Trip to Panama & Peru June 2015

Intro

In June of 2015 - for my 50th birthday - I got to see 2 man-made wonders that I have been intrigued with since I was a kid: the Panama Canal; and Machu Picchu. For the one year anniversary of this amazing trip, I decided to create this site to share some tips and photos. Enjoy.

Click on the grid photos to see them larger. Click on the Boxes for links to external resources. Click your heels to return to Kansas.

Panama Canal

My first stop was Panama City, Panama. Since my Copa Airlines flight arrived late at night, I had a light dinner and went to bed. The next day I took a taxi to the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center to see the ships go through the Panama Canal. It is best before you go to find out when the ships will be going through (usually the morning and late afternoon) - your hotel can help you get the schedule. It was impressive to watch this engineering marvel in action. The Canal had just finished celebrating 100 years of operation. They are currently building a new canal parallel to the original one; this one is deeper and wider and can accommodate the larger modern ships. Many shipments today have to go through Panama by train.

The canal has a nice museum where you can see native fauna/flora of Panama, the history of the canal, and even a simulator to show what it looks like to drive a ship through the canal. The cost was $15. Panama uses the US Dollar as its currency, so no need to exchange money.

100 Year Anniversary of the Panama Canal

If you go to the Miraflores locks, get there early since the platform fills up quickly and eventually becomes wall-to-wall people. Below is a video of the ship being guided through the canal.

Other Places in Panama City

Panama City was hot (90+ F) but I walked around the city to take photos and occasionally stop for something to drink. The gothic architecture of Iglesia del Carmen (church) and the other modern high-rises are shown in some photos below.

Interesting Architecture of Panama City

Across from the New York Bagel Cafe there is a large statue of the head of Albert Einstein; I guess they are big fans of his here. The cafe has good lunch specials, free wifi, and lots of American expats and college kids hanging out. The wifi password the day I was there was: PinballWizard.

Einstein head near cafe
Cathedral

A must see place when visiting Panama City is Casco Viejo. It is only a short cab ride. This area is undergoing a revitalization and there is a interesting mix of very old and brand new. Some of the trendiest hotels and bars are here. There is also a great view of the ocean, street vendors, and lots of small cafes. The photos below should give you an idea of the varying scenery.

Casco Viejo

Other places to see and things to do in Panama City that I experienced include the Veneto Casino (I only played slots, didn't stay long), eat at Beirut Lebanese restaurant which was very good [service was so-so] and walk down Calle Uruguay, a five-minute walk south of El Cangrejo, and lined with restaurants, pubs, and other nightspots.

Panama City Skyline from the Causeway

Another fun thing to do is rent a bike and up and down the Amador Causeway. This a 6 Km stretch of land created from excavated canal material. The Amador Causeway is made up of four islands: Naos Island, Culebra Island, Perico Island and Flamenco Island. The causeway was originally constructed as a breakwater for the Panama Canal entrance. There are some nice views and lots of places to stop for lunch. The Biodiversity Museum is also at the entrance of the causeway and was designed by architect Frank Ghery.

Biking the Causeway and stopping for lunch

Lima, Peru

The next stop was Peru's capital: Lima. I want to say that Lima was the biggest surprise of the trip for me - I wasn't expecting much (I had heard some negative things from others) and it was kind of just a long layover to Cusco, but it turned out to be really terrific. The people are very friendly, look great, and most importantly -- the food is phenomenal!

I stayed in the more tourist-oriented section of Lima, called Miraflores. Situated right on the Pacific Ocean it was winter here, but it was a cloudy and humid 70 degrees (F). Apparently it is overcast most of the time, but strangely, it almost never rains. I had enough points to stay at the Marriott for free for my 3 days here. The hotel overlooks the ocean, and just below it is a cliff, and what is built into that cliff....a mall. You can see photos (daytime and nighttime) of the Larcomar Mall below. There is also a nice walking path along the ocean and to Parque de Amor.

Larcomar Mall in the cliffs

I decided to take a half day bus tour of the city. This was a good choice as it is easier than taking a cab and you get to meet other travelers. The Mirabus costs 70 soles (about $22) and the tickets can be obtained right in the Larcomar mall. The bus is a double-decker but open up top - of course I had to sit up top, which was great, but occasionally a low hanging branch or electrical wire (!) would skim near our heads.

The first stop on the bus tour was the pre-Inca archaeological site Huaca Pucllana [pronounced Waka Pook-yana]. It was interesting to see something over 600 years old being excavated in the middle of modern Lima. Unfortunately, the bus tour did not include getting out to explore this site.

Huaca Pucllana
Lima - El Centro

The next stop was El Centro, the historic center of Lima. We got off the bus at Plaza de Armas -- a huge square outdoor area that has been the center of the city since 1535. We were given some time to explore and take photos. There is a large bronze fountain in the center that is 350 years old. I walked into the main cathedral (c. 1625), it had intricate carvings and many baroque-style ornamentations throughout. You can even see the final resting place of Francisco Pizzaro - the whole tour takes about 40 minutes. You can see some photos of the cathedral below.

Next I met up with our group and we toured the Iglesia (church) of San Francisco. There are terrific paintings on the walls, there is a monastery adjoining it with a collection of text from the 17th century. There are also catacombs underneath with the bones of over 75,000 people! I have never seen so many bones in my life. This church is a must see sight if you go to Lima - you can get a tour ticket onsite for about $2. You cannot take photos in this tour.

You can also see the Governor's Palace in the Plaza de Armas. It is gated and guarded, but we got to see the changing of the guard with a bit of pomp and circumstance and a band playing.

Cathedral at Plaza de Armas

Lima also had some nice parks and places to hang out, but the best part of visiting the city was the food. Ceviche is terrific. I didn't think I would like it but you need to try it if you go, and you will be hooked. It is raw fish in lime juice with onion, corn, and potato. I know, I know...trust me - it's really good. Just make sure you eat it for lunch when it is fresh, not for dinner. Dinnertime you should try the anticucho...it's very tender beef (okay, beef heart, but again, better than you imagine.) If you prefer a more vegetarian dish, please try the causa. It is a potato-based dish prepared in various ways, and they are all good; click the link below to see examples. The food here is very inexpensive as well ($9 for dinner), although you can find expensive places catering to European and American tourists.

Kennedy Park; Marilyn Monroe waterfall inside Larcomar; ceviche for lunch; pizza alley.

After dinner one night, I took a taxi to visit the El Circuito Mágico del Agua (Magical Water Circuit) which is a series of 13 fountains in a large park in central Lima. The largest fountain in the Park of the Reserve, named "Magic Fountain" (Fuente Mágica) contains a jet which forces water to a height of over 80 m (supposedly the highest in the world). Additional attractions are the Tunnel Fountain of Surprises, a 35 m walk-thru tunnel of water; the Children's Fountain, a walk-in automated fountain; and the Fantasia Fountain, site of a regularly scheduled laser and picture show, is 120 m in length and contains jets that are synchronized to music. The entrance fee is $2.

There were lots of kids there with their parents and getting wet walking through the fountains, even though it was a bit cool that night. I even saw some teenagers who must of been going to/from a dance (prom?) I will say the laser light show was really amazing and blows away the fountain show at the Bellagio in Vegas.

Magical Water Circuit in Parque de la Reserva

Here is a video from the fountain laser light show.

Some final side notes for Lima: It is a seismic zone, they have several small earthquakes each year, they had a relatively large one in the 1990s and a big one (8+) in 1966. However, all these colonial structures are still standing (with a bit of patching an repairing) so don't worry too much. Also - do not drink the tap water in Peru. Bottled water is cheap and so is the beer. Several people on my Inka trail hike did not show up because they drank water in Lima.

My fun in Lima has ended and time to get an early morning flight on LAN to Cusco. If you book a flight to Cusco from Lima, make sure that you get a flight earlier in the morning because the high-winds later in the day tend to cancel flights. Remember Lima is at sea-level and Cusco is 2 miles high (11,200')! You will need a few days to adjust when you get there.

PS - The accepted spelling in Peru is Inka not Inca, so I have been using that on this site.

Cusco, Peru

Church in Cusco, Plaza Mayor

On arrival to Cusco, I quickly grabbed a cab and headed to my hotel. My first impression of Cusco was very different than Lima, and there were huge crowds of tourists in the main part of town. You will be able to see this in the video below. The taxi driver decided to give me a history and overview of Cusco (in Spanish), which was appreciated, but apparently talking and driving simultaneously was not something he could do well.

After first getting to my hotel, I sat in the sunlit patio, connected my phone to the WiFi and sipped on coca tea. Every hotel seems to offer this since it is a traditional medicine to help with any headache or symptoms of altitude sickness. Even though I felt fine, I tried it anyway. It was kind of bitter but not terrible. [Tip: They sell these leaves everywhere to chew or make tea from, but do not try and bring them back to the US, they are considered illegal drugs since you could (if you knew how) make cocaine from them.]

Coca Tea - for the "altitude sickness"

The barrio of San Blas in Cusco is even higher than the main plaza, but is a really interesting neighborhood with artists and a small restaurant and pub scene, and is away from all the commotion near the main square - yet you can walk to the main part of town in 5 minutes. In fact, you can walk just about anywhere in Cusco in less than 30 minutes. Most tourist attractions are within a few square kilometers. I highly recommend this district if you come to Cusco - unless you are 25 and under and want to party all night - then stay in a hostel near the square. The roads are steep and narrow and pedestrians share with cars (see photo) - so always take a look for oncoming cars.

I happen to be in Cusco during the festival of the winter solstice (unplanned) which is called the festival de Inti Raymi. There were processions, music, and dancing pretty much non-stop the whole time I was there. While this is obviously a tourist-draw, they do this for their own sake - and have been doing it for hundreds of years. Apparently the dancing - which is done by age group (younger kids in the day, older kids and adults at night) - is a competition and it is a big deal to win. Many of the costumes are hand-made.

Pedestrians and Cars share the narrow steep streets of San Blas
Winter Solstice Festival dancers

First of all if you buy a boleto turistico (tourist ticket) you can see many of the below places for one price. There are too many places to visit to list here but I will mention the ones went to and liked:

  • Plaza de Armas Cathedral
  • Inka Museum
  • Precolombian Art Museum
  • Machu Picchu Museum.
Cathedral in Plaza de Armas, Cusco

There are so many things to see and do in Cusco that I have left most of them out otherwise this page would be even longer. I took some day trips (cabs are $20, but you can take the bus with the locals like I did for about $3) to Pisac and a few hiking trails at the outskirts of the city. This was how I tested myself before the big Inka Trail hike to see how the altitude was affecting me. Luckily, it hardly affected me at all except that you get tired a little easier and you lose much more water than at sea level. Bring as much water as you can comfortably carry if you go on any 1/2 day hikes around Cusco.

For those who are interested, if you want to go on a few hikes within Cusco - start at Sacsayhuaman (a 20 minute walk from San Blas or take a cab), go past the White Christ (you wont miss it) and then you can hike to Qenko, Salapunco, Puca Pucara and if you really want to go further, Tambo Machay. I would recommend getting a cab back - your legs will be tired by then. These hikes are worthwhile and have many small ruins, most are labeled in English. I list a really good hiking reference at the end of this site. 

The food in Cusco was not quite as great as Lima but quite good for a tourist town and of course there were all kinds of choices - I even ate at an Italian restaurant that was really amazing (owned by an Italian immigrant) and was still inexpensive.

Side notes for Cusco: It is warm in the day (70's) and cold (35-50 F) at night, so bring a jacket.

My Hotel - Amaru II (San Blas district) - $40/night

When you are in Cusco, don't forget to visit San Pedro market (downtown by the train station) where you can get supplies (water, food, clothes, crafts) - cheap. I got a nice Peruvian llama wool hat here. The local workers of Cusco come here to eat lunch so things are very inexpensive. I had a plate of rice, chicken, and vegetables - which was strangely all sitting on top of french fries -- for $3 and it was so big I couldn't finish it all. [Side note: keep an eye on your belongings here as it is a bit notorious for pick pocketing. Keep in mind though that it is otherwise totally safe. In fact, Cusco as a whole is safer than any city in the US.]

A must see site in Cusco is Qorikancha. Some was damaged in a 1953 earthquake but has been expertly repaired. It is amazing that this structure has lasted through many earthquakes in 400 years, this is mostly due to the clever building techniques of the Inka (more below). 

Qorikancha
San Pedro Market

The other must see site after Qorikancha is Sacsayhuaman (aka 'Sexy Woman'). There are many guides (unofficial?) at the location to tell you the story of the ruins. It covers quite a large area and you can also get a spectacular view of Cusco Plaza de Armas from the far end of the site.

Sacsayhuaman and a baby alpaca
Pictures of Cusco, Peru

The Inka built their structures using stone, and they carved them to fit perfectly, without mortar. These stones are very large and heavy. Inside the stones they carved C-shaped niches that held them together in an interlocking manner - this was to prevent collapse during earthquakes. These structures were built to last!

Mortarless stonework of the Inkas

Inka Trail

My taxi arrived at my hotel at 4:30am. We drove to the nearby town of Ollyantaytambo (I think it was about 45-60 minutes). I then took the train that heads to Machu Picchu for several hours to kilometer 104. It is not a big stop, not really a stop at all, it is in the middle of the wilderness...there is just a sign welcoming you to the Camino Inka at 104Km. I almost missed the stop. I got off the train by myself. It seems like everyone else was taking the easy way to MP. The plan was to meet my guide here. I waited for 15 minutes. I began to wonder what would happen if he didn't show up - there is nowhere to go and another train wouldn't come by until late in the afternoon. Finally I heard someone calling my name - it was my guide, Eduard. I asked him how he got there since I didn't see him get off the train...he said "I walked."

Eduard and I crossed the Urubamba river on a wooden bridge and into the checkpoint for the Inka Trail. Here you must have 3 things, or else you go home: a guide (check); your passport (check); your ticket with your name and passport number (check). [You cannot sell or trade trail tickets due to this restriction.]

After only a short walk we came to the ruins of Chachabamba. The early morning sun allowed for some nice photos. This site was a shrine and included 14 ceremonial baths, terraces, and some nicely preserved ruins. We stayed for about 15 minutes.

Ruins of Chachabamba

The air was cool but the sun was very strong. You must wear a hat and sunscreen this high up. The trail also provided a few shaded rest stops as shown below.

There were some terrific vistas, many of them off to my right and long way down to the river. You can see how high up we were from the photos below. we eventually came to a pool with a waterfall. We ate lunch here and put our feet in the water, which was about 35 degrees - but it felt good...for a short while.

Waterfalls and high vistas of the Inka Trail hike

We continued going up and down, up and down on the trail, much of the time the natural rock was carved into stairs by the Inka. After this hike, you will not want to see stairs for a week. After several more hours we arrived at the next site - Winay Wayna. This site had beautiful terraces and buildings that are as well preserved as Machu Picchu. my guide was very knowledgeable about this site and he said it was his favorite - mostly because it was scenic and there were no other hikers around. We had the place to ourselves. Most people rush passed this since by now you are very close to MP.

Winay Wayna

Hiking along for bit more brings us to the Intipunktu, the gateway to Machu Picchu. From here you can get the classic view of the site. There were hundreds of hikers here taking pics (and of course, selfies). However, we do not go down to MP just yet, it is getting dark and the we take the path the other way down to the town of Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters) for an early dinner. I tried the alpaca meat at the suggestion of my guide. I was skeptical and it was the most pricey thing on the menu ($19), but I'm glad I did it. It was phenomenal. The problem now, is since I like it, where can I find it? Nowhere in the US.

I parted company with my guide, checked into my hotel, and eventually went out to explore Aguas Calientes. It is a small town that is basically a tourist stepping stone to MP. There are shops, restaurants, and hotels mostly. Interestingly, the train (from Cusco) goes straight through the main part of town, and I mean a few feet away from several restaurants (see photo). Later that night I found a place that served an amazing brick-fire pizza and beer. I had to get up at 4:30am again so I headed to the hotel early.

Hiking the Inka Trail over the Urubamba River and into the town of Aguas Calientes

Machu Picchu

The next day my guide met me at the hotel gave me my bus ticket and we walked to the station to take the bus to the entrance of Machu Picchu. It takes about 20 minutes I think. We get there just after sunrise and already there are tons of tourists. Once the train tourists arrive (i.e. those who dont hike) around 10am it will be like Times Square - so I try to get in as many photos in the early light as possible. When I first got there a cloud mist covered most of the site and then within 15 minutes slowly burned off.

I have arrived at MP!
Map of Machu PIcchu

After the brief guided tour, I spent most of the day exploring MP on my own. I could have used another day but not sure if my feet could take it anyway.

Panoramic of MP
Machu Picchu in the Clouds
Me and my guide, Eduard
Some pics of me, and my backpack getting a rest

Quiz: Do you know the difference between Llama, Alpaca, and Vicuna?

Tip: There are not bathrooms at MP! You have to hike back to the entrance gate (1/3 mile) for any services. You can bring small packs, bottled water (plastic), and some food but not large packs.

Below are some more assorted photos from MP - click on each one to see it in larger format.

Assorted Shots of Machu Picchu

A quick video clip of the midday crowds at MP:

At 2pm I took the bus to Aguas Calientes, then the train to Cusco. I was back at my hotel - one more night of Cusco, and then a taxi ride to the airport and a long flight home. It takes about 8.5 hours to the east coast.

Final Thoughts and Photos

Believe the hype - MP is awe inspiring and if you go, you will want to go back, and you will definitely not forget it. And don't forget to stamp your passport when you are there. Ciao.

Machu Picchu (unofficial) passport stamp
Martone, (c) 2015

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