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Nathan, David, Cheryl and Nicole Drake in Machu Picchu.
By Nicole Drake | SUBMITTED
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Mixing modern culture with ancient history in South America
By Kathleen Ostrander and Nicole Drake

Although the Drake family has been to several different locations for family vacations, this April's trip to South America was a first. The family went to Peru and the Galapagos Islands at the end of what would be considered the rainy season in Peru and Ecuador.

Peru has its modern culture, but the area has a rich history dating back long before Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incan empire in 1535 and founded Lima. The Incas began inhabiting the area in 1200 A.D., establishing villages in Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia. The Drakes' tour started with a visit to the main square, or Plaza de Armas, where the Church of San Francisco and adjoining monastery are located.

"The monastery is a must-see with its immense collection of antique books and the eerie catacombs beneath," Nicole Drake said. "The catacombs are filled with categorized and sometimes artistically arranged human bones from centuries-old church patrons. We had one final stop at Lover's Park on the Pacific Ocean to view the sunset. Back at the hotel, we had a folklore dinner show waiting for us."

Musical performances are routine during meals and their first dinner also meant their first taste of the Peruvian national drink, a Pisco Sour. Pisco is a Peruvian brandy made from grapes. Drake said their guide, Julio, was careful to make sure the Americans didn't overindulge in the strong drink.

"Apparently drinking alcohol is not good for altitude sickness," Drake said.

The family went to Cusco, the historic capital of the sun-worshiping Incan empire, the next day. Founded in the 11th century, it is 11,000 feet above sea level.

Drake's bit of trivia about Cusco - it was recently found to be the city with the most amount of ultraviolet light in the world.

She noted that travelers should take seriously advice to use a regime of altitude sickness medication when visiting the area around Cusco, Machu Picchu area. Although natives recommend a traditional remedy of drinking coca tea and chewing coca leaves, Drake said she advises tourists to go with the more traditionally prescribed Diamox.

"In Cusco," she said, "one can still walk the streets lined with Incan stone masonry. The Incans are known for their precise masonry using large stones, which stand up well against the many Peruvian earthquakes. We visited the main square in Cusco, the Plaza de Armas, which included The Cusco Cathedral, also built on the site of an Incan palace." Drake said the cathedral has its own version of the painting "The Last Supper," although participants are dining on guinea pig, a local staple, and Chicha, a sweet, cola-like drink made from purple maize.

"Our next stop was Sacsayhuamán, an Incan walled complex near Cusco," said Drake. "Here we learned how the Incans moved such large stones to make their structures and witnessed their precision masonry. We watched the sun set over the Incan ruins; it was a spectacular sight. Julio gave us a recommendation for dinner, so part of our tour group, in the spirit of Cusco, went out for a guinea pig last supper. I received a decent meal that looked and tasted  pretty much like baked chicken. We ordered a plate of alpaca, too, just to say we did," she added.

The next day involved shopping at market sites in southern Peru. "First stop, Chinchero, known for its alpaca wool weaving. Locals gave us a demonstration of their traditional weaving techniques, which is still done completely by hand and dyed with regional organic materials. We walked onto the town square marketplace, near yet another Christian church built over centuries-old Incan stone masonry. On the way, our guide explained the tradition of placing two small clay bulls on either side of a cross found on the roofs of homes in the area, a mixture of Amerindian and Spanish traditions, a meeting of the traditional Mother Earth religion and the Spanish-brought Christianity."

After more shopping, the group traveled to the Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo was an amazing Incan fortress with layer upon layer of crop terraces cascading down the mountainside. "As we were traveling, we noticed red flags hanging outside some of the residents' homes," she said. "Our guide told us red flags meant that the house had homemade beer for sale. A vote was taken, and the decision was made to stop and try some beer."

The fruit beer ferments in pots for weeks and is served with dozens of different kinds of corn snacks, she said. "The room between the kitchen area and the 'visitor' area was the guinea pigs' den, dinner squeaking and running around freely, available to just pick up and cook. For the spoiled Americans on tour, though, there was a three-course meal waiting for us back at the hotel," Drake added.

The highlight of the next day's travels was the visit to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu, "Old Peak" in the Quechua language, is also called the "Lost City of the Incas." Built high in the remote Andes Mountains around 1450, the Incas abandoned it 100 years later, around the time of the Spanish conquest. The Drakes took a bus ride to the train station and the train took them through the mountains and along the Urubamba River.

Ollantaytambo, as well as many stopping points along the River, are popular places to start one of the hiking/camping trips along the Inca Trail. There is the classic four-day hike along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but there are also shorter and longer guided hikes available, she said.

But to get a "perfect" picture, some tourists who use the train and the bus take a short hike to get the first glimpse of Machu Picchu with the Huayna Picchu rising in the background - involves a small hike upwards. "We spent the night in Aquas Calientes, the town where the train ride ends and the bus ride begins on the way to Machu Picchu. It's a nice, touristy little town with markets, shops and restaurants" Drake said

After another day sightseeing in Machu Picchu, the group journeyed back to Cusco in the afternoon and then headed to Lake Titicaca the next day.

On the way to Puno, Peru, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the group stopped at the pre-Incan ruins in Pilillaqta. This stop left a lasting impression on Drake. "I will never forget arriving at San Pedro de Andahuaylillas church on a Sunday morning and visiting the altar. The first two songs of the service demonstrated the union of faiths. The first song was a traditional Catholic hymn, the second was a Mother Earth song in Quechua, the native language of the region." The church is renowned for its artwork and is considered the "Sistine Chapel" of South America, Drake added.

The long bus ride ended late, and the group traveled to Lake Titicaca the next day. The lake is the highest on Earth and half is in Peru and half in Bolivia. "We sailed to one of the many small islands on the lake, also known as the 'Floating Islands of Uros.' Uros is a group of pre-Incan people who live on man-made islands of reed on the lake. We saw how the islands and the reed boats used to get to the islands were made, and then the Uros presented their wares for us. A reed boat then took us to an island where we met a captive baby Andean condor. The condor plays a major part in Incan mythology," Drake said.

A trip to Quito the next day and then onto the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador for the tour.

A morning flight took the group from Quito to San Cristobal, to San Cristobal Island, the Galapagos Islands, where they boarded a ship. The Galapagos are a series of rocky islands 2,000 miles off the coast of Ecuador known for their distinct natural species. "Each island landing we boarded a small raft/boat; some landings were wet landings and some were dry landings. Our landing on this afternoon: Cerro Brujo, San Cristóbal Island. This island is known for its roosting sites for brown pelicans, boobies and gulls. The next morning found them on Punta Suarez, Espanola Island. "This island is made up of black volcanic rock and has wildlife including the marine iguana, Española lava lizards, hood mockingbirds, swallow-tailed gulls, blue footed boobies and Nazca Boobies, Galápagos hawks, a selection of finch, and the waved albatross. There was a certain distance we were told to stay away from all of the islands' inhabitants, but most of the time we really couldn't avoid being within six feet of an inhabitant," she said.

The next morning's stop included a visit to the Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island and a visit with Lonesome George - the last known tortoise of his species. A stop later on Rabida Island impressed Drake with its red sand beaches. The master of the beach, she said, was a huge male sea lion leading his sea lion harem.

The trip ended with several days in Ecuador. Drake described the area of Otavalo as "touristy" with lots of shopping opportunities

"Although we were beat most days," Drake said. "I think the only way to see everything we saw is with a well-planned tour and to keep moving. There's a lot of travel involved to get to places like Machu Picchu and The Galapagos Islands, but it is all worth it. We really saw a lot of places in a short period of time. And," she added, "there's still a wealth of other things to see in the area like the Amazon River, the Nazca Lines and other pre-Columbian archaeological sites such as Caral and Chan Chan."

Editor's note: The Drake Family has not been known to take many relaxing vacations. Nicole Drake can recount vacations involving whirlwind tours of cities, battlefields, historic sites and multiple countries. This trip involved planes, trains, automobiles, buses, boats and hiking trails in addition to the historic sites and multiple countries. Nicole Drake is a graphic designer at The State Journal-Register, her brother, Nathan, is a research assistant; her father, David, is an attorney; and her mother, Cheryl, is a microbiologist.


Pisco Sour

  • 2 or 3 ice cubes
  • 3 parts Pisco
  • ½ part of gum syrup
  • 1½ parts lemon juice
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 - 2 tbsp sugar

Whip in a cocktail shaker or mixer. Shake well until ice is melted. Garnish with Angostura Bitters (optional).

- Source: www.piscomall.com


Story published Friday, September 5, 2008 ( Volume 3, Number 5 )

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