Today is our 35th wedding anniversary (yay us!). When Steve, my then fiancé, agreed to a trip to Peru for our honeymoon, I knew he was a keeper.
Peru was on my bucket list long before I knew there was such a thing as a bucket list. In those days, there were no helpful travel blogs. Fortunately, I met a Peruvian travel agent, Blima (from Lima).
Blima helped us plan a two week trip that included visits to Lima, Cuzco, the “lost” city of Machu Picchu, and the Peruvian Amazon region.
Lima is the colonial and modern day capital of Peru. Cuzco was previously the Incan capital at the time of the 1528-1532 Spanish conquest, and Machu Picchu was really only lost to white folks anyway.
At the time, two airlines flew to Peru from the United States, Lan and Braniff. She recommended Braniff. Oops. Braniff went bankrupt half way through our trip.
Blima could not have predicted that on the eve of our trip, the Shining Path, a Maoist revolutionary group, would crank up their reign of terror in Peru. We were not deterred.
Due to scheduling issues for our wedding, off we went on our pre-nuptial honeymoon in May of 1982, the month before we were married.
Trip to Peru: Cuzco
I was in a bit of a daze during our time exploring Cuzco and the surrounding sights. We visited the fortress of Sacsayhauayman, the Sacred Valley of the Incas at Ollantaytambo and the market town of Pisac. At an altitude of over 11,000 feet, most sea level dwellers are likely to feel some adverse effects from the altitude.
Andes dwellers call altitude sickness soroche. Even though we were handed a cup of tea made from steeped coca leaves as soon as we walked into our hotel (the local soroche remedy), we experienced altitude induced headaches and loss of appetite. I was not sorry these symptoms caused me to skip the local delicacy, grilled guinea pig, one of my childhood pets.
Trip to Peru: Machu Picchu
I’ve read accounts of recent trips to Machu Picchu that make me glad we went in 1982. At that time, there was only one tourist train a day on the narrow gauge, single-track railroad from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. The construction of that rail line remains an engineering marvel. Our train had to go up switchbacks to about 15,000 feet to leave the Cuzco valley. It made its way through the Andes and along the Urubamba River.
Aguas Calientes, at the foot of Machu Picchu, was not yet a developed tourist town. It was little more than a rickety train stop with one backpacker’s hostel. There was only one 40 room government run hotel up on the mountain next to the ruins. I’m very glad Blima convinced us to spend the night there.
The tourist train arrived at Machu Picchu at around 11:00 a.m. and returned to Cuzco at 3:00 p.m. At that time, most visitors had to leave to catch the train. That left us in the suddenly quiet, nearly deserted ruins. We sat at the Sun Gate and looked down on the ruins during a truly magical sunset.
Peru: Then vs. Now
Currently, because of the crush of visitors who have a choice of hotels and restaurants in Aguas Calientes, a reservation is required to climb Huayna Picchu, a sacred mountain adjacent to Machu Picchu. In 1982, no reservation was necessary and since we started our climb before the tourist train arrived, we had the trail pretty much to ourselves.
Our days in Cuzco made the adjustment to the lower 7,900 feet altitude of Machu Picchu feel comfortable. Our 20-something selves managed the climb up Huayna Picchu which tops out at 8,920 feet, without too much huffing and puffing.The dead viper at the start of the trail ensured we checked out rock ledges before we put our hands on them.
The climb was challenging because of the narrow, steep trail. The trail was slippery, with an adjacent 2,000 foot drop down to the Urubamba Valley. We were cautioned that a German tourist had fallen to his death the previous week.
Trip to Peru: The Amazon River
Upon our return to Cuzco, our next flight took us to the town of Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon region. From Iquitos, we were supposed to take a river boat several hours downriver to a jungle “lodge”. The lodge could accommodate 40 people at a time. At the time tourism was at a seriously low point because of the Falklands War and flooding, so it was just us and a British woman with her 12 year old daughter.
Instead of the usual larger river boat, we were transported to the lodge in what was basically a dory with an outboard motor. Sitting so low to the level of the river made the logs passing in the fast current appear disconcertingly large.
Compared to today’s Peruvian Amazon lodges on TripAdvisor, ours was decidedly more rustic. It was built on stilts in the water. The main structure for meals was connected to the “rooms” by elevated wooden walkways. There was no window glass nor electricity.There were screens to keep out the wildlife, much of it of the insect variety.
Our dinners were fish from the river. One day at dinner, I thought a bird landed next to my plate. Further inspection revealed it to be a bird-sized flying beetle. At that point, I resolved that Steve and I would be sharing one of the narrow cots. Honeymoon or not, I don’t think he appreciated spooning in an equatorial jungle.
Medical Treatment in the Jungle
Because of our tiny group size, and the fact I could translate, our guide skipped his usual English script. Therefore, we had very satisfying exploring experiences even though our jungle walk was more of a jungle wade. Our trip coincided with the worst flooding in 30 years.
I don’t know if it was on the usual tour route, but we were taken by boat to a village where there was a hospital/clinic run by Canadian nuns. They explained that their biggest causes of morbidity and mortality were accident and snakebite—not exactly the same things Steve saw in his internal medicine residency at Penn.
As soon as they heard Steve was a doctor, one of the nuns scurried away, returned with a tray of IUDs and asked Steve if he knew how to insert them. “Uh, no.” (Shhh, don’t tell the Pope).
Many of the village children had distended bellies from intestinal and gastric parasites. We were treated to the sight of a very long white worm that a toddler had just vomited. I’m not sure whether or not that particular TMI moment was caused by having Doctor Steve with us.
Travel: The Ultimate Wedding Diet
Thanks to my mild altitude sickness, the oppressive heat and humidity, and the unexpected “show and tell” that featured parasitic intestinal worms, this was one of the only trips on which I’ve lost weight. Given that I shared the perennial bride’s desire to drop a few pounds before our wedding, this wasn’t a bad thing.
Our trip to Peru provided many memorable moments. Thankfully, we managed to capture some of them with our Kodak Instamatic camera. Perhaps you remember the kind of camera where you wouldn’t know if any of your photos came out until you returned home and had your film developed.
The experience from our trip to Peru that I keep in my memory as a “go to” happy place was one we couldn’t photograph. One clear evening, we motored up the Amazon River several miles in a little boat.
Later, as the sun set, our guide cut the motor and we drifted back to the lodge as the cacophony of jungle night sounds rose around us and a celestial chart of the stars of the southern hemisphere appeared in the inky sky.