Machu Picchu, llamas, and the Spanish language are things that come to mind when thinking of Peru. These ideas are important aspects of Peruvian culture, however, the country is more diverse and cultural than just these themes. In July of 2015, I had the privilege of visiting this “up and coming” tourist destination to explore and do volunteer work.
Leaving from Cusco, we embarked on a scenic 2 hour drive to Ollantaytambo, an Incan inspired town in the Urubamba Valley. This quaint town has a surplus of coffee shops, and a train that can be taken to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Town).
The town center of Aguas Calientes is adorable, with open air markets, scenic mountain views, and the smiling, dancing locals in traditional dress. The town atmosphere is lively and inviting, which is great prior to the Machu Picchu hike.
Though it seems daunting, hiking up Machu Picchu at 4 am to reach the top by sunrise is worth it. There is not a colorful “beach” sunrise, but avoiding the tourist mobs is worth the lack of sleep. The hike is very steep and strenuous, so there is a bus option, but reaching the top after hiking makes the view that much better. (Anyone with a fitbit should be impressed that I got 10,000 steps before 7 am that day!)
The tourist locations are beautiful and unique, but the allure of Peru is found in rural villages and the endless smiles of the people. From Cusco, a 7 hour bus ride will bring you to Perka Norte, an adorable village almost completely separated from the outside world. In this village, there is a lack of western-style bathrooms, little electricity, and few material goods. The lack of modern commodities is shocking to westerners, however, my service adventures and homestay in the village was the most rewarding part of my trip.
In Perka Norte, we spent a majority of our time completing service projects, for plumbing and sidewalks. As a group, we played volleyball on a court overlooking Lake Titicaca and watched the sunset while comfortably kicking a ball around. The villagers welcomed us with open arms (literally). I was in awe of the happiness and joy, an overpowering theme in their life, despite the lack of western, materialistic items. The adults, and the children, never stopped smiling. Since the villagers were extremely friendly, we were able to immerse ourselves and learn about the true Peruvian customs.
Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world, at 14,000 feet, so there are few tourists, however, Taquile Island is an exception. On this island, there are cute little resorts and excursions. During our stay on Taquile Island, we observed Alejandro, a master weaver, who is one of three people left in the world that can interpret Quipu, an ancient knot-tying language.
On our way to main land, we visited the Uros Floating Islands and learned of the rich history these islands possess. Once we returned to Puno, a city on the outskirts of the lake, we headed to Arequipa, arguably the most beautiful city in the country. Arequipa, known as the “White City” is famous for the Plaza Del Armas, surrounded by bustling restaurants and unique stores. For our final Peruvian dinner, we ate at Crepisimo, which is just two blocks from the main square.
Overall, Peru offers both adventure and cultural immersion, regardless of the city. As I reflect on my vibrant trip, I recall aspects of Peruvian culture that are still apparent in my current life, nearly two years later, such as my increased friendliness and positive attitude.
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