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.

 

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!”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

We’re back in the Berkshires after all of our travels; the snow is lovely and we know how lucky we are to be here in this beautiful place for the holidays.

Williams River, Massachusetts, after the December snow storm

Williams River, Massachusetts, after the December snow storm

Every day we realize how incredibly fortunate we are to have the chance to enjoy these fabulous travels and adventures.  We are so very grateful for our friends and our entire family, and especially for good health and for EACH OTHER!

Butternut Ski Basin

Butternut Ski Basin

Thanks to all of our friends and followers—there will be more travel adventures in the New Year.  But for now, we wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy and healthy 2014.

CHRISTMAS

WITH MUCH LOVE FROM ANITA AND RAY

Missing Barcelona

I’m not saying that we missed Barcelona—we definitely “hit” it.   But we miss it now.   What a wonderful city!  From the great public transportation, to the food, to the lively night life, to the architecture and design—we loved every minute.  Even though this was not our first time in Barcelona, it was the longest time we’ve stayed in the city, and we started to feel like we really know the place now.  But, of course, there are so many Barcelona’s.

We stayed in a small apartment that we were able to rent through a company called “Easy Flat Barcelona.”  They have several apartments for rent on a short-term basis –and this one was ideal.   Clean, comfortable, modern (except for an elevator straight out of Moulin Rouge) and right on La Rambla, just steps away from the Plaça Cataluña, the biggest crossroads of the city.   The apartment is one bedroom with a sofa-bed in the living room, which came in handy as our son joined us for a few days during our stay—that made it extra-special. We got lucky once again, and the October weather was mild.    We all were surprised by how crowded with tourists the city was, even during this “shoulder season.”  I guess there is really no slow period in this high-energy city.  www.easyflatbcn.com

We concentrated on Gaudi architecture this trip—visiting the Palau Guell, Guell Park, Gaudi’s futuristic sub-division that was too far ahead of its time to be successful,  and of course the “block of discord.”  We also visited the Sagrada Familia cathedral—Gaudi’s unfinished work that may be completed in our lifetimes—but perhaps not.  Unique in all the world, it’s a place that must be seen to be believed. Last spring we had visited the Cathedral as well, and the photos of the cathedral posted here are from that trip, when the weather was colder but clearer. This news program gives a great overview: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50142539n.

A highlight for us was a visit to the Caixa Forum, a terrific museum in a former Modernista warehouse.  It  was recommended to us by the Massachusetts neighbors we happened to bump into  in Palermo—great tip!   We would not have known that the Caixa was having a special exhibition of Pissarro’s works unless they’d told us.   It absolutely blew us away—67 beautiful Pissarro’s on exhibit, and the best examples of the artist’s work I’ve ever seen—just incredible.   If you are fond of impressionist, this exhibition alone would be worth a trip to Barcelona.aOne new experience was to visit Barcelonetta, the beach area that has enjoyed quite a renaissance in recent years.  Although no longer really beach weather, the promenade was still busy with people walking and cycling along the waterfront on a beautiful fall day.  We found a really great no-frills  restaurant there Bar Villoro—we chose it because it was the only one where lots of locals were dining—large groups of men eating and drinking and playing dominoes, business people having lavish lunches and wine, and we three American tourists.   I immediately started talking to the owner because his resemblance to my late Uncle Felipe was startling.   He assured me that all his family is in Barcelona, so he could not possibly be a long-lost relative.  But he took care of us as if he were.   We had some of the best rice dishes we’ve enjoyed in Spain.   A real feast as the photo will show.   Two bottles of wine and some after-dinner drinks too—it was a low-key day after that–we all needed a siesta!

Another memorable meal was at Les Quinze Nits on the Plaça Reial.   Every day when we were in the area, we saw the long lines to get in, but we managed to walk right in and get a prime table on November 1, since it was a holiday and the lunch crowd was late getting started.   Timing is everything!   We enjoyed a starter of mixed fried fish and seafood and two great entrees—one of hake and one of fresh tuna.   Now we know why people line up.  We had a great three-course lunch with wine in an ideal location for 45 Euros!   Quite a bargain, and the food lived up to the hype.

We did our share of tapas crawls in the evenings as well.  A couple of our favorites were Basque-themed.   Even in independent and proud Cataluña, the Basque style of cooking and eating has caught on.  You can imagine the craziness on the streets—especially on LaRambla, for Halloween.   Another  post will include a video of a bicycle “parade” –shaky as it is while being jostled  and almost knocked down in the festivities.

On the day we visited the Palau Guell, one of Gaudi’s first significant architectural achievements, we walked the couple of blocks from our place and walked through the incredible building—just the beginning of a career that would transform Barcelona.   The whimsical chimney decoration on the roof is that last part of the tour, and we were lucky enough to time it perfectly with a gorgeous sunset over the city—better to be lucky than clever.   We adore the photos from the rooftop.

The visit to Guell part was also great—although there was one unpleasant surprise.   It seems only a week before we arrived, the city started charging admission to enter this formerly-public park.   A huge mistake, I think.   We spoke to someone who told us that they receive 10 million visitorsto the park each year, and that the city was being greedy by closing most of the park to the public and charging admission, even to locals.   Even within the park itself, there are still rope lines and additional admission charges for certain buildings.   A real mess.  The lines were long, the staff disorganized and as confused as we were.   Hopefully, they will work these kinks out soon, or acquiesce to the local pressure to return the park to the public.

La Boqueria market adds yet another chapter of “food porn” to our collection.  What an amazing place to visit and to sample food from the many stands and booths serving everything you can imagine—hams, sausages, empanadas, seafood, sweets, the works.   A wonderland for foodies—and again, just steps from our door on La Rambla.

The best part for us, though, was being able to explore Barcelona with our son.  We’ve been traveling a long time, and were starting to miss the family.  Having one family member come to us was a wonderful treat!

From Barcelona, we picked up the Ryndam for our long slow trip back home.   Will 14 days on a ship be too much down time?    We’ll keep you posted.

Click on a thumbnail and use the arrow to scroll through the Barcelona pictures.

Sicily – Part two

The second part of our Sicily trip was a little more relaxed–at least until the volcano exploded.The previous post shows it on video.   From Syracusa to Taormina, the train ride was brief.  When we arrived at our hotel, high above the beaches we were surprised that our room didn’t have a sea view, since nearly everything faces the sea.  Then we realized that instead, we had a view of Mt. Etna.   Even better! http://www.continentaltaormina.com/uk/

There was an exquisite terrace and rear garden, with a gate leading to stairs that took us right to the Via Umberto, the main drag of Taormina.  It is an impossibly romantic city, something out of a fantasy.  We enjoyed a very fine dinner and as we were walking back, heard some great music drifting down from one of the steep side streets, then followed it.   A couple of cocktails and a beautiful setting, some nice people to chat with, good  music, what more could we want? How about an exploding volcano?  

We had already booked our bus trip to Mt. Etna the next day.   What we didn’t know yet, of course, was that it would erupt that very morning.   We could see the explosions all along the ride up, and when we stopped for a photo op, we were surprised that we could also HEAR them!    It sounded like an artillery range, and it was all very thrilling.   When we arrived at the 1900 meter station, we were told that the cable car to the crater could not run that day, of course, because of the explosions taking place.   But there was no problem hiking up the mountain.  So that’s what we did.

The hike was kind of steep and the terrain a little rough because it was so loose and slippery.  Ray described it as climbing a pile of cinders.  But we made it as high as 2400 meters, and were quite pleased with ourselves for our endurance and bravery!  Besides, we had to keep up the tradition of climbing something–a tower, an arena, a mountain—at least once each week.    It really wasn’t scary at all, and the locals are pretty blasé about the eruptions—it’s not all that uncommon.   Still, we felt so lucky to be able to see it happening.  Our dumb luck seems to be holding out.

Last stop in Sicily was Palermo.  We just had a day there before flying out to Barcelona.   The city itself was a bit of a shock to the system, noisy and crowded, even on a Sunday.  We knew that with limited time we should visit the Palazzo Dei Normanni and Cappella Palatina. It was worth the long walk through noisy streets, because the Chapel has some of the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics I have ever seen.   A really inspiring sight.

Now let’s talk about senior discounts.   In most of Europe, they offer discounts for “pensioners” –sometimes 60 and over, sometimes 65 and over.    But,  many places say that the discount is only for E.U. citizens.   In Sicily, we were incensed to read that the senior discount was for “EU citizens, Canadians, and Australians.”   It usually means a saving of 5 to 15 Euros per admission.   Why not US citizens, because they think we have too much money?   Haven’t they been reading the papers—don’t they know the US is broke and deeply in debt???   

So, occasionally Ray asks for the senior discount, and they refuse without proof of E.U. citizenship.  I told him to try saying he was Canadian or English.  (His Spanish and French would give him away.)    In Palermo, he tried this and received the 75 percent discount on his ticket.   We were satisfied, until we heard an American accent, standing just behind us on line, saying “I’m going to try saying that.”

Of course, Ray started up a conversation with him immediately, and asked, “Where are you from?”  Guess what the answer was?  “Great Barrington, Massachusetts.”     Two couples who lived about 5 minutes away from us, with some mutual friends.   We’ve even been to at least one party at the same time.   Why wouldn’t we go thousands of miles to meet new friends from the neighborhood?  

Check out the pics—especially the ones of the volcano, which I think are just beautiful.    Click on a thumbnail and then use the arrows to scroll through.