Tag: Peru

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco

Tour the Catacombs of Lima?

The Monastery of San Fransisco (AKA Convento/Monasterio de San Francisco or the Monastery of Saint Francis) has some delightfully creepy yet somehow artistic catacombs sitting beneath it. For those who like to do something a little offbeat and unusual, maybe even macabre, a tour of the catacombs of Lima is just the ticket! But before I tell you about what you’ll see there, I’d like you to experience it the way we did.

The Site

The Monastery of San Francisco is just a block or so away from Lima’s Plaza Mayor, the Cathedral of Lima, and the Archbishop’s Palace. As such, it is part of the “Historic Centre of Lima,” which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. The monastery and church are yellow buildings that stand out against the grays and browns of the others in the area. Construction began in the middle of the sixteenth century and was completed in 1674. It’s considered to be a fine example of Spanish Baroque architecture.

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of Saint Francis.

There is usually a small horde of pigeons in the building’s courtyard, and a few vendors selling (among other things) food to feed the pigeons.

We entered the monastery (the building to the side of the church), paid for a tour, and waited for an English-speaking guide.

The Library

After a brief introduction, our guide led us out and up a flight of stairs. I wish I could have taken a photo of the stairway, or rather the ceiling above it. It was a beautiful deep red color and looked more Middle Eastern than Spanish or South American. Before I had a chance to ponder it, however, we moved into the first room: the library. I was awestruck, and I think you can see why;

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of Saint Francis, but don't be in such a rush to see them that you fail to appreciate what you see along the way... like this gorgeous library.

Our guide told us that the library contains over 25,000 books, and that some of them dated as far back as the 14th century. The world-renowned library contains the first Spanish dictionary published by the Royal Spanish Academy as well as a Bible dated 1572.

The Art

As with the Cathedral of Cusco, there was a massive Last Supper painting that depicted Jesus and his disciples partaking of Peruvian foods such as cuy (guinea pig) and potatoes. Unlike the one in Cusco, this one included the Devil himself… perched just above Judas’ shoulder. The guide told us how many faces there were in the painting… and while I can’t remember what that number was, it was a lot more than just the 13 men at the table. Looking at the painting more closely, I could see many additional faces – some no more than just a hint of a heavenly presence gazing upon the scene below.

As we walked along the cloister (the covered walkway between the building and the courtyard), we saw beautiful tiles lining the wall:

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the monastery of San Francisco , but make sure you take in all of the other fascinating art & architecture there as well, like these beautiful tiled walls.

One tile bore the date 1620! To think that those tiles have survived nearly 500 years is just mind-boggling. Even more so when you consider that the building experienced three major earthquakes – in 1687, 1746, and 1970. Interestingly, the first two did very little damage.  It was the earthquake of 1970 that inflicted severe damage on the site. And the tiles were not the only art to decorate the cloister – above the tiles you could see the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (“San Francisco” in Spanish) portrayed in a series of murals.

The Courtyard

The inner courtyard of the monastery was quite beautiful, particularly when viewed from the upper floor:

Tour the Catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco... then step out into the beautiful courtyard for a breath of fresh air.

We enjoyed looking out at the courtyard so much that we lingered there for a few moments at the end of the guided tour, just so we could take it all in.

The building itself was pretty impressive from that vantage point as well.

The Spanish baroque style Monastery of San Francisco allows you to tour the catacombs of Lima.

The Catacombs

Finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for: the creepy, crusty, dirty, dusty catacombs!  Actually they weren’t all that dirty but they were bit creepy.

In centuries past, it was customary to bury people under churches. This was commonplace until 1808, when the cemetery of Lima opened. At that time, practices changed and the catacombs were closed, after accepting somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 bodies. The catacombs stayed undisturbed until their rediscovery in 1943. When that happened, archaeologists and anthropologists decided to sort through the skeletons. (I’m not clear on why they thought that was necessary.) Apparently whoever was in charge of sorting had a really bad case of OCD.  Instead of keeping the bodies semi-intact, they put all the skulls together, all the femurs together, all the tibias together, and so on. So we passed bin after bin of bones that were not a person, but rather parts of more than one person. It was weird.

But it seemed to be slightly less weird when we got to the well. That was where the bones were not just sorted into bins but rather artistically arranged in to a geometric design.

Tour the catacombs of Lima at the Monastery of San Francisco and you will see this artistic display of bones.

I don’t think I would have the nerve to do all that, honestly. Rumor has it that the catacombs also included secret passageways connecting to the Cathedral and to the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition.

If you’re in Lima and you want to see a really amazing, kinda creepy place, look no farther than the Monastery of San Francisco. It only costs about $3 for a tour, and it will be a fascinating one!

The Monastery of San Francisco in Lima has more to delight visitors than the creepy catacombs. It's on the top ten list of places to see in Lima, Peru!
Ten Things You Need to Know Before Going to Peru

Ten Things You Need to Know Before Going to Peru

Peru Travel Tips

Even though I had been to Peru before and was comfortable with the idea of traveling there, I was still a little surprised (or at least reminded) about the quirkier aspects of traveling in this South American country.  Here are some important Peru travel tips.

1. You will need your passport, even when you think you don’t.

peru travel tips machu picchu passport
US Passport

I knew I would need my passport to leave the US and enter Peru (and vice versa) but what I didn’t know was that we would also need our passports to travel within Peru. When we flew from Lima to Cusco, we needed to show our passports. We also needed them when we bought tickets for the bus that ferries tourists up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. And when we entered Machu Picchu, we needed to show our passports. I learned to just keep my passport with me at all times in a zippered pouch that hung around my neck. I always had it with me, but didn’t need to worry about losing it.

2. Before leaving the airport is the best time to change money, buy SIM card, get information.

peru travel tips airport baggage claim currency exchange sim card

When you arrive in the luggage claim section of the Lima Airport, you will see some kiosks set up in between the baggage carousels.  There are three that are particularly helpful.  First is an information desk, which is a great place to get recommendations, directions, etc.  Second is a cellular phone provider. Buy yourself a local prepaid SIM card and forego paying for international roaming charges. Third is a currency exchange kiosk. Some may disagree, but I found that the rates at the airport kiosk were comparable to those elsewhere in the city, and the convenience factor was a big plus.

3. You don’t have to know Spanish, but it sure does help.

peru travel tips spanish

Nearly everywhere we went in Peru, we found individuals who spoke English.  However, we did notice that when I spoke Spanish with people, they were more receptive, helpful and friendly. While they might view my tendency to only speak in the present tense as quirky or improper, they appreciated the fact that I was at least making an effort to speak in their language rather than expecting them to speak in mine.

4. You can bring luggage on the train to Machu Picchu

peru travel tips luggage on train t o aguas calientes machu picchu

Everything I read when I was planning our trip said that no luggage was allowed on the trains to Aguas Calientes.  As far as I could tell, that left me with three options: (1) find out if we could leave our luggage at the place we were staying after checking out, (2) pay for an extra night at the apartment, and leave the majority of our things there, or (3) be a rule-breaker and bring the luggage, pretending I didn’t know about that rule.  I went with option 2. We put toiletries and a change of clothes in a backpack and left everything else in the apartment we were renting.  Imagine my surprise when I boarded and saw a sturdy luggage rack right by the door.  So yes, you can take luggage with you.

5. Learn to say “no, gracias.” A lot.

peru travel tips no gracias street vendors

We could not walk, stand, or sit anywhere in Cusco without being approached by someone who wanted to sell us something.  Sunglasses, tours, bags, hats, jewelry, decorative gourds, shoe shines, and so on.  It only took one afternoon to see that this would be an ongoing issue.  At first we listened politely and declined politely, but we soon learned that these vendors would not take no for an answer.  After that first afternoon, we learned to keep our eyes down, our pace brisk, and a “no, gracias, ” on the tip of the tongue, ready to turn the street vendor away.

6. Don’t wait for the waiters to bring your check.

peru travel tips dining out restaurants

If you finish your meal and sit around the table waiting for your waiter to bring the check, you will be there a long time.  Americans tend to get in, eat, and get out, but we are in the minority when in comes to dining out.  You will find neither hovering nor impatient waitstaff in Peruvian restaurants. When you are ready to leave, simply motion to your server and ask for the bill (cuenta in Spanish).

7. A double room might not be what you think it is.

I booked a double room at a hotel in Aguas Calientes for the three of us.  I assumed that it would be like a hotel room in the States – two double beds, bathroom, TV, and some furniture in which to place clothing. Imagine my surprise when we arrived and discovered that a double room was two twin size beds.  Fortunately, they had a room available that could accommodate three people without one having to sleep on the floor.  Be sure to ask when booking what size bed(s) you will have in your room.

8. Lima’s rush hour can mess up your plans.

peru travel tips rush hour traffic

I heard from more than one taxi driver in Lima that their evening rush hour lasts from 5:00 until 9:00 PM every weekday.  What I didn’t hear was how that could adversely affect our plans.  It became glaringly obvious on our last day in the City of Kings when we found ourselves near the Plaza de Armas around 5:00 PM, needing to get a cab back to Miraflores where a driver would be picking us up at 8:00 PM to take us to the airport. Nearly every cab that passed us already had a passenger.  One cab stopped but when we told him we wanted to go to Miraflores, he drove off, unwilling to drive that far in rush hour traffic.  We walked for a while, stopped and ate dinner at a KFC, and walked some more.  We called for an Uber car twice; they never showed up.  Finally someone stopped and asked if we needed a taxi. We reached the apartment at 8:10 PM.  Fortunately, our driver was waiting for us and we made it to the airport on time.

9. The Toilets.

peru travel tips rest room toilet

I will try not to be too indelicate, but the toilets in Peru are different from what we are used to here. While some are exactly the same, others are noticeably different.  The first glaringly obvious difference is that many do not have seats. The second big difference is that in most places, you are not supposed to flush your toilet paper.  The infrastructure is not equipped to handle it.  So regardless of what you do in the toilet, you are supposed to fold up your used toilet paper and place it in a nearby trash can. Not so bad when you are sharing a bathroom with your family, but when you’re out and about and using a public restroom, the ick factor increases exponentially.

10. It’s worth it to pay for a guided tour.

peru travel tips tour guide

We paid a nice young man to give us a tour at the Cusco Cathedral.  It cost just $10 and lasted about an hour.  That was probably the best $10 I’ve ever spent.  He gave us so much more information than we could have possibly picked up or learned on our own.  Definitely money well spent.  We did the same at Machu Picchu and also at the Archbishop’s Palace in Lima.  Each time we felt like we got a lot more from our sightseeing because we learned the history and significance in a way that only a local could explain.  Paying for a guide is a great way to add depth to your travel experience and is well worth the small fee.

I hope these tips help you prepare for your journey to Peru!  Are there any you would add?

Essential tips for a trip to Peru
8 Amazing Airbnb Homes

8 Amazing Airbnb Homes

Airbnb’s Most Amazing Homes

Sometimes picking a place to stay when we travel is as much fun as planning where to go and what to see.  There are some truly amazing homes available on Airbnb that you can rent.  They’re so good, they’ll make you want to book the place to stay and then plan your trip around its location, instead of vice versa!

1. The Seashell House – Isla Mujeres, Mexico

airbnb most amazing homes

This home in a gated community on Isla Mujeres seems like it was made from two giant shells.  In fact, shells dominate the decor inside the house as well. The plumbing fixtures are also shells, pouring out water into the sink and shower.

airbnb most amazing homes

Shells are also built into the walls both inside and outside the house, and the property features a stunning view of the water. Isla Mujeres is a small island off the Yucatan Peninsula, and the closest airport is Cancun. The property includes a private pool, two king beds, kitchenette, wifi, and air conditioning. The rental fee for the Seashell House is from $308 per night, and it sleeps a maximum of four people in two bedrooms. The property has received 131 reviews with an average rating of 5 stars. Click here to see its listing on Airbnb.

2. Underground Hygge – Orondo, WA

airbnb most amazing homes

This Hobbit-inspired home is nestled right into the mountainside of the breathtaking Columbia River Gorge. The doorway and windows are round, providing renters with an amazing view of the surrounding countryside.

airbnb most amazing homes

The house is outfitted with many natural elements – the floor appears to be made of log slices, the fireplace and chimney are made of stone, the sink basin is made of well-preserved natural wood. It isn’t hard to imagine a peaceful little hobbit living here. Staying here does require a bit of a hike uphill to reach the property from the parking area, and I really wouldn’t recommend staying here if you’re claustrophobic at all. (The largest room is 7 ft 10 inches by 11 feet. Also, if booking in winter, you will need a vehicle with four wheel drive, as they do get a lot of snow December – March.  The property is available to rent from $250 per night, and it sleeps two. The property has received 185 reviews with an average rating of 5 stars. Click here to see its listing on Airbnb.

3. Skylodge – Calca, Peru

airbnb most amazing homes

For those who want their lodging to provide them with an unforgettable experience, there are the Skylodge Adventure Suites in Peru’s Cusco region.  We actually saw these from our train to Machu Picchu in May.  They are “transparent luxury capsules” that are attached to a mountainside in the Sacred Valley of Peru. This may be the only hotel that you have to climb a mountain (1300+ feet) to enter. I’m a little unclear about how the booking works. It appears as though you make a reservation for one person, but they say that maximum occupancy for the three pods is 12 people. Rates are from $462 per night, which includes a gourmet dinner with wine, transportation from Cuzco, professional bilingual guides, and breakfast in the morning. There is a strict cancellation policy, so be sure you are going to stay there before you book. The property has received 53 reviews with an average rating of 4.5 stars. Click here to see its listing on Airbnb.

4. The Cozy Palace Bamileke Suite – Marrakesh, Morocco

amazing airbnb homes morocco cozy palace

This gorgeous little place just oozes romance, with colorful tiles, arching doorways, and a four poster bed. It is a suite in a riad – a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard.

amazing airbnb homes cozy palace morocco

A skylight fills the bedroom with natural light, and the courtyard is the perfect place to relax.  Guests also have access to a rooftop terrace which provides excellent views.  The suite accommodates up to four people, and rents from just $42 per night!  The property has received 401 reviews with a 5-star average rating. Click here to see its listing on Airbnb.

5. Old Smock Windmill – Kent, England

How many people can say that they’ve slept in a windmill?  You can, if you rent this renovated windmill in the English county of Kent.

amazing airbnb homes old smock windmill kent england uk

You will have three floors at your disposal.  Each is furnished with modern conveniences while retaining the rustic look of a bygone era.

amazing airbnb homes old sock windmill kent england uk

Notable features and furnishings include a copper basin sink, walk in shower with under floor heating, gas wood-burning stove, and a patio/deck.  The rental fee for the Old Smock windmill is from $235 per night. Sleeps a maximum of four people in two bedrooms. The property has 154 reviews, with an average rating of 5 stars. Click here to view its Airbnb listing.

6.  San Giusto Abbey Tower – Tuscania, Italy

amazing airbnb homes san giusto abbey tower italy

Built in 1146, San Giusto is a medieval monastery located in a beautiful valley one hour north of Rome. The tower has been recently restored and decorated, taking into consideration the beauty and austerity of a 12th century building: medieval charm and modern comfort. 

amazing airbnb homes san giusto italy

As you can see above, the decor is very much in keeping with the building’s age and purpose. If you are looking for a luxurious, spa-like environment, this will not be what you want. On the other hand, if you want to feel like you’ve stepped back in time, you will probably enjoy this.  The apartment has 4 floors: living room and kitchen, 2 bedrooms (each with a bathroom) on the upper floors and a terrace that overlooks the valley. The tower rents from $184 per night and can accommodate up to four guests. The property has 64 reviews with an average rating of 5 stars. Click here to view its Airbnb listing.

7.  Jack Sparrow House – Cornwall, England

amazing airbnb homes jack sparrow cornwall england uk

If quirky and cozy is your thing, you will love this little house! (Have I mentioned that I think Cornwall is the most beautiful place on earth?  Why, yes, I have.) It consists of a comfortable room with a seating/kitchen area downstairs and a romantic bed on the second floor with beautiful views of Porthallow Bay.  

amazing airbnb homes jack sparrow house cornwall england uk
The cabin has been lovingly constructed with careful attention to detail. There is a toilet in the house, but shower facilities are located nearby in a converted horse trailer. The Jack Sparrow house rents from $134 per night and, needless to say, it can only accommodate two people. This property has 138 reviews with an average rating of five stars. Click here to view its Airbnb listing.

8. St Pancras Clock Tower – London, England

amazing airbnb homes st pancras clock tower london england uk

There’s a new place on my bucket list!  There are two Airbnb apartments located inside the clock tower above St Pancras International Station in London. It features a 30 ft high room in the tower overlooking many of London’s landmarks such as St Paul’s Cathedral.

amazing airbnb homes st pancras clock tower london uk

Not only is sleeping inside a clock tower a really cool experience, but the location of this clock tower is exceptionally convenient for visitors to London.  From there, you can walk to many of London’s sights, including the British Library, the British Museum, and the West End. The tower does not have bells, and road/rail noise is minimal; however, you should be aware that the windows are not curtained and light will stream in from sun and/or floodlights. The apartments accommodate up to four people and rent from $147 per night.  The property has received 341 reviews, with an average rating of five stars. Click here to view its listing.

If you haven’t tried Airbnb before, what are you waiting for?  This is just a small sampling of the unique and cozy homes available on their site.  Click here, and you’ll get $40 off your first Airbnb stay!

Amazing Airbnb Homes
The Archbishop’s Palace in Lima, Peru

The Archbishop’s Palace in Lima, Peru

The Archbishop’s Palace

There is another baroque building sharing the city block on which the Cathedral of Lima sits.  It is the Archbishop’s Palace Lima, and it serves as the administrative headquarters of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Lima. Two ornate cedar wood balcony enclosures stick off the front of the building; they are its most distinguishing feature. While it appears to be a very old building – at least as old as the cathedral next door – it actually opened less than 100 years ago, in 1924.

The statue at the top of the center section of the palace is of Saint Toribio of Mongrovejo, the second Archbishop of Lima.  He is also the subject of a very large painting inside the palace, which our tour guide pointed out to us:

archbishop's palace lima saint toribio mongrovejo

About Toribio of Mongrovejo

He is considered the most important religious leader in Peruvian history, serving as Archbishop from 1579 until his death in 1606. Our guide told us that he did not just sit in Lima and preside over church matters from there.  Instead, he went out among the people, walking hundreds of miles to meet and convert Peruvians to the Catholic faith. During his travels, he faced storms, wild beasts, tropical heat, fevers, and sometimes threats from hostile tribes.

He learned local dialects so that he could communicate with – and convert – the native peoples, and he was a strong and effective champion of their rights. He was responsible for baptizing and confirming nearly a half million souls, among them St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres. He built roads, schoolhouses and chapels, many hospitals and convents, and at Lima, in 1591, founded the first seminary in the western hemisphere.

Our guide pointed out this golden reliquary, which contains relics of three saints.  The item on the left is a piece of Saint Francis Solano’s skeleton.  The item on the right is a bone from a finger of Saint Rose of Lima.  The larger item in the center is a finger of Saint Toribio.

archbishop's palace lima relics of saints

The First Floor

From there we saw several rooms of the Archbishop’s Palace Lima which were nicely furnished and almost always had artwork in them.  For instance, this was the dining room:

archbishop's palace lima dining room

Then we saw some rooms that were display areas for more artwork, such as this figure of “Our Lady of Sorrow.”

archbishop's palace lima our lady of sorrow
This figure has glass eyes to reflect the light, so that it would appear that she had tears in her eyes. Notice also the sword piercing the heart on her bodice.  “Our Lady of Sorrow” is Mary after the crucifixion of Jesus.

The Second Floor

After our guide pointed out items of interest, she led us up to the second floor.  The rooms of the Archbishop’s Palace Lima line the perimeter of the building, with a grand, red-carpeted staircase in the center. Looking up as we climbed the stairs, I noticed a stained glass ceiling above us.  It was just beautiful!

Archbishop's palace lima stained glass

The upstairs contained more official rooms – offices, meeting areas, and the like.  The salon, located on the front of the Archbishop’s Palace Lima, is where the Archbishop would have held meetings with visiting dignitaries.  It is also the room from which the balconies would be accessed.

Archbishop's Palace Lima salon peru
The salon. There is a very large, throne-like chair at the far end.

In addition to the wood balconies, there is another balcony on the front of the building from which the Archbishop would look out upon the Plaza de Armas.  We were not allowed to enter, but the small glimpse that I could see offered a great view.  Just imagine the Plaza de Armas below, bustling with people, and the national band playing during the changing of the guard each day at 11:00 AM.

archbishop's palace lima balcony view peru

When we left the salon, we stepped out to this amazing view:

archbishop's palace lima second floor

So much symmetry and beauty – I don’t think I would ever tire of seeing that! As you can see, there are more steps directly across from the salon. They lead to the chapel:

archbishop's palace chapel

The Chapel

The chapel was as big as some country churches in the United States – but after touring the vast open space of the Cathedral next door, it seemed quite small in comparison. A statue of Jesus carrying the cross was on the left.  To the right were some kneelers and two angel statues. It was a very beautiful, peaceful space.

The Archbishop’s Palace, along with the Cathedral of Lima and its Museum of Religious Art, are a wonderful way to spend a few hours exploring the center of Lima.

The Archbishop’s Palace is on Lima’s Plaza de Armas, Jirón Carabaya, Cercado de Lima 15001.  It is open Monday through Friday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and Saturdays from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM.  Closed on Sundays. Telephone:  +51 1 4275790.

The Archbishop's Palace of Lima is an easily overlooked but worthwhile destination in the historic center of Lima.
The Cathedral of Lima & Religious Art Museum

The Cathedral of Lima & Religious Art Museum

Cathedral of Lima

cathedral of lima from plaza de armas peru

The Cathedral of Lima’s proper name is the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. Located adjacent to the Plaza de Armas Lima. I’ve already written about the chapel that contained the remains of Francisco Pizarro, but that is just one small corner of a very large and beautiful church. Today I’ll share the rest of what we saw there.

But First, a Little History

In 1535, Francisco Pizarro laid the first stone for the church. He also carried the first log used in the construction of the Cathedral on his shoulders. Construction of the church was completed three years later, but it was mainly built of adobe, and was relatively primitive. Pizarro returned in 1540 to inaugurate the church.

Over the next eighty years, the church was rebuilt three times, and in 1622 the third cathedral celebrated its first mass. Then in 1687 an earthquake destroyed the vaults of the cathedral, and it took ten years to complete the reconstruction work. Another earthquake in 1746 destroyed many of the cathedral’s vaults and pillars. Twelve years of reconstruction work followed. In the late eighteenth century, the cathedral increased its height with the addition of two towers.

For the 100 years that followed, there were no earthquakes, no reconstruction projects. But in the beginning of 1893, the cathedral shut its doors to the public because so many repairs were needed. It took almost three full years before renovation work even began. The repairs took two years to complete.

Do Come In

The Cathedral of Lima’s main gateway is the Portada del Perdón or the “door of forgiveness.”

cathedral of lima gate of forgiveness peru

We entered via one of the smaller doors to the side, greeted by very friendly employees who sold us our tickets and made sure we knew where everything was. The church is quite large, with a lovely black and white floor and high vaulted ceilings.

cathedral of lima interior peru

We started off looking at the chapels that line the sides of the cathedral. These are small(er) rooms with elaborate displays and statues in which people pray and worship. Starting on the right and going around to the back of the cathedral, then proceeding to the front in an upside-down U shape, the chapels are:

  1. Tomb of Francisco Pizarro
  2. Saint John the Baptist
  3. Our Lady of the Candlemass
  4. Saint Toribio de Mogrovejo – more about him in my next post
  5. Saint Anne
  6. Chapel of the Visitation
  7. The Chapel of Souls
  8. Chapel of the Sacred Heart
  9. Saint Apolonia
  10. Our Lady of the Peace
  11. Our Lady of Evangelization
  12. Saint Rose of Lima
  13. Our Lady of La Antigua
  14. Saint Joseph

I found it especially interesting that the chapel of Saint Joseph, patron saint of carpenters, was the only chapel to have “naked” wood. Very little adornment, hardly any gold leaf – simply the wood in all its glory.

cathedral of lima patron saint of carpenters joseph peru

Saint Joseph’s Chapel served as an interesting contrast to that of Our Lady of Evangelization. I had to take some panorama shots to try and capture the size and scope.

cathedral of lima our lady of evangelization chapel peru

Or, if you would prefer to see it in a little more detail:

cathedral of lima our lady of evangelization chapel peru
This chapel was named Our Lady of the Conception until 1988.  When Pope John Paul II visited, he renamed it Our Lady of Evangelization.

I just couldn’t believe how much ornate decoration was in that space. As my daughter would say, “It’s so extra!”

We also got to see some of the catacombs beneath the church. One open grave demonstrated how multiple bodies shared the same space. In the one that was open, we could see the skeletal remains of at least three bodies:

cathedral of lima family grave peru

Museum of Religious Art

In addition to being an amazingly beautiful house of worship, the Cathedral also serves as a Museum of Religious Art. This 18th century chest nativity really impressed me. Closed, it looks like an ordinary wooden box, but when you open it, there is a world of wonderful detail, with a nativity scene as its centerpiece.

cathedral of lima nativity chest peru

The level of detail was just amazing!

My other favorite item in the museum was this 18th century statue of Joseph holding the baby Jesus. I thought the expressions on their faces were just so sweet.

cathedral of lima joseph and jesus peru

We also saw some historic church garments and items associated with the visit of Pope John Paul II, who went to Lima in 1985 and again in 1988. There were many paintings and also these pretty tiles:

cathedral of lima pretty tiles peru

And then as we were winding up our tour through the museum portion of the Cathedral of Lima, I saw a staircase and a sign with an arrow pointing up. The sign indicated that there were choir books upstairs.  Well, I’m a sucker for anything involving old books, so we went on up.

There, in a small room at the top of the stairs, was a collection of choir books that dated from several hundred years ago. Not only that, they were HUGE, measuring probably somewhere in the neighborhood of two feet high and 12-18 inches wide.

cathedral of lima choir books peru
She did NOT want to get her picture taken, but I needed her for scale to show just how big these books are.

Unfortunately, the books were all closed and kept behind glass. They did have a blown up photograph of some medieval music contained in one of the books and it was just beautiful.

The Cathedral of Lima is a great place to visit because it has something to appeal to everyone: classic architecture, beautiful art, historical significance, and creepy catacombs. It is definitely one of the must-see places in Lima, Peru.

The Cathedral of Lima is adjacent to the Plaza de Armas.  Admission is about $3 per person, and that covers your entrance to the Cathedral, the Musuem of Religious Art, and the Archbishop’s Palace next door.  Hours: Monday through Friday 9 AM to 5 PM, Saturdays 10 AM to 1 PM.

The Cathedral of Lima, Peru, dominates the city's Plaza Mayor and also serves as a museum of religious art.
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.

The Cathedral of Lima at the Plaza Mayor.
Photo via Flickr by James Preston

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 Francisco Pizarro’s Tomb.  Pizarro, as you may remember from school, was 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!

The story of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, his death, and the mystery surrounding his bones.
How Cusco Cathedral Honors Both Quechua and Catholic Heritage

How Cusco Cathedral Honors Both Quechua and Catholic Heritage

Cusco Cathedral was our first stop for sightseeing on our first full day in Cusco. We walked down to the city’s Plaza de Armas and saw this big cathedral dominating the center of town. And as if it weren’t big enough, it incorporates two smaller churches on either side of it. To the left is the Templo de la Sagrada Familia (Temple of the Holy Family) and to the right is La Iglesia del Triunfo (Church of the Triumph).

Cusco Cathedral
Photo via Flickr by Speculum Mundi

Sitting in the Plaza and looking up at the churches, one of the statues on the Church of the Triumph really struck me.

cusco cathedral triunfo iglesia angel devil

I think all too often we see angels depicted as namby-pamby, floating around in the air and strumming harps. This angel, by contrast, is kicking the devil’s butt! I just love it!

We started our tour in the Templo de la Sagrada Familia, and hired a guide to tell us about it. The fee for a personal guide was about $10, and it was money well spent. Our guide was very familiar with the cathedral, the local history, and the religious symbolism.

There were plenty of Quechua symbols in the Catholic art that decorated the cathedral because in many cases, local people were the ones creating the works of art. Take, for instance, the painting of the Last Supper, Cusco native Marcos Zapata painted in the eighteenth century:

cusco cathedral last supper painting cuy guinea pig
The Last Supper Painting from Cusco Cathedral

This painting has a lot of interesting details to distinguish it from a European last supper. Probably the most notable difference is that the meal’s main dish is cuy – the Peruvian delicacy of guinea pig! Also, Jesus and his disciples are drinking chicha, which is a traditional Peruvian corn drink.

As for other interesting aspects of the painting, note that the only figure besides Jesus who is looking out at the viewer is Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. All of the men in the picture have their hands clasped in prayer or reaching toward Jesus. However, Judas’ hand is below the table, clutching a money pouch. What was really eerie, though, was that when we looked at Judas while walking past the painting, his eyes seemed to follow us.

Another notable piece of art in the cathedral was what our guide called Black Jesus:

cusco cathedral black jesus

It is a statue of Jesus made of mixed materials and covered in alpaca skin. Most scholars agree that native artists created the statue around 1570. In 1650, when there was an earthquake, the religious leaders grabbed the statue and carried it around the town square, praying for an end to the earthquake. When the earthquake tremors ceased, the statue became known as Señor de los Temblores, or Lord of the Earthquakes, and the patron of Cusco. Each year, the people of Cusco take it out of the cathedral on Holy Monday and carry it in a procession.

It is a tradition for the faithful to throw red flowers at it, symbolizing the blood of Christ. Sticky residue from the flowers, along with a buildup of soot from candles and oil lamps placed at the statue’s feet for prayers, are the reason why the statue is now black. They say, however, that the legs underneath the skirt are still very white!

Throughout the tour, our guide pointed out how the artworks done in a way that would appeal to the locals. For instance, Mary was often depicted with her arms obscured from view and wearing a mountain-shaped skirt with a river running around its hem. This depiction identified her with Pachamama, Mother Earth to the locals.

Another item of interest in Cusco Cathedral is the main altar. Covered in embossed silver, it is visually striking and quite unusual.

cusco cathedral silver main altar
Source: Wikimedia Commons

But that’s not the only place you will see an abundance of silver. There is also a silver room, which is one of the side chapels in the cathedral. It contains many gleaming silver items, including an embossed silver bier dating back to 1712. Parishioners carry Black Jesus on the bier in the Easter Monday procession. Another impressive item is a large trellis in the form of a small temple. Covered with more than 370 pounds of silver, the trellis features a pelican piercing his own heart with his beak, symbolizing supreme love and self-denial.

We really enjoyed our tour of Cusco Cathedral, and learned a lot about the local people from our guide. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re in Cusco and want to learn more about the area!

Cusco Cathedral is on the Plaza de Armas in Cusco. Open daily from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM. Admission for non-Peruvians is $9 for adults and $5 for children.   

 

Cusco Cathedral offers visitors a fascinating look at how Quechua culture and the Catholic faith were integrated in Colonial Peru.
All Aboard! Peru Rail’s Vistadome Train to Machu Picchu

All Aboard! Peru Rail’s Vistadome Train to Machu Picchu

There are two train companies serving Machu Picchu.  Inca Rail, whose trains run primarily from Ollantaytambo, and Peru Rail, whose trains run from either Ollantaytambo or Cusco/Poroy.

Vistadome train station

We weren’t going to Ollantaytambo, so that left me primarily looking at options with Peru Rail.  Peru Rail has three different train services:  The Hiram Bingham, the Vistadome, and the Expedition.

I really wanted to go on the luxurious Hiram Bingham train, to tell you the truth.  It’s features the amenities that first class rail travelers would have had in the 1920s.  Luxurious seating, gourmet meals, live music to entertain you, fine china and crystal… the whole nine.  But the drawback to traveling like royalty is that you have to spend like royalty. And spending nearly $900 per person round trip is way out of my league.

So, that left me with two options: the Vistadome or the Expedition offered by Peru Rail, or Executive Class offered by Inca Rail.

The Expedition costs about $140 per person round trip from Cusco, and offers snack and beverage service, a rest room, and the option to buy souvenir items and additional snacks/beverages.

The Vistadome costs from $170 to $210 per person round trip from Cusco, and offers snack and beverage service, a rest room, an evening fashion show and display of Saqra dancing, and the option to buy souvenir items and additional snacks/beverages.

That’s a difference of $30-$70 per person, with a fashion show and Saqra dance on the way back to Cusco as the only added features. And, one would hope, better food.

So the question is:  is it worth paying extra to ride Vistadome instead of Expedition?

The Vistadome has big windows that offer fantastic views of the scenery. It’s name, I believe, stems from the fact that there are even windows above you, so you can not only look out, but also look up.

Vistadome train roof windows

As we traveled, we listened to music on the sound system and occasional announcements about what we could see outside the train.  For instance, we passed the SkyLodge – the trendy hotel where you sleep in a pod that’s attached to the side of a mountain.

Vistadome scenery skylodge

Definitely cool, definitely different… but also definitely not for me!

When snack time arrived, each of us received a vegetarian sandwich. I had never heard of such a thing, and now I know why: It was dreadful. The sandwich consisted of a couple of mushrooms and some soggy vegetables on a bun. Blech.  So much for getting better food on this train than on the Expedition!

Fortunately, the scenery we passed through was beautiful.  We saw everything from cacti to cornfields, snow-covered peaks to muddy rivers. The music sounded like a strange combination of pan pipes with a techno/dance beat.  Sounds weird, but it was actually very enjoyable.

Vistadome train scenery

Vistadome train scenery

The scenery, combined with the excited anticipation of the travelers on their way to Machu Picchu and the upbeat music made for a very pleasant journey.

On our return trip (heading back to Cuzco), it was dark, so there was no scenery to look at.   Most of the people on the train were relatively quiet.  I assume it was because they had explored Machu Picchu that day and were tired as a result. (My phone’s fitness tracker said I had climbed the equivalent of 138 flights of stairs that day!) We were served vegetarian pizza, which was only slightly larger than a brownie and tasted a bit like cardboard.

With the dishes cleared and nothing much else to do, I closed my eyes and leaned back in the seat a little bit to try and get a nap.  I had just started drifting off to sleep when there was a blood-curdling screech from the other end of the car. I nearly jumped out of my skin, then turned around to see something like this:

vistadome saqra dancer

It was the very definition of a rude awakening. So while the voice on the sound system told us about the tradition of saqra dancers, I adjusted to being awake and tried to wipe the scowl off of my face.

Then it was time for the fashion show. I was impressed with the clothes modeled by attendants going up and down the aisle for us. There were shawls that converted to scarves, skirts that became dresses, and other versatile pieces. At the end of the fashion show, they brought the items through on a trolley to see if anyone wanted to purchase some (of course!). The prices were quite high, though, and I don’t recall seeing anyone in our car make a purchase.

By the time we pulled into the station at Poroy, it was 11:30 PM.  What a day!

If I knew then what I know now, would I still choose the Vistadome?  No, probably not.  The price difference isn’t worth it, unless you really love folk dancing and fashion shows. My recommendation is to book tickets on the Expedition. Use that $30-$70 per person you would have spent for Vistadome tickets to upgrade your hotel, eat a really nice meal, or buy yourself a great memento of your trip.

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) are allowed.
  • 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