Tag: Historic Sites

Pizarro’s Tomb (and the treachery that put him there)

Pizarro’s Tomb (and the treachery that put him there)

The Heart of Lima

The Cathedral of Lima is a commanding presence in the capital city’s Plaza de Armas. It is grand and imposing, taking up most of a city block.

There are seven chapels on each side of the Cathedral. As you enter, the first chapel on the right draws your attention almost immediately. It contains the tomb of Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conquistador who claimed Peru for the Spanish crown.

The first thing you notice, even before you enter the chapel, is the artwork. Stunning mosaics cover nearly every surface – the walls, the floor, even the arched entryway. For instance, take this heraldic display:

pizarro's tomb

Or this depiction of Pizarro’s arrival in Peru:

pizarro's tomb mosaics

Other than the gorgeous mosaics, I didn’t notice anything remarkable about the chapel. Until I saw an ugly metal box in a display case. Why on earth would they put something like that in a chapel, surrounded by beautiful works of art?

pizarro's tomb lead box

That moment of curiosity led to some interesting discoveries that made the life of Francisco Pizarro seem an awful lot like a Game of Thrones episode.

What They Didn’t Teach You in History Class

Pizarro was born out of wedlock in Trujillo, Spain in the 1470s. He grew up poor and illiterate. In 1513, he joined explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa on his voyage to Panama. In the years that followed, Pizarro nurtured his political and military career in Panama.  Then, in 1519, the governor instructed him to arrest Balboa and bring him to trial. Pizarro arrested him; Balboa was executed for treason. The governor rewarded Pizarro by giving him the position of mayor and magistrate of Panama City.  He served in that position until 1523.

Following that assignment, Pizarro led two expeditions into South America. Both were considered unsuccessful and, as such, unnecessary drains on Panama’s already limited resources. When he sent a request to Panama for more settlers to join the expedition, the governor of Panama refused.  Actually, he not only refused to send them, but also sent two ships to bring Pizarro and his men back.

When those two ships arrived at Pizarro’s location, Pizarro refused to leave. He drew a line in the sand, saying: “There lies Peru with its riches; Here, Panama and its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilian. For my part, I go to the south.” Only 13 men chose to stay with him. This chapel mosaic honored “The Famous Thirteen” and listed their names:

pizarro's tomb mosaics

When Pizarro and his 13 companions reached the Peruvian territory of Tumbes, he was the first European who had set foot in that area. The natives called Pizarro and his men “Children of the Sun” because of their fair skin and shiny armor. They told Pizarro of a great ruler and vast riches of gold and silver.  Pizarro, excited by the possibility of finding an abundance of riches in Peru, returned to Panama to get funding and resources for a third expedition.

The governor of Panama, however, refused to fund a third expedition. Pizarro decided to go over the governor’s head, returning to Spain to make his case to the king in person. It was a wise move on his part. He received not only a license for the proposed expedition, but also authority over any lands conquered during the venture. Family and friends joined him, and the expedition left Panama in late December 1530.

Third Time’s the Charm

Nearly two years later, Pizarro and his men came face to face with the Inca King Atahualpa. A Dominican friar attempted to convince Atahualpa of the true faith. He also spoke of the need to pay tribute to King Charles I. Atahualpa replied, “I will be no man’s tributary.”

Atahualpa’s refusal led Pizarro and his forces to attack the Inca army in what became the Battle of Cajamarca. Pizarro’s 168 men easily defeated the 5000 mostly unarmed Inca warriors. Pizarro captured Atahualpa and held him hostage, demanding as ransom a 22 x 17 foot room filled nine feet high with gold. The ransom – worth more than $436 million in today’s money – was provided to Pizarro, but he had Atahualpa executed anyway.

Following the conquest of the Incas, the newly arrived Spanish conquistadores split into two factions. Francisco Pizarro led the group in the north and Diego de Almagro led the group in the south. There was rivalry between the two groups over who should rule Cusco. It all came to a head in 1538 at the Battle of Las Salinas.  The Pizarros proved victorious, and the conquistador‘s brother, Hernando, captured and executed Diego de Almagro.

Live By the Sword, Die By the Sword

Three years later, Almagro’s son avenged his father’s death in Lima. He stormed into Pizarro’s palace at dinnertime with about 20 followers. Pizarro killed two of the men, then ran through a third. While trying to pull his sword out of the third victim’s body, the attackers stabbed him in the throat. Once he fell to the floor, they continued to stab him repeatedly. Pizarro collapsed on the floor, painted a cross in his own blood and cried out for Jesus as he died.

Pizarro’s body was buried behind the cathedral the very same night of the assassination. Over the centuries, as the Cathedral of Lima was built and reconstructed, it was reburied and relocated – multiple times.

Dem Bones

In 1891, Pizarro’s mummified body was disinterred. It was then placed in an elaborate glass-sided coffin to celebrate the 350th anniversary of his death. It stayed there until 1977, when workmen who were cleaning a crypt discovered two wooden boxes.  Both boxes contained bones, and one also held a lead box.  It was the same one that caught my attention in the chapel. The inscription on the lid of the box read:

“Here is the skull of the Marquis Don Francisco Pizarro who discovered and won Peru and placed it under the crown of Castile.”

Was the skull really Pizarro’s?  And what about the bones?  Were they his too? The Cathedral called in a team of researchers to examine the remains. They compared accounts of Pizarro’s assassination with the visible injuries to the skull. In doing so, the experts determined that the skull in the lead box was indeed Pizarro’s. A forensic pathologist came to the same conclusion in 1984. The skull in the lead box and some of the bones were that of Francisco Pizarro. The mummy, which had been on display for nearly a hundred years, was not Pizarro at all.

In 1985 Pizarro’s bones were placed in the chapel at the Cathedral of Lima:

lima cathedral pizarro's tomb
Here lies the Marquez Governor Sir Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of Peru and founder of Lima. Born in Trujillo, Spain in 1478 and died in Lima January 18, 1541. His remains were transferred here January 18, 1985, the 450th anniversary of the founding of the city. God rest his soul. Amen.

Learning about Pizarro’s exploits – especially after having come from Cusco and Machu Picchu – was sobering and sad. The descendants of the natives Pizarro conquered are very proud of their heritage. Everywhere we went, we heard about what their life was like before the Conquest. Seeing Pizarro glorified and celebrated in the chapel of the Cathedral somehow seemed inappropriate.  However, don’t let that stop you from visiting the Cathedral if you go to Lima. It’s beautiful! I’ll be covering the rest of the Cathedral in my next blog post. Stay tuned!

Changes Are Coming to Machu Picchu

Changes Are Coming to Machu Picchu

Last month, I was lucky enough to cross a destination off of my bucket list:  Machu Picchu.

new machu picchu rules july 2017

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my experience at Machu Picchu was very different from what most tourists will experience after me.  You see, a new set of strict rules will be in effect starting July 1, 2017.

The New Rules:

There are three major changes that will affect your visit, plus a laundry list of prohibited items/activities.

The first major change requires that a licensed guide accompany all visitors entering Machu Picchu. Guide-led groups will consist of no more than 16 people.

We used a guide when we went to Machu Picchu and we were glad we did.  There were so many things that we would not have noticed or understood without him.  (Signage at Machu Picchu is almost non-existent.) For instance, take a look at this photo:

machu picchu guide new rules july 2017

Our guide had previously told us that the stones the Incas used to build were perfectly smooth and straight for buildings of special importance, such as temples and the king’s residence.  Here, he is showing us the back wall of a temple and a connecting priest’s quarters.  The stones on the far left side of the picture (the temple) are very smooth, flat, and straight.  However, as the wall progresses to the right (priest’s quarters), the stones become more roughly hewn.

Would we have known that without our guide?  No way.  We probably wouldn’t have even noticed.  So I think that having a guide will add to the Machu Picchu experience in a beneficial way.  I don’t know if the Peruvian government  will pay the guides, or if visitors will have to pay them.  Either way, I’m sure you can expect the expense of visiting Machu Picchu to increase.  We paid our guide 35 soles (about $10) per person for a group of eight.

The second major change is that admission to the site will be split into two time frames: morning (6:00 AM to 12:00 noon) or afternoon (12:00 noon to 5:30 PM). That doesn’t seem too bad until you learn that you must enter and leave the site within the same time frame.  If you have morning tickets and you don’t get there until 11:00 AM, you will have just one hour to see Machu Picchu before you are escorted from the premises. But that’s not all.  Once you go through the exit, you cannot re-enter.  This could present a problem for anyone in need of a rest room, as those facilities are located outside the site.

The third major change is that the site will have clearly defined tour routes, and you will have to choose which route you want to take when you book your ticket. Route 1 is the physically demanding classic route, which takes in the upper sector of the citadel, before heading in a large loop around to the lower-sector. Routes 2 & 3 go through the mid and lower-sectors, and are more suitable for those who want a more relaxing visit.

Visitors who wish to climb Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain now have set entrance times as well. Those wishing to climb Huayna Picchu must be at the trail head between 7:00 AM and 8:00 AM or between 10:00 AM and 11:00 AM.  Those wishing to climb Machu Picchu Mountain must be present at the trail head between 7:00 AM and 8:00 AM or between 9:00 AM and 10:00 AM.

Prohibited at Machu Picchu:

The following items will be prohibited at Machu Picchu after July 1, 2017:

  • Bags/backpacks larger than 40 x 35 x 20 cm (15.7 x 13.7 x 7.9”). You will have to check larger items at the entrance for a small fee.
  • Food and/or beverages of any type, alcoholic or non-alcoholic.
  • Umbrellas or sun shades. (You may, however, wear hats and ponchos or rain coats.)
  • Photographic tripods or any type of camera stand/support. This is only permitted with pre-authorization and an appropriate permit.
  • Musical instruments, including megaphones and speakers.
  • Shoes with high-heels or hard soles. Shoes with soft soles (like those found on tennis shoes or walking shoes/boots).
  • Children’s strollers. Only strap on baby/child carriers are permitted.
  • Walking sticks with a metal or hard point. Elderly people and physically handicapped people may use a walking stick provided that it has a rubber tip.

Some actions are prohibited, too.  As of July 1, 2017, you may not:

  • Climb or lean on walls or any part of the citadel.
  • Touch, move or remove any stone items / structures.
  • Make loud noises, applaud, shout, whistle and sing.
  • Smoke or use an electronic cigarette.
  • Feed the resident or wild animals.
  • Paraglide or fly any type of drone or small aircraft.

If you keep these regulations in mind when planning your trip, you will not find any unpleasant surprises once you get to Machu Picchu.

Wondering what a visit to Machu Picchu is like?  Click here to read about our experience!

Recommendations for a Trip to Machu Picchu

Recommendations for a Trip to Machu Picchu

Our Machu Picchu trip was not something that we had planned to do in advance.  In fact, it wasn’t on our radar at all, other than us saying, “I think it would be cool to see Machu Picchu someday.”  But when Spirit Airlines was offering a huge discount on Tuesday & Wednesday fares during the month of May, it meant that we could fly to Peru for just a tad over $200 per person.

At that price, who wouldn’t want to take a Machu Picchu trip?!?!?

This post is going to focus only on Machu Picchu recommendations.  I will have other posts dealing with Lima and Cusco and the Spirit Airlines experience.

The Prelude: Aguas Calientes

Much like Grand Canyon Village in Arizona, Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu Pueblo, is a dreadful little town where your options are limited and the prices are inflated.  Recommendation #1 is that if you know that going in, you will be prepared instead of disappointed.

Machu Picchu Trip Aguas calientes

Personally, I did find two aspects of our stay enjoyable.  First, we had a very good meal at Incontri del Pueblo Viejo.  The service was exceedingly slow, even by Peruvian standards, but the food was delicious and the ambiance was nice. Second, I got the best night’s sleep at Gringo Bill’s Hotel. The bed was the most comfortable of the entire trip.

The Preparations

Our plan was to get up at 4:00 AM and catch the first bus to the site at 5:30 AM so that we could see the sun rise over Machu Picchu. Thankfully, I checked the weather forecast beforehand, because it was calling for rain and clouds. We wisely decided to go later in the morning instead. If I had gotten up at 4 AM to see the sun rise and then couldn’t see it, I would have been seriously put out!

Recommendation #2 is to check the weather and prepare accordingly.

We found out that you could buy your bus tickets any day, not solely on the day that you visit Machu Picchu. We decided to go ahead and buy ours the day before so we would be ready to go after breakfast the next day.  I have two important tips for you here: you will need your passport to buy the bus ticket, and the bus ticket office only accepts cash or Master Card.  You will not be able to pay with a Visa.

The Ascent

The next morning after breakfast, we headed down to the area where the trains line up. There was a long line of people, but also a long line of buses, so the line moved quickly.  The bus ride takes about 20-30 minutes, but it feels longer because you’re going very slowly and zigzagging back and forth across the side of a mountain. Recommendation #3: If you are prone to motion sickness, you may want to consider taking some medication.  The ride is pretty bumpy and the bus lurches from side to side quite a bit while navigating the sharp turns.

The Arrival

When the bus finally pulls up to the Machu Picchu entrance point and you disembark, you will probably encounter someone asking if you want to hire them as a guide. Recommendation #4 is to do so, for a couple of reasons. First, there are no informational signs at Machu Picchu, no brochures, nothing to give you any sort of indication as to what you’re looking at or why it’s significant. I suppose you could purchase a guidebook and bring it with you, but who wants to be looking down and reading when they could be taking in the scenery while listening to the information? Not I.

The site

We waited until our guide gathered some more people, and then we entered. I cannot adequately describe the feeling that you get when you enter the site and see the vastness of it. It is nothing short of breathtaking.

There are massive mountains in front of you, with clouds hovering over and in front of them. Clouds, not fog! In both directions, up and down, you see row after row of terraces, where the Incas grew coca. Ahead of you is one lone tree in the midst of the remaining walls and structures.

Here is one of the first pictures I took:

new machu picchu recommendations rules july 2017

Our guide started the tour by telling us to look at the walls.  The Incas were masterful masons and architects.  These walls have been standing for roughly 600 years, and you won’t believe what’s holding them together.  The “cement” that they used was a mixture of clay, llama hair, cactus juice, and ash. Pretty incredible.

machu picchu recommendations stone wall

In other areas, stones had been cut with such precision that they fit together without any sort of cement or mortar.  These stones were smooth and flat, and reserved for use on special buildings, such as temples or the king’s residence.

machu picchu recommendations stonework

Most of the living quarters we saw – whether those of the king or of a common worker – had small cubbyholes built into the walls for them to store belongings.  And here I thought my closet space was on the small side:

machu Picchu recommendations storage space
Inca “closets” – cubbyholes built into the walls of the king’s bedroom.

Our guide told us that the Incas would sacrifice black llamas to their gods. I asked him why black llamas, and he explained that the black llamas were not as common as white or brown llamas. The black llamas, by virtue of their rarity, were considered special and therefore more pleasing to the gods.

There are (at least) four temples in Machu Picchu. One of the best known is the Temple of the Three Windows. Our guide explained that there were three windows to correspond with the symbolic animals that the Inca connected to creation:  the condor represented the spiritual realm, the puma represented the earthly realm, and the serpent represented the realm of the underworld.

machu picchu recommendations temple of the three windows
The Temple of the Three Windows

Perpendicular to the Temple of the Three Windows was the Main Temple. One side of it was sort of lopsided, which was due to natural conditions.

Main Temple machu picchu recommendations
Main Temple with rocks that have moved out of place over time.

I think that my favorite spot in Machu Picchu, however, is the Temple of the Condor, which quite literally resembles a condor.

machu picchu recommendations temple of the condor
Can you see the head and body of the condor on the ground, and its wings jutting up behind it?

At one point in our tour, I looked over to the right, where we had entered. I was amazed to see just how far the rows of terraced gardens extended down the mountain side.  I thought we had entered at the bottom of those rows, but we were in the middle. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that they covered the entire side of the mountain.

machu picchu recommendations terraces
Row after row of terraces – and there are many more that you can’t see here!

There are at least thirty terraces in this photo, and even more that did not fit in the frame!

We also walked around a large grassy area that served as the Main Plaza, an important place for ceremonies, announcements, games, etc.  Our guide clapped his hands to demonstrate how it worked. The sound reverberated off the surrounding rocks and was amplified tenfold. Add acoustics to another skill of the Incas.

Machu Picchu recomendations central main plaza

In general, I was glad that we took our Machu Picchu trip when we did instead of waiting until we were older. Although we did not hike the Inca Trail, it was still a physically grueling place to visit (particularly when you have creaky knees like I do!). Here’s what my iPhone said I did that day:

machu picchu trip workout

138 flights!  Dang.  I’m tired all over again just thinking about it. So Recommendation #5 is to try and get in shape a little before you go. A little pain now will save you from a lot of pain later.

The Incas only lived at Machu Picchu for about 100 years, or three generations. They abandoned the site when the Spaniards began invading the area. So the Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, and for 400 years it sat dormant, slowly becoming swallowed up by the lush vegetation. The world knew nothing of its existence until a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham III found it in 1911.

One thing that I found really odd was how quiet it was there.  There were loads of tourists from all over the world, and yet for the most part it was peaceful and quiet throughout the site. Maybe because there is something about a place that big that reminds us of how tiny a speck we are in the grand scheme of things. Maybe because the history of the place is so sad and, frankly, a little overwhelming. Whatever the reason, Machu Picchu was a travel experience that I will relish for years to come. I highly recommend making the trip to see it.

Note:  Rules for touring Machu Picchu will be changing effective July 1, 2017. Click here to read my blog post outlining those changes and what you can expect

A Visitor’s Guide to Petra, Jordan (Guest Post)

A Visitor’s Guide to Petra, Jordan (Guest Post)

While I’m sorting through my photos and trying to articulate my recent travels in Peru and New York City, I thought it would be a good idea to include a guest post.  This post is from Ketki Sharangpani of Dotted Globe.  Check out her site – she has written about a variety of places and all of her posts include stunning black & white photography. Today, she is providing us with a guide to the famed city of Petra:

Petra is a UNESCO world heritage site in Jordan and is one of the seven new wonders of the world. The rose-red city with its rock-cut architecture has fascinated visitors since its rediscovery in early 19th century. Hundreds of thousands of visitors travel to Jordan to see Petra each year.  As a result, the historical and archaeological site earns the distinction of being Jordan’s most visited tourist attraction.

How to Reach Petra

Petra is in south Jordan, about three hours away from the capital, Amman. Petra is also easily accessible from Aqaba, Jordan, which is a mere two hours away. Many tourists visit Petra as a one day trip from Amman or Aqaba or from neighboring Israel; however, the Petra archaeological site is immense and I recommend a minimum of 1-2 full days to completely understand Petra and the people who once lkived there.

Petra history

Petra was the capital of the Nabateans, an Arab tribe, that settled in the Jordan Valley around the sixth century BC. The city prospered under the Nabateans and was later annexed by the Romans, who built upon the city’s rock-cut architecture.  The Roman expansion of Petra included an amphitheatre, colonnaded streets, and temples. A devastating earthquake in 363 AD led to the abandonment of the city; as a result, Petra was lost to the world. Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer, rediscovered the site in 1812. Since then, Petra has fascinated millions of people all over the world.

Petra’s top attractions

The Petra site is immense and visitors need to walk long distances to see all the sights. Horses, horse-carriages, donkeys and camels are available for rent from the local Bedouins.

1. Walk through the Siq

Visitors need to walk through the mile-long Siq, a narrow rock canyon wedged between tall sandstone cliffs, to reach Petra. Partially carved by nature and partially carved by the Nabateans, the winding passage of the Siq features beautiful sandstone patterns on its walls. Nabatean sculptures are engraved in the walls of the Siq; in addition, water conduit systems are built into the sides.

Petra Jordan Siq
The Siq – a narrow gap through which visitors to Petra must pass.

2. The Treasury

Petra’s most celebrated monument is the Treasury. Visitors exiting the Siq get their first view of Petra in the form of the Treasury, a majestic rock-cut façade. An urn, rumored to hide a Pharaoh’s treasure, is at the top of the Treasury. The elaborately carved façade features intricate patterns; most of the details are well-preserved even today. The Treasury is one of the most photographed tourist sites in the world.

petra jordan treasury
The iconic Treasury of Petra.

3. Roman Theatre

Originally built by the Nabateans, the theatre accommodated 4000 people. The Romans expanded the theatre to accommodate 7000 people when the Roman Empire annexed Petra. The theatre is an excellent place to sit and watch the sun set over the spectacular Royal Tombs.

petra jordan roman theater
The Roman Theatre of Petra, as seen from above.

4. Royal Tombs

The Royal Tombs refers to the Urn Tomb, Silk Tomb, Corinthian Tomb, and Palace Tomb. These are the most magnificent tombs at Petra, built for Nabatean royalty. These majestic and intricately carved tombs are opposite the Roman Theatre.  Additionally, they offer breathtaking views of Petra’s city center.

5. Monastery

The Monastery is the largest Nabatean structure in the archaeological park. Visitors can reach the Monastery after climbing a hike consisting of 800 steps. The Monastery, like the Treasury, is another building carved out of sheer rock façade. Visitors can actually go inside the Monastery in order to fully appreciate the grand monument.

petra jordan monastery
The monastery of Petra in Jordan.

6. High Place of Sacrifice

The High Place of Sacrifice is on a cliff top high above the Petra town center. Visitors need to hike the ancient Nabatean staircase to reach High Place of Sacrifice. Along the cliff top, visitors will see hand-carved stone obelisks, rock altars for sacrifices, and a cistern. Because of its location, the High Place of Sacrifice offers sweeping views of the valley.

Other attractions

In addition to the ancient buildings, the site includes many other attractions like the Petra museum and Nabatean museum, both of which display pottery, ornaments, coins, tools and statues excavated there.

The nearby archaeological site of Little Petra, located north of the main site, is also popular with tourists. Little Petra has fewer crowds and offers visitors a more relaxed opportunity to understand Nabatean architecture and sculptures.

Petra By Night takes place on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8:30 pm. During this event, thousands of candles light up the Treasury and Bedouin music floats through the air.  Visitors can soak up the atmosphere while enjoying a cup of tea. Petra looks magical in the flickering candle-light and this event remains among most popular things to do in the city.

About the Author

Ketki Sharangpani is a travel writer and blogger on a quest to illustrate the world through travelogues & photoessays. Currently, she is basking in the sun and breathing salty air off the Gulf Coast. Read her free 8 Day Jordan itinerary and follow her attempt at captioning the world on Dotted Globe.  Dotted Globe Ketki Sharangpani

Embassy Tours – A Cultural Tourism Annual Event

Embassy Tours – A Cultural Tourism Annual Event

Foreign Embassy Tours

Every year at the beginning of May, Cultural Tourism DC hosts an event called “The Around the World Embassy Tour.”  I have been lucky enough to go in the past, and I went again this year.  I think it is probably one of the coolest free events I’ve ever been to, with the possible exception of the Ceremony of the Keys in London.

On May 6 of this year, 43 embassies representing countries in Africa, Asia, and South America opened their doors and invited the general public in to learn more about their culture and heritage.  The European Union embassies will follow suit and host an open house on May 13.

To give you a better idea of what it’s like, I took a lot of pictures.  Our first stop was the Embassy of Peru.

Peru

Inside, we got to see beautiful Peruvian hand crafted items, sample some Peruvian chocolate, and we got to see the ambassador’s office and conference room.  Peruvian food was available for purchase both inside and outside the embassy, including Pisco sours, empanadas, and Alfajores cookies.

embassy tours peru
Some of the handicrafts in the Peruvian embassy.

Then, outside the embassy, we experienced music and Latin dancing.

embassy tours peru dancers
The dancers outside the Peruvian embassy.

From there we walked up Massachusetts Avenue, aka Embassy Row, and marveled at the beautiful buildings now serving as embassies. The Colombian embassy was ROCKING. Loud party music and bright colorfully-clad dancers attracted everyone’s attention. It also had a line of people that went down the street and around the corner. Having already gotten a late start, we decided to visit the embassies that seemed to have little to no wait to enter. Otherwise, we would have probably only seen two!

The first one we happened upon was Indonesia.

Indonesia

I am not exaggerating when I say it’s the most beautiful house I have seen on this side of the Atlantic. When we walked in, the first thing we saw was the grand entrance.

embassy tours indonesia
The foyer of the Indonesian embassy

(I don’t know about you, but every time I see a place like this, I imagine myself in an evening gown and lots of diamonds, slowly gliding down the stairs to the tune of dramatic-yet-elegant music.  No?  I’m the only one?)

As it turns out, the building is also known as the Walsh Mansion, and it Dates to 1903. At that time, it was the most expensive residence in the city, with a construction cost of $835,000.  The original owner, a Thomas J Walsh, came to this county from Ireland without a penny to his name in 1869. Over the next 25 years, he built up a small fortune through his business pursuits, then lost nearly everything in the Panic of 1893.  In 1896, he took his family to Colorado, and purchased a mine that most thought was of no value. However, it wasn’t long before mine workers struck a massive vein of gold and silver, making Walsh a multi-millionaire.

Walsh’s daughter Evalyn married into the McLean family, which owned The Washington Post.  In 1910, her husband bought the Hope Diamond for her at a cost of $180,000 (that’s $4.6 million in today’s economy).  Over time, rumors developed that the Hope Diamond had a curse on it.  Evalyn Walsh McLean’s first son died in a car accident. Her husband ran off with another woman and eventually died in a sanitarium. The Washington Post went bankrupt, and eventually her daughter died of an overdose, and one of her grandsons died in the Vietnam war. Evalyn never believed the curse had anything to do with her misfortunes.

In 1952 the government of Indonesia purchased the mansion for use as an embassy. Thankfully, they have preserved the beauty of the historic home, including this very large and ornate organ:

embassy tours indonesia
Upper part of the massive pipe organ in the Indonesian embassy.

The pipe organ’s wind system and some of its pipes were located in the basement, making this a two-story pipe organ.  I don’t know what it sounds like, but based solely on its appearance, it is impressive!

The painted ceilings and crystal chandeliers are probably very much like they were before it became the Indonesian embassy.

Embassy tours Indonesia
A doll on the mantle in the Indonesian embassy

A small glassed in walkway connected the residence portion of the house with the offices, which were more modern.  As you enter the office area, you pass by a huge gold bird, the heraldic symbol of Indonesia.

embassy tours indonesia

Our next stop was going to be the Chilean embassy, but the line was incredibly long, so we wandered up the street a little farther and found a performer outside the Korean embassy.

Korea

Just above the heads of the people gathered around to watch, we could see a man walking a tightrope while making jokes via an interpreter. There was also this little statue:

embassy tours korea

This is a Dol Hareubang, which means Stone Grandfather.  They are from Jeju, a small volcanic island off the southern coast of Korea.  Dol Hareubang is a guardian deity, and the people of Jeju erect these statues to ward off danger and harm.

Right next door to Korea was the Kyrgyz Republic, or Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan

I’ll be honest.  I don’t know much about Kyrgyzstan, other than that it’s a relatively new country.  It was a very enlightening visit.  First, I learned that Kyrgyzstan shares a border with China. As we made our way through the embassy and looked at the displays, I learned that many people of Kyrgyzstan live in yurts.  We saw scarves and slippers and multiple other woolen items, beautifully made. But their talents do not end there. I thought this painting was just adorable:

Embassy tours Kyrgyzstan

They were also offering shots of a cognac from their country. Nearby, these lovely ladies in traditional native costumes greeted and posed for everyone.

Embassy tours Kyrgyzstan

Haiti

The Haitian embassy was all about art.  Every room we entered had beautiful, brightly colored paintings done by Haitian artists. The one hanging over the fireplace was especially striking.

Embassy tours haiti

And in the back of the house, just before we stepped outside, we saw a beautiful collection of bottles covered in sequins.  Then we exited the house and stepped out onto a gorgeous patio. The biggest wall had an arrangement of metal decorations that was pretty incredible.

Embassy tours Haiti patio

There were tin lanterns hanging all over the place, with designs of dragonflies, and other small animals.

By this time the event was coming to a close, so we started walking back toward the Metro station.  On the way, we passed a stunning display outside the Guatemalan embassy.

Embassy tours Guatemala

 

The white parts were rice, and we guessed that the colored bits were dyed sawdust.  From a distance, it looked like a rug.

After that, we followed the sound of music until we happened upon the embassy of the Dominican Republic.  There were people everywhere – some were in line for food but quite a few were dancing.  It was such an awesome display of living in the moment, anyone watching couldn’t help but smile.

I cannot recommend the Around the World Embassy Tour enough. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about other cultures and see some magnificent art and architecture.  If you’re ever in D.C. on a Saturday in early May, check it out!

Looking for Diamonds at an Arkansas State Park

Looking for Diamonds at an Arkansas State Park

How cool is this?

Not only is there a state park in Arkansas that lets the public go looking for diamonds, they also let visitors keep any diamonds they find!

looking for diamonds arkansas

Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro, Arkansas contains over 37 acres of plowed field in which diamonds are found daily. For an admission fee of $10 per adult, you can search through the soil, looking for diamonds to take home.

And yes, you can take them home, because the state park has a “finders, keepers” policy. Whatever you find is yours to keep.

The History

For years, locals wondered about the unusual green dirt two miles south of the small farming community of Murfreesboro, Arkansas. Geologists examined the soil in the late 1800s and found it to be similar to diamond-bearing volcanic material elsewhere in the world.

A local farmer named John Wesley Huddleston purchased land near Murfreesboro which included part of this volcanic material. In August 1906, he discovered the first diamonds on his property. Known as Arkansas’s “Diamond King,” Huddleston soon sold his land to a commercial mining company for $36,000. A diamond rush developed as soon as word of the finds got out. The Conway Hotel in Murfreesboro is said to have turned away more than 10,000 people in just one year who could not be accommodated.

The property changed hands many times after that, ultimately being sold to the state in 1972.  It was developed into the state park at that time.

What should I bring?

Where can diamonds be found within the park? Visitors have found plenty of gems both on top of and in the soil. Tools are not necessary for diamond seeking, and a good way to search is to walk up and down the rows looking for diamonds lying on top of the ground. However, most diamond hunters like to dig in the soil. Therefore, you have the options of bringing your own tools from home, or you may purchase or rent tools here at the park.

How can I tell if it’s really a diamond?

Diamonds found at the Crater are typically smooth and rounded. Their shape resembles a polished stone with smooth sides and rounded edges. The average size of a diamond is about the size of a paper match head, approximately 20-25 points weight. (Points are a measurement of diamond weight. There are 100 points in a carat.) Look for something small. A 1-carat diamond is about the size of a green pea, based on its crystal shape.

Diamonds may feel like they have an oily film on them, and because of this characteristic, they tend to not be very dirty. Diamonds also have a metallic luster like new steel or lead. They will not be clear like glass, but translucent. You can typically see into them but not through them.  The colors of diamonds found at the park are white, brown, and yellow.

looking for diamonds color variations
Diamonds found at the park range in color from white to dark brown.

The park offers free rock and mineral identification at the Diamond Discovery Center. Diamonds are weighed and certified free of charge for the finder.

Has anyone actually found a diamond here?

On average, two diamonds are found at the park every day. Most are small but an 8.66 carat white diamond was found at the park in 2011… not that long ago!  The biggest diamond found to date was 16.37 carats, found in 1975.

Looking for diamonds crater of diamonds state park arkansas
The 8.66 carat “Illusion Diamond” found at the park in 2011

From 1972 to 2016,over 32,000 diamonds have been found in the Crater of Diamonds State Park, and 963 of those have weighed more than one carat.

What else can I do there?

If looking for diamonds doesn’t yield any results, there are other things to do and see in the park. There is a wildlife observation blind that offers great opportunities for photographing wildlife.  In addition, visitors can go fishing for large mouthed bass and/or catfish.  And there are three hiking trails in the park to explore.

The Crater of Diamonds State Park is located at 209 State Park Rd, Murfreesboro, AR 71958. Telephone: 870-285-3113. The park is open daily throughout the year with the exceptions of Thanksgiving Day, last half of the day on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Hours vary by season.

60+ Washington DC Free Attractions

60+ Washington DC Free Attractions

Anyone who has been to Washington DC knows that it can be a pretty expensive city to visit.  Most studies rank it somewhere in the top ten list of the most expensive American cities. For someone who is making a non-DC salary and visiting the nation’s capital, the expense of everything can be daunting.

Fortunately, Washington DC free attractions are plentiful.  Here are over 60 places you can explore without paying for admission, listed by neighborhood:

The National Mall Area

Washington DC Free Attractions

  1. Abraham Lincoln Memorial
  2. World War II Memorial
  3. National Museum of American History
  4. National Air & Space Museum
  5. Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden – modern art
  6. National Museum of African Art
  7. National Museum of Natural History
  8. Smithsonian Castle
  9. Washington Monument – currently closed for elevator upgrade – check before you go
  10. National Archives
  11. National Gallery of Art
  12. Multiverse Light Sculpture between National Gallery East & West Buildings
  13. Freer Gallery – Asian art (closed until October 14, 2017)
  14. Sackler Gallery – Asian art
  15. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
  16. Korean War Veterans Memorial
  17. Vietnam War Veterans Memorial
  18. Thomas Jefferson Memorial
  19. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
  20. American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
  21. US Holocaust Memorial Museum – free but requires timed tickets March through August
  22. National Museum of the American Indian
  23. National Museum of African American History & Culture
  24. Albert Einstein Memorial
  25. Bureau of Engraving & Printing (free, but reservations required through September 1)
  26. National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden

 

Brookland Area

Washington DC free attractions in Brookland area

  1. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
  2. Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America

 

Capitol Hill

Washington Dc free attractions capitol hill

  1. National Postal Museum
  2. Library of Congress
  3. US Capitol
  4. US Botanic Garden
  5. Folger Shakespeare Library
  6. Historic Congressional Cemetery

 

Capitol Riverfront

Washington DC Free attractions capitol riverfront

  1. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
  2. National Museum of the US Navy
  3. Yards Park

 

Anacostia

Washington DC Free Attractions Anacostia

  1. Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
  2. Anacostia Community Museum

 

Upper Northwest

Washington DC Free Attractions Upper Northwest

  1. National Cathedral

 

Georgetown

Washington DC Free ATtractions Georgetown

  1. C&O Canal Paths
  2. Old Stone House (the oldest home in DC)
  3. Theodore Roosevelt Island
  4. Rock Creek Park

 

Penn Quarter/Chinatown

Washington DC Free Attractions Penn Quarter Chinatown

  1. National Portrait Gallery
  2. Smithsonian American Art Museum
  3. Lunder Conservation Center
  4. Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site
  5. Archives of American Art Gallery

 

Dupont Circle

Washington DC Free Attractions Dupont Circle

  1. Anderson House

 

Woodley Park

Washington DC Free Attractions Woodley Park

  1. National Zoo

 

Foggy Bottom

Washington DC free attractions Foggy Bottom

  1. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts (free tour)
  2. Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center (free performances)

 

Downtown

Washington DC Free Attractions Donwtown

  1. White House Visitor Center
  2. White House tour (request through Congressional representative at least 3 months in advance)
  3. Renwick Gallery – American contemporary art

 

Shaw

Washington DC Free Attractions Shaw

  1. African American Civil War Memorial
  2. African American Civil War Museum

 

H Street NE

Washington DC Free Attractions H Street NE

  1. US National Arboretum
  2. National Bonsai & Penjing Museum – inside National Arboretum

 

Arlington, Virginia (technically not DC, but just across the river)

 

  1. US Air Force Memorial
  2. US Marine Corps Memorial (aka Statue of Iwo Jima)
  3. Arlington House, former home of Robert E Lee
  4. Arlington National Cemetery
  5. National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial

 

As you can see, there are plenty of Washington DC free must-see attractions… and a few that are a little off the beaten path.  With so many choices for things to see and do at no expense, Washington DC can be an affordable vacation destination after all.

 

Top Ten Things to See in the Rest of Peru

Top Ten Things to See in the Rest of Peru

Ten Fantastic Peru Destinations

The first time I planned to go to Peru, I noticed that most people asked the same question when they found out where I was heading: “You’re going to Machu Picchu?” Like that’s all there is of interest in Peru!  While Machu Picchu is magnificent – it is, after all, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World – there is so much more to see and do in Peru! Here are the top ten Peru destinations that aren’t Machu Picchu – but are just as amazing:

1.  The Nazca Lines

These are a series of large ancient (500 BC – 500 AD) geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert of southern Peru. The figures vary in complexity, from simple lines and geometric shapes to designs of animals, such as birds, fish, llamas, jaguars, and monkeys, or human figures.  The largest figures are up to 1,200 feet long!

hummingbird nazca lines Peru destinations
The Hummingbird, one of the animals depicted in the Nazca Lines of Peru.

A few caveats:  the Nazca lines are pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so there isn’t likely to be much else to do once you’ve seen them. Also, you can only see them from above, so you will need to book a short sightseeing flight for this Peru destination.

2. Lake Titicaca

The mountain lake with the funny name lies between Peru’s Puno Region and the country of Bolivia. At 12,000+ feet, it is the highest navigable lake in the world. The lake contains several “Floating Islands,” which are small man-made islands constructed by the Uru people from layers of a cut reed that grows in the lake. As of 2011, about 1,200 Uros lived on an archipelago of 60 artificial islands.

Arch at Taquile Lake Titicaca Peru destinations
View of Lake Titicaca from the island of Taquile.

Be sure to visit the island of Taquile, which features pre-Inca ruins and a tradition of beautiful hand-crafted items. It also makes an ideal location for stargazing as there is very little light pollution at night.

3. Trujillo & Chan Chan

Trujillo is located on the Pacific coast, in the northwestern part of the country. It is considered one of the primary cultural Peru destinations due to its association with prominent writers, dances, festivals, gastronomy, etc. Three miles to the west of Trujillo lies Chan Chan, the archaeological site and former capital of the Chimu civilization. It is the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas, and the largest adobe city in the world.

chan-chan adobe ruins Peru destinations
The ruins of the Chimu capital – Chan Chan

The Chimu inhabited the area from roughly 900 AD until they fell to the Incas around 1450 AD. Because Chan Chan is basically built from mud, the site has suffered some erosion, and there is a serious concern that climate change could destroy what is left.  Therefore, if you’re interested in visiting, you might want to do so sooner rather than later.

4. Huascarán National Park

Situated in the Cordillera Blanca, the world’s highest tropical mountain range, the center of this park is Mount Huascarán, which rises to over 22,000 feet above sea-level.

huascaran national park Peru destinations
The rugged beauty of Huascarán National Park

Hundreds of glaciers and lakes in the park include the shrinking Pastoruri Glacier and the brilliant blue Llanganuco lagoons. Trails lead to the high-altitude Laguna 69, known for its turquoise waters. The park is a haven for pumas, Andean condors and spectacled bears.  If nature is your thing, you should definitely put Huascarán National Park on the top of your list of Peru destinations!

5. Lima’s Historic Center

In the capital of Peru, you will find a beautiful historic center with many places of interest. The Church & Convent of San Francisco, for example, is a stunning example of colonial architecture that also boasts a 25,000 volume library and some spooky catacombs.

catacombs San Francisco lima peru destinations
An artful display of skulls and bones in the catacombs of San Francisco

There is also the Presidential Palace, which you can tour.  Alternatively, you can stay outside and witness the changing of the guard. In addition, you might want to see the tomb of conquistador Francisco Pizarro at the Cathedral of Lima, take in the beautiful courtyards at the convent of Santo Domingo, and/or look for ornate wooden balconies on the older buildings in the city. There are many fascinating sites in the capital for anyone who enjoys history, art, or architecture.  Since Lima is the port of entry to Peru for most travelers, it can easily be paired with your other Peru destinations.

6. Iquitos

Iquitos is a Peruvian port city and the country’s largest jungle town. Surrounded by water on one side and thick Amazon rainforest on the rest, the only way to reach Iquitos is to either fly there or travel by boat. While there, you can take a trip into the jungle and can view wildlife such as monkeys, alligators, giant lily-pads, baby caimans, anacondas, boas, tarantulas, and more.  (Just make sure you are using a reputable tour guide and not a scam artist!)

victoria lilies amazon rain forest peru destinations iquitos
The giant lily pads of the rain forest near Iquitos

Alternatively, you can partake in an Ayahuasca ceremony.  Ayahuasca is a powerful psychedelic brew made from local plants and used by shamans for thousands of years.  It seems like something that could be a little risky, though, so please be careful if you do!

7. Colca Canyon

This massive canyon located about 100 miles northwest of the city of Arequipa is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and has more diverse scenery. The Andean condor calls the canyon home; you are likely to get an up close view of them soaring past the canyon walls if you visit here.

colca canyon peru destinations
Colca Canyon, Peru

The town of Chivay, located in the canyon, is the site of hot springs. Elsewhere, visitors can see the Infiernillo Geyser.  There are numerous archaeological sites as well, including 6000-year-old rock art that depicts the domestication of alpacas

8. Paracas National Reserve

The reserve is located about 165 miles south of Lima on the Pacific Coast, and is home to an abundance of wildlife like sea lions, dolphins, and many birds, especially near the water’s edge.

paracas national reserve peru destinations pelicans
Pelicans at Paracas National Reserve

The Paracas Reserve contains the largest concentration of birds on earth. The terrain is diverse as well,  spanning desert, ocean and islands. In addition to the wildlife, visitors will enjoy red sand beaches, a museum of ancient artifacts from the Paracas culture, a necropolis, and a geoglyph called the Paracas Candelabro.

9. Chiclayo

Located in northern Peru, Chiclayo was once the home to the Moche civilization, who were prolific pre-Columbian artists.  The Lord of Sipán is the most famous archaeological discovery to come out of the area – he was the first of several mummies discovered in 1987. Amazingly, the tomb was completely intact and did not appear to have been disturbed at all.

lord of sipan peru destinations tomb archaeology
A replica of the Lord of Sipan’s tomb.

Much like ancient Egyptians, the mummy was buried with treasures, animals, and other people. As a result, the Lord of Sipán is known as “The King Tutankhamun of the Americas.”

10. Huacachina  

If you’ve ever wondered what a real-life oasis in the desert looks like, go to Huacachina and see for yourself. The city is built around a small natural lake in the desert.

huacachina oasis sand dunes peru destinations
Huacachina – an oasis in the Peruvian desert.

Called the “oasis of America,” it serves as a resort for local families and also as an attraction for tourists who want to try sandboarding on the massive dunes. Other popular activities include dune buggy rides, making this one of the favorite Peru destinations for people who don’t mind sand.

So as you can see, Peru has a lot more to offer tourists than just Machu Picchu. If you’re planning a trip there, why not take a side trip to visit some of the other destinations? There’s something for everyone in Peru!

 

Machu Picchu for Non-Hikers

Machu Picchu for Non-Hikers

Is seeing Machu Picchu without hiking even possible?

Recently, I learned that most people who visit the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu do so at the culmination of a two- to five-day hike on the Inca Trail.  Said trail goes through both the bug-infested jungle and rugged mountain terrain.

Um, no.

No, thank you.

I learned from my first trip to Peru that altitude can really kick my butt, and surgery on my Achilles tendon three years ago has left me unable to walk for more than a few hours. I can’t possibly be the only one for whom this multiple-day trek on foot is impractical, if not impossible. What about people with young children in tow? What about people who, due to injuries or age, just don’t have the stamina to walk through rugged mountain terrain for several days? Are we out of luck? Do we need to resign ourselves to the fact that they only way we will see Machu Picchu is through someone else’s photos?

Thankfully, the answer is no. You can see Machu Picchu without hiking. It just takes a little more planning in the way of logistics, and in all honesty, more money. Are you ready to plan your trip to Machu Picchu? I know I am, so let’s get started…

Cusco

First, let’s talk about the places you will travel to or through in order to get to Machu Picchu. Cusco is a city of about 435,000 in southeastern Peru. Regardless of where you are beginning your journey, you will most likely get to Cusco via Lima. The flight from Lima is about 1 hour and 15 minutes, and there are at least 20 flights every day. There is generally not a huge price difference between booking straight to Cusco or booking to Lima and then making a separate reservation to Cusco. If you want to do some sightseeing in Lima and you have the time to do so, you could book your trip to Cusco separately.

I recommend spending a few days in Cusco to get acclimated to the higher altitude. (Cusco has an elevation of 11,000 feet.) Beyond that, Cusco happens to be a great destination in its own right. Inca walls topped with colonial Spanish architecture, people dressed in traditional Peruvian garb, ruins dating from Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca, and many unique museums are among the things you can see there.

One of the must-see Cusco museums is Museo del Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco, located at Av Sol. No. 603. This free museum inside El Centro’s textile store features a gallery containing displays of traditional Quechuan and Andean textiles. The museum explains the historical significance of the textiles and the techniques used to make them. You can also buy high quality, authentic textiles here.

Plaza-de-Armas-Cusco Machu Picchu without hiking
The Plaza de Armas (town square) in Cusco.

Aguas Calientes

From Cusco, you will go to Machu Picchu Pueblo, also called Aguas Calientes.  There are multiple ways to do this. Here are a few possibilities but as always, you should check to make sure all services are running prior to your travel day:

  • Cusco to Aguas Calientes:  From Cusco, travel by car approximately 25 minutes to the Poroy Station. From there, take a bus to Belmond Hotel Rio Sagrado.  Take the Hiram Bingham Train to Aguas Calientes. The entire journey will take about 5 hours. **The Hiram Bingham is the top-of-the-line luxury train and is quite expensive.  As of this writing, it is the only train operating a bus+train service from Poroy.  Additional services are expected to run from Poroy after April 2017.**

    hiram-bingham train from Poroy to see Machu Picchu without hiking
    The Hiram Bingham train
  • Cusco to Ollantaytambo and Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes: From Cusco, travel to Ollantaytambo by taxi, minivan, or by bus. Taking a taxi or minivan will take about 90 minutes. Going by bus will add an extra hour to the journey, but it is considerably cheaper. Once in Ollantaytambo, you can sightsee a little if you’d like. It is the site where the Incas retreated after the Spanish took Cusco. When you are ready to move on, take a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. This train ride will take about 90 minutes.

It is important to get your train tickets and admission tickets for Machu Picchu as far in advance as possible. Under no circumstances should you wait to buy your tickets the day before you want to travel.

Once you’re in Aguas Calientes, you can either proceed straight to Machu Picchu, or stay the night and plan to go see Machu Picchu the next morning. I recommend the latter, with one caveat. As with most towns set up near major tourist attractions in remote areas – Grand Canyon Village comes to mind – everything will be far more expensive than it should be.

If you want to go immediately to Machu Picchu, you can take a short walk and get a bus. The busses depart every 20 minutes, from 5:30 AM to 3:30 pm.

Map of Aguas Calientes for seeing Machu Picchu without hiking
The route from train station to bus stop in Aguas Calientes.

As with the train, if you’re planning on spending a night in Aguas Calientes, you should book accommodations well in advance.  There are about 15 different hotels in the little town, but that doesn’t mean many will have vacancies.

I recommend getting out of bed early and being ready to catch the first bus that leaves at 5:30 AM, which means getting to the bus stop around 5:00 AM. I know, it’s brutal for folks like me who aren’t morning people, but it isn’t as though you’re doing this every day. Getting there early will allow you to be one of the first people at the site.  That ensures that you will get better photographs with fewer tourists in them. If you’re lucky, you may also get to see the sun rise over the Incan ruins.

machu-picchu-without hiking - take bus to get there for sunrise
Sunrise at Machu Picchu

The bus to Machu Picchu takes about 20-30 minutes and involves a lot of zigzagging around the mountain. Consider yourself forewarned if you’re prone to carsickness.

bus ride from Aguas Calientes Machu Picchu without hiking
The bus route from Aguas Calientes to the Machu Picchu entrance

Machu Picchu

The bus from Aguas Calientes drops you off right at the entrance to the Machu Picchu ruins. From there, it’s a fairly flat five minute walk to the ruins where you have an excellent view. Once in the ruins, there are steps up and down; however, you can do as much or as little walking as you want.

And again, booking in advance is an absolute necessity.  Machu Picchu tickets are NOT sold at the entrance gate, and they are limited to 2500 per day. Advance purchase tickets are available from the official government website (www.machupicchu.gob.pe). Can you imagine traveling all that way only to be told you can’t get in? Don’t let that happen to you!

Also, bring your passport to Machu Picchu with you. You will need it to get in.  And you can get it stamped, which is pretty cool.

passport-stamps-machu-picchu without hiking
Machu Picchu passport stamp

Some things to consider when determining the best time to go:

  • High season is May to October
  • The site is especially busy during periods of national holidays – roughly from July 28 to August 10
  • Solstice days (June 21 and Dec 21) are also busy – everyone descends on the ruins for a glimpse of the dazzling effects of the sun’s rays.
  • The rainy season is November to March.  During this time, you are likely to get rain for brief periods during the day, and clouds obscuring the site in the mornings.

Once you’re there, walk at your own pace and see as much or as little as you want to see. You will get little in the way of printed materials telling you what you’re looking at, but guides are available to hire on site for about $30/two hours. Alternatively, you can bring a guide book with you.

Points of Interest

machu-picchu-without hiking points of interest map
Map of Machu Picchu Points of Interest

Once you get through the main entrance, there is a path up to the left that takes you to the spot above the ruins, near the Caretaker’s Hut and Funerary Rock. This is where you will get the classic view of Machu Picchu that you see on so many postcards. If you are here early enough for sunrise (6:30-7:30am), you should do this first.

Afterward, explore as much or as little as you want. Some of the points of interest are only accessible by steep paths and/or stairs, but you will have all the time you need if you arrived early, so pace yourself. Some of the major areas within the ruins are:

  • Temple of the Sun (also called the Torreón) has extraordinary stonework, the finest in Machu Picchu, with large stones that fit together seamlessly. However, it is accessible only by a steep set of stairs, and entry inside the temple is not permitted. I would skip this unless you’re feeling particularly energetic – there are other areas with impressive stonework that are not as difficult to reach.
  • Below the Temple of the Sun, there is a section of cave called the Royal Tomb, although no human remains have ever been found there. It contains a meticulously carved altar and series of niches that produce intricate morning shadows.
  • To the north, just down the stairs that divide this section from a series of dwellings called the Royal Sector, is a still-functioning water canal and series of interconnected fountains. The main fountain is distinguished by both its size and excellent stonework.
  • Back up the stairs to the high section of the ruins is the main ceremonial area. The Temple of the Three Windows has views of the Andes in the distance across the Urubamba gorge. This is likely to be one of your lasting images of Machu Picchu, so it should be on your short list of places to visit within the ruins.

    machu-picchu-without-hiking-temple-of-three-windows
    The Temple of the Three Windows
  • Just behind the Main Temple (to the left if you’re facing the Temple of the Three Windows) is a small cell, termed the Sacristy, renowned for its exquisite masonry. It’s a good place to examine the way these many-angled stones (one to the left of the doorjamb has 32 distinct angles) were fitted together by Inca stonemasons.
  • Up a short flight of stairs is the Intihuatana, also known as the “hitching post of the sun.” It is a carved rock or a type of sundial, which in all probability was an astronomical and agricultural calendar.
  • Follow a trail down through terraces and past a small plaza to a dusty clearing with covered stone benches on either side. A massive, sculpted Sacred Rock fronts the square. This area likely served as a communal area for meetings.
  • To the left of the Sacred Rock, down a path, is the gateway to Huayna Picchu, the huge outcrop that serves as a dramatic backdrop to Machu Picchu. Each day, 400 people are permitted to climb Huayna Picchu.  I’m assuming that, if you’re reading this article, it’s not something you would be keen on doing.  🙂
  • Returning back down the same path (frighteningly steep at a couple points) is a turnoff to the Temple of the Moon, usually visited only by Machu Picchu die hards who don’t want to miss a single thing. The path takes about 1 to 1 1/2 hours round-trip from the detour. I don’t recommend pursuing it.
  • The lower section of Machu Picchu consisted mostly of residential and industrial buildings. The most interesting part of this section is the Temple of the Condor. Said to be a carving of a giant condor, the dark rock above symbolizes the bird’s wings and the pale rock below quite clearly represents its head.

Exploring Machu Picchu is not just for hikers, backpackers and mountain climbers. So plan your trip and go see it! The mountains of Peru are nothing short of awe-inspiring, and the ghostly remains of the Inca civilization are unforgettably beautiful.

Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Six Things You May Not Know About the Hermitage Museum

The state Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. Catherine the Great founded the Hermitage in 1754 and it has been open to the public since 1852. In addition to its stunning architecture and beautiful works of art, the museum has a fascinating history. Here are six secrets of the Hermitage.

Secrets of the Hermitage #1: It’s really big.  Like huge.

It covers 765,567 square feet and contains over 1 million works of art, over 1 million numismatic objects, over 770,000 archaeological artifacts, and nearly 14,000 pieces of arms and armor. There are 2.7 million exhibits and displays in all. I’m thinking it’s probably not the sort of place you want to try and see in just a couple of hours.

Secrets of the Hermitage #2: It isn’t just a building.

The museum is actually a complex of many buildings, including the Winter Palace, which was the main residence of the Russian tsars.

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Interior of the State Hermitage Museum

Catherine expanded the museum beyond the palace to have additional buildings erected, creating the Hermitage Complex. The Russian rulers hosted all kinds of festivities in these buildings, which helped the Hermitage garner a reputation as not only a dwelling place for the Imperial family, but also as an important symbol and memorial to the imperial Russian state.

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Portrait of Catherine the Great by Fyodor Rokotov

Secrets of the Hermitage #3: Its initial pieces were art rejects.

The King of Prussia rejected the initial collection of artwork that started the Hermitage. The first pieces (225 or 317, there are differing accounts as to how many) obtained by Catherine the Great were assembled by an art dealer named Gotzkowsky. He put the collection together for Frederick II, King of Prussia, who was not impressed and did not want them. Frederick’s loss was Catherine’s gain: that collection included 13 works by Rembrandt.

Secrets of the Hermitage #4: Art can be addictive.

Catherine didn’t stop after that initial purchase. In her lifetime, she acquired 4,000 paintings from the old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals, and a natural history collection filling two galleries. Competitive art collecting was popular in European royal court culture at the time of her reign, and Catherine was an enthusiastic collector. Her art collection enabled her to gain European acknowledgment and acceptance, and to portray Russia as an enlightened society.

Secrets of the Hermitage #5: Special precautions were taken in WWII.

Art treasures from the museum were evacuated in World War II. Officials feared that the artwork would be lost in the event of an attack, so items from the collection were taken from the museum to the train station. Two trains then carried art treasures off into the Ural Mountains for safekeeping. It turned out to be the right call: two bombs and a number of shells hit the museum buildings during the siege. Once the war was over, the collections were returned unharmed.

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Protecting the art treasures from the State Hermitage Museum.

Secrets of the Hermitage #6:  Crazy cat … museum?

A population of about 50-60 cats lives in the basement of the Hermitage museum. In 1745, Elizabeth of Russia required cats in the palace in order to keep the mice at bay. In times past, the cats would freely roam through the galleries of the museum.  These days, however, they are only permitted in the basement or on the museum grounds. They have their own press secretary, Instagram account, and three caretakers.  You can even adopt a Hermitage cat!

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The Hermitage should definitely be one of your top five things to see in Russia – where else could you see such a vast collection of art in a lavish setting like a palace? Just be sure to allow plenty of time for your visit.

The address for The Hermitage Museum is 2 Palace Square in St. Petersburg.  You may purchase tickets up to 180 days in advance online in US dollars for $17.95 (one day) or $22.95 (two day). However, admission is free on the first Thursday of every month for all visitors, and it is free daily for students and children. Closed on Mondays, New Year’s Day, and May 9.