We arrived late in the evening in Lima and were escorted to a hostel in Miraflores, about 45 minutes from the airport. The Hostal El Patio was charming and musty. The rooms were arranged around a courtyard filled with lush, flowering plants and brightly painted walls.
Our flight to Cusco left Lima at 10 am the next morning, which meant little sleep since we didn’t get in until after midnight the night before. We had no time to explore Lima but were excited to be heading straight to the beauty of the high country. As we gained in altitude heading inland, the Andes Mountains revealed themselves through the parting clouds: high and dry with green river valleys and distant snow capped peaks.
In Cusco, we walked around in a high altitude daze. Fatigued from little sleep and the sudden 11,200 feet of elevation gain, I wondered how we would manage to do our trek over a 15,000 foot mountain pass if just walking around Cusco felt like a tremendous workout. Cusco, the former center of the Inca empire, means ‘navel of the earth’ and was laid out in the form of a puma, the animal that symbolized the Inca dynasty. While little of the original Inca city remains except a few walls and the ruins of Sacsayhuamán, the steep, winding cobbled streets and Spanish architecture are charming and worth spending some time to explore.
After a few hours of exploring, we rented a van to Pisac, where we would have our base of exploration at a retreat center below the Pisac ruins along the Urubamba River. Pisac is much smaller than Cusco, but one of three sacred centers to the Inca people: Pisac – the Serpent, Cusco – the Puma (the head of the empire), and Machu Picchu – the Condor.
The small town of Pisac hosts a large open air market every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, and we drank our first Pisco Sours (made with Pisco, lime juice, bitters, simple sugar, and whipped egg white) in a restaurant on the square. The food was amazing everywhere we went: quinoa pyramids, potatoes I didn’t even know existed, pomegranates in a sauce drizzled over alpaca ribs, cheeses, and huge, juicy corn.
The retreat center along the river was awe inspiring with towering mountains on either side of us cut through by the Urubamba River. The center is run by an American woman who has studied to become a healer in the Andes. She has fashioned a retreat for spiritual seekers to absorb the magnificence of this place in a quiet setting with full amenities, including a Chatres Labyrinth. Standing in the center of the labyrinth (whose design dates to the 1200s) looking up at the Inca ruins on the mountainside above built in the 1400s, I marveled at how I suddenly arrived at this awe inspiring place.