Cusco architecture and landmarks, photography courtesy of Megan Gaston

Cusco’s Plaza de Armas is a picturesque centre of calm in an otherwise hustle bustle city. Stop, take a break, sit on one of the many benches and simply watch the passersby. Take in the surrounds beyond the city walls where tiny houses creep up the hillsides overlooked by Cusco´s ever watchful guardian, Cristo Blanco.

Megan Gaston: Cusco Plaza de Armas
Megan Gaston: Cusco Plaza de Armas

Just two plaza´s across (oh yes, Cusco has many plaza’s) is the Plaza San Francisco. Great for food fayre’s, art exhibitions, and sometimes street comedy and drama plays, catch some theatre or just wander through the artesan markets. Also, this is the starting point towards the San Pedro Market, a hop, skip and a jump though the archway.

Megan Gaston: Plaza San Francisco
Megan Gaston: Plaza San Francisco

Cusco is fun just to walk around and admire the architecture, a wonderful mix of modern, old Spanish and Incan stone masonry. Cusco was given its rightful place on the UNESCO world heritage list in 1983, due to its, “..unique testimony of the ancient Inca civilization, heart of Tawantinsuyu imperial government”, and “exceptional example of the confluence of two distinct cultures; Inca and Hispanic”.  For more detailed information please see: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/273.

Thanks to Megan Gaston, a lovely example of Cusco's architectural diversity
Thanks to Megan Gaston, a lovely example of Cusco’s architectural diversity

The steep, cobbled stone streets that connect you to the city’s bohemian, artesan district of San Blas are no mean feat to navigate but are worth the dare! Leading you to more plazoletas and fabulous hidden gems of cafes, but with names like Choquechaca, Tecsecopcha, Waynapata, and Hatunrumiyco, it isn’t just your feet that have to navigate it’s your tongue too!

Leading up to Plazoleta Nazarenas thank you Megan Gaston
Leading up to Plazoleta Nazarenas thank you Megan Gaston

The Plaza de Armas at night has an exciting vibe, lit up and ready for fine dining, romance, dancing, Pisco tasting, or just a relaxed stroll through the centre; central, accessible, a great meeting place, busy and open. Whenever you visit, whatever time of day or night, it truly is the beating heart of the Capital.

Plaza de Armas, ready for the evening throng. Thanks to Megan Gaston
Plaza de Armas, ready for the evening throng. Thanks to Megan Gaston

So when you are in Cusco, be sure to head for the heart, venture outwards along the life blood of its walkways and soak up the history and culture of this architecturally magnificent city.

Ascend the alluring and fascinating city of Cusco and its surrounds. Thank you Megan Gaston
Ascend the alluring and fascinating city of Cusco and its surrounds. Thank you Megan Gaston

Happy Trekking!

TREKKING IN THE ANDES: Things I wish I’d have known

When I began my 5-day trek last month with Apus Peru, I didn’t know what to expect. I had done a bit of backpacking around the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and a 4-day trek in the Himalayas of Nepal, but I knew this would be a completely different experience.

Megan on a warm sunny stretch of the  Vilcambamba trek!

Megan on a warm sunny stretch of the Vilcambamba trek!

The first thing I noticed on my trek was the climate of extremes. In our 8-hour drive from Cusco to the starting point of the trek, we drove over a high mountain pass where I could see my breath in the thin cold air. A few hours later, we were in the jungle, eating bananas and sweating in the hot sun. In the Andes, the weather changes drastically from moment to moment, especially as the sun goes down. As soon as sunset is over, the temperature drops immediately to sub-zero Celsius. This means that, when trekking in the Andes, layers are essential. When we started trekking early each morning, I would shed my jacket, fleece, and thermal in the first thirty minutes of sunlight, eventually hiking in just a sleeveless top. Packing multiple layers that can be easily shed is a very smart move.

Camping at altitude - you need to be prepared!

Camping at altitude – you need to be prepared!

When I was sleeping up at the high-elevation sites, even equipped with a cold weather sleeping bag, I froze during the night. I’d definitely recommend renting a high altitude bag if you feel the cold! I remember waking up in the middle of the night shivering, even with a knit hat and gloves on. I would also recommend packing warm clothes even if it takes up room in your pack. You can send it with the mules during the day and use it at the campsite when the sun goes down. At Machu Picchu, however, the weather was scorching. In the humid jungle, when the sun is beating down, it gets very hot very quickly. I wore shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, and still spent the day sweating my way around the ruins.

I almost did not bring a flashlight on my trek. That would have been a big mistake. In the Andes, the sun sets around 6:00pm every night, and its pitch black by 7:00pm. If I hadn’t brought a light, I could have run into some serious trouble with a misstep in the outhouse tent. A water bottle is another must; the cook boils water every night to fill the passengers’ bottles in the morning, and again at lunchtime. It’s important to stay hydrated after sweating out all of the liquid during the day, so one or even two water bottles should definitely be on the packing list. Another important item is bug spray. The insects are not an issue up in the mountains, but in the jungle they are relentless.

Our fabulous Guide Urbana, leading the way!

Our fabulous Guide Urbano, leading the way!

The terrain on our trek was a bit different than what I had expected. I had envisioned spending the first two days hiking exclusively uphill, then after crossing the summit hike downhill for the last two days.  Although my guide told me that this is the pattern on some treks, on the Vilcabamba to Machu Picchu route (http://www.apus-peru.com/treks/vilcabamba_machu_picchu.htm) we crossed multiple passes each day, going up for a few hours, then down for the next few.

Snowcapped Splendour!

Snowcapped Splendour!

This afforded us some incredible vistas more than once per day. These downhill sections were tough on the knees; I didn’t bring hiking poles, but they would have been very helpful during these times and I’d recommend renting the poles if you don’t have your own.  The major challenges I faced were bug bits, sunburn, and hunger. Apus provides snacks for mid-morning, and the meals are very filling, but I was still glad to have brought little chocolate crackers to tide me over while hiking and burning so many calories.

Nosey llama, early morning misty clouds and Machu Picchu!!

Nosy llama, early morning misty clouds and Machu Picchu!!

Hopefully this blog helps give you some more background to what you might need to bring. Although I could have been a little better prepared if I had known exactly what I would be facing, I had an incredible 5 days trekking with Apus. The trek exceeded my expectations and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

 

World Food Day 16th October

Today is World Food Day! World Food Day was endorsed in 1980 to acknowledge that “food is a requisite for human survival and well-being and a fundamental human necessity.” This is a day to highlight the global issues of starvation, malnutrition and poverty.

Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) used bright colours and organic forms to express a reconciliation of humans with nature, notions that echo this year’s World Food Day theme. Image courtesy of the Hundertwasser Foundation.

Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) used bright colours and organic forms to express a reconciliation of humans with nature, notions that echo this year’s World Food Day theme. Image courtesy of the Hundertwasser Foundation.

Unacceptably, some of the more isolated high Andean communities across the country struggle with these issues all too frequently.

One of the World Food Day objectives set by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) http://www.fao.org/getinvolved/worldfoodday/en/ is ‘to encourage the participation of rural people, particularly women and the least privileged categories, in decisions and activities influencing their living conditions.’

At Apus Perú our business is trekking the Andes. We do this on a ‘leave no trace’, sustainably and environmentally conscious basis. But what of the families whose paths we do cross? Those who live where we pass through?

Chaullacocha, Lares trek Photograph courtesy of Michael Marquand

Chaullacocha, Lares trek Photograph courtesy of Michael Marquand

From the onset, Apus Perú have supported local high Andean communities through the development and support of various projects from our mutual work with Threads of Perú, http://www.apus-peru.com/responsible-travel/community_projects.htm to our Annual Christmas Chocolatada: http://www.apus-peru.com/responsible-travel/christmas_chocolatadas.htm.

Every person who treks with Apus Peru donates $15 to Threads of Peru, or sustainability projects in the Andes.  Since starting out, Apus Peru has donated close to $50,000 to Andean communities with the direct intention of alleviating poverty and more specifically, acknowledging and supporting the role that empowered women can play in facing sub standard conditions.

Dana Blair, Project Coordinator for Threads of Peru meeting with the women weavers of Chaullacocha

Dana Blair, Project Coordinator for Threads of Peru in a business meeting with the women weavers of Chaullacocha

We firmly believe that the work we do with rural Andean communities greatly reduces the risk factors contributing to the core issues that World Food Day is all about. For more information about how Apus Perú and their partner NGO Threads of Perú address poverty in indigenous rural communities please visit: http://threadsofperu.com/missionandmodel/.

The women of Chaullacocha displaying some of their wares

The women of Chaullacocha displaying some of their wares

Now for a more ‘foody’ perspective… two staple produce of Perú; Quinoa and Potato, can be made into deliciously heart-warmingly, tasty recipes. Here are two of the best (and easiest) to try your hand at: 

Quinoa in plant form, beautiful, colourful and best of all .. tasty and good for you!

Quinoa in plant form, beautiful, colourful and best of all .. tasty and good for you!

Risotto de Quinoa. Ingredients:  onion, bacon, aji Amarillo, white, black AND red quinoa, (who knew?), chicken breast, salt, pepper, crema de leche (sour cream), cheese.

Now for the technique: Cover with cold water and bring the black, red and white quinoa to the boil until it is tender. Fry the chicken breast and cut it in parts. Fry the bacon, onion and aji Amarillo and put the quinoa in it. Add salt and pepper and fry it for a few seconds in the crema de leche. Serve on a plate with the chicken on top with a sprinkle of cheese for the final taste! YUM!

Delicious: boiled potatoes in a creamy, spicy sauce

Delicious: boiled potatoes in a creamy, spicy sauce

For the Papa Huancaina click on this page for a visual step by step recipe treat! http://perudelights.com/papa-a-la-huancaina/

Then once you have finished your delicious plates of Peruvian goodness, consider this for suggestions on how to limit your food waste: http://www.greenworks.co.za/reducefoodwastepage.html

Eat thoughtfully! Happy Trekking!!

UN Food and Agriculture Organisation

UN Food and Agriculture Organisation

Vilcabamba to Machu Picchu – a reflection…

A little over a month ago, on 6th September 2013, I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along on a trek with Apus Peru. The trip was a 5-day, 4-night adventure from Vilcabamba valley to Aguas Calientes, with the final day spent at Machu Picchu. 

Over the course of this unforgettable trek, I had some new and pretty incredible experiences. I now know what it’s like to walk through a cloud. To camp in a glacier valley so far from civilization that I felt like nobody else could possibly exist on the planet. To let out involuntary gasps over and over again because every time I crested a mountain pass or crossed a jungle bridge over a waterfall, it seemed like I had discovered nature’s best kept secret. Everything we encountered was a photograph waiting to be taken, but I could never hope to fully capture the beauty of actually being there.

Vitcos Roasapata ruins Trek day 1 Vilcambamba to Machu Picchu

Vitcos Roasapata ruins Trek day 1 Vilcambamba to Machu Picchu

The first day, we got an early start and drove 8 hours to the starting point in the Vilcabamba Valley. Right away, about an hour into the trek, we got to see Incan ruins. Our guide, Urbano, explained that we were standing in Vitcos-Rosaspata, the ruins of what used to be the fortress of Manco Inca. We hiked until just before dusk, and camped on a ridge overlooking a valley. We woke early to piping hot cups of coca tea delivered right to the doors of our tents, and spent the morning steadily climbing through the cloud forest until we reached Asuntina Pass. It felt surreal to be standing on top of a rocky cliff and see nothing but clouds in front of us, but within a few moments the wind had cleared the fog and a green valley emerged before our eyes.

The cloud cleared and the valley was revealed

The second day we reached a camping spot in a picturesque valley nestled just below a glacier at Hatun Pampa. I can safely say that sleeping that night was the coldest I’d ever been in my life. Wearing 3 shirts, a thermal, a fleece, a jacket, a scarf, a hat, and gloves was not enough to keep me warm, even in the -10 degree sleeping bag. I emerged from my tent in the morning to find it covered in a thick layer of frost. But, as is typical in the high Andean climate, the temperature changed in the blink of an eye and I was quickly sweating and shedding layers as soon as the sun came up. 

Day 3 Morning at Camp

Day 3 Morning at Camp

Andes' Alpine pond

Andes’ Alpine pond

As we climbed over another high mountain pass and began our descent, I began to feel like I was hiking on another planet. Small, glass-like alpine ponds reflected the snowy peaks above us, and sharp cliffs on one side of the trail appeared to mark the end of the world. The vegetation – plants that Urbano identified as “dragonflower” – was like nothing I’d seen anywhere else.

Dragon flower - pre bloom!

Dragon flower – pre bloom – note the frosty ground!

Apus Guide Urbano looking down on Lake Yanacocha

The diversity of the natural surroundings we encountered was spectacular. On this day, we trekked from a high glacier mountain pass – where I could feel the lack of oxygen in my lungs and the harsh rays of the sun cut through the thin air – to a lush, steamy jungle swarming with mosquitoes and covered in brightly-colored flowers. The last hiking day was entirely jungle trekking; we were surrounded by thriving green vegetation, giant butterflies, and colorful fruit. With Urbano’s guidance, we picked ripe passionfruit right from the trees and ate them as we hiked. It was astoundingly different from where we had been the day before, and made me appreciate the beautiful juxtaposition of the Andean environment.

Lush jungle waterfall

Lush jungle waterfall

One of the most memorable moments of my trek was waking up in the middle of the night at the coldest campsite location and stepping outside of my tent wrapped in every layer I had packed. Emerging from the tent, I stood up and stopped dead in my tracks at the sight of the stars. I didn’t recognize any southern hemisphere constellations, but the Milky Way could be seen as clear as day snaking its way across the black velvet of the sky. I’ve been camping in many locations across many countries, even in different continents, but I’ve never seen a night sky as brilliant as this.

Apus camping "off the beaten track"

Apus camping “off the beaten track”

After living in Cusco for over a month and talking to hundreds of travellers who had come from all over the world to visit Machu Picchu, I was worried that when I saw the ruins for myself they would fail to live up to their larger-than-life reputation. But standing at the edge of a mountaintop cliff at sunrise on the fifth day with Apus, watching the clouds slowly disperse to reveal the ancient city, I realized what all the fuss was about. Not only did Machu Picchu meet all of my expectations, it exceeded them by miles. The experience of being there was a dizzying combination of ancient history, stunning geographic location, and a quiet magic presence of the people who built it. It’s understandable that countless poets, photographers and writers have made this spiritual location the subject for their art. I’ve never visited a place that held more humbling beauty than the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Made it!! Machu Picchu!!!

Made it!! Machu Picchu!!!

MEGAN MALLEY. www.mmalley.com

 

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A Peruvian New Year 2014

For a completely different start to 2014, why not consider doing something completely different and enjoying New Year in Peru?

What a way to start 2014!

What a way to start 2014! Thank you to Eric West for this inspired shot!

Get immersed in Peruvian traditions like wearing coloured underwear, eating grapes at midnight, all intended to bring you all your dreams for the upcoming year!

Get into the Swing of Things!

Get into the Swing of Things! Thanks for the foto Honni!

This will be a New Year break not to be forgotten http://www.apus-peru.com/trip-planning/new_years_eve.htm.

The New Year holiday is a great time to visit the Cusco region as the rains have started and days are generally warmer (albeit wetter) than the popular dry season. There are fewer tourists but the locals come out in force to celebrate –and you can rejoice alongside them.

Come and celebrate New Year Andean style! Salud!

Come and celebrate New Year Andean style! Salud!

Apus Peru are known for being “insiders” who are world travellers and yet also experts on travelling to Peru.  We have carefully designed a unique New Year tour package that starts after Christmas and runs through until the 2nd of January, featuring highlights like historical Cusco, the charming Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and a good mix of local traditions.  Of course a major highlight is seeing in the 2014 New Year with a distinctive and unforgettable Peruvian party!

If you wish to hike the infamous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu during the Christmas and New Year vacation please note that you should aim to book as early August or early September 2013 so that you don’t miss out on the permits that sell out at least 4 months in advance.  (Please contact Apus Peru for exact up to date availability.)

Apus Peru create unique itineraries which are a solid foundation for any visitor’s exploration to Peru. From these foundations, the client can build their own itinerary through the addition of:

  • Selecting one of four different travel styles, which offer the same itinerary but different accommodation and meal options
  • Upgrading their culinary experience
  • Adding in Lima, Nazca, Arequipa or Lake Titicaca extensions according to the time available
  • Adding a trek for non-trekking itineraries

Peru! – something completely different, treat yourself with this very special way to start New Year. Happy Travels!

http://www.apus-peru.com/tours/machu_picchu_new_year.html

http://www.apus-peru.com/tours/peru_new_year_extensions.html

http://www.apus-peru.com/tours/styles_of_travel.html

http://www.apus-peru.com/tours/lake_titicaca_extension.html

Fascinating shapes and sizes of… Non-potato Andean Tuber Crops

Peru, and the Andean region in general, is famous for its incredible variety of potatoes.  A lesser known fact is that the Andes are home to a great diversity in tubers in general, many of which receive little attention outside of Peru, or even a specific region.

A beautiful and intriguing variety of oca and other andean tubers, variety is the spice of life!

A beautiful and intriguing variety of oca and other andean tubers, variety is the spice of life!

In addition to potatoes, tubers such as oca, lisas (or ulluco) and mashua (or añu or isañu) are very popular in local dishes and prominently featured in local markets.  Much like potatoes, oca, lisas and mashua are pre-Inca crops, and an important part of the Andean diet.  Here is a little more about each:

Oca- Here in Cusco, oca is left to sit in the sun for approximately a week to sweeten before eating.  Once ready, it is used in soups and a variety of other dishes.

Lovely Sweet Ocas....  que rico!

Lovely Sweet Ocas….
que rico!

Lisas- Lisas are very popular in soups and dishes such as aji de lisas.  It´s leaves are also edible and very nutritious.

Lisas!

Lovely Luscious Lisas – que rico!

Mashua- Like oca, mashua has a stronger, peppery taste when raw.  It is also commonly left in the sun for some time to sweeten its flavor.

A woman at market holds a basket of mashua, on left, and oca on the right

A woman at market holds a basket of mashua, on left, and oca on the right

So get exploring the markets and sampling the differing, delectable, delights of the Peruvian tuber family! “Buen Provecho!”

Celebrate Christmas at Machu Picchu 2013!

Maybe Machu Picchu has always been on your ‘bucket list’? Well why not fulfil that dream and tick it off your list this Christmas holiday?

Machu Picchu at first light as the clouds clear

Machu Picchu at first light as the clouds clear, foto courtesy of Megan Malley

Submerse yourself in the fabulous Peruvian culture that celebrates Christmas with a mix of Catholic and Andean beliefs.

Bustling Christmas Markets in the Plaza de Armas

Bustling Christmas Markets in the Plaza de Armas

Apus Peru have carefully designed special Christmas itineraries and tour packages that enable you to either visit Machu Picchu at Christmas, which many people say has a uniquely spiritual feeling, or participate in a special once a year trek that really centres on the ‘gift of giving’.

Hot Chocolate time at our Andean Community Christmas Chocolatada

Hot Chocolate time at our Andean Community Christmas Chocolatada

Other features of the Christmas itineraries highlight the mysterious city of Machu Picchu and cosmopolitan Cusco, where you can participate in a typical Peruvian event, like the Selling of the Saints market in Cusco.

Selling of the Saints a typical Cusqueño Yuletide festivity

Selling of the Saints a typical Cusqueño Yuletide festivity

Absorb the wonders of Incan archaeolgoical sites within the Sacred Valley like Moray, as well as participating in a local community project in Urubamba.

Get away this Christmas and make the most of your Christmas break, or vacation period by taking a holiday in Peru and experiencing a very different culture from your own!!

Apus Peru provide unique ‘sample’ itineraries which make a solid foundation for any visitor’s exploration to Peru. From these foundations you are able to create your own itinerary through the addition of:

  • Selecting one of four different travel styles, that offer the same itinerary but different accommodation and meal options.
  • Upgrading your culinary experience.
  • Adding in Lima, Nazca, Arequipa or Lake Titicaca extensions according to the time available.
  • Add a trek to non-trekking itineraries.

Here are our links to the varied and exciting packages that could make this Christmas a very special and memorable one for years to come: Happy Holidays!

http://www.apus-peru.com/tours/a-very-different-christmas.htm

http://www.apus-peru.com/tours/a-machu-picchu-christmas.htm

http://www.apus-peru.com/tours/cusco_christmas_packages.html