Thursday, June 28, 2012

Llama Poop

Related Posts:
Use the Peru tag for all related posts about our trip.

Just felt like posting a quick video from Machu Picchu. We were wondering if the Peruvians pronounced "Llama" with the L's or "Yama" with the Y. Happy to report it's "Yama".

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Peru Part 5: Back in Cusco

Related Posts:
Use the Peru tag for all related posts about our trip.

We spent the first day of our trip in Cusco because it was close to the airport and would give us a chance to rest and have time to acclimate to the altitude. That first visit gave us just a taste of what was to come.

Our city tour was scheduled to start at 1:30. After a late breakfast we decided to go and explore the plaza some more and the nearby San Blas District. We went out the back door of our hotel so we could see the San Francisco Cathedral. This is cathedral number four in two blocks. We stopped in a market (not a super market) for some Hall's Cough Drops. 40 cents.

The street going up to San Blas was the same one we took to go to Jack's on Day One. It was narrow and continued up that stair-step sidewalk. If you get winded it's easy to duck into a store, cafe, of gallery to catch your breath for a minute. You do have to be careful when you exit a shop because you could get clipped by a car.

The tour books said that San Blas used to be a run-down area. A beautification project commenced and many of the buildings were painted white with blue trim. Kinda like the Greek Islands. We got to the San Blas church and its plaza within ten minutes of leaving the Plaza de Armas. Around the courtyard were some art galleries featuring a lot of Spanish Colonial style art, cafes, and a tourist craft market in a courtyard setting. We went into the craft market and watched a woman weaving a item on a loom. Pretty cool.

From this square there was a nice view of the surrounding area. We had heard, and witnessed, this was an area with lots of hostels. There were flyers for reggae night at nearby clubs. We were guessing the nightlife here would be pretty vibrant. Before heading back down the hill we ducked into a bakery and tried Peruvian Hot Chocolate. We we're surprised it came with bowl of sugar, but soon figured out why. They make it thick and unsweetened with dark chocolate. We loaded that thing up with sugar and enjoyed it. Too bad it was close to lunch time or we would have snacked on some of the great looking pastries.

We went back down to the Plaza de Armas for lunch. We wanted something simple since we were planning a nice dinner. There were lots of great places to pick from for all food tastes. We ended up at Paddy's. It's the world's highest Irish Pub. The second floor location had all the feeling of an English/Irish Pub back home. There was only one patio table that looked out at the plaza (taken) so we sat by the main bar. Lunch for us included beers, bottled water, chicken wings, a soup, and steak sandwich. All the food was great and portions were huge. Final bill with tip $24.

We went back to our hotel and got ready for our tour. Our guide, Carlos, picked us up and added us to a group of 6 other tourists. We rode off in the mini bus to the San Cristobal Church for a great view of the city. San Cristobal is visible from Plaza de Armas and at night you can see the statue of Jesus illuminated right above it. Carlos told us about Cusco's formation, shape like a puma, and that Incans worshiped glaciers (among other things). For how much the city sprawls, it's amazing the population is only around 400,000.

We lucked into this scene:

Our next stop was Sacsayhuamán (Sexy Woman to help you remember). This site contained walls formed in a zig-zag lightning pattern of huge boulders on the bottom, and smaller rocks on the top. All with no mortar. Carlos told us the larger rocks were pre-Incan and the smaller ones on top were Incan. The largest rock was estimated to be 250 tons. The Spanish queried stones from this site to build their cathedrals.

Carlos also told us about taking stone masons on a tour of the site a few years ago. They said they couldn't build this with today's technology. These folks did it 1,000 years ago.

Next on our agenda was Tambomachay. We were let off at the base of a long road to walk up a big hill in order to get to the site. The kicker here is we were now at 12,000 feet so the hill sucked. The next kicker.....once you get to the top all winded you have to fend off the craft market vendors.

"Tambo" was a small, but well built, site set into the side of the mountain. Water came out at several fountains. Since they've been monitoring the site the water hasn't stopped flowing. They also don't know where it's coming from. Really cool, but the site was roped-off so you couldn't touch anything. No reason to linger..... On the way down we found out from a vendor "alpaca" blankets were $10. Not a bad price.

Down the hill and across the street waste next site on our tour. Puka Pukara is situated so it has a view into the valley and going into the mountains. It's also known as the "Red Fort", but our guide said it was more likely a checkpoint and watch post more than a full military outpost.

Next stop, Qenqo. This was considered one of the main Incan holy sites. The natural rock formation had some small caves/crevices that were believed to be the entrance to the underworld. Incans believed they spent a couple of years in the underworld until reincarnation. The site featured a large protruding rock and had a great view down to the city.

Back to the city center. It's getting closer to 5:00 and we have two more stops to go. Traffic was bad in the parts of town surrounding the Plaza de Armas so we ditched the bus and walked. Our next stop was Coricancha. This was the site of the Sun Temple, the most important Incan temple. The stonework was the best we've seen yet. In Incan times the temple was covered with sheets of gold. When the Spanish came in they built churches on the temple's foundation. It was neat how they Incorporated a glass wall on top of the Incan walls (modern architects, not the conquistadors).

Final stop of the evening was The Cathedral. Here we learned about how the Spanish Christianized Peru. One method to help acclimate people to their new religion was to involve them in decorating the church. Cusco developed its own art style displayed in the church. In many pieces you'll find references to Incan lore and regular symbols of Peruvian life - such as guinea pig being served at "The Last Supper".

The tour was over. Time for a drink! We went to Inka Grill and had a cocktail and more of their homemade chips at the bar.

Dinner that night was at Cicciolina, which was listed as the city's best restaurant. It was busy and seemed to have a mix of locals and tourists. The menu has a Mediterranean focus with lots of tapas, pastas, etc. It was a great way to spend our last few hours in Cusco.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Peru Part 4: Machu Picchu

Related Posts:
Use the Peru tag for all related posts about our trip.

Big day today! Like many other folks, the reason we picked Peru for a vacation was Machu Picchu. Now it was time to see if the site lived up to the hype.

We left our hotel around 7am and took a 40 minute drive back to Ollantaytambo. There was a small market area outside the terminal so you could load up on snacks, bug spray, and alpaca wool items. Inside the station there was a nice cafe and a coffee stand. Our train, The Vistadome, was leaving at 8:29. When it pulled up to the platform the staff checked tickets and passports while marshaling about 200 people into the right trains cars within 3 minutes. The Vistadome has glass ceiling panels allowing you to have a better view of the mountains. We were served a beverage and a snack. The ride to Aguas Calientes took around 90 minutes. On the way we were following the Urubamba River as we passed by some ruins and the entrance to the Inca Trail.

Aguas Calientes is the last stop for the train. It's a town similar to Ollantaytambo in that tourism is its prime focus. Many people stay overnight in Aguas Calientes before or after visiting Macchu Picchu. From here it's a 25 minute ride to the ruins up a windy road. Some people choose to walk. We have no clue how long that takes.

A Peruforless rep was at the station to meet us and showed us to our hotel's bell station to take our overnight bags (the only luggage we could bring on the train) to their property. She then escorted us to a bus and we were off!

The road was narrow with nothing but hairpin turns. As we kept climbing we were able to see more and more of the surrounding mountains and valley below. It was beautiful. Unfortunately the Incans did not value the "wow" factor of what they built and we were able to catch a glimpse of the ruins from the bus.

We got off the bus and met up with our tour guide, Fabricio. We had a few minutes before our tour would start so we went to use the restroom. It costs 40 cents to go in and you had to grab your toilet paper at the door - in front of everyone.

There was a map at the entrance to the site we completely ignored until the last time we left the ruins. Might have been useful to read beforehand....To enter the site you needed pre-purchased tickets (which included your name) and show your passport. This gets a little tiring since you need to leave the park for facilities and food or drink.

Our guide lead us into the park and gave us a real nice tour of most of the important buildings, mountains, and features of Machu Picchu. We learned that Machu Picchu is actually a mountain where the ruins are located. We found out the nicer the stone work, the more important the building. The Incans also had a fountain system running through the site that still works today.  About 35% of the site is still covered in the brush at the lower edges of the site. Machu Picchu is bigger than it looks in pictures. We visited the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Condor, and saw The Sacred Rock. Incans liked rocks a lot. Our guide took us around the lower parts of the ruins and told us that we were on our own to climb to the top to get the iconic photo.

Photos really can not do it justice. The place is truly beautiful. You have mountains, a valley far below, great buildings, rain forest, orchids, llamas, chinchillas, glaciers in the distance..... Dave could not put the camera down because every turn gave a new opportunity for a great photo.

The mountain in the background in this picture is Huanya Picchu. We paid for tickets to hike it on our second day. We were worried about the hike before we arrived, but after seeing how high and steep it really was we totally bailed on the hike. It's higher than it looks. We were also getting winded just going up 20-30 steps. Doing it for an hour+ didn't seem like a good time. We did another hike in its place that morning to The Incan Bridge. Anyway, back to the tour....

The Incans found symbolism in natural rock formations. Our guide pointed out formations that looked like mummies, kings, a lady laying down, and the fact that Sacred Rock mirrored a mountain right behind it. They were also into hiding symbols in the walls they built. The next photos show a hidden llama (symbol of fertility) and a yin-and-yang like symbol of a chinchilla and a fetus. The chinchilla is a symbol of birth and it was in the temple where the dead's remains were placed to await the trip to the after world (via condor) until reincarnation.

After visiting The Temple of the Condor and seeing the bunny our tour was over. We left to have lunch and to check into our hotel, the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. This is a very small hotel at the entrance of the ruins, while all the other hotels are a 25 minute ride down to Aguas Calientes. Lunch options by the ruins were the snack bar run by the park, a $35/pp buffet or a la carte dining at the Sanctuary Lodge. Since our hotel included all meals and drinks we went for the a la carte option. Nice meal despite a service mishap.

We went back into park and spent the next 3 hours taking in as much as we could. We started climbing up to the guard house and felt awful. This is when the next morning's hike got the last nail in the coffin. At the top we were rewarded with the iconic view of Machu Picchu. Since this is the view most of us are familiar with, it gave us true appreciation for the size of the entire site. You really only see a small bit of it in these photos. We explored some other buildings and spent a good hour just sitting in the grass taking it all in. With most people catching buses back to town the site was pretty empty around closing time, giving us a virtually private view of everything.

Back at our hotel we had a pleasant evening which included having some time in the hot tub looking at the mountains, listening to the house band playing traditional Andean music, trying Pisco Sours for the first time, and having a fantastic dinner.

Our next morning started early with breakfast and getting to the park at 6am. Lots of people were on line to get in, but the process went pretty quick. We climbed back up by the rock where we took the iconic shot and watched sunrise. Pretty darn nice.

After sunrise we started the hike to the Incan Bridge. This hike took us on a relatively level, but narrow, path towards a back entrance to the site. Folks with height issues may not like this trek either.   Views of the river and valley here were gorgeous.

The Incans built a log bridge here. If invaders came they would drop the logs into the gorge and fend them off with rocks.

The Guard House - Holly's favorite building

The rest of the day was spent exploring everywhere one more time. As Holly put it we were like little kids playing fort. 

We headed down to Aguas Calienties around 2:30 and had a couple beers at a bar that overlooked the river. We hit the tourist market and then boarded our train at 5:30. Our driver met us. At Ollantaytambo with the rest of our luggage and too, us back to Cusco. We got to our hotel at 9:00, ordered some food and drinks, then packed it in. We were wiped out.

More pictures in this slide show (mobile or iPad click here):

Monday, June 18, 2012

Peru Part 3: The Sacred Valley

Related Posts:
Use the Peru tag for all related posts about our trip.

On Sunday morning it was time to pack up and head to The Sacred Valley for the next two nights.

Our hotel (and all of our hotels) included breakfast each morning. The Aranwa had a nice selection of fruits, pasties, cookies, breads, and some warm items like sausage and the strange red Peruvian bacon. You could get eggs or omelets made-to-order. Dave discovered a new favorite cereal: Kiwicha Pops. These were sweetened puffed grains that were a bit smaller than quinoa. We were able to find a couple bags to bring home at a grocery store in Lima.

We were picked up by our tour guide and driver, Rony and Boris respectively, around 8:30. Another couple from Milwaukee would be the only other folks joining us on the tour. The plan was to leave Cusco and drive about an hour to Pisac to see the Sunday Market. Next we'd see the ruins at Ollantaytambo. After that, Holly and I would be picked up and taken to our next hotel (near Huayllabamba) while the others had lunch and then headed back to Cusco.

According to Wikipedia.....

(The Sacred Valley) has been formed by the Urubamba River, also known as Vilcanota River or Wilcamayu. The latter, in Quechua (the still spoken lingua franca of the Inca Empire), means the Sacred river. It is fed by numerous rivers which descend through adjoining valleys and gorges, and contains numerous archaeological remains and villages. The valley was appreciated by the Incas due to its special geographical and climatic qualities. It was one of the empire's main points for the extraction of natural wealth, and one of the most important areas for maize production in Peru northwards from Pisac. The early Incas may have come from Wimpillay as their mummies had been discovered there. Large scale maize production started around 1400 as Inca urban agriculture based on varieties bred in Moray, either a governmental crop lab or a seedling nursery of the Incas.

Beautiful countryside, amazing scenery, and great culture in this part of Peru. As our guide explained, many people in the valley still speak Quechua; the Incan language. Along the way we saw evidence of how these folks have held to their traditions. We made a couple of stops  to admire the scenery before reaching Pisac. Our guide taught us about the variety of corn, potatoes, and quinoa grown in the area and how some of these crops are still grown on terraces the Incans developed on mountainsides 700 years ago.

Pisac is home to a very important collection of Incan ruins. We didn't get to see them. Instead we went to the market. It's open 3 times a week, but Sunday is the big day - when the produce trade is heaviest. Farmers come with their individual crops and barter with each other. There are also MANY stalls filled with tourist items so prices are pretty good if you haggle. Rony told us about the local produce and then took us to a silver factory. Holly picked up a bracelet and Dave got a silver llama. We picked up some other tourist items and then found it was already time to leave. For people that didn't want to go to the market we were wishing we had more time. It was a lot of fun.

Potatoes originated in Peru and were brought to Europe by the Spaniards. Peru has over 4,000 types of potatoes.

Around Peru you see folks in traditional outfits with assorted livestock for photo opportunities. Our guide told us the folks in the market (vs Cusco) were the real deal and we could take our pictures with them. All they asked was some form of small tip. 2-3 soles, between 80 cents - $1.20 was the going rate.

Our next stop would be Ollantaytambo. On the way we learned about ceramic bull figures on the rooftops and chi cha, a local homebrew corn beer. It's quickly fermented, so low in alcohol. Houses serving chi cha would have a red bag flying outside the door alerting farmers they could buy some.

We also learned about more Peruvian food......

This is cuy.....guinea pig. Big traditional food item in Peru. We learned that tourist restaurants typically served it with sauces while local places will stuff the insides with herbs. Price for cuy at a tourist restaurant: $24. Price at the roadside stand: $13. The Peruvians seem perplexed that these animals are pets in the Northern Hemisphere.

On the way to Ollantaytambo we had to go through the town of Urubamba. They had a big festival going on blocking many streets. Our driver tried many narrow streets, drove on stoops, etc to eventually get us through it. If we couldn't get through we thought we might have to just enjoy the festival.

There's a lot going on in Ollantaytambo. It's the starting point for most trips to Machu Picchu. From here people either take the 90 minute train ride to Aguas Calientes or start their 4 day hike on The Inca Trail. Town is filled with little cafes, hotels, hostels, and pizza places. Definitely where backpackers congregate. Also in town is an impressive incan ruin.

We spent most of our time in Ollantaytambo at the ruins. This area. Has been continuously inhabited for several hundred years. The Incans developed architectural terraces, storehouses, and temples here. This was our first detailed look at the impressive Incan stonework. The granite at this site was quarried from 7kms away - 600 years ago.

After touring the site we were transferred over to our hotel's shuttle and set off for the Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel. This was one of the prettiets settings we've seen for a hotel. We were surrounded on all sides by mountains. Onsite there were ponds filled with koi creating a moat for an old church. That afternoon we enjoyed a nice lunch outside and relaxed. We spent our next day at the resort just relaxing and had a hot rock spa treatment. Since the hotel's occupancy was low, and most people actually go touring during the day, we had the place to ourselves.

Now that we were at lower altitude it was time to enjoy a beer!

The next post we'll take off for Machu Picchu.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Peru Part 2: Arrival in Cusco

Related Posts:
Use the Peru tag for all related posts about our trip.

Our flight from Lima landed in Cusco around 10am on Saturday morning. When we arrived at the airport we noticed several booths selling tours of the ruins and cans of oxygen (altitude 11,000 ft).  We picked up our bags and met Jordan, our representative, outside the airport. He escorted us to our car with driver and we rode to our hotel. On the way we passed a couple of cool monuments, statues, and Coricancha (a Catholic church built on incan ruins). The ride from the airport to our hotel (near the center of town) was about 15 minutes.

Our hotel, Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel, was on a narrow street with stairs for the sidewalk. We sat in the lobby and gave the desk clerk our passports to copy (common practice) but not our credit card (also common practice). We were offered coca tea to help curb the altitude impact. We decided before the trip we were going to avoid coca tea if we could since it's made from the same plant cocaine comes from and can test positive for drug testing. Jordan walked us through all the details of our itinerary, told us how to contact the company in an emergency, and gave us safety and dining tips. Our room was ready for us. We had a nice modern room that was small, but well appointed, including pumped-in oxygen. The bathroom was huge with separate shower, sunken hot tub, towel warmers, and a heated floor. There were, however, no windows. Didn't miss them after ten minutes.

The plan was to take a nap once we got to the hotel but we were too excited to sleep. So we decided we'd walk two blocks to the Plaza de Armas and check things out. A little bit about Cusco: The city was the capital of The Incan Empire. They urban designed the original city in the shape of a puma and many palaces and temples were built around this plaza. Pizarro was declared the conquered of Peru here in the 1530's. The Spanish tore down the palaces and temples to build churches on their foundations. Today the plaza still plays an important role as the city's center for festivals, protests, and tourist hub.

We tried to have lunch at Jack's Cafe, which was 2 blocks away on a staired-sidewalk street. While climbing up we could feel the altitude. On the way up Dave pointed out the well-built Incan walls to Holly. At the time she didn't believe they were that old and remained unimpressed (photo borrowed from Angie Darren).

Jack's was packed so we waited a few minutes outside to try to get a table. While waiting a little kid started hitting Dave in the leg. Dave wasn't happy to find the kid had paint on his hands and was coloring his pants a weird green. Que Diablo? Fortunately the paint came out.

We couldn't hold out for Jack's anymore so we went back to the plaza and had lunch at Norton's. This was an English style pub in a second floor location overlooking the plaza. We sat outside for a while and took it all in, but ate inside because the direct sun was baking us. Sandwiches and bottles of water (no booze today as we acclimate) with tip: $14. After lunch it was nap time.

We headed back out around 6pm. The sun was fully down and it was fully cold. The temperature had to have dropped 30 degrees (average daily range this time of year is high 30's to lower 70's). We were freezing. We spent some time walking the square and checking out some shops on a few of the side streets. There were lots of shops and restaurants hidden from the street fronts in courtyards.

Earlier in the day the Plaza had an art festival. At night a stage was set on the steps of The Cathedral and a band was playing traditional Peruvian music. Lots of fun to watch. Vendors were walking around selling alpaca wool hats, mittens, sweaters, paintings/prints, decorated gourds, jewelry, and finger puppets. Knit finger puppets are a big item. One little boy tried to sell us some and took out 20+ items to show us while naming them. "Un perro. Un Puma. Un Condor. Bzzzzz (bee). Papa Smurf...". It was really cute and we feel bad not buying from him. We saw an officer shoo a child vendor away from us earlier so we weren't sure if we'd be promoting an illegal activity (evil finger puppet contraband).

We couldn't bear the cold much longer so we went to dinner at Inka Grill. This was a real pleasant restaurant on the plaza. They had a nice bar area and two floors of seating. They served a variety of potato chips instead of bread. Nice! We kept to bottled water and avoided uncooked veggies. Holly had pizza and Dave had grilled chicken with quinoa. We'd end up seeing a lot of quinoa and potatoes on the trip. Dave ordered a "Tour of Peruvian Chocolate" dessert that was served with a vanilla sauce. Everything was very good. with tip about $40.

Tipping in Peru is different. Restaurant prices on the menu include the 18% tax and 10% service charge. An added tip is generally not expected. We were adding another 5-10% onto the bill, or more if the bill was just really low to begin with.

After dinner we packed it in and got ready for our next day's departure to The Sacred Valley.