Peru: Photographing The Mystical Highlands of the Inca and Managing at Altitude

What I Know

Without having any conscious influences from or about it during my childhood, I had always longed desperately to go to Peru.  There was always something about this magical place calling me; summoning me in an ancient, mystical way. I liken it to the pilgrimage that salmon make back to their place of birth, compelled by a force unseen and unknown.  Peru was to become one of the homes on this earth for my soul and one of my favorite places to photograph.

What I learned

Munay = Love

Munay (Quechua) is the essence of Peru as Aloha is the essence of Hawai'i.  

Here are a couple of MUST-SEE spots on your trip to Peru.  Make sure your itinerary includes them:

  1. Moray Temple of Fertility - the mere scale of these breath-taking temples are worth the visit.  Massive terraced concentric circles delve into the earth hundreds of feet down.  It is a workout to hike into, then back out of, the largest primary temple (pictured below) so be prepared.  I truly love this site.  Make time to sit in one of the quiet satellite temples and meditate there.  The lines and shadows at this site make it an excellent place to photograph.
  2. Machu Picchu - If you go to Peru and don't go to Machu Picchu, you don't deserve to travel ever again!  Take a full day, or even a second day so that you can really explore the intricacies of this magnificent site.  Go up to the top of Wayna Picchu for sure and pack lightly.  A wonderful view of the Sacred Valley and beyond can be viewed from the top.  If you do have a second day, arrive early and get an entry ticket to go to the Templo de Luna (Temple of the Moon).  You'll descend down a wonderful stone carved staircase all the way into a new ecosystem.  Suddenly, near the bottom you find yourself in the jungle and may even spot monkeys.  Walk quietly, and consciously, in order to see what others will miss out on.  Find the Temple of the Moon and enjoy the sacred serenity of this ancient ceremonial site.  The town near Machu Picchu is called Aguas Calientes.  It is a massive tourist hell, however, there is a beautiful restaurant refuge that may in fact be the best food experience you have in Peru.  It is called Indio Feliz and it is run by a classically trained French chef who combines his culinary expertise with local ingredients.  Go early or you will not get a table....and bring your business card.  You'll see why.
  3. Ollantaytambo - Also known as Ollantay (o-yan-tai) by locals, this jewel of a city has some of the best little dusty shops to find strange old shamanic relics and stones.  The Temple of the Four Winds is a beautiful site and is right there in the town.  I stayed both visits at the Hotel Munay Tica, a lovely, rustic affordable little hotel run by a powerful female shaman.  It is located away from the Plaza de Armas and is very quiet.  Ollantaytambo is a great transition stay either before or after Machu Picchu due to its location.  The VistaDome train runs from there directly to Aquas Calientes.  If possible, take the hike (or horseback ride) up to Puma Marca.  If you can arrange it, this is an ideal place to experience a shamanic ceremony with the indigenous plant medicines (either San Pedro or Ayahuasca).
  4. Cusco - Schedule at least one entire day (though I recommend two) to explore the "Navel of the World".  Of all the cities in the world I have ever visited, Cusco is my favorite.  Your shopping list could include artwork, crystals, and well-made alpaca clothing.  Definitely visit the Coca Shop up the hill in San Blas.  Other must-see stops: Qorikancha (Temple of the Sun) and the Shaman Market near Plaza San Francisco.  The most fun you will have is wandering around, exploring little alleyways and shops.  There is nowhere on earth quite like it and a prime city for street photography.
  5. Lake Titicaca -The Uros Islands (man-made reed islands) are fascinating, and the average traveler will be intrigued by the lifestyle of the Uros people.  Crossing into Bolivia and into Copacabana where you can charter a boat to the Island of the Sun is a must but is only for the hard core traveler.  By this point in your trip, you will know how well prepared you were for the altitude.  IF poorly prepared (or not in perfect health), you will be in some serious discomfort (See my prep guide below).  Stay at the Ecolodge La Estancia.  It isn't cheap but you will experience eco-luxury, solar power and hot water, amazing coffee and a one-of-a-kind view of Lake Titicaca with the backdrop of the magnificent Andes Mountains of Bolivia.  At the lodge you can request a ceremonial blessing by the local shaman.  Make sure you stop in the town of Copacabana as it is the least expensive place to buy alpaca blankets.  That is the single greatest gift to bring someone home from your journey.

During my two separate month-long visits to Peru, I gradually discovered more and more intelligent ways to deal with the well known challenges associated with the altitude.  Here are the secrets to my success.  

  1. Preparations (Pre-arrival): I use a supplement that can be bought online or at most health food stores called Chloroxygen.  It is a concentrated chlorophyll liquid administered by a dropper that is added to water.  It doesn't need to be refrigerated and travels very well.  I recommend starting a regimen with this product (according to the instructions on the bottle) up to one month before you arrive in Peru and continue during your trip.  Chlorophyll has similar properties to human hemoglobin and will assist in increasing red blood cell count, which will in turn help you acclimate to the altitude.  Also, the simple and ancient yogic technique of patting your thighs with your palms works to stimulate red blood cell production naturally.  The femur is the largest bone in the body and the most prolific source in the manufacturing of red blood cells.  Do this technique for three minutes, twice per day for one month prior and throughout your travels.
  2. The typical local methods (Post-arrival): coca tea and coca leaves.  Coca tea is served at every restaurant and hotel throughout the altiplano, the highlands of Peru, the Sacred Valley, and is somewhat effective in varying degrees.  While made from the infamous Coca plant, the unprocessed form of this mysterious and controversial herb produces a calming, grounding effect.  Taken whole, the dried leaves are chewed and stored in the cheek for as long as desired.  Spiritually, it is an ancient way to connect to the land and to begin to open your intuition for ceremony and vision quests.
  3. Homeopathic Coca Drops (gotas homeopáticas de coca) - I didn't discover this method until my second visit and the impact overall was very positive.  Procurement of this item is the only downside.  While there are more and more Homeopathic Pharmacies (farmacía homeopática) in Peru each year, and most of them will be able to provide this product, they are still limited in number.  To my knowledge, Cusco does not have one.  There are quite a few in Lima, however, and if your journey is going to begin there, I would make one your first stop.  
  4. Get in shape.  That's right.  Exercise, practice yoga and get fit.  When ascending Wayna Picchu or returning from the descent from The Temple of the Moon (Templo de Luna) you will be thankful.  The best photographers are not only lucky.  They are well prepared and will go to extreme measures for a great photograph.

In truth, the longing I felt as a child is still nested in my heart.  Despite having immersed myself into the land and culture of Peru, I am called back constantly. The desire to breathe in the Andean air and touch the masterfully carved stones, to feel their stories in my palms, burns strongly inside me in this very moment. 

           The story continues. Each image below reveals a tale.  Mouse over the image when enlarged for the story.

What I Saw