Friday, September 23, 2016

Peru, Day 8 and 9: Brief tour of Lima

I never thought that Lima would be my favorite part of the trip - I had heard Cusco was more enjoyable from almost everyone I knew who had been to both cities. And as predicted, it wasn't my favorite. 

The books I read talked about the crime problems there, so we were constantly on our guard (even without the armed guards on every street corner after dark). I also felt a lot more of the colonial influence of Spain on Peru here than in Cusco, where there is much more pre-colonial culture. 

Still, we had some interesting visits. Our hotel, the Gran Hotel Bolivar, is a grand old dame where the pisco sour drink was allegedly invented. The lobby had a striking stained glass cupola (see at right). And by this point in the trip, I was able to converse a lot in Spanish with the hotel staff. 

On the afternoon of Day 8, we were able to see the Covento de San Francisco and its fascinating catacombs. It was probably my favorite thing that we saw in Lima. It killed me not to take pictures inside, because the courtyard and cloisters were amazing, as were the arranged bones in catacombs. 

Also, there was a hilarious moment at the end of the tour, the guide said simply, "OK guys...that's it. It's over." Well then.

We had a really enjoyable Italian-Peruvian fusion dinner at Tanta in the El Centro district. Apparently this chain was begun by Gaston Acurio, founder of modern Peruvian cuisine. And apparently there is one in Chicago. Guess we'll have to go!

On Day 9, we had a quick breakfast at the hotel and visited the Iglesia de San Pedro, which had gloriously ornate altars and decorations.

I think I might have been all churched out at that point, though.

On our way back to the hotel to leave, we passed by a supermarket. I love perusing supermarkets in foreign countries, because you get to see how people really live. 

Of course, tons of potatoes. I should have bought some Inka Corn. DAMNIT.

Well, that was my trip to Peru. It was really fantastic, and I'm so glad I went. If you are thinking of going, go. If you can't do a full hike, get a train. Just go.

I'm planning on doing a post later with all the Incan doors I took pictures of. What glory. And now I'm off to buy some Inka Corn on Amazon.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Peru, Day 7: Machu Picchu

OK, friends and neighbors, this is the big one - Machu Picchu!

This particular set of ruins is the reason that Dave wanted to go on this trip in the first place. However, I have to say that the hike up until this point had been so awesome that I told Dave that even if we didn't see Machu Picchu, it would have been an amazing trip regardless.

Well, I take it back. Machu Picchu was amazing and I can't imagine not having seen it. I was afraid it wouldn't live up to the hype. It did.

We stood in the longest line in the universe for some buses, which we rode up a windy switchback road into some quite misty sugarloaf hills. When we reached the top, it was still misty enough that you really couldn't see the ruins. But that wasn't deterring some grazing llamas.


Seeing the ruins unfold as the mist cleared was pretty cool, actually. 

Disnarda took us around, starting with the quarry, agricultural terraces, the king's quarters, the sun temple, and other spots. As I think I have said in previous posts, the Incans used mortar for normal buildings, but religious places were denoted with mortarless, perfectly fitting stones.

The Incans even figured out a way to make an accurate compass out of stone, although I don't know how they figured out what true north is. Pretty cool.

The ruins weren't too packed, but the view at right gives you an idea what the ruins looked like with tons of tourists in them.

See below for a view from above of the sun temple, which is the curvy-walled building. The other buildings are largely residential and storage.

One of the most striking things about being among the ruins is that you are surrounded by these beautiful, lush mountains. Even being at that place without the ruins would be striking. A good example is the photo below, which shows some distant mountains through the clouds, past the ruins.

And here are those mortarless stones we were talking about! This is the aptly named "temple of three windows."

Also, this photo here is like the Inception of Incan doors! Love it, love it, love it.

So, at this point, we were acclimatized enough that we weren't getting much out of breath walking up and down the ruins. However, we did have tickets to Huayna Picchu, an infamously steep and perilous trek up the mountain "behind" the Machu Picchu ruins.

I was willing to give it a try, and I made it about a quarter of the way up. However, the stairs were so steep and insane that I freaked out and had to go back down. Here's an example of what I mean. You can also find videos on YouTube of the entire climb. I can barely even watch the videos.

ANYWAY.  Here is a view of the ruins from the point at Huayna Picchu where I turned around:

Dave got way better photos because he made it to the top. Once I'm done blending our digital photos from the trip, the photos will be available on our Shutterfly site.

In the early afternoon, we walked up to the Sun Gate, which is how people on the traditional Inca Trail enter Machu Picchu. It shows you a nice view of the ruins and Huayna Picchu, but also the crazy switchback roads that we took up by bus!

There is a drop-off on the other side of me here. I still kind of can't believe that I took this photo.

After checking out the view from the Sun Gate, we went back for a few more hours with the ruins. I sat and knitted and relaxed for a while, we read through our travel book descriptions, and then we did a final walk-through, this time with significantly fewer tourists.

The llamas had moved around, too:

This guy was standing glorious watch over the quarry area. See those majestic ears??

And we found a whole pile of llamas near the exit. This is one of my top five favorite pictures from the entire trip.

It was a really wonderful place to be. Shockingly beautiful, definitely some trippy vertigo feelings, but also just peaceful, regardless of the amount of tourists pouring through. I definitely recommend (unless you have small kids - all kids I saw were completely miserable).

Trip is almost over! I hope you have had fun following along! 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Peru, Day 6: Ollantaytambo

At the beginning of the sixth day, we took our last little hike - down to the town of Ollantaytambo. Nestled in a valley, this is the first stop for many visitors taking the traditional Inca trail, although for us it was our last stop because we took an alternative route. 

As you can see here, the town is full of ruins and ancient sites. 

In many places, they have planted crops in the raised terraces to show how farming would have taken place in the olden days.

Disnarda took Dave and Lindsay up this fun little mountainside path that gives you a good view of the town and archeological ruins, but I was all out of patience for vertical hikes at this point, and I was also tired. So I sat and knitted and looked at this:

The ruins at Ollantaytambo are supposed to be in the shape of a llama, which is maybe a little easier to see in an image like this. The rocks for Ollantaytambo came from the quarry we had visited the day prior, otherwise known as "the place I ruined my quads for life." A lot of it is unfinished, particularly the temple of the sun, which should have had more slabs.

Of course, there is an Incan door! Love it!

We went up the terraces, then up and around and down the other terraces, all of which prevented erosion and allowed farming on terrain that was otherwise unused. Pretty cool!

And speaking of agriculture, I met some llama friends, which hang out in the field in front of the ruins and eat the grass, so we think of them as Peruvian groundskeepers. 

At one point, a big black one came over for a big drink of water from a fountain. I said he was hanging out on the job, and Disnarda said, "well he works here, he needs a water break!"

I love their shaggy little heads. They are a glorious combination of regal and ridiculous.

In fact, on our way out, we saw another glorious llama scene, with one grazing fellow and some terraces behind him. I asked Disnarda, and those are potatoes.

We got to visit a little arts and crafts area at Ollantaytambo; Dave and I bought some fabrics, as well as some backpacks for the children of our friends who were watching the bunny while we were away. I got to use my Spanish skills to ask how much things were. At one point, I grabbed a backpack from up on high, where a local would have had to grab it with a hook on a pole. I said, "Soy alta!" and she said, "Si, si!"

At that point, we had to grab our bags and head down to the train station for a ride to Aguas Calientes - the last stop before Machu Picchu. Most people who go to Machu Picchu stop for a night in this strange little resort town, which somehow felt more like Katmandu than any Peruvian city we had visited.

For dinner that night in town, we got to sample "chifa," which is a blend of Chinese and Peruvian cuisine. Interestingly, you cannot see the ruins of Machu Picchu from the town of Aguas Calientes, although the next day at Machu Picchu, we could see the town from the path between the ruins and the Sun Gate. You can tell definitely see how the Spanish never found it!

Tomorrow is the big day!  

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Peru, Day 5: Last all-day hike

On this day, we awoke fairly refreshed, although I believe this was the day that Dave had a bad headache. I started to worry if my travel companions were falling one by one, and that I would be next! But Lindsay was feeling like a new woman after some serious sleep, so our group was in fairly good shape.

Breakfast this morning was worth a mention - Disnarda brought them in, explaining that they were condor eggs.

I got a little worried, because she had also told us that condors were endangered. However, it turned out that the "yolk" was actually a peach, and the white was grits. Peruvian jokes!

Our first order of business was to descend the steep, narrow Puncu Puncu canyon, which happened to be under a cloud of fog. The mist was beautiful and eerie.

Descending first, after having started the last two days ascending first, was a nice thing.

Disnarda also showed us an ancient Inca aquaduct, which I'll point out on a photo later in this post. You may remember that the peak in yesterday's post was at 15,000 feet, and the aquaduct began not too far below that, at about 14,000 feet. Parts of the aquaduct have fallen down, but other parts still serve the locals. Pretty fancy.

The fog continued as we entered the Chillca Valley, obscuring the mountains across the valley.

As we hiked, the fog gave way to clear views, with clouds still hiding all but the highest peaks. We took the opportunity to take some photos at this picturesque little spot:

We kept hiking for a while on an even path, which slowly began to incline. Eventually it ascended into a switchback the likes of which I have not seen before and have no desire to see again. Even just thinking about it as I type on this computer, in the safety of a chair sitting at sea level, my blood pressure rises a little. It was a very, very difficult ascent, and very steep, giving me the heebie-jeebies.

As soon as we rounded the corner at the pass, however, we saw our lunch spot already waiting for us:

This is the photo where you can see the Inca aquaduct. You can see the remainder of some ancient terraces softly sloping now that there are no stones to hold them up. Above that, just below the top of the hill on the right side of the photo, you can see the stony aquaduct. It was actually the path that we used to walk to lunch! Walking in an empty, ancient aquaduct is a new one for me.

After lunch, we walked up to what was probably my second-favorite ruins of the whole adventure (after Machu Picchu, of course) - the Wind Gate, or Wayra Puncu. Look at this thing, standing watch in the distance:

As you may recall, I fostered a great love of Incan doors on our trip. This was the most fantastic Incan door that ever happened.

We got a wonderful little group photo in these ruins, which were a site used to worship the wind. The spot stands atop a mountain where two valleys meet, and you can see so beautifully far in every direction.

One more.

That ascent up the third pass was rough, but let me tell you - Wayra Puncu was worth it.

We met a very nice gentleman at the ruins who had actually climbed up the valley from Ollantaytambo. He asked where we had come from, since he didn't see us on the path, and we explained that we had been so high that we came DOWN to Wayra Puncu. I also realized that he was the first non-trek-member human that we had seen in about two days. Crazy.

The rest of this day was devoted to ascending the path toward the town of Ollantaytambo, which we would explore tomorrow. On our way down, we walked through the K'achikata quarry and its administrative center, Llactaniyoc. 

At Llactaniyoc, we ran into some cows that had pretty much taken over the ruins by grazing. Pretty funny - these ancient ruins of incalculable value, lording over a beautiful valley, and the cows are just hanging out in them like it ain't no thang.

The quarry itself. How do I describe it. Four words: PAIN IN THE ASS. 

The descent consists of switchbacks on these HUGE steps that hurt your knees and thighs the whole way down. In fact, as I sit here typing this a month later, my right thigh STILL hurts. The paths were often strewn with huge boulders, which required stepping and climbing carefully lest you twist an ankle. It was unpleasant, and I hated almost every moment. I might have actually hated it more than the scary, terrible ascents. Ugh, so bad.

At any rate, eventually we found some level, dirt paths, and we came up on our campsite. Some of the cows checked us out:

Not sure if those are the same cows or different cows, but to be sure, the hills and mountains of Peru are teeming with cows. Actually, in the night, they bellowed to each other, sounding much like whales do in the ocean.

This camp is memorable for being our last, and for all the freakin' flies. At this point, we were no longer high enough (altitude-wise) that insects can't breathe, so they were swarming around the cows and their vast quantities of waste product. 

We were beginning to reenter the world of people.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Peru, Day 4: The toughest day

So, given how tough yesterday was, I was more than a bit worried about my ability to achieve the second pass. At this altitude, you're gasping for breath every 20 feet of incline. And Disnarda had shown us where we were going to go:

Look at the above picture - we were told we'd be hiking to the two little "cat ears" sticking out of the rock in the center-right of the ridge. Do you get my anticipation and fear now??

Unfortunately, our travel companion, Lindsay from Canada, was in even worse shape than I was. She had seemed to have no problems hiking the first day, but she wasn't on altitude sickness meds like Dave and I were, so she hadn't been sleeping. Things finally caught up with her in a very unpleasant night after day 1. She still made it partway up the mountain in this state, which Dave and I were very impressed by, but eventually needed some help on a horse. (So at this point I felt better that if I had to be carried up by horse, at least I wasn't the only one!)

Eventually we made it to the lunch spot, where we met Lindsay, who had been resting. Much revived, she was able to make it up the final stretch of the pass with us, which consisted of a very thin dirt path hugging the 45-degree side of the mountain. 

I don't really know how I made it up here, since I am so terrified of steepness. I tried to get a picture, which you can see at right, and you can see how very thin this path was and how little there was to grab onto. If I had slipped, it would have been a big slide down my butt on the side of this thing.

Eventually we made it! The Accoccasa pass is about 15,000 feet up, and you can see the valley behind us. We felt very accomplished, as you can imagine!

At the summit, someone had made a lot of little rock sculpture guys, similar to what I'd seen at Sacsayhuaman a few days prior. I love these little guys!

Once we had reached the summit, it was a very pleasant, slow walk down into the Chancachuco Valley to our camp. This was one of the more pleasant walks of the entire trip, with a nice slow slope, no rocks, and lots to look at.

For example, we found many animal bones, including an entire horse skeleton. Apparently a river sometimes overflows into the valley, carrying all kinds of detritus down. 

At the pass, our porters and horses had also passed us, so we got to see them descending this very lovely valley ahead of us. Here is Disnarda showing off:

Another thing I loved in the valley were these odd little cacti that looked soft and fluffy, with little pops of yellow flowers deep inside:

Disnarda said that, from far away, they look "like sheep taking a siesta." Sure enough, we eventually came upon a hill of them. Pretty cute.

I really want to crochet a scarf or cowl to commemorate these cacti, which were my favorite plants on the whole trip. Not sure how to do that, but I'm sure some fun fur will be involved.

Here's a fun shot of me in the camp at the end of day 2, right before dinner. 

In this camp, we were on a bit of a hill, so we were sort of sliding downhill all night and had to keep pushing ourselves up.

Dinner on this night was special and definitely worth mentioning - our chef prepared a special lamb and potato feast on the fire, with hot rocks and straw serving as the oven. I was continually impressed by the food served on the trek; Andean Treks should be very proud of their teams.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Peru, Day 3: IT BEGINS

The trail hike to the Sacred Valley begins!

We shoved down breakfast at the hotel and were picked up by van at about 6:30 a.m. Our first stop was the small town of Izcuchaca and its small market. Disnarda wanted to show us what a local Andean market looked like, and like a lot of Peru, it was suitably cute and gritty all at the same time.

Locals brought in their fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat from all over the province to sell at the market. We saw tons of potatoes, black corn, and even a truck full of chicken feet.

After that, we drove through some more villages but didn't stop in any, and then visited the Moonstone shrine, known in Quechua as Quillarumiyoq. 

This is a really cool shrine to the moon and water. We were able to climb around on some paths and staircases. Disnarda, our guide, explained that whenever you see Incan stones placed together with no mortar - as these stones are, and as the stones at Sacsayhuaman are - it indicates a holy place. Pretty cool.

We drove a bit more, then began our hike on the side of the road on a trail that locals use to get to town. I started things off awesomely by forgetting my damn cell phone in the van, so he had to come back. (I plied him with a ten-sole note.) At that point, I'm sure Disnarda thought I was an idiot she was going to have to drag around all week.

At one point, so did I. Walking uphill for several hours at that altitude was a tough beginning to the hike, and I began to wonder if I'd be up for the journey. We eventually made it to the top of the first pass, the pre-Incan ruins at Wat'a, at about 12,000 feet. We lunched and I knitted.

The next few hours were downhill, which went very quickly. We got to see lots of Peruvian sheep and cows, although no llamas yet. (Apparently llamas don't do well as pack animals in this specific area of the Andes, because the loads are too heavy. According to Disnarda, a llama of any size will carry 30 kilos, but not one kilo more. Anything beyond that and he'll lie down and refuse to move.)

I tried to stop and appreciate the beautiful nature scenes, and Disnarda told us a lot about the flora and fauna of the Andes. Because there are not many doctors around this area, many locals use a healer instead, who employs the local plant life to treat wounds and other ills.

I should mention at this point that the three of us and Disnarda were frequently lapped by the horses, porter, and cook who had to get ahead of us to each site to prepare lunch, or at the end of the day, dinner and camp. As we descended on a trail into Chillihuapa, a little town in the middle of a valley, we saw our camp had been prepared for us for the night:

We pretty much slept amongst the burros, horses, and sheep that night, hearing their chatter and watching the stars. I have never been in the southern hemisphere, so I got to see some cool new constellations. As you can guess, it was also so dark that you can see the Milky Way quite clearly, as the Incans did.

All in all, the first day was really fun and satisfying, but I worried about my ability to finish the hike without needing to be forcibly carried by horse, particularly on the second day, which Disnarda had told us would be the most difficult. You'll have to continue reading to see if I make it!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Peru, Day 2: Explore Cusco

Today was the beginning of Peru impressing the shit out of me.

First up was a trek up the hill to Sacsayhuaman, an Incan religious site and fortress. Together with Cusco and some of the city's other structures, Sacsayhuaman was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983. Apparently it is the second most important Incan ruin, after Machu Picchu itself. (And if you say the name really fast, it sounds like "sexy woman." Sigh.)

We walked up the hill around 7 a.m. to get there when it opened, because we had a really full day planned. We got our pass and walked up the hill, which was good practice for our planned Andean trek.

I really didn't know what to expect - just kind of a pile of stones with some nice views of the city of Cusco, I think. What I saw waiting for me at the top of the hill made my jaw drop.

The stone fortress was originally a religious area used to worship the lightning god, or so the signs told me. Later it was used as a fortress of last stand against the Spanish. The zig-zag ramparts were perfect for defense, but eventually the fortress fell. Many of the stones were taken away and used to build things like the Cusco Catedral (see yesterday's post) and only about a fifth of the original stones remain. Still, they are large and in charge.

Overlook of Sacsayhuaman wall remnants with little stone stack
This is also the site where I was introduced to my favorite thing about Incan ruins - their doors. I don't know what it is, but I utterly fell in love with these doors while I was on this trip. Later, I'll have to do a post just with the doors.

None of my photos, posted here or to my Facebook page, really do the fortress justice, so you should do a Google image search, or just check this photo out! Really cool place.

After the visit to Sacsayhuaman, we had to head back down the hill to our trek headquarters, Andean Treks, where we were going to receive a briefing from our tour guide, as well as the duffel bags to fill that night before the trek began.

We met our lovely guide, Disnarda, and our fellow trekker, Lindsay. A lot of what Disnarda told us made me feel better, like prepping us mentally for our most difficult hiking days. I think this trek was the biggest "unknown" thing we had ever booked on a vacation, and I mostly booked it assuming that we were physically up to the challenge from all my running and triathlon stuff this year. I was hoping I was not wrong.

For lunch, we hit a cute spot, Quinta Eulalia, which was recommended by our tour company. Apparently Cusco is full of these little open air lunch spots, which all serve Cusqueña beer and have chalkboard menus. I got a trout, which is a commonly served fish in the Andes, and Dave got the infamous delicacy cuy - roast guinea pig. (Click this image at your own peril.) To Dave's credit, he dug in. Not bad - tasted like dark meat chicken.

In the afternoon, we hit a few more touristy spots, mainly Qorikancha and its associated museum. 

This site was the main Incan temple in Cusco, before being stripped of gold by the Spanish, who then built a church and monastery on top of it. The juxtaposition here is so obvious and interesting that people flock to it, although honestly Dave and I were both a little underwhelmed by the museum and site. (Maybe my book, Fodor's, had overhyped it a bit.)

Dinner was a tasty pizza at Chez Maggy, a tiny little shop. Peruvians really love their fusion food, and they really love their pizza. 

At night, we packed our stuff into our duffel bags if we were taking it on our five-day hike to Machu Picchu, or left it in the suitcase if not. I also started the knitting project that I planned to bring with on the hike, which you have seen if you follow my Instagram.

On to the Andes!