The Sacred Valley – Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Moray

The Sacred Valley of Peru, located just outside of Cuzco, is packed with fascinating archaeological sites. Many of these sites are included in Cuzco’s multi-day ticket and are absolutely worth visiting if given a chance. Kirsten and I visited 3 of these sites, Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Moray.
We took an early minibus on a Sunday morning to Pisac from Cuzco for about $2. Sunday is Pisac’s market day, so the city was packed with tourists when we arrived. The market is mostly tourist junk but it’s fun to wander around for a bit before going to the ruins. When we were done with the market, we took a cab to the entrance to the site. It is possible to walk to the top, but having done that on my previous visit, we opted for the cab as it took 20 minutes instead of 3+ hours of uphill walking. Pisac is a fantastic site located on top of a mountain, and it’s very well preserved. There are a series of agricultural terraces toward the entrance which descend down the mountain. The site is almost divided into two sections which are about 15 minutes walking apart. The higher portion has less impressive stonework and is on top of the mountain peak, while the second part is in a more level area and has very fine stonework. The lower section has the characteristic Inca doors and windows, as well as some ridiculous stones carved in very difficult ways. After touring the site we hiked back to the bottom, which took about an hour and a half. By the time we got to the bottom we were starving so we went to one of the tourist restaurants that was open and had lunch before heading back to Cuzco for the evening.

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Pisac Sunday Market
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Terraces at Pisac
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Pisac Ruins

The following day we took another minibus to Ollantaytambo, where we were spending the night before our early morning train to Machu Picchu. I stayed in Ollantaytambo for four days on my previous visit, and wanted to spend a night there as I really enjoyed the laid back and historical atmosphere of the town. Ollantaytambo was the last Inca stronghold to fall to the Spanish, and most of the town is still intact like it was when the Inca were there. The main site in town is extremely impressive, and I find it comparable to Machu Picchu in terms of archaeological sites worth visiting. We grabbed lunch at Heart’s Cafe (best place in Ollantaytambo) before hiking around the ruins, and spend a few hours wandering the site. Once we finished at the official site, we hiked up the opposing mountain to visit some other Inca ruins and take some pics of the entire fortress of Ollantaytambo. We ended up taking a few wrong turns and found ourselves on top of the mountain, which took a while to climb back down. By the time we finished with the ruins it was getting late so we found dinner and went to bed early for the early train to Machu Picchu, which I wrote about in a separate post.

 

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The old city streets
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The main section of ruins
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Some of the amazing stonework on top of the ruins
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The valley surrounding Ollantaytambo

The morning we got back from Machu Picchu we booked a tour of Moray and the Maras Salineras through our hostel. I normally don’t like taking tours of sites, however it was substantially cheaper than any other method of getting there so we took it. I didn’t get a chance to visit on my previous trip to Cuzco, so this was one of the only things I didn’t repeat on this trip. Moray was an agricultural testing center for the Inca, where they could grow lowland crops as well as highland crops in the series of concentric circles. The deeper the circle the warmer the microclimate, which allowed for non-native crops to grow well in the site. There were three of these circular fields, only one of which was fairly large. The tour only stopped here for about an hour before continuing on to Salineras.

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The circular terraces of Moray

The Salineras of Maras are a series of salt pools which are created by a natural spring of salt water which runs over these shallow pools and forms a brine. The water evaporates and leaves a thick crust of salt which is then harvested and sold around the world. Different families own each of the 1500+ pools at the site, and it’s the biggest economic input in the town, both from tourism and salt exports. The area was really pretty and the different colors of salt allowed for really good photos of the salt and surrounding valley. This was definitely one of my favorite places in the Cuzco area due to how bizarre and beautiful it was.

 

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Salineras of Maras

All three sites are must-see destinations for anyone visiting Cuzco and the Sacred Valley region.

Cuzco, Peru – archaeology capital of South America

The PeruHop bus picked us up in Arequipa before dawn for the long trip to Cuzco. This particular trip had very few stops due to traffic problems in Cuzco because of the Corpus Christi festival going on that week. We had a brief stop to grab food to go for lunch, which turned out to be a terrible idea. Word of advice: don’t ever eat a “chicken sandwich” in Pukara, Peru – it’s probably not chicken and food poisoning is not a great way to start a week in Cuzco. Anyway, we made it to Cuzco around sunset and managed to run into some of our friends at our hostel, as they had also booked the same place. Once we checked in we went out for dinner with them, as well as a couple other backpackers from Switzerland, at a restaurant near the Plaza de Armas, which was absolutely delicious. We said goodbye to our friends that evening as they were doing a Machu Picchu trek early the next morning and then heading back to Scotland. That night also turned out to be terrible, as the chicken sandwich from lunch came back with a vengeance and left me attached to the toilet for the whole night. The next day we did very little due to my recovery. Since we spent so much time in Cuzco, it makes little sense to do a day by day post, so I’m going to put it more of a list to save space.  

  • Casa Concha, the Machu Picchu museum put together with the Yale collection excavated by Hiram Bingham after his “discovery” of the site. The best part of this museum is the life-size figure of my archaeology advisor from uni dressed as the Inca ruler, complete with a skirt and gold gauges.img_0149
  • Plaza de Armas, the main square in Cuzco with a large fountain and two cathedralsdsc_0442
  • Qoricancha, the former Inca center which was converted into monastery by the Spanish after their conquest. The museum shows how the Inca stones were put together with metal and smooth grooves.   

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    Qoricancha
  • Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo, a nightly dance performance which highlights different dances from around Cuzco. Kirsten got pulled from the crowd and had to dance on stage at the end of the show, which was fantastic.  This is part of a city ticket which gives you access to most of the major archaeological sites and museums in the city.  I can’t remember the cost, however, students get half off with an ISIC card.  There are various lengths available from one day to one week.  I highly recommend buying this ticket if you are staying in Cuzco for a few days because if you visit just a few of the sites included you will save a ton of money on admission fees.

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    Dancers at Centro Qosqo
  • Sacsayhuaman, a large archaeological site located on top of a hill overlooking Cuzco. The stones are monstrous and the site is huge. While technically included in the Sacred Valley sites, its a short walk from downtown so I’m including it here.  However, you can easily book a tour which combines this with a few other regional sites. It is also included in the city ticket.img_0177
  • Monumento Patchakuteq, a large monument and museum dedicated to the Inca ruler Patchakuteq.  This is included in the city ticket.

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    View from the top of the monument
  • Various churches around the city, there’s a combo ticket that allows entry into 5 churches and a religious art museum

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    One of the churches to visit.
  • San Pedro Market, we bought a lot of fresh fruit juices and a meal here because the prices are crazy cheap. There are also a lot of souvenirs available for fairly cheap here as well. Make sure to check out the innards market in the back corner, it’s bizarre!

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    San Pedro Market
  • We were in the city for Corpus Christi, so the streets were always packed and at one point one square filled with stalls selling meals of guinea pig

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    A ton of people in the Plaza de Armas for Corpus Christi festivities
  • 12 angled stone, this rock in one of the Inca walls demonstrates the ridiculous nature of Inca stonework and has become a popular tourist stop for photos. It was insanely crowded when we stumbled upon it and it took like 5 minutes for me to get a photo without people in front of it.

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    Inca stonework that is not the 12 angled stone
  • We also visited a lot of archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley which are on the Cuzco tourist ticket, but those are written about in another post. Cuzco is a really great city to visit – very walkable and safe. This was my second visit and it was still just as great as the first time.

Machu Picchu – my second visit to this Wonder of the World

Having neither the time nor the money to do a trek to Machu Picchu, we opted for the cheapest available train to Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo. Unfortunately, this meant leaving at 6 AM to get to the train station. The train itself was nice and provided a basic breakfast. We arrived in Aguas Calientes around 8:30 AM and were at Machu Picchu an hour later. This was my second visit to the site, but it was still just as amazing as the first time. We began by hiking toward the Sun Gate, but turned around about half way as Kirsten wasn’t feeling well. We hiked around the normal tourist route for a few hours, checking out all the old buildings and terraces along the sides. We encountered a llama in one of the paths on the way out, which was posing for the cameras for a while before running up a narrow set of stairs toward a group of people. A few other llamas held up the sidewalk by standing in the middle and eating a nearby bush. We left soon after the llama incidents and went back to the town to check into our hostel.

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Your first view of the site from the entrance
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Some of the hundreds of terraces around the complex
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The famous shot of Machu Picchu

We checked into Ecopackers Hostel (highly recommended) and grabbed a far too expensive lunch before heading out of town to the Machu Picchu museum, interestingly enough named after my archaeology advisor’s father, who was a Peruvian archaeologist. The museum holds interesting artifacts from the excavations and describes how much of the site was built and used. It’s definitely useful for more context as to what the purpose of the site was. It’s not a very large museum, and visiting shouldn’t take more than an hour. The walk to and from the museum is very pleasant, and there are a few other things available to do along the way, including a butterfly garden. We ate dinner at a French bakery in town before heading to bed early, as our train back to Ollantaytambo was again at dawn. Thankfully the hostel was quiet and comfortable after a long day of hiking. We headed back to Cuzco from Ollantaytambo for a couple days before continuing south to Bolivia.
Tips for Machu Picchu:

  • If you are a student, get an ISIC card before coming, it will save you 50% on the entry fee for this and many other attractions in Cuzco
  • Take the train from Ollantaytambo instead of Cuzco, it’s substantially less money and the ride to Ollantaytambo is only a few dollars and takes just 1.5 hours
  • Aguas Calientes is an awful and expensive town, don’t stay if you can help it.
  • Restaurants in Aguas Calientes add a service charge to the bill, unlike the rest of Peru where it’s included – be aware so you aren’t surprised like we were
  • Visit the museum located at the bottom of the mountain, as well as Casa Concha in Cuzco to get a better history of the site
  • NOTE: There is a cheap way to get to Machu Picchu without taking the train, I did it on my first visit.  HOWEVER, it is not a pleasant experience for those who get carsick, and this route takes substantially longer each way than the train.  So, its up to you whether time > money and comfort.  I personally prefer the latter, and that’s from a guy who’ll take a 27 hour bus ride because its $20 less than a flight.
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The llamas here love to pose for photos and harass tourists

Arequipa and Colca Canyon – colonial architecture and stunning Andean landscapes 

We arrived in Arequipa early in the morning after a long overnight bus from Huacachina. Most of the bus got dropped off at the Flying Dog hostel, which thankfully allowed us to use their lobby area to rest and charge our phones and cameras. Since many of us were booked there for the following day, we were able to have our backpacks stored before our two day one night tour of Colca Canyon. We left for Colca Canyon a little after 9 AM with a number of our friends from the bus and made our way toward Chivay.
We made a couple of stops along the way, first at Salinas National Park, which was home to herds of vicuña (llama relatives) and stunning mountain landscapes. We made a few stops in the park, one of which was a for a herd of llamas grazing along the road. The landscapes in this area were absolutely amazing, especially for fans of the barren and desolate. The bus continued higher and higher in altitude before our next stop, Mirador de Los Andes, a viewpoint located at 4,910 meters (16,017 ft) above sea level. Since this was our first day at high altitude, a few of our friends had some difficulty with the low oxygen content, though Kirsten and I had no troubles. After taking a few pictures of the surrounding volcanoes and mountains, the tour descended into Chivay, the base town for Colca Canyon treks and tours. There was one last overlook where we took a number of pictures of the town and were able to pet and take photos with a baby alpaca (who later tried to push a small boy off a cliff).

 

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Salineras National Park
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Sassy llamas in the park
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Homicidal baby alpaca -don’t let his cuteness deceive you

We finally arrived in Chivay around 2:30 PM, when we went to a tourist restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet of Peruvian food, which was actually pretty decent. After lunch our guide drove us to the beginning of the canyon where we took a short hike through into the canyon with absolutely stunning views of the valleys and snow capped mountains. The hike probably lasted for an hour or so, after which we headed to the volcanic hot springs located outside of the town. A friend and I managed to get separated from the group and ended up in a thermal pool by ourselves, which was really relaxing. The waters were filtered to get rid of the sulfuric smell but retain the minerals and heat, which felt wonderful after long bus rides and the earlier hike. We had dinner at a crappy tourist place that had terribly slow service and filled with smoke from the pizza oven inside, which made it really hard to breathe. Once that ordeal was finished, we checked into our hotel and went to bed early for our early morning trip into Colca Canyon.

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First view of Colca Canyon
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Geothermal pool

We began the trip into Colca around 7 AM, which felt way too early but the morning light made the landscape brilliantly colored. We stopped in a small village with a church about an hour later to use the bathrooms and buy snacks and souvenirs. At one point a friend of ours had a large bird perch on her head for photos, which was hilarious. The stop was fairly brief, and afterward we continued on into the canyon.

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We arrived at the condor viewpoint around 9:15 AM, which at first was pretty but underwhelming, especially since we had a couple hours to kill there. At first there were only a few condors flying around, but after about 30 minutes at least a dozen began flying around the canyon near where we were standing. There were a couple of viewing platforms available to watch from, so we hiked all over them to see the birds from all the different angles. After about an hour and a half our guide gathered the group up and we took a moderate hike along the valley to see the landscapes and various local plants that grew in the area. We finished the hike around noon and continued toward another viewpoint before heading back to Chivay for lunch and then onward to Arequipa before nightfall. Bonus: at the last stop we got to eat cactus ice cream, which was amazing.

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Condors at Cruz del Condor
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Viewpoints for condor watching
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Colca Canyon

 We got back to Arequipa around 6 PM and checked into our hostel, and then visited the Santa Catalina Monastery with a group of friends from the bus. On certain nights of the week the monastery is open at night, and that night happened to be one of them, which was convenient as most of our friends were leaving for Cuzco in the early morning. We all toured the various streets and buildings of the monastery — which is essentially a walled off town within the center of Arequipa — for an hour or so before heading to the main plaza to see the cathedral and other colonial architecture.

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Santa Catalina Monastery at night

After wandering through town for a bit, we went out in search of a restaurant that served cuy, otherwise known as guinea pig. We got a great recommendation from the hostel for a good local place that served it and all but two of us ordered it for dinner (the other two were mortified at the thought and could barely watch – though one did manage to try a bite). Everyone seemed to enjoy the meal, and the owner of the restaurant even made an earring for one of our friends out of the tooth of the guinea pig she ate. Unfortunately we had to say goodbye to many of them in Arequipa as we were staying an extra day to see the city.

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Mmhmm, deep fried guinea pig

The next day we spent wandering the old city of Arequipa. First we visited the Jesuit church, which had stunning architecture and intricate murals on the domed ceiling in one of the side rooms. After the church we visited the Museo Santuario Andino, which houses the Juanita mummy, and perfectly preserved mummy of a child sacrifice which was found frozen on top of a local mountain. The features of the body are incredibly preserved and the associated artifacts were explained well by our guide, who was an archaeology student at the university which runs the museum. Unfortunately you aren’t allowed to take photos, and cameras must be checked at the entrance to make sure the rule is followed.

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Colonial architecture near the Jesuit church

We left the museum and grabbed lunch before heading to the Basilica of Arequipa, which also required a tour guide. Thankfully the service was included in the ticket price and the two of us were the only ones on the tour. The guide was knowledgeable about the history of the church and the former priests, and I ended up being glad we had to hire her for a tour. There were a number of rooms available to tour which held various relics from the church’s history. Toward the end of the tour the guide took us on the roof of the church to show us the bells and the view of the main plaza, the monastery, and the volcanoes in the distance. The views from the top were great and the tour was absolutely worth taking.

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The basilica from La Plaza de Armas
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Inside the basilica
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View from the roof of the basilica

Once we finished at the church we returned to the Santa Catalina Monastery to take more pictures during the day, since it was so impressive during the night prior. The difference between night and day is striking, as the colors were much more vibrant than I had expected after seeing them the day before. We stayed much longer on the second visit in order to see everything we missed the night before. I would recommend visiting during the day and the night if possible, as both experiences are fascinating and worth the price. Once we finished in the monastery, we wandered through the town centre again before grabbing dinner and going to bed before our early morning bus to Cuzco.
 
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Lima, Peru – the beginning of a journey across South America

After two years away, I finally made it back to South America. The trip began early in the morning at Detroit Wayne Metropolitan Airport, where the first of three flights departed. The flight route was convoluted, Detroit -> Boston -> Fort Lauderdale -> Lima, but flying with JetBlue made the ordeal much less painful than it could have been. We arrived in Lima after 11 PM local time and cleared passport control and customs relatively quickly along with a fellow bioarchaeology student who happened to be sitting next to me on the last leg of the flight. We found our hostel pick up in the arrival halls and had a butchered conversation in Spanish with the driver on the way to our hostel.

Flying out of Fort Lauderdale

The hostel, 1900 Backpackers, was a lovely old hostel located in a colonial mansion designed by Gustav Eiffel. It was definitely one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed in and I would highly recommend it to anyone heading to Lima. The hostel offered two free walking tours the morning after we arrived, and being the cheap person that I am, we decided to take both tours that day.

The first tour took us to Miraflores, the wealthy and very Western part of the city. This district was very much like any city in the U.S., complete with TGI Fridays and Starbucks on seemingly every corner. The first order of business was eating lunch, and since there were only three of us and the guide, we were able to have a nice conversation with him over plates of wonderful Peruvian food. I had Aji de Gallina (one of the best Peruvian dishes, hands down) and Kirsten had Lomo Saltado (the first of many). Once we finished with lunch we walked down to Parque Kennedy, a small park named after JFK which was teeming with hundreds of stray cats (it did not smell pretty). From here we walked down to the coastline and El Parque del Amor (Love Park), which had spectacular views of the Pacific coast and the cliffs of Lima. We left Miraflores from here as the guide had to get back to the hostel to prepare for the second tour.

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Aji de Gallina
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Cliffs of Miraflores

The second walking tour went to the Historic Centre of Lima, about a 15 minute walk from the hostel. The architecture in this area could have been in any old European city. We walked along the pedestrian only shopping street to Plaza San Martin, where there was a festival for Indigenous Languages of Peru taking place. We stopped to watch a dance performance from the Amazon region of Peru and check out some of the displays (and I got a really great free poster of the languages of Peru). From here we continued up toward the Plaza de Armas and the river, our guide discussing the history of the buildings along the way. The walking tours gave us some grounding as to the orientation of the city, which we needed for the following day of site seeing. On the way back to the hostel we stopped at every churro stand along the street (it’s a disgrace to visit Lima and not eat at least 5).

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One of the many churros eaten in Lima
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Amazonian dance during the Language Festival

Our second and last day in Lima was packed with all the sites the walking tours didn’t hit. We started by heading to the Cathedral of Lima, which housed the grave of Francisco Pizarro and some really cool crypts with glass flooring which allowed you to see the skeletons under the floor. The Pizarro tomb was quite ornate, but the most interesting part was an analysis of his skeleton which was displayed next to the tomb (how often is bioarchaeology so prominent in an exhibit?!). The rest of the cathedral was beautiful, but very similar to other Catholic churches in Europe. From here we continued to another church a few blocks away. The Monastery and Church of San Francisco is the second most important church in Lima. The visit to the monastery required a tour, and no photos were allowed inside (though I managed to get a few that semi-turned out). The monastery houses a large and beautiful old library of antique Spanish books from the 16-18th centuries. In addition, below the monastery and church are an extensive network of catacombs, including a circular pit which holds concentric circles of skulls and long bones (best part of the tour). When the tour ended, we went back to the Plaza de Armas to watch the changing of the guard at the presidential palace. A marching band comes out and plays every day at 12:45 PM to signal the guard change. Once this ended we found a cab and headed to Miraflores for lunch.

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Francisco Pizarro’s Tomb
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San Francisco Church and Monastery

We were dropped off in the cat park and headed straight to find ceviche. Ceviche is probably the best Peruvian dish there is. It consists of seafood cooked only by the acidity of lemon juice and served with a side of sweet potato. When combined with the purple corn drink Chicha Morada, you have a perfect Peruvian meal (which is exactly what we did). Following the delectable meal, we walked the streets of Miraflores to find Huaca Pucllana, a mud brick pyramid located in the city. Huaca Pucllana was built by the Lima Culture, between 200-700 CE, as a religious and administrative center. Because of the lack of rain and the construction patterns, the site was remained largely intact over the centuries. The bricks are not stacked in the traditional way, but rather stacked upright to allow for movement during the frequent seismic events of the region. The site is overall pretty well preserved and restored, and the associated museum houses a few interesting objects from the excavations at the site. When our tour of the site finished, we walked back to the coast and visited a mall built into the side of a cliff. We caught a cab back to our hostel and ran across the street to the Lima Art Museum to visit before it closed. It houses an impressive collection of archaeological specimens and some not-so-impressive modern art pieces. It’s not a very big museum, and can be visited in well under an hour. When we finished touring the museum, we went back to the hostel to pack and get ready for our early morning pick up by the PeruHop bus, a hop-on hop-off bus that we booked to take us to Cuzco for the next week. 

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Fresh ceviche in Miraflores
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Huaca Pucllana ruins