After three full days in Lima, a large, bustling, urban city, we finally head into the heart of the Inca world and the Peruvian Quechua culture, Cuzco. To get there we got on a 737 operated by the Peruvian airline LAN. Actually LAN is a Chilean airline company but they are based in Lima.
The entire time we were in Lima the skies were overcast from the coastal fog produced by the Humboldt Current. As the jet climbed higher into the sky we soon broke through the cloud cover, riding above a solid desert of clouds, punctuated to the east by the peaks of the Andes mountains. The Andes are the longest exposed mountain range in the world, at 4,300 miles in length, extending from the southern end of Chile to the norther part of Peru. The average height is 13,000 feet!
At first from a distance they seemed unimpressive, but as our plane flew closer to them and deeper into their heart I could tell that even though we were flying at 30,000' many of the peak seemed to touch the plane as they were 20,000'. The scale was tremendous.
Luckily we had seats on the left side of the jet as it flew south, giving us a perfect view of the mountains and hints of the edge of the Amazon jungle beyond.
The Peruvian Andes
As we flew I got out my video camera and started filming, during which the pilot came on the intercom and announced what we were flying over in Spanish and then English. He mentioned several peaks whose name I didn't know, but then came those two magic words: Machu Pichu. Unfortunately Machu Picchu lay behind several mountains and even if it hadn't been hidden I now know that, compared to the giant mountains that surround it, it is a small dot on the land.
Just after passing by Machu Picchu we began our descent into Cuzco. Living in Los Angeles I'm used to flying over the outskirts of the city for an hour before you actually land. Cuzco looked like a small town by comparison with a population of about 350,000. The greater LA area by comparison has 14 million people... (Yuck.)
Below is a little video of the flight and landing in Cuzco.
Flying to Cuzco. Click to Play
Cuzco was the ancient heart of the Inca empire. The world Cuzco means "navel" or "center" in the Quechua language, the lingua franca of the Incan empire. From here the Inca conquered other cultures around them, then those in the Sacred Valley and eventually most of those of the Andes, creating an empire stretching from southern Chile north to Peru and on to southern Columbia. Cuzco remained the "capitol" of their empire and was the seat of their government. It was also where their major temples were and where the Inca kings built their palaces.
At 10,912' it's also very high in elevation. For that reason we didn't linger long there but took a motor-coach over a pass to the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba river. The Sacred Valley is a little lower in elevation and that would help us adjust to the thinner air.
As I've spent a fair amount of time in the southwest at elevations of 7,000 to 8,000', even as high as 10,000', I wasn't that concerned about the altitude. Even the mountains surrounding LA have towns built around man-made lakes where my family would vacation from time to time that are 7,000 feet high. But there were many people in our group that had come from areas where there were no mountains and they were not used to high altitudes. Even I had never spent the night above 8,000 feet, so acclimatizing seemed like a good idea. We would return to Cuzco in a few days.
Little did I know how charming the center of Cuzco was as I filmed our drive through the city, up the mountains that surround it as we headed northeast to the Sacred Valley
Driving through Cuzco. Click to Play
On the way over the pass toward the Sacred Valley we stopped at a demonstration Llama and Alpacha farm to learn about these camelids. They had charts showing each variation and how they were traditionally used, be it for a beast of burden, food or wool. We also learned how to tell then apart. Llamas have plain, or flat, hair on the top of their heads, Alpachas have fuzzy hair on top of their heads. After that we went through a gate into a Llama "petting zoo" where we could see them up close up and even feed them. Some of them were surprisingly large and one person in our group got spit on by a llama. It was a lot of fun.
Feeding Llamas. Click to Play
From the farm we descended into the Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley stretched out below us as it ran north following the Urubamba river, one of the main tributaries to the Amazon. In the distance loomed mountains over 20,000 feet high. We were headed to the Inca ruins and modern town of Pisac where we would spend the afternoon.
Review Part 2
Continue to Part 4