quechua name for what we call guinea pigs. Many Andean homes keep the little critters running around the kitchen, not as pets, but as an important protein source.

The tours we took were an ideal mash-up of Amazon and Andes, with knowledgeable guides, beautiful and amazing sites, good food, friendly travel mates, and pitch-perfect service.  Recruit some family or friends to share the deep and wonderful experiences that travel provides. For those of us who have reached a “certain age,” my advice is that you don’t put off travel to your dream destination. Do it now, because you never know what tomorrow will bring.

Remember, time flies, but you are the pilot.