26 June 2014

Peru: Some Closing Thoughts

Now that our trip to Peru is winding down, here are some thoughts about our two weeks here, in the order in which they come to my head.
  • Traveling on a trip like this, in a country without an easy-to-navigate tourism infrastructure, S and I both felt that we needed a travel agent to handle the details of our trip. We found Roberto at Peru Inside Out, and he and his support was exceptional! When we landed in Lima, the driver handed us a cellphone that we used on occasion to check in with him, but usually, things ran smoothly. Drivers met us at the hotels, airports, and train stations. We had knowledgeable guides on our trips (Nancy in Lima, Roberto himself in Arequipa, Omar in Colca/Chivay, Janet in Cusco/Sacred Valley, Augustine in Machu Picchu, Dino in the jungle), and the details of the trips (hotel reservations, train and plane tickets, etc.) were all taken care of. We definitely splurged on this trip, but if you want to go to Peru, check out Peru Inside Out (and I hear they're expanding into Ecuador too!).
  • I'm very glad that most of our tours were private. The one time we spent stuck on a large bus (for Inti Raymi) was awful.
  • Speaking of Inti Raymi, don't buy the ticket to the big show. It's not worth it. Just wander the town and go to the two free events in Cusco proper.
  • Cities we liked: Lima, Arequipa, Cusco.
  • Cities we didn't like: Puno
  • Hotels we loved: Casa Andina in Arequipa, Colca Lodge, Tambo de Inka in Urubamba, Inkaterra in Machu Picchu Pueblo, Hacienda Concepcion near Puerto Maldonado.
  • Hotels we didn't like: Tierra Viva in Puno (but the staff was great)
  • The star-rating of hotels seem to be relative to what the city has to offer. Tierra Viva was a four-star, but it was by far the worst property we stayed at.  Colca Lodge was a four-star, but it was on par with the five-stars in the Sacred Valley. Do your research!
  • In general, all of the staff at the hotels, airlines, etc., were all excellent. Most spoke English, and if not, they indulged my pigeon Spanish.
  • We spent way too many days traveling. There was one time we spent three nights in one place. The rest of the time, we were in the same hotel for one or two nights. That was a mistake.
  • Also, we planned too many things. We actually had very little time where we were able to laze about. The few times we did, it was often because we were on a train for 10 hours, or something like that.
  • Do not discount the altitude issues when traveling in Peru. It's there, and it's real.
  • S found some clothing made by Ex Officio that was specifically treated to ward off bugs. We both bought some, and I treated some of my other clothing with a spray to do the same thing. It worked fantastically. We both came back from the Amazon jungle with nary a bug bite.
If we were going to come to Peru again, I think this might be a smarter itinerary:
  • Three nights in Lima
  • Three or four nights in Cusco
  • Four or five nights in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu
  • Three nights in the jungle

24 June 2014

Peru: Day 15: Inti Raymi

When S and I started organizing this trip, we discovered that 24 June was when Cusco celebrated Inti Raymi, or the festival of the sun. Why it wasn't on the solstice, we didn't know, but we bought tickets to see the ancient Incan celebration.

What a mistake.

The day started off with an 8am meeting at the hotel lobby to walk to the first of three sites for the festival. The first site was just a few blocks from our hotel. It was a packed sidewalk overlooking a sunken garden. We crowded in with thousands of our closest friends, each one clambering for a better view. Finally, at 9, the event started. Some music played, and about 200 Peruvians, clad in different Peruvian costumes, paraded in. Then, there was some prayer, and the 200 Peruvians danced out. The whole thing took about 45 minutes, most of which was watching the costumed dancers file in and out. All while being crushed. Lame.

S left after this first event. The crowds and altitude were too much. I should've joined her.

We then filed to the Plaza de Armas, where again we crammed together to watch a 45-minute ceremony, most of which was the filing in and out. It was almost exactly the same, but at least this time I was able to take some photos:

Then, we followed our tour guide (this was one of the few times this trip where we joined a larger group) to the travel agency, where we waited for 45 minutes before boarding a bus for the trip up the hill to the last location. On the bus trip up, the guide explained that the entire ceremony used to take place in the Plaza de Armas, but that the main event was moved up to the hillside so that the city could make money selling tickets to tourists. This made me uncomfortable, but if me buying an expensive ticket made for a good show and a boon to the local economy, I guess I could live with that.

Famous last words.

The hillside ceremony was only slightly better than the previous sections. For one, I had an actual seat. For two, there was an agenda that was more than just filing in and out. But that was where the improvements ended. There was still a long period of time filing in and out. There were still the same two songs I had been hearing all day (both in an AABB pattern, with influences from American Indian and Chinese music), there were still the same dances, only now they were interspersed with long monologuing in Quechua, the ancient Incan language. I took a bunch of photos:

And then, about 70 minutes in, I packed up my stuff and left.

I couldn't find the tour group leader to say goodbye, but I assume he didn't miss me too much. I walked down the hill into town, found my way back to the hotel, and spent the afternoon wandering around town. S and I met up for dinner, and now we're back in the hotel, relaxing before heading to bed for an early morning. We need to be packed and ready to go by 6am for our ride to the airport. Looking forward to a long flight and sleeing in our own bed tomorrow night!

Bon voyage, Peru! It's been (mostly) great!


Peru: Day 14: Back to Cusco

We got up this morning, ate our breakfast, said goodbye to the birds and Dino, and hopped a boat back to Puerto Maldonado to catch our flight to Cusco.

We got back to Cusco, got an upgrade to our room, unpacked a bit, and set out to wander the town. Cusco is getting ready to celebrate Inti Raymi tomorrow, or the festival of the winter solstice. Today, the Plaza de Armas was packed with revelers and paraders. It was hard to tell with my limited Spanish, but it sounds like each of the towns around Cusco out together their own dance/music demonstration.

S and I had burgers for lunch, a little taste of home. Then, we toured the local Inca temple,

wandered Plaza San Bras, the bohemian district, and did a little gift shopping.

S got pooped, she turned in early while I visited a bar that specialized in artisanal Pisco. The manager talked me through five different kinds of Pisco, how it is made, and how the different varieties differ. I managed to hold my own with my knowledge of spirits in general, but I definitely learned a great deal about this grape spirit. I may have bought a few bottles and made some friends with some guys from the Bay Area.

Back to the room to take care of some flight nonsense and get some sleep. Tomorrow is another early morning!



23 June 2014

Peru: Day 13: Relaxing in the Amazon

This morning I woke to the sound of a bird that I've been trying to record for a few days. I crept out of bed, grabbed my recorder, and got some good samples. I had woken earlier than I had intended, so with my extra time I walked away from the cabanas to do some more recording. There are some amazing animal sounds around here, but any recording close to the riverbank is marred by the sound of motorboats putting up and down the river. Short of a hike three miles inland, there's not much doing to get rid of that sound. Bernie Krauss would have a lot to say about it.

The rest of D's group left this morning, so S and I had D to ourselves. We started the day off with a trip to a local farm. The farmers were in Puerto Maldonado for the weekend markets, so we wandered through ourselves. Most of the farm is agricultural, but they do grow some chickens for meat. Here's the house where the family lives:

As D took us around the farm, he told us a lot about farming in the Amazon. For example, there are papaya trees AND mamaya trees. The papaya trees have more fruit, but smaller in size. The mamaya has bigger fruit, but fewer of them. Also, after a banana tree fruits twice, it gets hacked off mid-trunk, and a new plant sprouts from the trunk We saw papaya, banana, lemon, lime, oranges, corn, cauliflower, cabbage, squash, cilantro, fake cilantro, basil, star fruit, coconut, and avocado. Here's a lemon -it's much larger than ours in the USA (about the size of a grapefruit):

S and D tromp through the fields

Also, D showed is this fruit whose name we can't remember (nina, or noni, or nani...):

After walking the grounds, we came back to the farmhouse and D hacked up a coconut, which he presented to S:

Then, a short boat ride back to the lodge and a chance to take a siesta before lunch (where I drank the coconut).

In the late afternoon, we met up with D one last time for a paddle around the lagoon here at the lodge. We saw lots of birds and insects, but only one fish (which was in a heron's mouth):

Then, back to the lodge, where we left D with a nice tip (he said he would share it with the others), and another break before we do the night cruise again.

After the cruise was one last dinner, which featured a spectacular dessert: roasted plátanos with clove, cinnamon, and vanilla, in a butter-rum sauce. Whoa. On the way back to the cabana, we stopped for a quick photo of the upstairs of the lodge. All of the buildings here are open to the air (but with screens) - there are very few solid walls.

Tomorrow, we depart our jungle habitat, bound again for Cusco, our final stop of this trip!



Peru: Day 12: Lake Sandoval and more!

Wake up was supposed to be at 5am, but most of the lodges woke up at 4.30 to a woman's voice screaming 'Oh my God!' The screaming was not followed by the sounds of growling or ripping flesh, so I didn't get too worried. I got out of bed, put on my clothes in the dark, and made my way to the dining lodge for breakfast. Sleepy-eyed people trickled in, but none admitted to being the one who screamed. Which makes sense, I guess. If I were the one who screamed, I'd deny it too.

At 6am, we met at the Eco lodge, swapped out our shoes for rubber boots, and hopped in the boat for a short trip downstream to the Lake Sandoval trailhead. Our lodge sits in a buffer zone between 'regular use' areas of the jungle and 'research only' areas of the jungle, and the lake sits just inside the 'research only' area. It was a muddy 3km hike from the river bank to the lake, but we took our time. Dino was our guide, and he showed us lots of wildlife along the way:

Our muddy trail

Once we reached the lake, we hopped in a rowboat to tool along the bank, spying turtles, cayman, birds, butterflies, bats, and river otters!

After the hike, we returned to the lodges, and I took a shower before lunch. After lunch and a siesta, we boarded the boats again to go a little further downstream to a canopy walk that our resort put together with an NGO and some academic institutions. We climbed about 150 feet in the air and walked through the treetops on a series of swinging canopies. Most of the life and energy in the rain forest happens high above the ground, and we got a chance to see it first hand. Despite being up high and in the thick of foliage, we didn't see many animals. D explained later that this was because there are so many noisy groups of tourists (including lots of school groups) coming through, the animals have learned to steer clear.

After the canopy walk, we had a short break, just enough time to get a Pisco Sour at the hotel bar. Then, as soon as the sun set, we gathered again for our finals excursion of the day, a night hike for critters and insects. Dino took S, Jim, Linda, and I on a walk of the grounds, stopping on occasion to see tiger spiders, tarantulas, and other insects.

Tomorrow, J and L are leaving, so we have D all to ourselves. S and I met with him to make a plan for tomorrow, and when that was done, we headed to the lodge for dinner.

At dinner, we dined with Julie and Grace, two women from the Bay Area in CA, who had hiked the Inca Trail and were now having a few days of r&r before returning home. G went to Drake U, and two of her cousins went to Grinnell. We had a good time sharing Peru stories and talking about life back in the states. Dinner tonight was tasty - I had a kale quiche and a baked fish (complemented by two Pisco sours, complements of our waiter from last night, who felt bad about some poor service). Another nice meal!

All of our new friends here are leaving tomorrow, so S and I are headed to sleep to get some rest before our day with D. Hasta mañana!



Peru: Day 11: Off to the Amazon

By the time this posts, we'll be back in Cusco after our internet-free trip to the Amazon jungle, but I'll continue to write at the end of each day.

Today we got up and checked out of our hotel in Cusco for the short trip to the airport. We're off to the Amazon jungle via a city called Puerto Maldonado. PM is one of the largest jungle cities in Peru, but it's dwarfed by all of the other places we've seen. Our flight out of a Cusco was delayed about 90 minutes, but the 40-minute flight to PM meant that we didn't lose the day with the delay.

We landed in PM, picked up our luggage, and met the shuttle drivers from the Hacienda Concepcion, our home for the next three nights. They drove us to their facility 100 m outside of the airport, where we wandered a butterfly sanctuary while they checked our passports and such. Once everything was confirmed, we drove through PM to the docks on the river. PM is nothing to write home about. Its main industries are mining, lumber, and tourism, and the main feature is that the intercontinental highway runs straight through town.

At the docks, we boarded two motorboats and headed down the Madre de Dios river past where it merges with the Tambopata river. PM was 85 and muggy, but the ride down the river was cool and breezy.

We got to the resort dock (really just some hard mud steps created as the river receded during the dry season), had lunch, and settled in to our cabana. We befriended Linda and Jim, another couple from LA, and we lunched together and shared adventure stories about our Peru trips. After settling in for a bit, we all reconvened at the nature lodge for a welcome talk by Gabriel and Dino. Each day has about three different nature adventures that we can take part in, and G and D talked about today's events, both of which we took part in.

The first was a 60-minute long nature walk through the grounds with one of the guides. Dino led our group, pointing out flora and fauna as we progressed. Here are some things I learned:

  • Some palm trees can walk.
  • Monkeys are territorial.
  • This area of the Amazon has no history of malaria (so I stopped taking my malaria meds).
  • Dino always carries his machete.

After we got back for the walk, we had a bit of time to finish unpacking and wander the grounds at dusk.

Once the sun set, we gathered back at the Eco lodge to take a nighttime boat cruise in search of nocturnal animals. We found a number of caimans and a few roosting birds.

After the cruise, a nice dinner in the hotel. The service was a little confused (5 waiters couldn't handle 20 tables), but the food was excellent.

Now, we're back in our cabana for the night. Each of the cabanas has a bed, a hammock, a chair, a loveseat, and bathroom facilities. There is very little power, and what power there is is regulated: the electricity is shut off for about 8 hours per day. It's chilly at night, and the jungle is alive with insects and bats. Tomorrow: birds and monkeys!



19 June 2014

Peru: Day 10: Machu Picchu and back to Cusco

It was way dark this morning when I got up and left the hotel. S finally was getting a good night's sleep, so she stayed back. I grabbed some food from the hotel breakfast, made my way to catch the first buses up the mountain, and was inside the sanctuary while the sky was just starting to glow.

I hung out for a while, taking photos, until the crowds turned my perch into a hollering spot. After that, I packed up and joined a few new friends for a hike along a ridge line to an old structure overlooking Machu Picchu. My new friends are in the middle of a long journey around the world, and we made plans to possibly meet up when they pass through LA in May.

By now, the sun was fully up, but I had a few hours to kill before my entry time for the Huayna Picchu hike. Huayna Picchu is the big mountain that's always in the background of the iconic MP shots. You can hike it, but you need a ticket and are assigned an entry time. By the time my window opened, I was ready for a challenge. I hadn't gone running in over a week, and my body was anxious for a push.

The round-trip up and down HP is estimated to take around two hours, but you're given a four-hour window to complete it. The record for the fastest trip up is 22 minutes. I did it in 25. By the time I got to the top, I was soaked and winded, but the views were tremendous. The peak was small and rocky, and only a half dozen people could be up there at once. From the summit, you can see all of MP.

You are also high enough that you have a tremendous view of the surrounding mountains, including the snow-capped ones way in the distance.

After racing up and down (round-trip time: 65 minutes), I took the bus back to town, grabbed a bite, and wandered through the orchid garden at the hotel.

S and I met up, had a massage (which I needed after all of the climbing), and we wandered the souvenir market until it was time to get on the train. The train took us partway back to Cusco, and we caught a shuttle van the rest of the way.

Tomorrow is another travel day, from Cusco into the Amazon jungle. I'm unsure of the internet situation there, so this may be my last post for a few days.



18 June 2014

Peru: Day 9: Machu Picchu

An early morning, with little sleep. We caught an early train into Aguas Calientes, met our guide Augustino, and hopped on a bus up to Machu Picchu, the grandest city of the ancient Incan empire. A was our guide for a few hours, taking us around the remains, explaining what we knew about the site and why we knew it. We saw the Temple of the Sun, with two windows pointed at the rising points of the sun at the two solstices. We saw two stone compasses, houses, an ancient Incan toilet, evidence of abandoned growth, and millions of terraces. We ate overpriced empanadas. We hiked to the Incan Bridge, and we scouted our where to go tomorrow morning for our sunrise journey. We saw mountains, cliffs, bridges, temples, llamas, and thousands of tourists.

After returning to Aguas Calientes, we checked into our hotel, drank our complimentary Pisco Sour, and tried to find a hot tub to dip our legs into. Unfortunately, a family of loud Americans had monopolized the pool and both hot tubs, so it was impossible to get close to a water source without being splashed. We retired, cleaned up for dinner, ate at the hotel restaurant (smoked trout tartar, corn and quinoa soufflé, cuy confit, mushroom risotto), and then walked through town as kids played soccer and shopkeepers closed up for the night. It's off to an early bed for us tonight, so that we can make it to the top of the mountain in time for sunrise in the morning.

Alas, no pictures today. I took lots, but the internet here is very slow. Just text for now. Photos to follow.

17 June 2014

Peru: Day 8: The Sacred Valley

We've decided that today is the day our vacation truly began. It was, from top to bottom, excellent! An 8am pickup at our hotel had us on the road out of Cusco into the Sacred Valley, a long valley full of ancient Incan temples and very fertile soil.
We made a couple of short stops at an Incan checkpoint and a lookout, but the real first stop was at a site designed to show, from animal to gift shop, how the beautiful Incan weavings are made. We met all kinds of cameloids, saw their wool being colored, watched the wool being woven into textiles, and watched the textiles being sold to us. Except for the exit-through-the-gift-shop ending, it was really neat. We didn't buy anything, but we left a nice tip.
From then, down into the valley, up the other side, to an ancient Incan village called Pisac. Pisac, like most Incan communities, is perched high on a mountain side, lined with terraced agriculture and filled with ancient buildings. Our guide for the day Janet walked with us through a number of the structures, through watchtowers, across the terraces, and through the temples. The walk was longer than we expected, but it was stunning.
After the visit to ancient Pisac, we went down in the valley to modern Pisac, a cute town with colonial Spanish roots at the mouth of the Sacred Valley. We did a little shopping, had a snack (banana empanadas!), and headed north through the valley to lunch.
Lunch was weird. We are at an outdoor restaurant attached to a hotel. The food was dynamite, including some of the best pork I've ever had, and while we ate, there was an odd dressage show. Yes, with horses. No, the Romneys weren't involved (at least, I hope not).
From lunch, we headed further north to Ollantaytambo, which is a mountainside temple. S didn't climb it (tired, not much sleep), but J and I went to the top. Along the way, J talked about how the Incans moved large rocks from distant mountains and crafted the temple. The Incans had no written language, and shortly after the Spanish arrived, most of the Incan royalty were put to the sword. So, most of what we know now about the Incans features a not insignificant amount of guesswork. But one thing we do know is that this mountainside, which faces Ollantaytambo, has a man's face carved into it, and that carving is entirely man made.
As the sun set behind the mountains, our driver took us to our fancy hotel, where we took a swim in the heated pool as we looked at the southern stars, had a quick bite in the hotel, and then retired early.
Machu Picchu is tomorrow!

16 June 2014

Peru: Day 7: Andean Explorer

This was the first morning in a few days where I didn't have to get up at a time starting with 5. Today my alarm was for 6am. Baby steps.

After a mildly dramatic morning getting to the train station, we boarded the high-falutin' Andean Explorer train for the ten-hour journey from Puno to Cusco. The interior of the train is beautiful, with armchairs for every passenger, white tablecloths, etc.

As we rode north out of Puno, we alternated beautiful vistas with industrial zones and small impoverished towns. We rode parallel with a highway for a while, and the trash alongside the road was thick.

We noticed a few days ago that many (most?) of the houses and other buildings in Peru, particularly outside Lima, have rebar sticking out of the top of them. I asked Omar about it a few days ago, and he replied that the poor in Peru don't have to pay taxes, and that a way to indicate that you are poor is to have an unfinished home. Because of this, many homes will look shabby on the outside to avoid taxes, but inside it's quite nice and fancy. The government is onto this scam, and they send out auditors to check up on unfinished homes to make sure that they're poor on the inside as well.

We passed through a town's market. Like, literally through the market. The market is built along the train tracks, and every time a train rolls through, the vendors have to pull their awnings back to make room for the train. Lots of kids waved as we traversed the market, but most of the adults just went about their business buying and selling fruit, animals, car parts, cement mixers, toys, and electric looms. Our Spanish seatmates took a video off the back of the train and saw the awnings being lowered and goods being replaced on the tracks just after the train passed. In some cases, books had been placed between the rails, and the booksellers had removed just enough books so the train could pass over without destroying their wares.

We moved further north, and I killed some time watching movies. Out of the corner of my eye, the landscape changed from small dirty cement towns with a little bit of beautiful landscape to lots of beautiful landscape with small bits of dirty cement towns.

Lunch was served on the train: an amuse bouche (fruit and nuts with yogurt and granola), a salad or soup (both were delicious), a main course (chicken for me and manicotti for S), and then a passionfruit mousse. Very fancy!

Usually when I travel by train, I notice the train making sounds that fall in to a 4/4 rhythm: CHUG-chug-CHUG-chug. But this train is making a sound in five: CH-ch-ch-CH-rest-CH-ch-ch-CH.

In the middle of the lunch course, after we passed the southbound train, we made a short stop at La Raya, the highest point on the journey. At 4019m, there's not much here, but there is a small church and (bonus!) a small craft market. We stopped for ten minutes, long enough to get out, stretch your legs, take a few photos, and dodge the pushy craft-peddlers.

Back on the train for the second half of the ride. S and I spent part of the ride on the back car, half of which is a bar, and half of which is a observation car. We saw a demonstration of how to make a Pisco Sour, which included a double pour to get a foam layer.

Towards the end of the trip, the light dipped behind the mountains and the air got a little chilly. The staff came by with peach bellinis, pastries, and coca tea.

The music on the train, it should be noted, is about 40 minutes long and plays an almost constant loop. S and I can sing you most of the tunes. But we won't.

Arriving in Cusco was relatively painless, and we got out hotel in time to watch USA beat Ghana! Then, we met with our guide Janet, who explained a few unexpected details regarding baggage for the next few days. After that, we headed into the main plaza in Cusco in search of dinner.

Cusco is beautiful. Picturesque, cosmopolitan, with a nice balance of street hawkers and nice establishments. We wandered the plaza for a while, in search of guidebook-recommended restaurants that have since closed before finding a Thai place. My curry was good, but S's Pad Thai had a distinctly strong ketchup flavor. The restaurant had a strong English Pub vibe, and the music was a dance remix of Beatles classics. I was just glad it wasn't pan flute.

No photos of Cusco yet... we just grabbed a quick dinner before an evening of replacing before tomorrow's journey into the jungle. Short story (and I hope this remains true) is that Our first impressions of Cusco is that it's what we've been hoping Peru would be!