Thursday, June 30, 2011

Machu Picchu - Preview

Machu Picchu lived up to expectations in every way.  I'll write more tomorrow!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cuzco - Ollantaytambo - Aguas Calientes

After finishing last night's post we went right to bed and got a glorious night's sleep.  Or, at least, we tried to do so.  I was exhausted physically, but I was still wound up from the day's adventures and the excitement of being in a new and fun place.  So I lay there.  And lay there.  I tried everything to fall asleep.  I even resorted to describing articles I'd read in the New Yorker about obscure linguistics topics.  Nothing worked.  So I drew on my long experience living in New York and pulled out my trusty eye mask, ear plugs and dyphenhydramine.  Which, of course, worked like a charm.  I was dead to the world for the next 8 hours, waking only when Amanda's alarm started vibrating loudly on the bedside table.  I ripped off the mask, pulled out the ear plugs, and was ready to go.

Not so much for Amanda.  Apparently her delicate pioneer constitution doesn't like dyphenhydramine.  I think she suspected me of giving her elephant tranquilizer.  I tried to reassure her that there was nothing in the Word of Wisdom against dyphenhydramine (or elephant tranquilizer, for that matter) and that it would wear off.

And wear it off we did.  As per usual, we had 36,000 things on our itinerary. First, we had to get breakfast from the famous Australian place called Jack's Cafe.  According to the Lonely Planet reviewer, we would be addicted after one breakfast.  I'm not sure I would go so far in my praise, but my combo gordo certainly made for a robust and tasty breakfast.

Eggs, fried potatoes, grilled tomatoes,
beans, sausage, bacon, toast
The rest of the morning was spent putting the necessary pieces in place to get to Machu Picchu.  This involved finding the office to buy train tickets (which was on the main plaza, in the very last corner that we visited, naturally), finding a new hotel where we could stay when we got back from the trip, repacking our bags so that we could leave the big ones at the new hotel, and catching a cab to the part of town from which the colectivos left for the town of Ollantaytambo.  Which is when things got fun.

But before the fun, some background:  Cuzco is the so-called jumping-off point for Machu Picchu, but it's not actually anywhere near Machu Picchu.  In fact, it's about 75 miles away, and there aren't that many options for getting there.  Here's the one we picked:

Stage 1: Colectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (2 hrs)
Stage 2: Afternoon in Ollantaytambo (2 hrs)
Stage 3: Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (2 hrs)
Stage 4: Spend the night in dodgy hostel in Aguas Calientes (all night)
Stage 5: Bus/hike to Machu Picchu (30 minutes for the bus; not sure about the hike)

We're currently in Stage 4.  We're sitting in a 24-hour cafe with wi-fi, drinking camomile tea, and blogging away.  With the background set, let's get back to how we got here:

Stage 1
Colectivos are a common form of transportation here, and I had mistakenly assumed (based on my experiences in Guatemala) that they were the 8-seat minivans we'd seen driving around with no fewer than 47 people in them.  Turns out, the minivans are called combis, and the colectivos are actually tiny little hatchback cars into which four people could sit (more or less) comfortably.  Naturally, there were five of us in ours -- and I was in the middle.

Our driver's approach to driving was similar to his Guatemalan counterparts:  We careened through narrow cobblestoned streets, honking wildly at women, children and construction workers daft enough to try crossing, working, standing anywhere near the section of road we were driving upon.  He brooked no delays, passing anyone slower than him regardless of oncoming traffic, blind curves or whether that person was also in the middle of passing someone (we literally did a double-pass once, where we passed someone who was passing someone else).  The only thing that slowed him down were the killer speed bumps that punctuated the road at irregular intervals -- and for good reason, too, since they'd have ripped out the axel if he'd taken them at speed.  Presiding over all of this insanity were the benevolent visages of Mary and Jesus, which hung in bejeweled frames from the rear-view window with reassuring phrases such as "Guide me, O Lord" and "God is in the driver seat" printed beneath them.  (As we went along, I sincerely hoped the Lord was paying attention to the first one, but became increasingly skeptical of the second.)

In this way we hurtled through some amazing countryside.  The first portion was through the high, open hills around Cusco.  These were dry and pretty barren, with only a few farmsteads scattered about.  Eventually we came over a crest and found ourselves face to face with much more rugged, snow-capped peaks that dropped in rocky crags to narrow canyons below.  Into these canyons we descended, passing through a series of dizzying hairpin switch-backs, until we ran parallel to the canyon river.  We followed this river for some time, curving along its path, until we got to the village of Ollantaytambo.

Unfortunately, through all of this, I was unable to take any photos.  Being stuck in the middle of the back seat, I had my hands full holding on for dear life as we sped around all those curves (the alternative being to flop indecorously onto either Amanda or the blond-bearded hippie sitting next to me).  Amanda made a valiant effort to handle the picture-taking duties, but all those curves had rendered her miserably sea-sick, and manipulating a camera was the last thing she wanted to do.  At one point I thought I might be able to take a few shots out the front window, but with the Virgin Mary and Our Lord And Savior swinging about so wildly, I could never get a clear shot.  So you'll have to believe me when I say that this is amazing country.

Stage 2
Ollantaytambo (9,160 ft) is a small and ancient Inca village that has been continuously inhabited since the 13th century.  In the 1500s, it was the site of some major battles between the Spanish and the Incas, with the Incas winning at first but ultimately losing.  It also has some pretty cool ruins of its own.

We roamed around the site for about an hour.  I particularly liked the channels of water that flowed through the ruins -- it was cool to see the engineering work; it made the ruins feel more alive.

After seeing the sites at ground level, we headed up the hillside.  From below it looked steep, but not THAT steep.  We discovered, however, that it really was THAT steep.  By the time we got to the top, both of us were huffing pretty deeply.  I didn't envy the Spaniards who had to storm that place wearing armor.
Looking up from the base of the stairs up the mountain...

There wasn't much to see at the top (other than a good view of the valley).  I eavesdropped into some neighboring tours in French and Spanish and learned that there were some particularly fine examples of Inca masonry.  Also that Mr. Ollantay was an Incan general and had a torrid love affair.  Beyond that, though, it was mostly just a bunch of nicely made walls perched precariously on the edge of a slope so steep it probably qualified as a cliff. 

After descending the ruins, we had about an hour left before the train came, so we stopped into a restaurant called Puka Raymi and ordered some chicken burritos.  We'd heard they were good, but we hadn't expected what we got:

Clearly, these people have never been to Chipotle.  The chicken was delicious and tender, with some spices I couldn't identify.  The beans and cheese and tomatoes (which we ate despite our trepidation because they were so lovely) were all fresh and delicious.  And the guacamole!  Since when do you get too much guacamole?  The tortillas were actually more like crepes, made with some batter that we couldn't quite figure out.  They looked like corn, but they had the consistency of whole wheat and the taste of something else altogether.  In any case, they were great.

Stage 3
The train station in Ollantaytambo was a simple affair, and not very organized.  We had tickets for a certain time, and which indicated a certain train number.  The train showed up at a different time, bearing a different number, but nevertheless it was ours.  So we milled about and climbed in with the other lost souls, hoping that if it wasn't the right train, the conductor would let us know when he controlled the tickets. 

We found ourself immediately immersed in Australians.  There may only have been three of them -- and whatever they say about three being a crowd is definitely true when it comes to Australians.  Naturally, one of them was a boisterous, enthusiastic and immediately intimate middle-aged woman who informed us that they were just finishing a three-day overland hiking trek from Cusco ("Here, look at our itinerary, it was AMAZING") and therefore hadn't showered or used a normal bathroom for three days ("But maybe I didn't need to tell you that!").  At one point she pulled from her backpack a plastic bag containing two absolutely smashed and putrid bananas.  She expressed horror and dismay and immediately started hollering in Italian (which she may have thought was the same as Spanish) for the attendant to come and take it away.

The Australians weren't the only ones on the train who knew how to live up to stereotypes.  An American was sitting a couple rows back and seemed to be competing with the Australians for the "Loudest Conversation on the Train" Award.  I think he lost the battle, but he did win for being the most obnoxious.  He broadcast through the train the fact that the was an MBA student from "Boston" (which, in MBA speak, is code for Harvard), and then he proceeded to give his neighbor (a hapless Briton) detailed information about his tax bracket (24%), the state of Medicare (bad), the cost of private education in America ($50K at the University of Chicago, where he didn't go), and the fact that his parents' wealthy friends had a 75-foot boat that they sailed around Nantucket but would never invite him onto (he couldn't imagine why not).  As if that wasn't enough, he confided that he had a rich uncle:  "I mean, I know everyone talks about the proverbial 'rich uncle' but I actually have a rich uncle."

Needless to say, I tried to tune out as much of this as possible by focusing on the view out the window.  Which was extraordinary.  We were wending our way through an increasingly narrow valley with increasingly lush and fog-wrapped mountains on either side.  Sometimes it felt very much like something we could see in the Rockies.  At other times, it felt oddly foreign and different.  Some of it had to do with the plants (many eucalyptus, no aspens); some of it had to do with the type of rock (no granite); and some of it was probably the psychological effect of knowing that these were the Andes.

Unfortunately, Amanda wasn't able to fully appreciate the spectacle of our fellow travelers or the scenery out the window.  The swaying of the train, plus the fact that our assigned seats had us sitting backwards (not to mention the two-hour colectivo ride) had left her feeling pretty ill.  Her job was to focus on not throwing up.  My job was to take pictures (that way Amanda will know what she "saw" along the way).

That didn't prevent her from being the subject of some excitement, though.  At one point during the snack service (yes, even trains in Peru serve snacks -- take note, Delta!) one of the young male attendants was walking past our row when the train took a sudden lurch and launched our hero into Amanda's bosom and lap.  The poor guy was mortified, Amanda surprised, and the Australian lady delighted. 

Train food!

Stage 3
Aguas Calientes is a crappy little town at the end of the train tracks that really is the jumping-off point for Machu Picchu.  It consists of only a few roads, all of which are tackily touristy and a little shabby.  And our hotel is wonderfully in character.  It fronts the train tracks (there are literally trains outside our window) and is literally the last building in town -- only dark forest (presumably full of jaguars) lies beyond.  Still, it's clean, has a private bathroom, and only costs $10.50 for the night.

Aguas Calientes

Our room

View to the left

View to the right

View straight ahead
For Amanda's take on all of this, click here.  For her photos, click here.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cuzco - Day 1

Boy am I glad we made it to Cuzco today.  Not only is it the jumping-off point for Machu Picchu (which we'll tackle shortly), it's also destination-worthy in its own right. 

As you can see from the pictures I took from the air, Cuzco is situated high in the Andes (approximately 11,200 ft), in an open bowl of a valley.  Walking out of the airport, I could tell instantly that I would like it.  The sky was as blue as could be and the honey-colored town and hillsides were drenched in bright, warm sunshine.  It must have been in the low 70s, and not a drop of humidity to be felt -- just pure, clear air.  It was glorious!  Especially after the fog and smog of Lima.

We had arranged for our hostel to pick us up from the airport, but due to the many schedule changes, we and the ride did not coincide.  So we found a local guy to drive us into town (to our mild chagrin, as he immediately launched into a sales pitch for a competing hotel).  From the street we caught tantalizing glimpses of a city worth seeing.

After some initial wrong turns down one-way streets, we ended up at our hostel.  Amanda had found the hostel last minute in some online travel forums and had made the reservation without knowing much more about it.  She was right to do so.  It's a great little place on a narrow cobblestone street very near the central plaza, with an entrance through a very bright art gallery, and a friendly girl at the reception.  Our room was delightfully clean, with a great view.

Our hostel is the pinkish building in the middle; our window the one in the middle.

Our room - small but clean!

The view from our window, at dusk.
After settling into the hostel, we set out with the best intentions of getting something to eat.  It was 3:00pm and for some reason we were starving -- despite the fact that we'd each had a piece of bread and fake orange juice for breakfast in Lima, and a granola bar and Ritz crackers for lunch on the plane.  Must have been the altitude...

We were instantly distracted, though, by the central plaza, which is surrounded by churches and other Spanish colonial buildings dating back to the mid-1500s.  Which is amazing, if you think about it:  Here in remotest Peru, the Spaniards were building cathedrals before Jamestown, Virginia (the oldest city in the British colonies) was even a twinkle in some aristocrat's drunken second son's eye (according to our license plates, Jamestown was founded in 1609; it was mostly peopled by drunkards and second sons hoping to compensate for their lack of inheritance).  According to our guidebooks (of which we have two), this Plaza de Armas is one of the finest, and most beautiful, in all of South America.  I can believe it.

From another angle
Schoolgirls -- with nuns!
The buildings surrounding the plaza weren't the only items of interest.  Apparently the Peruvians had the same great idea as the high schools in the Salt Lake valley:

Seems they also got wind of what the Brazilians were up to in Rio de Janeiro:
I suggested that we hike up there; Amanda said I could run it on my own someday when I needed to "accomplish" something.  So we compromised by getting dinner.  We found the place that the girl at the hostel had recommended (a place called Antojitos, just off the plaza) and ordered a plate of chicharrones.  I'd read that they were tasty -- and they were!  It consisted of tender, fried white chicken breast that must have been marinated in garlic before frying.
Chicharrones de pollo
After dinner, we finished the walking tour, which took us past various other churches, arches, mercados, and a palacio de la justicia.

Courtyard of the Serpents

Arco Santa Clara

Arco Santa Clara

Looking back at the cathedral
Another church
Palacio de la Justicia
Cobblestone Street
Intricately carved balconies
Art Museum
Interestingly, a lot of these buildings were built right on top of old Inca ruins.  The lower portions of the buildings were made up of massive stones that had been so precisely cut to fit each other that even now, many centuries after their construction, the walls look as if they had been built yesterday.  Note that they didn't use mortar. 
Loreto Passage
Left:  Wall of the Courtyard of Serpents
Right:  Wall of the Inca's House of the Chosen Women (later, a convent, naturally)
Two layers of Incan masonry in a modern (or, at lest, Colonial) building
After all that walking -- not to mention the flying, the taxiing, the (not) sleeping in hostels, and everything else that we'd been through in the last few days, we were tired and ready for bed.  At 6:30pm.  So we headed back to the hostel, picking up some pastries along the way, so that we could get a good night's sleep before the next round of adventures tomorrow. 

Pear Tart & Banana Pastry
Hasta manana!

(For Amanda's version of today's events, click here.)