Monday, July 9, 2007

June 20: San Francisco - Lima

We had a nearly two-hour delay at the very disorganized Miami airport. So our flight didn't arrive in Lima until just after midnight local time. After a long wait to get through immigration and an even longer wait for our luggage, we exited customs and immigration and faced a huge waiting crowd. By this time it was after 1am. The hotel I booked was supposed to send a driver to pick us up, but given the late hour, I was doubting that anyone would be there waiting for us. Still, I scanned the crowd looking for my name on one of the many signs being held up. Taxi drivers kept trying to get our attention, hoping to snag a fare. I kept looking for my name as we wandered further into the crowd, and then Jim spotted my last name on one of the signs! Unbelievable! Maybe the hotel called the airline and so they knew about our late arrival. We introduced ourselves to the driver, Jose, who grabbed Betsy's bag and led us to the car.

The drive from the airport to the hotel in Miraflores took about a half-hour, even at that late hour with no traffic (there are no airport hotels in Lima). We drove through an area of shops and residences, not too attractive, but no shock to us either - we were prepared for the generally unappealing nature of the city. After skirting along the coast, the driver took us up a steep hill into the Miraflores district, where most of the tourist hotels and shops are located. I wasn't too impressed with Miraflores, either - at least what I saw from the car at 2am. But fortunately our hotel was located on a quiet residential street, we checked in, and were in bed by 2:25am.

June 21: Lima - Cusco

We were up by 6:15, with just 4 hours of sleep. Our hotel in Miraflores, the San Antonio Abad, appeared to be in a predominantly residential area. As I expected, the winter cloud cover, or garúa as the limeños call it, made for a gray and misty dawn. We had no plans to stay in Lima more than one night. The guide books say that under all the grit and grime Lima actually has some wonderful sights for the tourist, and I don't doubt it, but we headed straight for the Andes.

As the LAN Peru flight began its descent into Cusco, I looked out the left side of the plane at a perfectly blue sky that served as a backdrop for several ice-and-snow-covered peaks. What a thrilling introduction to the Andes. As soon as the plane landed and we were making our way across the tarmac to the terminal, I began to feel the effects of the altitude (Cusco is at 11,500 ft). Nothing serious, just lightheadedness and a slight goofy feeling. The air was dry, slightly warm, and mountain clear.

I had the taxi driver stop at the Wanchaq train station on the way to the hotel so that we could pick up our train tickets for Machu Picchu for the following day. Then we went directly to the Niños Hotel.

What a pleasant hotel that turned out to be, with a lovely courtyard and incredibly sweet staff. The photo shows all three of us in the hotel courtyard.

We got settled in our rooms on the ground floor, and after a short rest, ventured into the streets. Cusco was in the midst of celebrations and preparations for the annual Inti Raymi (or winter solstice) festival, which would climax the following Sunday with an elaborate ceremony at the Sacsayhuaman fortress ruins above the town.
We worked our way through the Plaza de Armas, where all sorts of folkloric dance troupes were parading past what appeared to be a judges' review. The historic center of Cusco is very impressive. Of course you will see some of the Inca masonry supporting colonial architecture. But you will also see winding streets, beautiful painted doorways, and carved balconies reminiscent of Seville or Granada. But the city has a character all its own. Despite the huge concentration of souvenir stalls and tourist shops, the town is attractive, and the historical center very clean.

We walked up a narrow, steep street to a small restaurant, Granja Heidi, that was recommended by the hotel staff for a light lunch.The second-floor dining room of the restaurant is attractive and flooded with natural light. After lunch, we headed back to the hotel for naps.

I woke up before Jim and Betsy and walked a few blocks to the Cultural Institute to see if I could purchase our entry tickets for Machu Picchu for the next day. Unfortunately, my guide book gave the wrong hours for the office that sells the tickets, and they were closed by the time I got there just before 5pm. At this point it was starting to get dark and I could feel a headache coming on. I figured it must be a symptom of altitude sickness, or soroche, as the locals call it.

By the time the three of us sat down to dinner, my head was pounding, I was having chills, and had lost my appetite. I ordered a bowl of soup that turned out to be too rich and spicy. I just had some of the broth. I was in such agony that could not participate in the most basic conversation. On our way back to the hotel, I thought I was going to be sick in the streets. But we made it back to the hotel, where I immediately got into bed and went to sleep. Although soroche would return to bother me over the next few days, it never got as bad again as it was that first night.

June 22: Cusco - Machu Picchu

I woke from my long soroche-induced sleep to find my headache nearly gone. No more chills or nausea, either. Still, I moved slowly, feeling vulnerable and afraid that the symptoms would return. We left the Niños Hotel at 8:00am, picked up by Abram, the taxi driver we would use over the next few days. The 1½-hour cab ride to Ollantaytambo, to catch our train to Machu Picchu, cost us about $30. Abram turned out to be a friendly fellow who was easy to chat with. I found out that he is a native of Cusco, that he grew up speaking Quechua, and that to this day his mother still speaks only Quechua, no Spanish.

The road out of Cusco ascends a ridge, drops down to a valley, then ascends again before the final descent into the Sacred Valley. From one end to the other, the valley is beautiful. We arrived in Ollantaytambo in plenty of time to catch the train. Betsy and Jim had seats in the very front of the train with a large window right in front of them, which turned out to be quite a treat since the views from the train were spectacular. I was just a couple of rows behind them on the right side. As you proceed down the valley, the vegetation becomes greener and fuller, the walls of the valley narrowing until you are in a leafy gorge with the swift-flowing Urubamba/Vilcanota river making its way down the mountains to the jungle to the east. By the time you reach Aguas Calientes the mountains are covered in leafy vegetation, with flowers and butterflies in abundance. You have descended from Cusco, about 11,500 feet, to about 6,500 feet, and the difference is notable in the quality of the air and light.

We had a 1:30 appointment to meet our guide, Wagner, at the checkpoint just before you enter Machu Picchu. He was there, on time, and our tour began. It was a good idea to hire a guide for our introduction to the ruins, as there are very few signs telling you what you're looking at. Wagner had a historical/scientific view of Machu Picchu and Inca history in general and scoffed at those who think the place is a source of spiritual energy. He pointed out the agricultural and structural terracing, the two urban centers, and gave us a pretty detailed account of the the Sun Temple and how astronomical observations were used to construct its orientation to the sunrise over the peaks to the east. This orientation was especially important during the summer and winter solstices, when the rays of the rising sun pinpoint specific areas inside the temple.

After our 2½ hour tour, we said goodbye to Wagner and explored the ruins on our own. The afternoon light was perfect for photos, and we were able to explore the city after the vast majority of tourists had already left. The setting of Machu Picchu is stunning. It sits high on a spur with the Urubamba/Vilcanota River making a large loop at its base, thousands of feet below. The Andean peaks in this area on the eastern slopes are covered in vegetation and the air is more humid than in Cusco because of its orientation toward the jungle. Snow-capped peaks sparkle in the distance.

June 23: Machu Picchu - Ollantaytambo

Our next day allowed us plenty of time to explore Machu Picchu on our own. Our guide from the previous day warned us that the early buses from Aguas Calientes to the ruins could be very crowded, with everyone wanting to get to Machu Picchu to see the sunrise. We decided to take a 7:30 bus, which was fine. By the time we got through the entrance, the clouds were rising from the valley and the view was spectacular. But we missed the sunrise.

This was a day for hiking and enjoying the splendid vistas. Truly, in every direction you turn, you are delighted with a view of the Inca ruins, precipitous peaks covered in lush foliage, sparkling blue skies, and snow-covered mountaintops in the distance.

We first walked up to the Watchman's Hut, which offers the postcard view of Machu Picchu with the peak of Huayna Picchu in the background. I actually found the afternoon light better for pictures from this vantage point (the photo above was a late morning shot).

From the hut, we proceeded up the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate, or Intipunku. This was a beautiful hike up a long steadily ascending path. The views along the way and at the top were stunning. I recommend this hike, which can be done at a slow pace without being too strenuous. We saw people in their late 60s and possibly even older making their way up the trail, slowly and steadily. There is actually an Inca stone gate at the very top of the ridge. The gate is the point at which the sun rises and shines its rays into the citadel's Sun Temple during the summer solstice, December 21.

At the top we rested, took in the view, as did other hikers. This is the ideal spot to stop for a little merienda, or snack. On the other side of the ridge the Inca Trail continues as it descends into a lush valley. Actually, the Sun Gate is considered the end of the Inca Trail. Organized groups who walk the trail (it's a three-night, four-day journey) time their hiking so they arrive at the gate at sunrise.

After our walk back to the ruins, we passed through the checkpoint for the ascent to Huayna Picchu. We didn't make it all the way to the top; if fact, when we came to a fork in the trail, we chose the left passage, which after a short climb led us to a very private area of Inca terraces with nice views of MP and the river gorge below, as well as 360º mountain vistas.

We made it back to Aguas Calientes in time for a late lunch on the main plaza. Then, before retrieving our bags from the hostal, we passed an hour or so in the local marketplace. Back again at the train station, we waited for our train - the Vistadome Valley, which departed at 4:45 for Ollantaytambo. On board, we were treated to a fashion show (with disco music, no less!) featuring the attendants modeling alpaca sweaters.

Arrival in Ollantaytambo was in the dark. But, there was the representative from the Hotel Sauce (pronounced SAW say), holding a sign with my name on it. Throughout our trip, we were impressed with how dependable the Peruvian people were. If they said they were going to be at a certain spot at a given time, they were there. The man from the hotel grabbed Betsy's suitcase, hoisted it on his shoulders and led us on a rather speedy walk to the hotel. We rushed to keep up with our greeter, confused a bit by the commotion of cars, vans, buses, headlights, other pedestrians, and dust.

The Hotel Sauce turned out to be quite a nice little retreat for us, with quiet rooms and comfortable beds. Betsy got a corner room with a "cama matrimonial" which she seemed to love.

More views of Machu Picchu:

View of Machu Picchu from our hike up to the Sun Gate.

Below: Jim and Betsy on the trail near Huayna Picchu.

June 24: Ollantaytambo - Pisac - Cusco

After breakfast we visited the lovely town and its imposing Inca fortress. In 1537, the Incas were able to repel the Spaniards from here. The Spanish conquistadores were in pursuit of the rebel Inca Manco Inca. He had been the Spaniard's puppet after the death of Atahualpa, but he finally revolted against the conquerors. After a battle at the fortress of Sacsayhuaman outside Cusco, the Inca leader and his followers retreated to the Ollantaytambo fortress, which the Spaniards could not penetrate.
It is quite a climb from the town to the top of the fortress. As you get closer to the top, the Inca stonework becomes more impressive. Once you reach the very top, you have views of the valley stretching out in two directions. A young boy dressed in a traditional cloak, sitting on a low stone wall, offered to sing a song to us in Quechua. We obliged him, and gave him a couple of soles for his efforts.
At 10:30 Abram showed up in his taxi to take us back to Cusco. On the way, we stopped at the Sunday market in Pisac. This weekly market is written up in most guidebooks as a "do not miss" attraction. It is impressive in size and in the variety of items for sell - from pots and pans to potatoes to handicrafts. We all bought these lovely gourds with scenes carved into them. We were introduced to the standard bargaining that goes on in all Peruvian markets. When Betsy hestitated for just a moment in selecting a piece to purchase, one woman looked her in the eye, said with a sigh, "Amiga!" and quickly dropped the price by 5 soles.
After the market we told Abram that we'd like to see the Pisac ruins above the town. The road climbs steeply and reaches a small parking lot that connects to a trail that takes you up to the ruins. We hired a young man, Ruben, to guide us through the ruins. As we walked up the trail, he pulled out his wooden flute and played for us - a nice touch. Again, our steep walk to the top was rewarded by fantastic views in all directions.
The ride back to Cusco was via a different route than the one we had taken before - very scenic. About an hour after leaving Pisac, we arrived at the outskirts of the city, driving past other Inca ruins, then past the Sacsayhuaman fortess where the Inti Raymi festival was just ending. When we saw the crowds and the traffic, we were glad that we skipped the festival in favor of a nice afternoon in the Sacred Valley.
That night we ate dinner at a little restaurant Nuna Raymi. This restaurant was so good and the staff so friendly that we would return there the next night for drinks and then again our final night in Cusco for dinner. The owners are young South Americans who've had restaurant training in the U.S. and speak excellent English. The food was so good and so moderately priced! Jim and Betsy had the trout in parchment and I had a lovely filet mignon. Appetizers consisted of taqueños (little pastry rolls filled with local cheese and served with avocado) and a yummy Peruvian-style tabouli. After dinner we went back to the hotel and had tea in the cozy, candle-lit cafe, with a cheery fire in the corner fireplace to warm us.

Below: Views of Ollantaytambo - town and fortress.

June 25: Cusco/Sacsayhuaman

This was the first full day we had in Cusco. After breakfast we headed to the Qoricancha/Santo Domingo complex. The Qoricancha was the prinipal structure of Inca Cusco. Before the Spanish conquest, it was the main religious and royal center of the city. Inside it contained temples dedicated to the moon, sun, and stars. The individual temples were decorated with gold emblems and carvings, most of which were offered to the Spanish as a ransom for the release of the Inca leader Atahualpa (he was nonetheless executed by the conquistadores and the gold was melted down and sent back to Spain!).

After the conquest, the Spanish began to dismantle the complex to make way for a church, but they found the Inca stonework so formidable that they left about 40% of it standing and used it as a foundation for the church, cloister and monastery of Santo Domingo. After the big Cusco earthquake of 1950, more of the Inca structure was exposed and so now the visitor can get a pretty good idea of the layout of the original complex.

We returned to Granja Heidi for lunch, then met Irene, the guide we had at Qoricancha, so she could take us on what best can be described as a "shopping scavenger hunt." Betsy ended up with a lovely silver pendant with images of the Nasca lines on it, and Jim and I each bought a baby alpaca scarf (which would serve us well later in the trip).

We had one more major site to see that day: Sacsayhuaman, the great Inca fortress. This fortress sits on a high hill overlooking the city. We climbed a steep street which then turned into a steep trail, which then blended with a stairway to finally get to the top. Both the view of the city and the ruins themselves are impressive. The fortress was built in a zig-zag formation to make it more impregnable. The stones used are the largest of any Inca structure. The picture of me and Betsy doesn't really give a good idea of the scale of these giant stones, polished so they fit together perfectly, and still standing after 500 years of ransacking, earthquakes, and battles.

Before dinner we toured the foundation that the Niños Hotel supports for poor children in the Cusco area. The foundation serves approximately 500 children. According to Gladys, the hotel receptionist who gave us the tour, these children come from the most abject poverty: houses made of mud brick with no electricity or running water. The foundation has actually opened another center in a separate neighborhood because of the large number of children it now serves. The children are fed nutritious meals, given dental and medical care, and receive help with their schoolwork.

Typical street scene in Cusco (pay the ladies when you take their picture!)

June 26: Cusco

This was Betsy's last day in Peru. We set out early in the morning to visit the San Blas neighborhood. This is the area of Cusco well-known for galleries, artisan workshops, and winding cobbled streets. To reach the neighborhood, you walk about 5 or 10 minutes up a hill from the Plaza de Armas.

There's a lovely square in the center of the barrio. And we did find many nice specialty shops. One in particular had some very unusual wood, fabric, and papier-maché religious figures. We also wandered into ceramics shops and art galleries, and finally, up a narrow street, we found an artist busy in his very basic taller, or workshop. This guy had quite a collection of paintings that he did on paper he makes right there in the shop. He uses newspapers, bleaches out the ink, then rolls out the pulp and dries it on a screen. Most of his images were based on petroglyphs found in Peru near Nasca. We bought one and Betsy bought two.

Lunch was at a place called Jack's. I guess you'd call it a gringo restaurant, and it was filled with tourists from all over the world, including many backpacker types. The food was quite good. I ordered the pumpkin soup and we shared an order of fries. Did I mention that Peru is the birthplace of the potato and that over 2000 varieties are grown there? And they are very tasty! The restaurant had its very own dog-in-residence: a well-behaved and friendly boxer who obviously felt very comfortable near Betsy.

Jim and I rode with Betsy in the taxi to the airport and waited with her until it was time for her to go through security. I think she was sorry to leave and would have liked more time in Peru. We had a great time traveling with her. She had an overnight flight from Lima to Miami, and then a morning flight back to San Francisco.

Later that afternoon, Jim and I met up with a family that I knew from the school where I work. Mom, Dad and both their sons (who are now teenagers) had just completed the Inca trail the day before, and were staying one more day in Cusco before heading home. So we had a cup of hot chocolate together and heard about their adventures on the trail. Despite the strenuousness of the hiking and the altitude sickness, they loved the experience. On the trail, you get to see Inca ruins only accessible by hiking, and I've heard that the natural scenery is breathtaking. I just don't know if I could sleep on the ground for three nights and go that long without a shower.
For dinner, we returned to Nuna Raymi and had an excellent meal. I tried the alpaca steak (very mild and tender) and Jim had the steak I recommended from our first meal there. Once again, the staff treated us so well and were so friendly and accommodating. We missed Betsy at this point and wished she had been able to enjoy this last dinner in Cusco with us. The owner/waiter, Victor, and his sister-in-law Carol chatted with us as we made our way through the different courses. We learned that they had worked many ski seasons at a restaurant in Park City, Utah. Their dream, however, was to return to South America to open a restaurant of their own. I highly recommend Nuna Raymi to any visitor to Cusco.