Three days in Cusco

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Tired, hungry and agitated, I stepped out of our plane into the high valley in the Andes mountains and immediately felt the crisp, thin air in my lungs. My flight weariness disappeared – I was now literally on top of the world. Welcome to Peru – welcome to Cusco.

Yes, obviously I did also start singing the opening number from “The Emperor’s New Groove” to my wife. Cuscooooooo…

At an elevation of 11,300 feet and surrounded by rolling hills of the Andes mountains, Cusco is unique among places I’ve visited. Its history is unique – the former capital of the Inca empire still features structures, roads and walls built centuries ago, some now capped by the architecture of the former Spanish Empire.

Historic sites

One of the more scenic sites include Plaza de Armas (pictured above), with its two Spanish cathedrals and central fountain dedicated to the greatest Inca emperor, Pachacuti. Nearby, you can walk down the narrow Hatun Rumiyoc, an original Inca street lined with an example of their mindblowing masonry – massive white granite cut to fit together so tightly, to paraphrase on of Pizarro’s conquistadors, you can’t fit a pin between the cracks. It’s a cool sight, but be forewarned, the street has been something of a tourist trap.

Other sites near the city center include Qorikancha, site of the Inca empires most sacred temple, razed by the Spanish and now the site of a Spanish mission. Sacsayhuaman sits atop a hill to the north of the city square, overlooking the entire valley. This site was the most important fortress of the Inca empire and saw the apex of a desperate skirmish between Inca and Spanish forces in 1536. Also, the name is Quechua for “the fortress of the satisfied falcon,” which is awesome. Due to unforeseen circumstances, however, we didn’t get to see either of these sites up close.

Instead, we found ourselves surrounded by 40,000 Peruvians celebrating the annual Corpus Christi festival, one of the most extravagant annual fiestas in all of Peru. We had no idea when we booked the trip that we would be in town during the annual Catholic festival, which comes complete with marching bands, elaborate processions, fanciful idols and revelers of all stripes. What a sight to see! The fortuitous turn more than made up for missing some of the historic sites.

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Changing for the Climate

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Two years ago, Taylor and I road tripped to Glacier National Park, on the northern U.S. border where cell phone reception doesn’t exist. In early June, the crowds were sparse, the wildlife was abundant, and the views were spectacular. It instantly became one of our favorite destinations.

Yet, in the week we spent hiking up, down and around the mountains, lakes and waterfalls, we saw just one of the park’s eponymous glaciers. To do that, we had stay at a lodge at the heart of the park, boat across a lake, hike a quarter mile to a higher lake, then boat to the other side. After all that, we finally could see through the early summer fog the Salamander Glacier clinging to the backbone of the continent. An incredible sight, undoubtedly, but as our boat captain pointed out, one that was more than  20% larger just twenty years ago and in another twenty may be gone completely.

When Glacier National Park was dedicated in 1910, it featured nearly 150 alpine glaciers, but 2014 estimates now put that number at just 25. Almost assuredly, my children will be visiting a glacierless national park, and much of the plant and animal life dependent on the glaciers to regulate the high climate will have no place left to go.

Since that trip I’ve not thought much about glaciers, humanity’s carbon footprint or the resulting accelerated climate change we’re causing. Every time I read an article or dig out from another massive snow storm, I feel like it’s such a huge problem I can do nothing about. Some people even think our impact is closing in on – or even past – the point of no return. Not to mention, multitudes of people stand to gain from misinforming and obfuscating the seriousness of the issue, and even those who agree on the causes can’t agree on the remedies. But last year’s historic Paris accord, which requires nearly every nation to drastically reduce its carbon emissions, got me interested again. If even the United States government can get in line with the rest of the world to combat climate change, then surely I could do my part. So how do I begin to make smart decisions for mitigating our damage?

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Antelope Canyon

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Earlier this summer, Taylor and I were lucky enough to tour one of the craziest natural wonders in the United States. Just outside of Page, AZ near Lake Powell, a slot canyon runs underground through Navajo sandstone and has recently become a photographer’s dreamscape. We are not photographers, per se, but even we were able to get some cool photos from our hike through the canyon. The canyon is divided into two sections: the wider and shallower Upper Antelope Canyon, and the longer, narrower Lower Antelope Canyon. We hiked through the Lower portion:

Lower Antelope Canyon is an incredible place to walk or photograph. The patterns on the wall give the entire length a look of constant motion.  At the base of the canyon, the sky is only occasionally visible through the cracks 120 feet up. The smooth lines of the canyon are carved by flash-flood rainwater rushing through at high speeds. Our guide said the canyon can fill to the top with rushing water at a minute's notice. A nice opening here. The Lower Canyon can get very narrow at points. We had to squeeze through a couple times! Red, orange, yellow, purple, grey, pink - all from various angles of light hitting the sandstone. Some photos are deceiving. The canyon is almost 120 ft. deep and more than 1,300 ft. long. Some areas are more jagged than others, in the processed of being smoothed out by sand and rushing water. The tour guides are well versed in the right camera settings to capture shots like these, taken on a point-and-shoot Canon. This particular formation is said to look like the head of a Navajo chief. The canyon looks different depending on what time of day you tour. Clearly, we happened to catch a great time! No Photoshop required.
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The canyon looks different depending on what time of day you tour. Clearly, we happened to catch a great time! No Photoshop required.

Even though we had just been at the Grand Canyon a few days before, this place sort of blew our minds. Go while you can, however – it’s getting more crowded every year. The Navajo nation owns the Antelope Canyon and won’t let anyone go in without a guide, because they are trying valiantly to preserve it and protect people who want to see it (it’s a fairly dangerous place!). According to our tour guide, the canyon became a high-traffic destination in the last decade thanks to digital photography. In 2011, a photographer sold a photo of the canyon for $6.5 million, which currently holds the record for world’s most expensive photograph. None of our photos are probably worth seven figures, but the experience alone was worth a million dollars.