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We appreciate it when our guests share their stories, comments and photos with us and allow us to post them on our blog. Allan & Mildred Karlin, from Morgantown, WV, traveled with us on a 7-day Peru Explorer and wrote us this quick letter about their trip:

We really did not have any expectations, the way the trip worked out was far better than we imagined it would be. This was the first time we took a trip like this and didn’t make all of the arrangements ourselves. We had a very enjoyable, stressless, and educational jouney. We would definitely travel this way again.

Allan & Mildred Karlin
Morgantown, WV

The “Lost City” of Machu Picchu

The “Lost City” of Machu Picchu

We appreciate it when our guests share their stories, comments and photos with us and allow us to post them on our blog. Barbara & Ashley Blankenship, from Los Angeles, California, traveled with us on our 5-Day Peru Explorer with Add-ons and had this to report:

It was the trip of a lifetime – actually 3 trips in one, since the experiences were so different in the Inca region, the rainforest, and the coastal desert.

We loved it all but these were unanticipated pleasures. We especially recommend the Larco Museum in Lima and the museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Cusco for their elegant coverage of pre-Inca materials. We hadn’t expected the Islas Ballestas to be so magnificent. We are glad we dropped by there on our way back from Nasca.

Thank you so much,

Barabara & Ashley Blankenship
Los Angeles, CA

Overlooking Machu Picchu

Overlooking Machu Picchu

California Native founder, Lee Klein, and Peruvian pilot return from another flight over the ancient Nazca lines.

In the arid desert of Peru, California Native founder, Lee Klein, and Peruvian pilot return from another flight over the ancient Nazca lines. The giant figures and geometric patterns were unknown in the modern world until they were spotted by aircraft in the 1930's.

As our Cessna again circled over the giant figures on the ground I shot the final slide on my roll of film and, leaning at a 45 degree angle, attempted to reload my camera. Another pass over a monkey larger than a football field and we headed back to the dirt landing strip on Peru’s Nazca Desert. This was my first trip to Nazca, and the year was 1979.

The Nazca Desert is a high arid plateau which stretches 37 miles between the towns of Nazca and Palpa in southern Peru. Hundreds of square miles of this dry, rocky plain are marked with lines, triangles and other geometric shapes, some running for more than five miles in a straight line. There are also giant drawings including a monkey, a spider, birds, reptiles, and whales.

A giant spider on the Nazca Plain

A giant spider the size of half a football field sprawls on the Nazca Plain.

The desert markings, believed to have been made thousands of years ago, made little impression on occasional travelers who viewed them from ground level, but when they were spotted by aircraft in the 1930’s they caught the world’s attention. They have since been surveyed, mapped and studied. Only two questions remain—who made them, and why?

In his 1968 book, “Chariots of the Gods,” Swiss writer Eric von Daniken suggested that the lines were built by “ancient astronauts” as a landing field. Looking at the lines from the sky they do resemble an airport, but it doesn’t seem reasonable that advanced extraterrestrial spacecraft would require landing strips. Besides, Nazca’s soft, sandy soil is hardly suitable for an airport. Forgetting the “Twilight Zone” theories, we can imagine a more down to earth explanation. We know that the region has been inhabited for thousands of years—by the Paracas, 900–200 BC, by the Nazcas, 200 BC–600 AD, and by others. The figures are generally attributed to the Nazcas since they resemble those on Nazca pottery.

From the sky, this wedged shape figure resembles a landing strip.

From the sky, this wedged shape figure at Nazca resembles a landing strip.

But why create figures which can be seen only from the sky? A reasonable explanation is that they were not intended to be viewed by humans but by gods. A local school teacher in the area explained his theory to me. The lines all point toward the Andes—the source of the water which flows into the area through underground aquifers. The figures, he believed, represent the bounty made possible by this water. The Indians probably conducted rituals on these giant drawings to thank the gods and ensure that the water would continue to flow.

They created the lines that extend for miles by placing two stakes in a row, sighting along them to place a third stake, then repeating the process. By moving the desert’s stones and scraping its surface coating, in the absence of rain, the lines have survived the centuries. Hopefully, they will survive many more centuries for future generations to marvel at.

Not far from the lines is the ancient Nazca cemetery at Chauchilla. The Nazcas buried their dead, along with many of their possessions, in underground vaults lined with mud bricks. The bodies were dressed in embroidered cotton clothes, placed in a fetal position, and coated with resin. The hot, dry climate mummified the bodies. Over the centuries the tombs were looted by huaqueros, grave robbers, who located the chambers by sticking poles into the ground.

On my first visit to the site, the scene was of a desolate desert, pockmarked with holes, and littered with human skulls and bones, broken pottery, with colored designs still vivid on their surfaces, and strands of mummy-cloth blowing in the wind. No other person was there except for the Peruvian school teacher, who was my guide, and two German tourists. While the Peruvian and I talked, the Germans were busy stuffing skulls into their backpacks for souvenirs.

Now, more than thirty years later, things are different at the ancient cemetery. The desecrated graves are roped off and trails lead to observation kiosks where mummies and artifacts are displayed. The two German tourists would no longer be able to take a long-deceased Nazcan home with them.

A Peruvian guide stands on a rock overlooking Machu Picchu.

A Peruvian guide stands on a rock overlooking Machu Picchu at the end of the Inca Trail.

We appreciate it when our guests share their stories with us and allow us to post them on our blog. Tom Thiss, from Excelsior, Minnesota, had this to say about his Adventure in Peru and Hiking the Inca Trail:

Machu Picchu cannot be adequately described. One has to experience it, and trekking the trail heightens the anticipation like a good story. The Sun Gate sunrise experience was shrouded in clouds yet for me, it did not matter. What mattered to me at that moment was the euphoria of restored health and energy and the sense of real accomplishment. Machu Picchu’s capacity to evoke the power of imagination not only offsets the “Inca Travail” it supercedes it. This to me is the true testimony of its potency.

Tom Thiss

Foot bridge over the Urubamba River is the start of the Inca Trail.

This footbridge over the Urubamba River is the start of the four-day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Hikers run into a little rain at "Dead Woman's Pass."

A little rain feels good at “Dead Woman’s Pass,” at 13,860 feet, the highest point on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Lee at a Mayan ruin in Mexico's Yucatan.

California native founder, Lee Klein, at a Mayan ruin in Mexico's Yucatan. What a way to make a living.

This June we are celebrating our 30th Anniversary—30 years of leading fantastic trips to exotic destinations around the world.

This anniversary comes as a proud moment for our company’s founder, Lee Klein, who continues to scout new locations world-wide in search of new destinations for the active traveler. Klein, who holds an MBA in Management and a BS in International Marketing, spent more than two decades as a corporate manager and college professor until, in 1983, while climbing Ayer’s Rock in the Australian Outback, he decided to drop out of the corporate world, take off his suit and tie, and create an adventure travel company based on the lessons he taught his students on how to succeed in business: “keep the quality high, keep it affordable, and treat people the way you would like to be treated.”

Lee and Ellen on Patagonia's Perito Moreno Glacier.

Lee and Ellen Klein hiking on Patagonia's Perito Moreno Glacier.

The initial offering from The California Native was a tour billed as “The Other Los Angeles.” This day-long excursion traced the route of the San Andreas Fault from the Mojave Desert to the San Gabriel Mountains without ever leaving Los Angeles County. The tours became so popular that colleges in three California counties offered them as part of their community-education programs. From this, the company expanded its offerings to include tours to the Channel Islands, Death Valley, Yosemite, and other uniquely California destinations, as well as white-water rafting, ballooning, spelunking (caving), sailplane gliding, and other outdoor adventures. “My family has lived in Los Angeles for generations,” writes Klein in the company newsletter, “hence the name The California Native.”

California Native founder, Lee Klein, rappelling in Argentina

Lee rappelling in Argentina. Hey, this is research.

Satisfying the growing client base led to the development of The California Native’s most popular destination—Mexico’s Copper Canyon. These escorted and independent tours feature the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad (labeled as one of the most spectacular train rides in the western hemisphere) and highlight one of the most primitive indigenous cultures still subsisting in North America—the Tarahumara Indians. The California Native has become a leading source of information on this remote area and the company and it’s guides are known throughout the area for their work with the Tarahumara.

Today, The California Native offers a wide selection of tours to destinations including Costa Rica, Yucatan, Patagonia, Peru, the Galapagos, Ireland, Bhutan, Myanmar, and China, and more destinations are in the planning stages.

The mummy of Pizarro was an imposter.

At the cathedral in Lima, Peru, this mummy was mistakenly displayed for almost a century as the remains of Francisco Pizarro.

I first visited the Cathedral in Lima, Peru, in 1979, and saw the mummy of Francisco Pizarro. The mummy had been placed there back in 1891, when Peruvian officials, wanting to prominently display the “Founder of Lima,” had the body moved from the chapel in which it had lain for the previous 350 years.

But was this really Pizarro? Just prior to my visit, workers cleaning a crypt beneath the altar found two wooden boxes, one containing the bones of five people—one missing a head! The other box held a lead casket on which was inscribed in Spanish, “Here is the skull of the Marquis Don Francisco Pizarro, who discovered and won Peru and placed it under the crown of Castile.”

Francisco Pizarro died a violent death. On June 16,1541, while he was having dinner in his governor’s palace, a group of men, led by the son of his ex-partner, Diego de Almagro, broke in and stabbed him to death. As he lay dying from multiple sword wounds, he drew a cross on the ground in his own blood, kissing it, and crying “Jesus.” In 1892, his mummy was exhumed and displayed for almost a century in the Lima, Peru Cathedral, but was discovered to be an imposter when the underground crypt was discovered.

Pizarro had lived a cruel but exciting life. Born in poverty and illiterate all of his life, he sailed with several expeditions to the Americas, including Balboa’s journey to the Pacific. After settling in Panama, he formed a partnership with Almagro, a soldier, and Hernando de Luque, a priest, to explore the territory south of Panama, they discovered the Inca Empire. Pizarro then sailed to Spain to enlist the support of Emperor Charles V, from whom he received the charter to conquer and rule Peru. The

After the bloody conquest of the Incas, where 2000 Indians were slaughtered and Emperor Atahuallpa strangled, Pizarro alienated his partner, Almagro. This eventually led to armed conflict between the former partners, and Pizarro’s brother, Hernando, having Almagro garroted.

The skull in the lead box matched the headless skeleton and, when reunited, turned out to be a man approximately the right age and height for Pizarro at the time of his death. Additionally, the skeleton showed that the man had been murdered by multiple sword thrusts, unlike the mummy which, upon reexamination, showed no wounds, leading Peruvian and American scientists to conclude that the skeleton was indeed that of Pizarro. It is now believed that the mummy who had sat in for Pizarro for so many years, was a church official. He is now retired, and the “real” Pizarro’s bones have taken his place on display.

The world is a fascinating collage of cultures, each with its own traditions, customs and history, which gives them a uniqueness and sets them apart from all of the others. But the more we travel the more we find that so many things are the same and we are more united by our similarities than divided by our differences. In our series, Images of the World, we group our similarities to enjoy them and appreciate their cultural differences.

The Street Musicians: No matter where you are in the world, everyone enjoys music, and entertainment provided by street musicians is universal.

In Iquitos, Peru, a musician plays huayno music, the traditional music of the Andes, on his mandolin.

A Peruvian musician plays huayno music on his mandolin.

A Tarahumara musician, in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, plays guitar for visitors.

Tarahumara guitar player in Mexico's Copper Canyon

In Sydney, Australia, a colorful street-musician entertains passers-by.

A street musician in Sydney, Australia

A street violinist plays on a Budapest bridge on the Danube River.

Street violinist in Budapest, Hungary.

In Argentina, the tango is extremely popular, and in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, street music takes the form of tango dancing.

Street tango dancers in Buenos Aires.

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, a street musician entertains at the annual flower festival.

Street musician at Chiang Mai flower festival
Street musicians in Prague, Czech Republic.

A Street quartet plays classical music outside of the Prague Castle in the Czech Republic.

Ruins of Ollantaytambo in Peru's Sacred Valley

The huge stone ruins of Ollantaytambo in Peru's Sacred Valley stand as silent witnesses to the bloody battles which took place here five centuries ago between the Incas and the invading Spaniards.

Standing guard over the Urubamba Valley, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Ollantaytambo’s great terraces and massive stoneworks served as a ceremonial center and fortress, protecting the heart of the Incan empire from its enemies. Its massive structures were crafted by moving giant stones for miles using sheer manpower and ingenious engineering devices. The builders even re-channeled a river to allow the giant stones to be maneuvered across. It was here at Ollantaytambo that the Incas staged their last victory over the Spanish.

In 1536, the Inca ruler Manco Inca led a rebellion against the Spanish invaders. To quell the rebellion, Francisco Pizarro dispatched his younger brother, Hernando, to Ollantaytambo to capture Manco. With a force of 70 cavalry, 30 foot soldiers, and a “large contingent of native auxiliaries,” the confident Spaniards planned a dawn attack to surprise the sleeping Indians, but it didn’t work. The Spaniards were overwhelmed by showers of arrows, spears and boulders, which rained down from the high terraces above the city. Then, by diverting the Patachanca River through previously dug channels, the Incas flooded the plains below the fortress, and the bewildered Spaniards found themselves mired in mud and water up to their horses’ bellies. They had no choice but to retreat.

Pizarro returned, this time with four times the force. The city fell but Manco escaped. Two years later Pizarro captured Manco’s sister and, when Manco refused to negotiate, had her stripped naked, flogged, and shot to death with arrows. He then had her body tied to a raft and floated down the Urubamba River. Pizarro was not a guy to mess with!

After landing at Cusco Peru‘s two-mile high airport, we are greeted by colorfully-dressed Incas who hand us cups of hot tea. “¡Bienvenidos a Cusco!” A delightful welcome to the former center of the Incan Empire. but the tea also serves an important purpose—the prevention of altitude sickness.

In the Peruvian Andes, coca tea helps cope with the altitude.The tea we are offered at the airport, and again in our hotel lobby, is mate de coca—brewed from leaves of the coca plant. Coca is best known to North Americans as the source of the drug cocaine, which is actually a highly processed derivative of the coca leaf. Because of its association with the drug, coca is banned in the U.S.

In the Andes, where it is legal, coca is an age-old tonic and a remedy for many ailments. It enhances mood, without dependency or toxicity; is a natural energizer, similar to coffee; is rich in vitamins and minerals; relieves dizziness, headaches and stomach problems; and aids in weight loss and child-birth.

Coca leaves can be chewed, brewed, smoked, or made into candy and baked goods. Shamans in the Andes smoke it for “magical” purposes—to enter the spirit world and to prognosticate the future in the tea leaves.

In the Incan empire, coca was considered to be very special, sometimes magical, and its use was controlled. After the conquest, the Catholic Church tried to forbid it, because of its ties to the old religion, but they found that in the high altitude without the coca, the natives had trouble working the fields and mining the gold, so the church itself cultivated the plants and distributed the leaves to the workers.

The world’s most popular coca product is Coca Cola™. Made from the extract of coca leaves mixed with kola nuts, it was created in 1885, and sold as a tonic. Coca Cola™ did contain cocaine (commonly used in 19th century patent medicines) until 1929! When it became known that cocaine was potentially harmful, the company had a problem. If it removed the coca from its recipe, could it still call its product Coca Cola™? On the other hand, if it did not remove the cocaine, there could be a boycott of the drink. Their solution was to devise an extraction process in which the coca leaves were ground, mixed with sawdust, soaked in bicarbonate of soda, percolated with toluene, and steam blasted. The result was then mixed with powdered kola nuts and pasteurized—preserving the taste while eliminating the drug effects. Pepsi™, by the way, does not use coca leaves in its recipe!

Today there are opponents and supporters of coca, but for visitors to Peru and other Andean countries, the tasty coca tea is a harmless antidote to the ills of altitude.

Have a thirst for a real native experience? While traveling in Peru, stop at a house displaying a red flag on a long pole. There you can join the locals in a glass of chicha, an ancient Andean drink made from fermented corn.

California Native founder, Lee Klein, chugging chicha with villagers in a Peruvian chicheriaThe strange-tasting drink, yellowish in color with a bubbly froth, is served warm for just a few coins, and is quite strong. It is not usually found in restaurants (a similar drink, chicha morada, made from blue corn, is sweet and sold everywhere like a soft-drink), but is sold by individuals, usually in the lower socioeconomic bracket, who have passed down the traditional recipes since pre-Inca times.

Recently, in the mountaintop city of Cerro Baul in southern Peru, archeologists from the University of Chicago unearthed remains of an ancient brewery dating back to the Wari Empire (AD 600-1000). It is believed that the brewery was used to produce massive amounts of chicha, which was used both for ritual purposes and festivities.

The ruins indicate that the last gathering at this brewery ended with a ritual burning of the entire facility. As the Wari’s threw their cups into the fire, the beams and thatched roof collapsed, leaving what was underneath in very good condition. Scientists have found remains of fire pits and fifteen-gallon ceramic vats.

The first step in preparing the chicha is boiling the fruits and grains (now corn) with water. After boiling, the liquid is transferred to fermenting jars and is ready in two weeks. It must be consumed soon after—it does not have a shelf life!

So, join your Peruvian neighbors in a glass of chicha, if you dare, and carry on the ancient tradition. There is also a musical form called chicha, inspired by the drink, but more on that in another post.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu, ‘Lost City’ of the Incas

Suddenly we found ourselves standing in front of the ruins of two of the finest and most interesting structures in ancient America. Made of beautiful white granite, the walls contained blocks of Cyclopean size, higher than a man. The sight left me spellbound.

When Hiram Bingham went looking for the legendary Inca city of Vilcabamba, the last refuge of the Inca kings, he did not suspect that his journey would lead him to discover the most spectacular archeological site in the Americas—Machu Picchu.

When the expedition from Yale University, of which Bingham was the director, entered the Urubamba Canyon, in July of 1911, a peasant told him of the ancient ruins at the top of a hill called Machu Picchu. Bingham accompanied him up the dense jungle-covered slope to the top, where a child guided Bingham to the ancient stone structures buried beneath tropical vegetation. Bingham was so impressed that he wrote in his diary, “would anyone believe what I have found?”

Hiram Bingham Discovers Machu Picchu
Hiram Bingham in 1911

It is hard to imagine a more spectacular setting—an ancient stone city 1,300 feet above a frothing whitewater river, surrounded by jungle-covered peaks and brilliant orchids.

Of the two surrounding peaks, the first is named Huayana Picchu, which translates to “young peak” and is the one most often seen in photographs. The second peak is called Machu Picchu or “older mountain.” The original name of the city has long been forgotten.

Until Bingham’s discovery, Machu Picchu had been unknown to the outside world for nearly 400 years. It was a mystery how all knowledge and records of an entire city disappeared. It is now believed that Machu Picchu was not a city at all, but a royal estate and religious retreat, built around 1460 and located off the main routes. It could only be reached by paths accessible to those traveling by royal decree. The Incas had no written language. Their history was kept by verbal historians, who, following the collapse of the Inca state, were unemployed. Few of the Inca people ever knew that Machu Picchu even existed. As the Spaniards advanced into Peru, around 1527, half of the population died of small pox. This was followed by civil war and the abandonment of Machu Picchu. Thus, this magnificent “stone city” disappeared.

California Native's Ellen Klein relaxes in a hammock at a jungle resort.Some say the it was the ancient Greeks, some argue that it was indigenous Americans like the Mayans of the Yucatan or the Urarina of the Peruvian Amazon, and while there is some debate over the origins of the hammock and which civilization can claim the rights of ownership, no one can deny the functionality of design. Some of the earliest hammocks developed have been found in the Bahamas. These were made from bark stripped off the hamack tree–the likely origin for the name. Over the years, the bark used in construction was replaced by sisal fibers and today hammocks can be crafted from many materials such as canvas or nylon.

Sisal fiber was instrumental in the fabrication of hammocks giving weavers in the Yucatan an important role. From the mid 19th century all the way to World War I, sisal fiber was considered the major cash crop for this area. In fact, the town of Sisal is located just 53 miles north of the Yucatan’s capital city of Mérida and still contains an abundance of the plants from which the fiber is produced.

The popularity of hammocks spread due to their function in the Royal Navy. Here, hammocks benefited sleeping sailors because they rocked in synchronicity with the pitch and roll of the ship. These sleeping arrangements were preferred because hammocks take up less room than traditional bunk beds and protected sailors from falling out while asleep on rough seas.

The widespread use of the hammock may have come from their utility on the ocean, but their safety benefits evolved from necessities on land. The elevated support of the hammock allowed the ancient Mayans a better alternative to lying on the wet jungle floor filled with biting insects and other vermin.

Hammock: just saying the word causes you to imagine swaying in a breeze on the beach or relaxing in the backyard on your day off. Known for their cocoon-like comfort, there is no disputing the practical design of a hammock. And over the years, artisans have honed their craft and now hammocks are made in a variety of colors and styles. In the capital city of Merida and its surrounding villages, the hammock has become a symbol of the Yucatan. Travelers to this part of Mexico can readily find hammock vendors in the central plazas of towns they visit. Adding to their unique design is the fact that Mayan Hammocks are lightweight and easy to pack, making them great souvenirs from your next trip to the Yucatan peninsula, the Peruvian Amazon, or Costa Rica with The California Native.

The Summer/Fall 2009 edition of The California Native Newsletter is now in the mail. The newsletter, published by The California Native since 1984, has more than 10,000 readers (not counting those who download from the web). If you are not already a subscriber to this free newsletter you can signup now.

This issues feature stories include:

Lee Klein prepares to fly over the Nazca Lines on The California Native Peru ToursREVISITING PERU’S NAZCA LINES

The desert markings, believed to have been made thousands of years ago, made little impression on occasional travelers who viewed them from ground level, but when they were spotted by aircraft in the 1930’s they caught the world’s attention. They have since been surveyed, mapped and studied. Only two questions remain—who made them, and why?

Rafting is one of the many options for guests on The California Native Costa Rica ToursRAPID TRANSIT: COSTA RICA STYLE

Costa Rica has long been a favorite destination for both the beginner and the experienced river runner. With ample annual rainfall, mountainous landscapes, and plenty of road-to-river access, the country prides itself on being a whitewater paradise.


Packing a pearl-handled revolver, a riding crop and three lovers, the Baroness Eloisa von Wagner Bosquet disembarked on the Island of Floreana, in 1932, and declared herself “Empress of the Galapagos.”

The cathedral is a favorite hiking destination for guests on The California Native China ToursCOPPER CANYON’S LOST TREASURES

In 1880, Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, the last territorial governor of the District of Columbia, packed up his family and, in the remote village of Batopilas, at the bottom of Copper Canyon, developed one of the richest silver mining operations in the world.


Naxi ladies strolling home after work can be seen on The California Native China ToursBecause the Olympics were hosted in Beijing, chances are that you learned more about China in 2008 than at any previous time. On the other end of the country, far from bustling Beijing is Yunnan Province—home to the largest variety of ethnic groups in China.

The newsletter also includes schedules, prices and descriptions of California Native’s tours to Mexico’s Copper Canyon, Peru, the Galapagos, Patagonia, Costa Rica, Yucatan and Chiapas, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, Bhutan, Yunnan, China, and Ireland.

California Native founder, Lee Klein, overlooking the Urubamba Valley from the Inca Trail
The Inca Trail! Wow! I love to hike, but until this year my experience had been limited to one or two day hikes. Now, we were going to spend four days in the Andes of Peru hiking the trail to Machu Picchu. Most travelers choose to take the three-hour scenic train ride from Cuzco, but we decided to hike the route taken by the ancient Incas—a trail considered to be one of the most scenic in the world. All the literature said that any “reasonably fit” person could do this, but since they also mentioned passes with elevations of up to 14,000 feet, I was a bit apprehensive.

The popular trail now known as The Inca Trail was most likely the “royal” road between Cuzco and Machu Picchu, used mostly by royalty and pilgrims to the sacred city. The trail was a road of its time—built for men on foot, and lightly packed llamas. It is paved with interlocking stones and traverses the mountains and passes with thousands of steps.

The California Native provided us with porters—native farmers who carry all the gear and food—leaving us to carry only a daypack. For the two of us there were six porters, a guide and a cook.

The porters travel ahead of the hikers, carrying up to 50 pounds on their backs. Each time we stopped for lunch or for the night, they were already at the site, the tents were up, and our cook was preparing us a sumptuous meal. View from the Inca Trail

On our first day, before beginning our hike, we stopped at a colorful outdoor market where our cook bought fresh food supplies. Then, crossing a footbridge over the Urubamba River, we began our trek. After a few hours of easy hiking we stopped for lunch. Much to our surprise, in a restful grassy meadow, there was a dining tent, complete with table and chairs, warm water to wash in, and a hot meal. That afternoon we continued on and were treated to views of snow-capped mountains, llamas grazing in the fields, flowers, meadows and lakes.

Along the way we met all kinds of people, including a 71-year-old retired Australian woman traveling on her own (with a guide and porters), huffing and puffing up the stone steps. The very popular trail hosts many hikers, but never really seems crowded.Ellen and Lee Klein at Machu Picchu's Gate of the Sun

On day two we triumphantly crossed the highest pass, known as “Dead Woman Pass,” just under 14,000 feet, through a light drizzle, then began the steep descent, with spectacular views on the way down. As we arrived at the campsite, we heard the other hikers applauding our Australian friend, as she too arrived, having conquered the hardest part of the trail.

Day three included two more passes, visits to several Inca ruins along the trail, and a walk through a beautiful “cloud forest,” filled with lush tropical plants and colorful flowers. If day two was the most difficult, day three was the loveliest. As we crossed the final pass, the Urubamba Valley and the mountain of Machu Picchu lay before us. We walked down the steps through the terraces of Intipata (cloud-level town) to our final campsite at Winay Wayna. Machu Picchu

The next morning we rose before dawn, to arrive at the Intipunku (Gate of the Sun) in time to watch the sun rise over the “Lost City.” As the sun came over the mountain the ruins slowly emerged from dark shadows turning a glorious golden color.

We toured Machu Picchu, then took the bus to Aguas Calientes, a small town noted for its relaxing mineral baths. After a much-needed shower and a short rest, we strolled down the main street, and as we approached a small café, there was our Australian friend, sipping a beer and beaming, “I made it, and I’m still alive!“ Then she raised her beer in a toast to one of the greatest experiences of her life.