It’s funny where bucket list ideas begin. I’d wanted to go to Peru since junior high when I blundered onto my Mom’s View-Master disc from the 1950s. It featured the “Lost City of the Incas,” “Cathedral in Ancient Cuzco,” and “Llamas, Urubamba Valley.” Clicking through those stereoscopic 3D images, I saw that Machu Picchu was just a frame or two in Peru’s story. But I’ll admit that it was that mysterious city in the Andes that finally drew me there.
I decided to do my pilgrimage with Classic Journeys, particularly because their itinerary includes parts of three days at Machu Picchu. After waiting so long and traveling that far, I wasn’t about to do a day trip like many visitors. Also, I had the option of going all the way to the top on the luxurious and super scenic Inca Train or of making my approach by walking the last stretch of the famous Inca Trail with a local Quechua guide. That leg rises 1,500 feet on a path that takes five to six hours. It requires a special permit (which Classic Journeys arranged for me), and I was glad I’d spent some pre-trip time on a Stairmaster, because wow was it worth it.
Via the Inca Trail, we arrived at Machu Picchu at the Sun Gate, which is above the site. Puffs of mist drifted in the cloud forests below. The view took my breath away even more than the trail. After I pinched myself, my mind jumped to the inevitable question of how the heck this place is even possible. During our visit, we had sensational guides who floated the legends and shared the learning about how it was buildable in the 15th century. I also had time to wander on my own, a rare chance to get a personal sense of one of the world’s most important archaeological sites.
View-Master wasn’t lying when it taught me that Machu Picchu is just a drop in the Peruvian bucket. The people we met would have been worth the trip, even if there weren’t a single ruin. Out in the Andes, many of the folks we met, including our guide Marisol, were direct Quechua descendants of the Incas. I talked breeding practices with a llama herder. (Yes, the beasts do spit. Fortunately, their aim is iffy.) In an off-the-beaten-path village, our group dropped in on a local school to visit with the kids and teachers. A heads-up before our trip meant that I had pens, pencils and notebooks to share with them. We also got to hang out with the people of Ollantaytambo, a thriving pre-Columbian village where I nursed my first glass of chicha, the corn beer that’s still brewed pretty much as the Incas did. The boy tending sheep in the Sacred Valley couldn’t have been happier to say hi, or wonder about why we were walking through his valley. Renowned ceramicist Pablo Seminario waved us into his studio like we were long-lost friends.
Frankly, I’d put Peru right back at the top of my list, just to go back and experience the country’s luxurious hospitality. Our monastery-turned-hotel in Cusco is ranked as one of South America’s finest. Back out at Machu Picchu, our hotel sat in a 12-acre park with 214 kinds of birds, 372 species of orchids and its own tea plantation. (I picked my own leaves and brewed my own cup. So long, oolong.) Peru’s cuisine is as haute as a snow-capped Andes peak. I would have happily bestowed as many Michelin stars as there are on my ceviche of sea bass, lime juice and hot chilies, crisps of onion and creamy sweet potato.
After years of anticipation, it could have happened that my actual visit to Peru would be anti-climactic. But I’m feeling a little sorry that I’ve ticked that box. From blockbuster Machu Picchu right through an unforgettable two-pisco-sour sunset in the Urubamba Valley, I’d do it all again in a second.