Monthly Archives: March 2014

Machu Picchu – finally!

Ten years ago, we had booked a trip to Machu Picchu.  We planned to hike the Inca trail to the site and stop in other Sacred Valley sites along the way.    That happened to be about the time that things took a turn, and economic “uncertainty” caused us to cancel the trip.   (No worries, they let us apply the deposit to a much more economical trip—and we ended up kayaking in the Sea of Cortez the following year—not too shabby!)   In any case, it took us these ten years to finally get to Machu Picchu, long near the top of our bucket list.

Since it is now ten years, one bad knee and one bad hip later, we didn’t hike the entire way on the Inca Trail.   We took the combination bus/train route from Cusco, and all of our hiking took place in the ruins themselves.   Perhaps it’s because getting here was a dream deferred, but it was magnificent, gorgeous, and almost overwhelming.    When we arrived it began to pour heavy rain, and we thought our good traveler’s luck had let us down.  But after the extremely scary bus ride in the rain from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu—about 20 minutes of sheer terror—we got to the gateway just as the clouds started to lift and the sun came out.

The astounding scenery of the cloud forest and the mysterious ‘lost city of the Incas,’ about which we still know very little, was well worth the wait.  No more chatter.  Just enjoy the photos.

Click on any image below and toggle through the slide show using the arrows.

 

Advertisements

High on Cusco

Even before the plane started its decent for Cusco, we could see the tops of mountains that appeared to be level with the airplane windows.   Everyone talks about how high it is in Cusco—but until you’re there, it’s just talk.  At 3,399 meters (11,152 feet), it’s about as high as we’ve ever been without ascending a mountain by trail or chairlift.   So many warned us about altitude sickness, but we both had barely any problem, aside from a little shortness of breath the first day and a mild headache. I had a prescription for Diamox, but decided not to take it after I read the contraindications.  We followed the popular advice for altitude sickness:

1 – drink plenty of water – check!

2–get enough rest and take naps – check!

3—drink lots of coca tea – check!

4—move a little slower – check!

5 – don’t drink alcohol…er…four out of five ain’t bad, right?

Our time in Cusco was brief but eventful.  We visited the Cathedral, and really enjoyed the leadership of Mario, a very knowledgeable local guide.  Wandering the town of Cusco itself was fun, in spite of having to thread through a gauntlet of locals hawking everything from tours to shoe shines, massages to banquets…tourism is big business in Cusco.

Speaking of business, I have to mention the Hotel Casablanca.  It is a very inexpensive budget hotel in a central locaction in the village of Cusco.  The rooms are clean and perfectly nice, with private baths, hot water, cable TV.  There was even a high-speed internet connection, something I never expected in a town where so many of the local people still dress in traditional costumes and carry heavy loads up and down the mountains on their backs.   At times it looks like it could be 500 years ago—and then somebody pulls out their iphone, and the illusion is broken.   The owner of the hotel, Juan, is in his 70’s and moves and speaks very slowly…but he is the most helpful person we’ve ever encountered in our travels.   Not only did he pick us up at the airport, he drove us around a bit first so that we’d have the lay of the land.  In addition to the usual advice about altitude, he had the staff carry our bags upstairs, even our day packs, lest we suffer from altitude sickness, and they immediately served us coca tea in our room.

On the day we traveled to Machu Picchu from Cusco, Juan checked our tickets to be sure we knew the how’s and where’s of getting there—Peru rail, combination train and bus.  Since there is more than one station in Cusco, and the arrangements can be complicated, he not only had a taxi waiting to take us to the station at 5:30 a.m, he was up waiting for us in the lobby, and accompanied us in the taxi to be sure we got off without any problems.  Really sweet!   When it was time to leave Cusco, his daughter, Rocio, checked on our flights and printed our boarding passes without our asking.   The staff brought us tea, water, and served a breakfast of our choosing each morning.   We really thought we felt like part of the family–this was a budget hotel with 5-star service.   http://www.booking.com/hotel/pe/casablanca.en-gb.html?aid=311984

We enjoyed lots of things about Cusco.   Not least was a fabulous dinner at Cicciolina, near the Cathedral.  Great service and outstanding cuisine at a fair price.

On the main avenue, Avenida del Sol, the  stonework of Qorinkancha, an ancient Inca temple once completely covered in gold, stands as the foundation of the church of Santo Domingo, built on the spot–after removing the gold, of course

We also love to visit markets, and the market of San Pedro is fascinating for the produce, meats, breads, cheeses, and for the native Andean people who bring their goods to sell there.   Watermelon is in season, and we saw people munching on big hunks of melon nearly everywhere we went.

Just strolling through the village was a lovely experience, with extraordinary views of the sky and mountains at every turn.  On our last day, we stopped for coffee at the Plaza de Armas, the main square where the Cathedral stands.   While we were sitting and sipping, there were two groups celebrating The International Day of the Woman.   One group gave out purple ribbons, carried purple balloons, and insisted in giving out “abrazos – gratis” (free hugs) to every woman they saw.   A little weird if you’re not accustomed to embracing strangers on the street.  The second group was a bit older on average, with about a 50/50 mix of modern and traditional native attire worn by the participants.   They played drums and carried signs protesting poor treatment of women and workers, as well as lies and corruption of government and politicians. I think they might be called “Occupy the Andes.”   It made for a colorful morning.

Of course, Cusco is the starting point for most people going to Machu Picchu, either by hiking trails, or by rails or roads.   That experience, and the corresponding photos, will have to wait for another post.  Enjoy the pics—click on one and toggle through using the arrows to see the slide show.

Once in love with Lima

(To view as a slide show, click on an image below and toggle through using arrows)


The first stop on our South American tour was Lima, Peru.We stayed in a small hotel in Miraflores, and having arrived very late at night, we had no idea that the city was such a roiling, bustling, crazy anthill. Thinking that we would move around town by foot or by public transportation, as we usually do, we found ourselves absolutely confounded by the bus system. There are private and public buses, electric buses, vans and mini-vans, and I am in awe of anyone who can figure out who goes where, when, and for what price. Intimidated, we walked in Miraflores instead, and when we went to central Lima, we took a taxi. We were happy to discover that: a) distances are far greater than one expects and b) taxies are dirt cheap. We had a great few days in Lima, and every person we encountered was friendly and helpful.
Why begin in Lima? We have always wanted to visit Machu Picchu, and so would have to fly into Lima before heading to Cusco and then Aguas Calientes in order to go to the famous site. But, to anyone who has met us, you will not be surprised to hear that the burgeoning culinary scene in Peru was an equally compelling reason to spend some time in the capital. It did not disappoint. Incredibly fresh ingredients, particularly seafood, can be found from the funkiest little café to the poshest “Nuevo Peruano” restaurant. We had three especially memorable meals. El Cordano was special just because of the location close to the government seat; an old, traditional bar/restaurant that has served every Peruvian President since independence. The typical Peruvian food was simple and very well prepared, and the vibe was a little like time traveling. Second, Huaca Pucllana restaurant, set right in the ancient ruins, was outstanding for the views alone. Although a little higher-priced than our usual haunts, to sit in this incredibly unique setting, a pre-Columbian restored adobe ceremonial center from Lima culture, dating back to 400 AD, was otherworldly. A little charred octopus while sitting among the ruins–why not? Last, and most memorable for me, was Pescados Capitales in the warehouse loft area of the Miraflores disctrict, where we had some of the best ceviche I’ve ever eaten. I will dream about the scallops, they were that good.
But we did more than eat and drink and walk our feet off while in Lima. Naturally, there are churches and cathedrals to visit. Two of the most important are the the Cathedral of Lima and the Iglesia Santo Domingo, where the first University in the Americas was founded, (sorry, William and Mary). The Cathedral, where construction began in 1535, is the place where conquistador Francisco Pizarro is interned, and where he was reunited with his head in the 1980’s—a pretty fascinating story. The crypts were deliciously creepy, and the cathedral quite lovely. The Iglesia de Santo Domingo and its priory, however, house the most important bones for Peruvian Catholics—the skulls of three saints—Santa Rosa de Lima, the first Saint to be canonized in the Americas, San Martín de Porres, the first African-American saint to be recognized by the Vatican, and San Juan Macías.
While visiting one of the two main squares in Lima, Plaza San Martín, we came upon a crowd of people carrying placards and demonstrating for workers’ rights. It was fun to hear the Peruvian version of the Internacional being sung in the square. Next we moved on to the Plaza de Armas, where the Cathedral, Government Palace, and Santo Domingo are all located. Distracted by the demonstrations at Plaza San Martín, we arrived too late to see the changing of the guard at the Palace. No problem—my new bff Percy Olazabal (yes, it’s a Basque name!) told us to come back at 6 en punto to see the guards march again for the lowering of the flag. After asking about our travels and hometowns, he posed, rifle at the ready, for a photo with me. Not something that would happen at the White House or Buckingham Palace, is it?
While in the Central part of Lima, we had to stop at the Hotel Bolivar, a grand old hotel, although its grandeur is a bit faded now. I remembered drinking Pisco sours there—too many Pisco sours—when I was barely out of high school. It was nice to go back and have another drink—this time just one—so many years later.
Our stay was perfect in Lima, if not a little too short. While strolling out to the beach area one morning, after asking directions of yet another friendly local who was so helpful he practically offered to carry us, Ray turned to me and said, “I’m in love with Lima!”