Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lord of the Hand Dance

More fun in viral video land.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Pic of the day

Face to face with my dinner, a deep fried guinea pig.  They are called cuy in Peru and are widely eaten everywhere.  We once walked through a street fair with about 50 booths, all with several cooked cuy front and center on display to lure in passerby's.  We went to a nice restaurant for ours (David ate alpaca but it wasn't much of a photo op), although I bet the street fair ones would have tasted better.  Being deep fried, I can't comment much on taste, it was very greasy and had the consistency of chicken.  Not good, but not bad either.  It's the teeth that get me though.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Everything good must come to an end...

Our last early morning bus ride.  Though perhaps nostalgic, we went with the cheap option ($9 for a five hour ride) that left 90 minutes earlier, so it was also the least comfortable of our Peru busses, although still arguably better than most of the busses we took in Central America.  We are now back in Lima, just waiting for our 12:30am flight tonight to LAX, with a layover in Mexico City.

We had planned to see some museums (there is an old convent literally decorated with artistically arranged human bones from the catacombs), but David woke up feeling a bit ill, so we´ve just kept close to the hostel today.  We did go out for lunch, where I finally was able to order anticuchos, which is beef hearts cooked on a skewer.  They were delicious!  I expected such a strong muscle to be tough, but it was actually very tender.

Lima is grey and foggy, which is typical for this time of year.  We were just lucky that we had so much sunshine when we first came through.  But we are enjoying the coolness, as Las Vegas is forcasted to be 110 degrees tomorrow.  Welcome home!

This afternoon on TV we watched the second Harry Potter in spanish.  We had seen the first one months ago as well.  Kids movies in spanish, especially one you`ve seen before, isn`t a bad way to practice the language.  Unfortunately, Harry Potter has all that dang magic language, making it a poor choice I suppose.  Still it was that or Law and Order, and I can´t watch that show no matter how desperate I am for something to do.  And it was even in english!

We are both a little shell shocked that we are actually coming home.  With unlimited money and a ticket to another country, we could easily stay out longer.  But truth be told, we are also ready to come home.  I keep talking other people out here into becoming a nurse (best career ever), and I don´t mind saying I miss it.  Also I´m ready to play with all those neices and nephews at home, including a brand new baby girl I´ll get to meet tomorrow!  I don´t know where we are going to end up, we´ve got six cities on our possibilities list, but I do plan on sending out applications right away and we´ll see who wants to hire me.  Let me know if you know someone who is a nurse recruiter, or a nurse who works in the OR or oncology, which are the two specialties I am most interested in pursuing at the moment.  You never know where a job might come from!

Once I get home and start getting organized again, I´ll start posting pictures from Peru, and maybe get some Top Ten type lists or something like that up.  I´m sure going through all those pictures is going to bring back a lot of memories.  Cancun was only six months ago, but it seems so much longer, we have really managed to do a lot in these six months!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

An oasis in the desert

For only the fourth time on our trip, we decided to take a night bus onward from Arequipa.  We were loathe to miss the amazing coastal desert scenery that we had enjoyed so much on the way in, but we were anticipating close to a 15 hour bus ride, and we hate arriving in new cities late at night, when things are more dangerous, more expensive, and hostels have a way of being already full.  So at 6:45pm we were all ready to go, even though the bus didn´t even arrive until a half hour after we were supposed to leave.

One thing I don´t think I´ve mentioned about the busses in Peru.  Just before they leave the station, a guy goes around with a video camera and makes a record of everyone on board.  This is sold as a safety measure, but when you start thinking about the implications it gets a little macabre.  We had, on the way to Colca Canyon, passed the beat up remains of a bus that had gone over the edge of the road, coming to rest on a switchback far below, conveniently in total view of traffic.  As we all craned our necks to see the twisted wreckage, our tour guide had been dismissive.  "Don´t worry, they were very lucky.  Only four people died."

So, all safe now that our faces were identifiable on video, our bus finally set off.  The busses in Peru are also kind enough to show movies, usually in Spanish but if they notice a gringo they will turn on the English subtitles.  The first movie they showed starred John Travolta and Robin Williams taking care of a couple of kids for a week.  Or something like that, it was hard to tell because though she did turn on the subtitles, and they were even in English, they were actually for the directors commentary.  So while we are listening to the spanish trying to figure out what is going on, the subtitles, which were impossible to ignore, are saying things like "Oh, I remember the day we shot this scene, Rita Wilson came up to me and asked if her character could have a lazy eye!".  It was generic enough we could sort of follow it, but eventually we just gave up and I started reading "Captains Courageous", which I picked up in Costa Rica for a moment just as this.  When the next movie started, I guess she felt we weren´t paying attention anyway, so she didn´t even bother to turn on the subtitles.  By now I was tired of reading, so tried in vain to watch a super weird movie where Steve Zahn and his girlfriend go camping on some Hawaiian island with several groups of people who may or may not be nefarious killers.  It was all very ominous, but in spanish kind of ridiculous, and the "twist ending" that I was able to grasp in two seconds not understanding a word played out for another fifteen minutes.  But I will be thankful that we weren´t treated with a repeat viewing of "Mandy and the Secret Tunnel" or "Cheetah Girls II", both of which we´ve seen on other busses.

Amazingly, we both slept, something we´ve been unable to do on other night busses.  Figures that just as we figure out the trick we are ready to head home.  In any case, we were shaken awake at about 6:00 am, a good three or four hours earlier than we had been expecting.  We sleepily grabbed our stuff and stumbled off the bus into the waiting arms of a trio of taximen, all desperate for our fare.  We just followed the first guy we saw, even as the others tried to undercut his price to steal us away, something I haven´t seen anywhere else.  We took us right to the hotel we wanted to stay in, and luckily they had a room open for us, and we fell back into bed for a few more hours.

We had arrived in Huacachina, an oasis surrounded by gigantic sand dunes.  The small lake (large pond?) used to be a resort town for the well to do Peruvians, but these days it serves local Peruvians and backpackers alike.  (It is even featured on the back of the S/50 bill.)  We first, of course, had to hike the big hill beside us, which was already spilling into the back of the property.  I really don´t understand how the town hasn´t just been covered by the sand several times over.  The wind blows, and the nature of sand dunes is to move with the wind.  The town is completely surrounded by the dunes, which on two sides come literally to and even over the edge of fences and roads, then climb steeply to the peak.  There is no way even a team of bulldozers could do anything about moving that much sand even if they wanted to.  But such is the nature of existence in countries like this.  You do what you can until you finally just can´t anymore.  No sense worrying about the inevitable, it will come when it comes.

We climbed up to the first peak, which even back at sea level was exhausting in the slippery sand, one step back for every two steps forward.  But what a view we were rewarded with, an endless sea of sand in one direction, the large city of Ica peeking out over the dunes in the other.  There were dune buggies full of tourists in the distance skidding madly over the sand, and what seemed mostly like local kids trekking up to the top to ride down again on modified snow boards.  We just sat and watched for a while, because children tumbling down steep sandy inclines is surprisingly entertaining.

We had two full days in Huacachina, and mostly we just chilled out.  While we have loved every second of the adventure we´ve been having, there also comes a time when it is nice to just rest!  We did take a tour of a couple of wineries, as this is a large wine center for Peru.  The grapes were not in season, but still it was interesting to see the old time wine presses, and hear about the technology used to make the wine.  I´m just a not-so-closeted nerd, and I´m always fascinated by how things get made.  Our cab driver who took us out kept up a steady stream of random conversation, and though it took great effort I was glad I was able to keep up with him.  We also both got massages.  I´ve been trying to do this since Guatemala, but there was always a reason not to, either it was too expensive or there was something else I wanted to do more.  Or, in the case of Cusco, it seemed like accepting an invitation for a massage might lead you to a whorehouse.  See, my very first massage was by an old, fat woman who might as well been named Olga.  She was no-nonsense and strong and gave me an incredible massage.  So when companies hire anemic looking skinny model waifs to advertise for them, well, lets just say that does not send the kind of message I want to hear.  But I took the plunge here, and my masseur turned out to be a big burly man, a pile of greasy curls tied into a ponytail.  He spoke English though, and though he looked like Rambo it turned out he had been trained at an Elizabeth Arden spa in Virginia.  It was terrific, and even though I tipped him 40%, the hour massage only cost me about $12.  Perfect.

Something to mention, in Central America I think most people assumed we were Americans.  Here though, everyone thinks we are Dutch.  The blonde hair I guess?  When we correct them they are always very surprised, which is confusing because we´ve met far more tourists here from the US than we ever did in Central America.  I assume it has something to do with our backpacks, that we are clearly not just here for a week as are most Americans.  Still it cracks me up.

The other thing is the fútbol, or soccer.  It is all anyone talks about here, and as soon as I do tell people I´m from the US they go into some big monologue about our soccer team.  The only reason I have any awareness of it at all is due to people´s status updates I keep seeing on Facebook talking about the games (and bad referees), but I don´t have any real understanding of how well we are actually doing.  So I just smile and let them go on, not really understanding but they seem to enjoy having a little bonding moment with a real live American.  Amazing how cross-culturally universal sport is.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Flight of the Condors

We arrived in Arequipa late, after a handful of typical delays (leaving late, stopping at random stops to pick up extra passengers, getting stopped by the police, detours and outright stops for road work) to find that the person from the hostel was still waiting for us.  Even better, she was patient and helped us figure out our plans in Arequipa so we could buy our bus ticket onward before we even left the bus station.

We stayed at Marlon´s House, a sister hostel to the one we had stayed at in Puno, and if the building wasn´t quite as new, the staff was just as friendly and showers just as hot.  Which, when it comes down to it, is all I really need.  I´ve had it with cold or, sometimes even worse, lukewarm showers.

The next morning we were up for a 2:30am pickup for a tour out to Colca Canyon, a six hour ride away.  There is some dispute between what the tour guide told us and what our guidebooks say, but I´m going to go out on a limb and say that Colca Canyon is the deepest canyon in the world, at something like 13,400 feet deep, more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US.  I guess there is something deeper in Nepal, but it is considered a gorge, not a canyon, or something like that.

After a few innocuous stops for stretches and snacks and plenty of chances to buy souveniers, we finally came to the point.  We got out of the van, hearing we had just missed them, but as soon as David and I situated ourselves on the lookout we saw them - the amazingly huge Andean Condors.  With a wingspan of between 9 and 11 feet (!), they were easily spotted as they rose out of the depths of the canyon and began making lazy circles first below then over us.  They gave us a show for almost 45 minutes, and we saw at least seven of them, males and females.  Truly spectacular.

The canyon, though far deeper, isn´t as picturesque as the Grand Canyon.  It just doesn´t have all the nooks and crannies, or that beautiful desert asthetic.  But the old Incan terracing, still used by locals for agriculture, was still impressive and we took quite a few photos. 

We made several more stops along the way home, giving no attention at all to the locals who had captured birds of prey (owls and eagles but no condors at least) hoping tourists would pay for a photo.  We did try some local cactus fruit, which though very seedy sort of tastes like kiwi, one of the more tasty fruits we´ve tried down here.  For lunch our tour bus took us to a typical tourist buffet, but David and I knew we could do better than $7.50 each so took off wandering the town.  We finally found a place and had a 3-course meal for less than a dollar each.  Granted, they were out of the two things we could read from the menu, so we had no idea what we eventually ordered, both of which turned out to be filling if unexciting.  (I THINK mine was pork.)  But still we felt proud of ourselves.  I´m very interested to weigh myself when I get home, my pants are all hanging off of me so I´m pretty sure I´ve lost a fair amount of weight, but without effort as I´ve never gone to bed hungry.  I think I´m just not stuffing myself like I would at home, and we have far less desserts.  I guess that is all it takes!

Along the way home we saw plenty of wild llamas and alpacas and vicunas, and stopped at another high pass, at 16,100 feet, where we built a little stone tower and made a wish.  (No, I´m not telling or it won´t come true!)  By this point we are pretty well used to the altitude.  Still, we knew it was downhill from here on out and were happy about that.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fact: No matter how many times you say it, Titicaca never stops being funny!!

The problem is, apparently, that I am a five year old at heart, because I cannot, CANNOT, say Lake Titicaca without taking a moment to giggle to myself.  But, in my defense, the lake is called Titicaca for crying out loud!

We arrived in Puno after a surprisingly comfortable bus ride, where we met Linda, a retired nurse from Seattle.  She was travelling with a tour group also on our bus, but apparently we were far more interesting (or, given what she told us about herself, more likely she was) and we chatted for quite a while about her work and world travels.  To get to Lake Titicaca (HAHA) from Cusco, we crossed a pass that put us at 4335 meters, which according to the online converter is 14,222 feet and 5.29 inches.  Whew!

Before we left a tout had approached us in the bus station to sell us a hotel in Puno, and it was a relief to get off the bus and find a woman with our names on a sign.  She took us to the hotel, which was new and therefore desperate for business, so gave us a lovely room with a view of Lake Titicaca (snort) and a private bathroom for only S/40, or about $14.  Puno is the largest town on Lake Titicaca (giggle), and is the jumping off point for the areas attractions, so has a fairly decent tourist scene.  We had been warned that Puno wasn´t much of an attraction in itself, but David and I found it charming and quaint.  Our first order of business was getting some food, where I got a huge bowl of wanton soup, and as if that hadn´t completely filled me up, they then gave me a huge plate of chicken fried rice.  The local food here might not be the best I´ve had, but it is solid and filling, and that huge meal cost me all of $2.  We then walked through town, where we found a huge wall full of murals, which I always love.  These were funny though, in that the top panels were all scenes of war and fighting, while the bottom panels were of Donald Duck and the Little Mermaid.  What a contrast!

The next day we took a full day tour out to the islands.  We would have preferred to go out on our own, but with our limited time the tour let us see more than we could have managed otherwise.  And it actually turned out to be quite pleasant.  First up, we took a 45 minute or so boat ride to the famous floating islands.  Hundreds of years ago, a tribe of people wanted to get away from the warring tribes along the banks of Lake Titicaca (tee hee), so utilized a reed that grows in abundance on the lake, and which, conveniently, floats.  Bundled into platforms two meters thick, the "island" lasts for years, with new reeds laid down on top every two weeks to replace the ones rotting away at the bottom.  Each island was big enough for a couple of small houses, a kitchen, and a large flat area in the middle (for the tourists to sit).  In fact the islanders have since traded fishing for tourism as their main source of income, but if the visit was 100% staged and circusy, it was still fascinating to see such a different way of life.  (When we left, they all waved and cried "Hasta la vista, baby!"  Sigh.)  Besides building with the reeds, the islands also use them for weaving, and even for eating!  They call them the "bananas of the islands", although I can assure you they taste NOTHING like bananas.  Maybe celery.

Our boat had dropped us off at one of the islands, and then we were able to board a traditional boat made of the same reeds for a short row over to another island.  Though these boats are no longer made with only traditional materials (the bottom was, we were told, filled with empty water bottles for buoyancy), it was this style of boat that Thor Heyerdahl once sailed from the coast of Chile out to Easter Island, to give credence to his theory that Easter Island had been populated from the East and not from the West as had most of the other South Pacific isles.  In fact people from Titicaca (hehe) helped him build his boat.  Kon Tiki is the name of the book he wrote, which I would highly recommend.

We then had a three hour ride to the island of Taquile.  The island is covered in pre-Incan terracing, and has fantastic views across to the mountains in Bolivia.  It was hard to tell which was bluer, the water or the sky.  Titicaca (HA!) is divided between Peru and Bolivia, and the Peruvian guides like to say that Peru owns the Titi half, and Bolivia the caca.  I wish I could have gotten a Bolivians opinion on that, but again, the $140 visa was a deterrant for a day trip over.

We ate lunch at a local restaurant (fried lake trout and the delicious coca and mora tea) where they did some traditional dancing for us, and even pulled up yours truly to help with a sort of conga line/square dance section.  After we ate, we walked through the town and eventually back to the boat for the ride back to Puno, where we bid a very fond and touching farewell to the big, blue, and awesomely named Lake Titicaca.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cusco and our energy

Our three days "stranded" in Cusco went pretty smoothly.  There was a big protest march the first day of the strike, with various groups of people seemingly protesting different things.  There were thousands of protesters marching up and down the streets, but it was all rather orderly, with huge sections of people holding signs and yelling slogans and all marching in neat single file up the street.  There were random piles of rocks to prevent people from driving, and once we saw a lone tire rolling down the street with no indication of where it had come from.

Most shops and tourist-oriented stores were closed, or at least it seemed that way at first.  The more we walked around, we would see the souvenier shops cautiously open their metal rolling doors part way, only to shut them again as soon as any of the protesters got near.  With some good timing, we were able to get into some and do a little shopping, although we got trapped in a few, having to wait until the protesters were safely past before we were allowed out again.

But that was just during the day.  In the evenings, all those same people were still out in the streets, but in colorful costumed parades instead.  Where the last time we were in Cusco we saw what seemed to be the dance recital for every young girl in Peru, this time we saw the exact same thing but for all the boys.  They were all dressed in various colorful traditional costumes, which we started to recognize after a while.  The youngest boys went first, and as the evening progressed the boys got older and more talented.  The favorite dance for them seemed to be the one where two boys would face off with long whips, and they would take turns taking swipes at their partners legs.  It clearly hurt, but not enough to stop being fun apparently as they all went at it with gleeful abandon.

We were able to walk just out of town to visit two nearby ruins, including the zigzag terraces of Sacsayhuaman (which everyone refers to as "sexy woman"), and another with a small cave just a few minutes farther out.  At that one, we were approached by a young man who told us he was just four weeks away from becoming a full-fledged shaman in his village, where his family had been shamans for generations.  He seemed quite proud of this, and asked us if we believed in "the energy".  He spoke in fairly decent english, although his choice of words sometimes made it hard to understand exactly what he meant.  I was intrigued by his teeth, several of which were, well I don´t know exactly how describe it, even though we´ve seen it on a few people.  It is like the teeth are outlined in silver, like with a perfect silver frame around the otherwise still white tooth.  It is really a frame, or is it a crown?  I don´t know, but it is a very unusual, interesting look.  Anyway, despite his interesting teeth, we were naturally reluctant to engage him at first, assuming he had an alterior motive.  But he assured us he just wanted to talk and did not want any money.  He had David put his hand on his heart and take a few deep slow breaths.  Just as David exhaled the last time, a beautiful falcon flew out of nowhere to land in a tree nearby.  The shaman smiled and told David this was a good sign and that he had very strong energy.  He had me put my hand on my navel and breathe, and although I didn´t conjure up an animal spirit guide, he still told me I also had good energy and added that I was in excellent health.  Afterwards he wished us well and just walked away, I´m still not quite sure why he had decided to approach us.  I guess he was just drawn to our strong energy!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Back to Cusco with a sweet old grandmother

Our next plan was to retrace our steps along the rail tracks, back to the town of Santa Teresa.  Though backtracking often seems to take longer than it did the first time around, we were still so high after our visit to Machu Picchu that our step must have been a little livlier, because we made it back to the train station, about 12 kilometers away in just two hours.  There we found a mini-van that wanted to take us back to Cusco for about $12, which would have been a good deal, but with our achy bones and muscles we wanted to stop in Santa Teresa, which the guidebook promised had a spectacular set of hot springs.  Not finding any other transportation, we just kept walking, another eight kilometers along a hot, dusty road.  Along the way we passed several groups of people walking the opposite direction towards Aguas Calientes, and we stopped and swapped info.  Thus we got a recommendation for a guesthouse and a restaurant in Santa Teresa, which we went straight to as soon as we arrived in town.  My lunch was particularly delicious.  For an appetizer I had a half an avacado, stuffed with pieces of carrot, green beans, cauliflower and tomato in some kind of mayonaise sauce.  It was soooo good.

After we ate, we went back to the hotel to pack up our swim suits, and on the way out asked the proprietor where the best place to find a cab would be to take us the couple of kilometers out of town to the hot springs.  He just looked at us sadly and said, "Oh, those washed away during the floods in January."  What?!?!  This was terrible news indeed, since we had just walked 20 kilometers specifically to come here FOR the hot springs.  But what can you do?  We adjusted our plans, and spent a pleasant evening walking around the small town.

The next day we got in a shared taxi to take us back to the town of Santa Maria, where we were going to catch a bus to Ollanta, a town in the Sacred Valley with some Incan ruins of its own.  A young man that shared our taxi struck up a conversation, one of the most satisfying conversations I´ve been able to carry out completely in Spanish.  He said his main job was as a nurse, but that he also worked as some kind of engineer.  After a while we mentioned we were heading to the Sacred Valley, and he said "Well don´t forget about the strike."  What?!?!  He elaborated that for the next two days there was going to be a transportation strike that would completely shut down all roads in the region.  We really wanted to see the ruins at Ollanta, but we knew it was a small town and did not want to be stranded there for three nights.  So once again we adjusted our plans, and in Santa Maria booked a ticket all the way back to Cusco.

The bus was full and we were very lucky that we were able to get two seats together, albeit in the very back row of the bus.  In front of us was sitting a kindly looking grandmother type, with grey hair and several missing teeth, who kept looking back and smiling at me.  She finally picked up a small package, a plastic shopping bag that was all taped up shut, and made to hand it to me.  She was saying something, but in a near whisper, making it impossible for me to understand what she wanted me to do.  Finally I heard the word "mochilla", which means backpack, so I confusedly started looking around for something that might be her luggage, when she gave up and turned back around.  David and I just shrugged.  A few minutes later we stop, and several policemen board and start searching the bus!  They smiled at us, barely checking under our seats for whatever it was they might be looking for.  But they were a little more thorough with others, and were looking around all the luggage in the overhead compartments, although oddly they didn´t actually open up any bags.  After they had worked their way up to the front of the bus, suddenly people all around us started pulling out taped up bags they had been sitting on and handed them back to the sweet old grandmother!  I have no idea what was in the bags, but for once I was glad for my lack of Spanish, which saved me from being the smuggling grandmothers mule.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Machu Picchu, a dream come true

You could blame it on the altitude, or the loud noises coming through the window from the train yard, or just the fact that we were about to do something we´ve been dreaming and talking about for years and years, but we were both wide awake long before the alarm went off at 4am.  We were dressed and standing in line by 4:30am, behind about 75 people even more hard core than we were.  At 5:30 we boarded a bus which whisked us the eight or so kilometers up the mountainside to the front gate of Machu Picchu.

I can´t even describe how excited we were.  We stumbled up a stone staircase and onto the first sets of terraces.  We cleared a corner around a stone hut and suddenly there she was, looking just like in the classic photograph.  Ruins on a hill surrounding a wide green plaza (with llamas!), with the peak of Wayna Picchu looming in the background.  We were out of breath from the hike and the altitude, but just being here was enough to take your breath away.

Being so early was deliberate, though surprisingly isn´t for the sunrise.  With the high mountains all around, though it was light by 6am when the front gates opened, the sun doesn´t actually clear the mountain tops until well after 7, so most people make it for that.  But to hike the peak of Wayna Picchu, you have to be one of the first 400 people to request a ticket, and we didn´t want to miss it.  We got a ticket in the 10am slot (the first group goes at 7) which was perfect, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the sunrise and just look around for a while.  We hiked along a few of the Incan trails (there are eight leading to the site from various directions, cutting across the mountainsides around us) and saw a version of an Incan drawbridge on one.

The peak of Wayna Picchu, which is about 1200 feet higher than the ruins, looks deceptively steep, and although it is a steep climb up innumberable stairs, it wasn´t technically hard, just tiring.  Every so often you would turn around to get an amazing view of the ruins and would have to snap a few photos, but then you would get a little higher and have to take a few more.  At the peak is a bunch of huge boulders that everyone crowded onto to catch their breath and enjoy the spectacular scenery of the quick moving river flowing through the deep valley all around us.  It was hard to believe we had been hiking down there just the day before, it seemed so far away!

The hike took about an hour to the top, where most people turn back.  But gluttons for punishment, David and I continued down the backside to the Temple of the Moon, a small but very well made temple in a natural cave.  We scaled some steep and narrow passages along the cliff wall and down long wooden ladders to get there, all of which took a breathless 90 minutes.  By the time we finally made it back to the ruins proper, we were exhausted, and we still had over half of the ruins to explore!

From the photos you usually see of the ruins, it is hard to get a perspective of where you actually get to walk and what you get to see.  But really the only thing off limits is the grassy plazas.  We saw temples and baths and even a prison.  Several times when we sat still for a few moments, we would see the chinchillas hiding in the rocks, which look like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel.  They were quite brave and let us get rather close to take photos, but once we crossed that invisible line they would dart away in a flash.  There were llamas roaming the grounds as well, including several little ones.  At one point a dog started barking, and every llama in the place pricked up their ears, and then rushed to the scene to see what was happening.  We happened to have a good view of the whole ruin at the time, and it was weird watching them converge from all corners on this poor dog.  Once they arrived the dog calmed down, and they just slowly wandered off again.  The llamas were tame of course, but it was still startling when you would be standing there minding your own business and suddenly there would be one right next to you pushing past along the trail.

Besides all the hiking and exploring, there was plenty of just sitting and taking it all in.  I ended up taking almost a full 2Gb of photos and video, many of the photos almost identical to others, but I just couldn´t stop myself.  When we were finally bone weary from all the steps and sunshine, we made the typically questionable decision to skip the $7 bus ride back to town and instead walked back.  We didn´t reach the hotel until 5pm, it was a very full day, but one that we will never, ever forget.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The "backdoor route" to Aguas Calientes

We caught an early morning bus (how many times have I said that on this blog?) to head an hour and a half back up the dirt road leading to the small town of Santa Maria, where we needed to transfer to another dirt road to get another hour and a half to the small town of Santa Teresa.  We were hoping to catch a mini-van, but arriving so early in the morning, before the other backpackers coming from Cusco started arriving, there were none to be found.  We found a cab driver willing to take us, and waited about a half hour hoping someone else would arrive to split the fare with, but in the end we gave in and paid him about $12 to just get us going.  The road followed a river up the valley, and we passed several tiny villages along the way, admiring the striking mountain/valley scenery the whole way.  At least, when we weren´t trying not to notice how close we were driving to the steep drop off and how fast our driver took the blind corners.

But he delivered us to Santa Teresa, where we immediately hopped onto a mini-van which took us another hour or so to a hydroelectric station farther up the river.  Here there is a small train station which runs the 12 kilometers to Aguas Calientes, the jumping off point for visits to Machu Picchu.  The train leaves only once a day late in the afternoon, and is intended as local commuter train.  Everyone warned us that sometimes the staff would sell tickets to foreigners, sometimes they would flat refuse and there was nothing you could do about it.  Not wanting to deal with that kind of hassle, we made the trip one better - we simply walked the 12 kilometers, following the rail tracks the whole way.

The walk was beautiful, and even better almost totally flat.  We had condensed our belongings and had left one backpack back in Cusco, so we each had only one pack to deal with.  We walked over the river on an old rail bridge and passed small farms of bananas and coffee.  We even found a few bugs!  As we passed one of the farms, and old man coincidentally came out to also walk to town, and we chatted for a few minutes.  The conversation was simple, but it felt great to be able to communicate relatively easy in spanish!  He pointed up to the largest of the peaks on our left, and told us it was Waynu Picchu, which is the mountain peak that towers over Machu Picchu in the classic photos that you see.  We squinted up and could even see people walking around the top.  A few more curves around the mountain, and up in the distance there it was.  Incan terracing, with ruins on top.  We couldn´t make out much from so far below, but it was undeniably Machu Picchu.  It was so exciting I took a dozen photos that have no chance of turning out, but I couldn´t help myself.  We were almost there!

We thought we were walking pretty well, but with our necks craned up the old man soon left us in the dust.  Eventually we made it to another train station, where the path that had been leading along the tracks seemed to veer off  down to a road.  Our only instructions had been to follow the tracks, but we were leery of walking on the tracks directly.  But after only a moments hesitation we saw a group of guys walking down the tracks toward us.  We chatted briefly, they were headed back to a small waterfall we had passed, and told us the town was not much farther and that it was fine to just walk along the tracks.  We wished them well, and took off down the tracks, with the mountain on one side and a drop off on the other.  Just around the corner we came to a tunnel.  This seemed foolhardy at best, but we had come far enough that we didn´t want to just turn around, and we could easily see the other side of the tunnel maybe 25 yards or so away.  We listened for the sound of a train, and then as best we could sort of stumbled and ran through the dark tunnel to the other side.  Just past that we found a rock pile where we would be able to make it down to the road below, and decided to take it.  We didn´t want to tempt fate so close to something so awesome!  A hundred meters down the road we saw that the tracks went into another tunnel, this one much longer that the previous one.  Just as we were commenting on how we would not have enjoyed running through that one, the train came through!  I don´t want to imagine what might have happened if we hadn´t left the tracks when we did.  We later saw the guys who tried to kill us with their bad advice, but they were so friendly it was hard to hold a grudge.

The town of Aguas Calientes exists for pretty much one reason only - to separate tourists going to Machu Picchu with as much of their money as possible.  We did luck out and were able to find a room for a completely reasonable 40 Soles, about $13, although this was the last of the deals we were able to find.  Walking through town, which is quite lovely nestled in a steep valley where two rivers converge, we were assaulted by a barrage of touts competing for our patronage to their restaurants.  They offered lots of free drinks, and if you hesitated they would offer lower prices than stated on the menu.  One place told us that instead of free drinks (inevitably the pisco sour, a local coctail made with lime) we could have free nachos with guacamole, we caved.  We went in and made the order with our waitress, and they could not have been more delicious.  But when the bill came, we found that not only had we been charged a boggling $6 for them, we had also been charged a "tax" of about $7 on a bill of about $17!  (A reminder, in most cities we are able to eat lunch for $2-$3 each.)  When we told her we had been told the nachos were supposed to be free, her english suddenly got very poor and she said that we hadn´t specified that when we had ordered, and if we had she would have given us a smaller plate.  Obviously she must know her guy out front promises everyone free nachos, but she had us since we had neglected to specifically mention it to her when we ordered.  We had made sure to specify that our entrees were at half price, so she gave us that, we had just assumed the free nachos was understood.  Big mistake!  We eventually got her to knock down the price a little more than half.  The "tax", which is not charged anywhere else in Peru, we learned was also negotiable, as long as you negotiated paying it or not before you ordered.  She did eventually allow that the tax also included gratuity, so we ended up paying it but not a sole more.  We had been foolish, but at least the food had been undeniably good.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

To Quillabamba

There are a couple of ways to see Machu Picchu.  Most people either do a four day hike along the Incan trail, which requires making reservations months in advance, or they just take the train to the town of Aguas Calientes, which lies far below in the valley.  There is only one train company though, so without any competition the prices are sky-high.  Just a few years ago however, a "backdoor" route opened up, which entails a few long bus rides and a fair amount of hiking, but is less than a quarter of the cheapest train ticket.  Of course David and I chose this option.

So from Cusco, we boarded a bus to Quillabamba, an out of the way city that hardly any tourists go to.  It was actually a little farther than we had to go, the road heading up and over a high peak in the Andes, and then plunging almost 11000 feet into the first signs of the jungle of the Amazon.  We hadn´t expected to see the Amazon on this trip, so couldn´t pass up the opportunity.  The bus, which was late and slow going, was at least comfortable enough, especially considering this wasn´t a tourist bus and David and I were the only gringos on board.  When we hit Ollanta we came to a road block.  We waited for 45 minutes without explanation, even driving the normally laid-back locals to shouting and banging the windows and floors to let their exasperation be known.  Finally we were led onto a detour, which took us right onto the train tracks.  I don´t know why the road was closed, but I guess we had to wait for the train to pass so we could drive a few miles literally down the tracks to get to the other side of town.

The climb up the mountains was breathtaking, with huge peaks filled with glaciers and snow gleaming in the sunshine over us.  We passed green Incan terracing, and saw llamas and other livestock in the fields.  At the peak a woman got on selling "papas relleñas", which was a hard boiled egg in the center of a glob of mashed potato that had been baked or more probably fried until it was crispy on the outside.  It sounds like an odd combination, but it cost about 30 cents and was absolutely delicious.  After crossing the pass we started our decent into the jungle, which was a little more nerve wracking as the bus now had gravity on its side and was careening down the narrow mountain road with as much speed as he could get.  Suddenly, the bus stopped and without a word everyone got off the bus.  We weren´t sure what was happening, but suddenly we noticed that everyone - men, women, old, young - were on the side of the road, peeing.  I guess it was time.  Since it was a nine hour bus ride, we took advantage of the opportunity as well.  When in Rome!

The bus was overfull, so there was a young kid, maybe 13 or so, standing in aisle next to us.  (Yes, standing for nine hours.  People do that here.)  We´ve noticed that the children here are generally very well behaved, even small children, on these long bus rides.  They just take it all in stride, always giving up their seats if an adult should board without complaint.  Anyway, I was admiring this kids calm disposition, when suddenly he walked over to a row with an open window, squeezed through the people sitting there to lean his head out the window just in time to barf.  The lady was kind enough to let him stand there for a while getting the fresh air, even though she had another kid in her lap.  I was just glad it wasn´t me.

We were pretty tired when we arrived in Quillabamba, but were able to ask directions to get oriented, and then made our way to a hostel.  The town was nice and comfortable, along a huge roaring river, but at 3200 feet it wasn´t quite the Amazon experience we had been led to expect.  (The guidebook starts with "Welcome to the jungle!")  At least it was warm.  We bought some ice cream and walked around, got some fruit in the market and found some dinner, but were ready to go the next morning.  While technically I do believe this was the Amazon, next time we come to South America we will do the Amazon right.

Cusco and Pisac

Cuzco is a place I´ve been dreaming of going for a long time.  We arrived at 6am after an uneventful night bus from Arequipa, and quickly jumped in a cab for a hostel.  We chose the silly Hostel Frankenstein, which promised "cold, dank rooms" just because it made us laugh.  Well, really we chose it because it was relatively cheap, but a laugh never hurts either.  We were just glad they had a room free when we arrived, we were so tired.  But not so tired to miss noticing the fireplace.  Score!

After a nap, we headed for the streets.  And the city did not disappoint.  Large plazas surrounded by churches, tiny cobblestone streets snaking off in all directions, atmospheric staircases climbing between buildings up the hills, and plenty of people, locals and tourists alike, percolating through it all.  The historic capital of the Incan empire, Cusco (or Cuzco, depending on your preference) now has a population of about 400,000.  We were glad to find that our few days in Arequipa had helped us adjust to the altitude, and even now at 10,800 feet we were breathing easy as explored the town.  We were also glad we had our new coats, cause while it was warm in the sunshine, it got cold when it went down!

Cusco is well positioned as the natural stop before heading up to see the infamous Machu Picchu, which means that just about every tourist who comes to Peru comes to Cusco.  And the city is well set up for them, with lots of shops and hotels and restaurants.  Cusco is also a city of festivals.  In our three days there, we saw at least one parade a day.  One seemed to be a sort of dance recital given by every dance studio in the city, with thousands of young girls doing extensive routines in elaborate traditional costumes.  Some of the girls were barefoot as they danced down the stone streets, and I felt for them, happy as I was in my newly purchased alpaca wool socks.  Another was a parade of religious floats that came out of the church and slowly - SLOWLY - circled the square.  The costumes and colors are amazing, but all the parades were sorely lacking in tempo.  lol  The floats were all carried around on the shoulders of about 20 men, which is I guess why they went so slow, because judging by the expressions of the men below, they were all extremely heavy.  Many of them had "alternates" who would follow them and tag people out to take a rest.  I enjoyed the bands that played, many of them oddly dressed in matching Hawaiian shirts.  They would march in to the square from all directions, stopping traffic wherever they went, which no one seemed to mind.

After an assortment of museums, our first Incan site was that of Pisac in the Sacred Valley.  We took a city bus out to the town, and then hired a cab to drive us up to the entrance at the top of a very steep hillside.  We arrived early in the morning, so there weren´t yet many people around which was nice.  We always face the dilemma of whether to hire a guide or not, but we decided to do it on our own.  The ruins are well preserved, featuring lots of the famous Inca stonework.  The Incas used no mortar when they built their stone walls, they just carved the rocks to fit together to well that even today you can´t fit a piece of paper between the stones, which have withstood centuries of weather and earthquake.  There were large terraces built into the hillsides below the buildings, which were used for agriculture.  It was all gorgeous, and we quickly wandered off up into the ruins, exploring every room and vantage point.  The tour groups with guides soon began arriving, and we noted with satisfaction that almost none of them entered the ruins like we had, sticking to the main and easy paths.  Guides can give great information and anecdotes, but it comes at the price of being free to explore at your leisure and fancy.  The guidebook told us we could hire the cab to wait for us for two hours, but instead we decided to walk back down the other side of the ruins back to town.  This turned out to be a good idea, because we were having so much fun climbing through Incan tunnels and admiring the massive valley below we spent almost four hours in total walking about.  The walk down was a bear with thousands of Incan steps, but we still enjoyed it.

Back in town we found a little restaurant to have lunch. We ordered shrimp chowder to start, but weren´t prepared for the red, whole shrimps floating in the soup, complete with antennae and claws.  How are you supposed to eat that? 

Friday, June 11, 2010

Heading into the Andes

[Note:  Forgive me if there are spelling mistakes in this post, this computer has its spell check set on spanish, so every single word is coming out underlined in red, so I´ve got no help!]

Arequipa surprised us with its size, spreading out in all directions through a huge valley surrounded by snow peaked mountains.  I´m not sure if the city is technically in the zone of the Andean mountains, but if not it is right on the doorstep.  We had come here for two reasons, the first being to give our bodies a chance to acclimate to the altitude.  We have been at high altitudes several times throughout the trip, and although we´ve never had a problem with altitude sickness, we have definitely noticed decreased endurance at times.  With all the hiking through high Incan ruins coming up, giving our bodies a few days to pump out extra red blood cells seemed prudent.

The second reason was Colca Canyon, which we intended on doing as an overnight trip.  But the Sarah´s let us know that June is a month of festivals in Cusco, and in a time when things are already busy, it gets even more crazy as the locals come in to celebrate.  Never afraid to change our plans, we decided just to stay two days in Arequipa and head straight to Cusco, hitting the canyon on the way back to Lima.

First we did a little shopping, buying some much needed Levi´s and coats to prepare us for that cold Andean air.  We hadn´t needed or wanted denim in the heat of Central America, but we were already feeling the chill through our lightweight pants and fleeces.  Then we did a little eating.  Along with the Sarah´s we went to a great restaurant up a massive amount of steps up to the roof of the building, overlooking the Plaza de Armas.  (It seems instead of calling the main square the Main Square, in Peru they are always called the Plaza de Armas.  There has been a lot of fighting in their history, obviously.)  The plaza was beautiful enough during the daytime, with a huge cathedral and arch on one side, the other three sides lined with columned buildings.  But overlooking the whole plaza at night all lit up was a spectacular view.  Being outside it was quite cold, even in our new blue jeans.  But the waiter was prepared, and brought us each a thick poncho to wear while we ate, and it made all the difference.

The menu was extensive, but David and I had our eyes (and stomachs) ready for something a little more unusual, cause it is always fun to eat the local fauna.  David ordered an alpaca steak, which pretty much tasted like beef.  I ordered cuy, which is guinea pig.  My food spanish is mediocre, so I wasn´t sure how it was going to be prepared, but much to our delight it came whole, head and all, just fried.  The Sarah´s had no intention of eating it, but they seemed to enjoy living vicariously through us.  Or at least they enjoyed laughing at us as we tried to pick the meat off the creature.  We took some photos of the poor thing, teeth and all, which I´ll post as soon as I can find a reliable internet connection.  All I can say was it tasted like chicken, although being fried it was so greasy that I can´t really give a good description.

We also joined the Sarah´s on a tour of a local convent.  The history of the convent was interesting.  When it opened up, it was custom for every family to send their second child, male or female, into the service of the church.  The families would send with their daughter a large dowry to cover her expenses.  This particular convent only selected novices from the most prostegious (and wealthy) families.  The nuns would then invite musicians and artists to give performances for them, and generally lived it up much as they had before they were nuns.  They even had slaves!  After 300 years the Pope finally sent someone to look things over.  All the money was sent back to Europe, and the slaves were freed - many of whom stayed on to become nuns themselves!  Anyway, today a few dozen nuns still live there, and instead of living off their wealthy families, they have opened up the majority of the convent to the public.  It cost a whopping $10 entrance fee, but we got to look around the old living quarters, kitchens and assorted other rooms.  Of course it was all ornate and beautiful.  One room was my favorite, the room where they used to lay out the nuns that had died.  Surrounding the room were paintings of the dead nuns, as it would have been unacceptable for the artist to paint a nun while she was still living.  The artist had like 24 hours or so with the body to make his painting, so they were all pretty basic.  But, kinda cool.  There was also the infirmary, complete with a wooden operating table.  And forgive me for being unsensitive to Catholicism, but apparently there are those who hurt themselves in order to remind themselves of their sins or something.  On display was underwear made of barbed wire that the nuns would wear.  I can´t imagine what that is about, but it seems completely horrible.

The other museum we went to was to see Juanita the Incan Ice Princess.  She was sacrificed to the mountain gods, where she laid frozen and preserved until a nearby volcanic eruption sent ash that melted the snow around her, revealing her to some archeologists.  She is a fantastically preserved mummy, complete with hair and clothes and most of her skin.  They keep her in a glass case that keeps her frozen solid, which isn´t always on display but we were lucky.  The rest of the museum was good too, just the right size to keep interesting without becoming repetitive.

Our last day we decided to get pizza for lunch.  It was a vegetarian restaurant, so we figured it would be good, and when it came it looked great, all melty with cheese and big slices of tomato.  When we started eating it something seemed weird though, until we realized that for the sauce, they had just used ketchup!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The bus to Arequipa

The next morning we were on another fancy bus to Arequipa.  Most tourists stick to night busses through this region, as distances are long and by travelling at night you save having to get a hotel for the night.  My problem with that, besides the fact that I just don´t sleep very well sitting up, is that I love watching the scenery.  Luckily we were able to find a day bus.  Better yet it was almost completely empty, so we got to sit in the very front seats on the top level, which gave us a great view besides some extra leg room.  It was great.

There were only about six people on the bus in total.  Two of them, an American and a Canadian both named Sarah, sat next to us in the front.  They were both working as teachers in Honduras, which was interesting enough in itself, and we had an entertaining ride talking with them as we all admired the striking desert and ocean scenery.  The desert was dry and mostly unvegetated, and then we would drive through cliffs that fell down to the huge waves battering the coast.  With little in the way of people or cities to fill the space, it just seemed so massive.  At one point David even pointed out a small pod of dolphins playing in the waves.  A few of the tiny, tiny "towns" we did pass were very humbling as we sped through in our luxury bus.  Many of the homes were nothing more than a 8`x8`shack made of woven mats.

We were coming down a long stretch when we saw traffic stopped up ahead, with lots of cars and trucks lining both sides of the road, which was odd considering the light traffic we´d seen so far.  As we got closer we saw that a semi-truck had lost its load of oranges, which were strewn in a massive heap along the side of the road.  Everyone passing by had stopped, not to help, but to grab all the free oranges they could carry!  Women were stuffing them in their purses, men were holding their shirts up in front to make a little basket with them.  I don´t know where the driver was, but I´m assuming he was having one of the worst days of his life as he watched his cargo being stolen.

Night fell before we reached Arequipa, and as we cleared a large hill, the lights of the city sprawled out before us.  It was a similar view coming into Albuquerque along I-40 from the west, except much bigger.  I had heard Arequipa was the second largest city in Peru, but somehow we were still surprised by the massive display of lights spread out amongst the hills.  The city makes a good stopover on the way to Cusco due to its altitude of 7800 feet, giving your body a chance to start to aclimate.  Many people suffer from altitude sickness coming to the Andes, and we don´t intend to be one of them.  There are meds you can take, specifically Diamox which can help by making you breathe a little deeper to get more oxygen.  But I know Diamox as a diuretic, and I don´t need to be peeing all the time, so we are hoping the stopover will be enough.