April 12, 2014
Other than Antarctica, South America is the only continent I've never visited - an odd omission. I think perhaps from growing up in the 1970's, when so many South American nations were nasty military dictatorships, I harbored an unenthusiastic perspective regarding this part of the globe.
That's about to change.... many friends and acquaintances have spoken highly of their travels in South America: Brazil, Chile, Peru, Argentina, etc.
I'd have to say that Peru is close to the top of my list for adventure travel in South America, with Ecuador a close second. Of course, I've always considered the Amazon rainforest an intriguing destination - perhaps because it's both inaccessible and inhospitable - not to mention that we hear so much about the ongoing destruction of the rainforest and the foreboding consequences for our planet's health.
"Everyone's been to Machu Picchu!" This, according to my favorite travel companion, Teresa. Somewhat of an exaggeration, but it's definitely not a virgin travel destination. Nevertheless, Machu Picchu does seem to be on everyone's must-see list. And there is no shortage of travel organizations offering tours to Machu Picchu, so letting someone else handle the logistics of getting there seems logical.
Now a lot of adventurers, mainly younger folks, hike the (in)famous Inca Trail. But despite its popularity, this classic adventure is not for the faint-of-heart - it's a 26 mile hike at an elevation of roughly 11,000 feet, and takes at least three or four full days of strenuous hiking. For the unprepared, it can be dangerous... altitude sickness is very common.
On the other hand, you don't need to hike the Inca Trail just to see Machu Picchu. There is actually a slow train that will take you there from Cusco. Most importantly, regardless of how you get there, you need to stay in Cusco (at an altitude of 8000 feet) for at least a day or two, to allow your body to adapt to the lack of oxygen. Most of the expeditions to Machu Picchu take less than a week unless you plan to hike the entire Inca trail, which I do not.
So in my mind, the real adventure is the Amazon jungle. And to get to the Amazon basin, which is located in the heart of Peru, you must fly to Iquitos in the interior - it is accessible only by airplane and boat. This is the starting point for most Amazon adventures.
The Amazon is not a destination that lends itself to solo travel, so the real decision involves choosing a tour company that best meets your needs. National Geographic operates a riverboat, the Delfin - apparently it's pretty upscale and pricey, and costs about $6000 per person!
I chose G-Adventures, the Toronto-based adventure travel company, for several reasons, not the least of which is that the cost is nearly a third that of National Geographic. They also have their own boat, the Queen Violeta - I don't know how it compares, but it sounds quite nice - at least the rooms are air conditioned, a must since the Amazon basin is constantly hot and humid.
Our three adult children have chosen to join us on this adventure - I'm gratified that they are - apparently they still like to travel with us! (Christopher is taking a pass on Machu Picchu but will join us for the Amazon portion.)
My major concern is not the risk of malaria, which we have confronted on other trips, but yellow fever - according to the CDC and State Department, yellow fever is endemic in the area. We all got vaccinated for yellow fever - not only did it hurt a lot, but Katie's arm swelled up like a sausage and she and Teresa both got rashes - Christopher just felt sick - it's what they call a live, attenuated vaccine! The price was steep: $135.00. Each. I'm hoping for reimbursement from Blue Shield!
Katie discovered in Burma that she is allergic to doxycycline, the standard prophylaxis for malaria, so she'll be taking malarone, a more expensive alternative - once a week at $40 per pill! Possible side effects include nightmares and psychosis. Nice!
So we will be on our way next week! We'll fly to Los Angeles then catch the redeye to Lima on Copa Airlines, with a brief stop in Panama City, about 10 hours total. The good news is we won't have jetlag - the time difference is only three hours!We'll join the first part of the tour as soon as we arrive, spend one night in Lima, then it's off to Cusco!
April 17, 2014: We are in Lima!
April 17, 2014: We are in Lima!
Compared to some of our previous adventures halfway round the world, getting to Lima was easy!
After a quick flight south to LAX last night, we grabbed a midnight red-eye flight on Copa Airlines, arriving in Panama City at 8 AM with a two hour time change.
An hour later we were on a three hour Copa flight to Lima, getting into Jorge Chavez airport by 1 PM.
By 2:30 we were at our hotel, the Casa Suyay, located in the high-end Miraflores district of Lima.
After getting settled we headed over to the oddly-named John F. Kennedy park, in the heart of Miraflores, where assorted craft artists, popcorn and doughnut vendors and an assortment of food carts were setting up for the evening crowd. They should have called it Cat Park, according to Teresa, who counted 21 well-fed feral cats lounging nearby.
We met up with our group at 6:30 PM for an orientation, then made a bee-line for our first adventure in Peruvian cuisine, the Parquetito, a nearby eatery with an appealing sampling of local offerings.
Tomorrow we'll be up early for breakfast, then it's back out to the airport for a 9:50 AM flight to Cuzco, elevation 11,000 feet. Altitude sickness beware!
April 18, 2014: A Breath of Thin Air!
Brandon was in the seat next to me as the Avianca Airbus 320 approached Cusco: "It's not much of a descent," he remarked, "when you're landing at 11,000 feet!" He was right -- you know how they say ‘we're beginning our descent' thirty minutes before you land? Well they never said it on this flight. We just banked slowly, the landing strip materialized, and we landed. It was... strange!
No sooner had we taxied to a halt then Brandon exclaimed, "I already have a headache!" "Seriously? That was quick!" I replied, contemplating my pounding heart. Is this the thin air or am I being neurotic? I briefly closed my eyes and tried to relax. It's OK, I told myself!
I strode on to the tarmac waiting for it to hit me. Nothing. I entered the terminal. Was I feeling light-headed or was it my imagination? I wasn't sure.
"I have a headache!" said Teresa as we grabbed our bags from the conveyor belt and headed for the exit.
I spotted the sign... G-Adventures! As I headed toward it several young girls approached us and proffered small paper bags... inside, coca leaves!
We hopped on our bus and Barbara, our fellow traveler from Queens with whom we'd had dinner last night, popped open the paper bag she'd just bought and offered a round of... leaves.
With some trepidation I helped myself and popped a coca leaf into my mouth, chewing slowly. No headache but why wait, I thought. Teresa declined -- "I'll wait for the tea!" Moments later my tongue started to tingle and my throat felt numb .
At the hotel, Percy, our local guide, introduced himself and directed us to a meeting room upstairs. At a conference table, cups of yellow tea suddenly appeared, and made the rounds. We slowly sipped on this strange tea as Percy reviewed our game plan for the next few days. He basically advised us to take it easy today, to acclimate. (And no one got psychotic!)
With Percy in the lead we strolled to the Plaza de Armas, the old town center, where he provided an orientation. After the group dispersed, Teresa, Brandon, Katie and I found an appealing restaurant with a balcony overlooking the plaza and had a late lunch.
After wandering around the plaza we made our way to La Merced Catholic Church, in front of which a crowd had gathered in anticipation of the annual procession to mark Good Friday. Apparently Peru is mostly Catholic, and as we watched, the procession slowly made its way through the streets led by a huge cross atop a fire truck, held upright by several firemen, followed by a float with a towering Virgin Mary, then a glass coffin carried by pallbearers (I think) containing a representation of the body of Jesus.
It was quite impressive for its authenticity as I pondered the odds of the Sacramento Fire Department leading a similar procession back home.
Perused your blog entry this morning as I drank my coffee and found myself immediately heading to Google to find out more about these coca leaves! www.tni.org has a lot to say about them--it was fascinating news to me. Whatever. I hope it helped and continues to do so. I'm sure they're point friendly, at any rate.
I may leave here as a cocaine addict, but it sure helps with the altitude. The thin air makes you feel spacey and if you over exert yourself you quickly get a bad headache!
April 19, 2014: Planeterra
Another early day... up at 6 AM! Peru is not on daylight savings time and it was totally light out by the time we rolled out of bed at 6 AM. Another early day - a quick breakfast and on the road at 7 AM. Our first stop was the Planeterra-supported weaving project in the town of Caccaccollo, where G-Adventures created this local cooperative in 2005 to supporting their goal of sustainable tourism.
I'd been curious about this project since I'd read about it a few months ago in Looptail, a recently authored release by G-Adventure's founder, Bruce Poon Tip. Ecotourism is among the many subjects he addresses, and the foundation he created, Planeterra (named for his daughter Terra) has been instrumental in pursuing his worthy goal of giving back to the local communities where his company operates.
As we toured the newly constructed building, Percy explained the need to support the local cultural heritage and to provide a means to preserve tribal customs and skills that were at risk of being lost. We were introduced to the tribal women who create the fabrics and handicrafts as well as their small herd of Alpaca sheep, and the process of converting Alpaca wool into fabric of various colors was explained in detail.
Our next stop was the ruins of Pisac, a remarkably well-preserved town built by the Incas that thrived until the Spanish invasion in 1530. Percy gave us a brief history lesson of the Inca Empire that dominated the region for 300 years and extended across most of today's Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia and Chile. He described the Spanish conquest as brutal, resulting in the destruction of most of what the Incas had built. He said that none of the riches of the Incas survived because virtually all the gold and silver that was looted was melted down and transported to Spain, and that it wasn't until 1824 that Peru gained its independence.
The ruins at Pisac consisted of a collection of stone structures built along highly terraced mountainsides - not for agriculture but to prevent erosion, according to Percy. He added that there is not much remaining and pointed out a multitude of holes in the adjoining hillsides where burial tombs had been ransacked.
We stopped for lunch at another Planeterra-supported project - this was a restaurant that had opened very recently. The foundation provided funding for the building and trained the local women in culinary preparation and food service. We were served a superb seven course meal that was freshly prepared on site (from scratch) with local produce and that represented a swath of the local cuisine.
We arrived at the tourist town of Ollantaytambo in mid-afternoon, got settled into our hotel, then headed out to the central plaza on foot. Above the town are the ruins of the Inca fortress and town that strategically overlook the valley of the Urubamba River. We climbed up the steep steps along the terraces to the fortress and were rewarded with a magnificent panorama of the valley. Percy pointed out the precise interlocking stone construction of the terraces and walls all done without mortar and still mostly intact.
It was nearly dark when we returned to the hotel at 6 PM - again, there is no daylight saving time. We had another group meeting during which Percy provided a more contemporary history of the region, including the defeat of the Maoist guerilla group Sendero Luminosa (Shining Path) during the 1990's and how this finally enabled Peru to gain a foothold in the tourism industry. He then proceeded to review our itinerary for tomorrow, including an early train ride to Aguas Calientes, and options for spending our free time in the afternoon.
April 20, 2014: Aguas Calientes
The closest town to Machu Picchu is Aguas Calientes and Peru Rail runs a train there from Ollantaytambo that takes a little more than 90 minutes. The alternative, of course, is the Inca Trail, which entails a 26 mile hike over 4 days. Access to the trail is tightly controlled by the government and you need to get a permit at least two to three months in advance, at a cost of $350 or more. Only 500 permits per day are granted and that includes guides and porters.
We arrived at Aguas Calientes shortly before noon, and once at the hotel Percy gathered the group together to review the next day's itinerary. At his urging, the group decided on an early start for two reasons: to avoid the late morning and early afternoon crowds (upwards of 2500 people daily), and more importantly, to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu. Percy would arrange wake-up calls at 4:30 AM, with breakfast at 5 AM, and a planned arrival at the main gate when it opened at 6 AM.
We had the rest of the afternoon free and decided to try the local hot springs. (Aguas Calientes = hot springs.) Not far from the main street a short path led us to a series of hot pools of varying temperatures - nothing exotic, but we passed a comfortable hour or so wallowing in the warm water. After a late lunch, a massage parlor across from the hotel provided a respite for some, and the remainder of the afternoon was spent just hanging out at the hotel relaxing. Anticipating an early start, we were in bed by 10 PM.
April 21, 2014: Machu Picchu
April 21, 2014: Machu Picchu
A 4:30 AM wake-up call is startling no matter how early you go to bed, but we made the best of it, scrambling to get dressed, grabbing a quick bite to eat, then making a bee-line to the bus station. Although there was a long line, it moved quickly as each bus filled up and another took its place. Thirty minutes of uphill switchbacks on a narrow gravel road finally delivered us to the main gate just before dawn.
After entering the compound we followed a steep uphill trail that eventually found us emerging from the mist and low-lying clouds to the spectacle of Machu Picchu. I'd been a bit skeptical of our planned arrival at sunrise but I confess I was astonished as the ruins seemed to materialize from the mist, breathtaking in their grandeur and emanating a sense of mystical spirituality.
For the next few hours Percy led us through the abandoned town of Machu Picchu while providing a detailed narrative and the known history, as well as a contemporary archeological understanding of the functions of the various sites. Although the locals had known of its existence long before it was re-discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, it remained hidden for more than four hundred years, protected from the ravages of the Spanish invasion, its antiquities well-preserved.
Following Percy's circuit of the site, we set out to explore it on our own. Our first stop was the Sun Gate where the Inca Trail enters the ruins. We hiked uphill for nearly an hour and were rewarded with spectacular views of the valley and mountains surrounding the ruins. The Sun Gate itself is a stone structure designed to focus the sun's rays and precisely illuminate the entrance at the summer and winter solstices.
We returned to the main site then spent the next hour and a half exploring as much of the rest of the ruins as we could before returning to the entrance and boarding the bus back to Aguas Calientes.
At 2 PM we met up with our group at the hotel, returning to the station for the long train ride back to Ollantaytambo and the equally long bus ride to Cusco.
It had been a long and exhausting but immensely rewarding day.
When I came around the corner and saw it, I teared up. It is a spiritual place. Of course that was when it was empty.Maggie said...
Scott, Machu Picchu sounds amazing! I'm jealous of you all! I'm enjoying living vicariously through your blog. Stay safe and enjoy!
April 22, 2014: Cusco and the Lunatic
April 22, 2014: Cusco and the Lunatic.
We finally had a chance to catch up on our sleep this morning - it's been a rigorous few days! Over a leisurely breakfast we discussed our options for the day - what to do in Cusco.
Our first stop was the ruins of the Temple of the Sun, Coriancha (Coriancha = golden courtyard) once the richest temple in the Inca Empire. The sun god Inti was the most revered of the Inca deities which also included the earth goddess, Pachamama, as well as deities representing the moon, thunder, lightning and the rainbow.
We hired a local guide to give us a short tour and she explained how the walls of the temple had eventually become the foundation for the Convent of Santo Domingo that exists today. She described how the Sun Temple had been the most elaborate sanctuary of the Incas, lined with gold panels, gold figurines and altars, and a large golden disk that reflected the sun and lit up the entire temple. After the Spanish invasion, the conquistadors ransacked the temple, melting all of the gold and sending it to Spain.
Our next stop was the Mercado Artesanal, the craft market, housed in an enormous warehouse-like structure, lined with rows of stalls featuring local handicrafts plus a lot of the usual touristy stuff.
More interesting, however, was the Mercado de San Pedro, a massive public market filled with a frenzy of stalls selling virtually everything edible - live frogs, severed alpaca heads, intestines, lungs, skinned guinea pigs, and some of the strangest looking potatoes I've ever seen. It was bustling with locals - and only a few tourists (us). And the smell - phew!
By the time we left the market it was early afternoon, and despite sampling slices of the local cheese Teresa had bought, we were getting hungry.
Then, just as we were exiting the market, hawk-eye Teresa suddenly spotted a strange looking character following us. "Pickpocket!" she shouted. I quickly turned, not knowing what to expect, and saw a crazed man lunging toward us! We instantly scattered in different directions as the man halted, then glared menacingly. We regrouped and quickly moved away as nervous bystanders stared and then also backed away - then we sped off without looking back until we were at a safe distance. Pickpocket? I doubt it. Just another lunatic! (We seem to find them wherever we go!)
Back at the Plaza de Armas, we searched for a place to have lunch, at first stepping in to an Irish pub - yes, an Irish pub - but there was a soccer game on TV and every seat in the place was taken. We settled on a nearby pizza joint, and after a quick lunch, we found the nearby Casa Concha, a newer museum where some artifacts from Machu Picchu are on display. Apparently Hiram Bingham, with the Peruvian government's approval, temporarily moved nearly all of the artifacts he found at Machu Picchu to the Peabody Museum at Yale University, ostensibly for further study. It was only recently, after a contentious dispute with the Peruvian government, that some of these artifacts were repatriated and are now on display in this museum.
By late afternoon we were getting tired, and after a brief discussion we decided to take a pass on La Catedral, the sixteenth century cathedral that faces the plaza - how many cathedrals have we seen over the years? And besides, they wanted a 25 soles entrance fee (nine bucks)! Not today!
We returned to the hotel where a G-Adventures representative gave us our boarding passes for the flight tomorrow back to Lima. Then, later in the evening we got together with the rest of our group for an excellent final meal at the Inka Grill.
April 23, 2014: Back to Lima
April 23, 2014: Back to Lima
Our ride to the airport, scheduled for 11 AM, was half an hour late and our G-Adventures representative started to get frantic, calling repeatedly until the bus finally showed up. The driver tossed our bags into the back as fast as he could and we scrambled on board. Fortunately traffic was light - we got checked in at the airport with time to spare.
We arrived back at our hotel in Lima just before 3 PM.
I confirmed our tour for tomorrow: The pyramids of Pachacamac in the morning and Historic Lima, City of Kings, in the afternoon.
We were all looking exhausted from the whirlwind of activities this past week, but we needed to eat, so we walked over to the Metro, a large supermarket nearby, and picked up some food items - cheese, ham, sandwich rolls, chips, etc. We had a late lunch (that proved to be an early dinner) in the atrium of our hotel, then spent some downtime blogging, facebooking, and reading up on Iquitos and the Amazon in our trusty Frommers.
Time to start the malaria pills!
April 24, 2014: Lima Centro and the Pyramids
I'd arranged a day-long excursion in Lima for the time between our Machu Picchu and Amazon riverboat tours. Lima is a huge, spread-out city with a population of about 8 million - more than one quarter of the entire population of 30 million.
Lima didn't exist before the Spanish conquest - it was founded by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro in 1535, so most of the city sites worth seeing are archeological museums and churches.
For most travelers, including us, Lima is mainly a stopover on the way to something else. While Lima Centro has a reputation for being run-down and crime-plagued, and even though it is the heart of historic Lima, only of late have the local authorities attempted to clean it up and restore some of the major historical sites. Our hotel is located in Miraflores, south of the city center - it's a higher-end suburb along the coast that is the base for most tourism because it is considerably safer.
Lima has also recently developed a reputation for its cuisine and we are definitely intent on trying as many signature dishes as possible, including ceviche - raw fish and shellfish marinated in lemon and lime juice - though technically it's not raw because the acidity "cooks" the shellfish.
I decided to focus on the historic city center, Lima Centro, as well as the nearby ruins of Pachacamac, about 30 km south of Lima.
The tour I'd arranged started with a side trip toPachacamac. The archeological ruins at Pachacamac are currently being excavated from under the coastal sand dunes, and much of what can be seen consists of flat-topped pyramid-type structures protruding from a series of sand dunes. Originally this was a major temple that actually preceded the Inca civilization. (The Incas were mostly concentrated at the higher elevations.) According to our guide, the lack of fresh water within the coastal region precluded it from being a major population center prior to the arrival of the Spanish. We were told that even today there is virtually no rain, and all water for Lima is transported from the upper elevations.
We were told that this site was at its peak during the tenth century and originated with the Huari culture -- Pachacamac was the oracle and creator-god who controlled their destiny and foretold the future including earthquakes and wars.
The site is quite sprawling and we (mostly) covered it by foot with our guide, visiting the Temple of the Sun and the Mamacuna Palace. The latter was where the most beautiful girls were segregated, chosen for their eventual sacrifice to the gods. Apparently these edifices were constructed at a later date by the Incas, who controlled this area just prior to the arrival of the Spaniards.
Gazing at this panoramic vista I was impressed by how many ancient structures were only partially exposed by the excavations. It's hard to imagine that such enormous structures could have been completely engulfed and hidden simply by the relentless blowing of sand by the wind. The unexcavated areas looked like nothing more than sand dunes, otherwise unremarkable.
Oddly, there was a shanty town adjacent to the ruins, and our guide explained that the ruins had to be guarded 24 hours a day to prevent looting - we spotted a heavily armed guard pacing atop one of the pyramids.
We returned to Lima and stopped at a hole-in-the wall restaurant for lunch. Loma Saltado is another local specialty - sort of like of a stir fry with either beef or chicken - we've seen it on many of the menus - although each time we order it comes out different!
In the afternoon, we were dropped off for a walking tour of Lima Centro. The main square is the Plaza de Armas, adjacent to which is located the Presidential Palace and the City Hall. Most of the original buildings were destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1746, so most of what is now there was constructed subsequently. I noticed that many of the buildings were a pale yellow - I'm not sure of the significance and our guide had no explanation. They were badly discolored (probably by smog) and clearly a lot of restoration remains to be done!
We spent some time viewing the interior of an older colonial mansion that had been converted to a lower end hotel. The halls were lined with 17th century works of art and finished with decorative touches that virtually cried out for restoration. Clearly this should be a museum! I assume a lack of funding is the main barrier. I noted detailed tile work, elaborate wood carvings and winding wooden staircases one of which led up to the roof where there was a small garden.
Our next stop was the Convent of St. Francis and its catacombs. Ostensibly restored but still in need of major renovation, what was striking about the convent and attached church was the Moorish-style décor - geometric designs and shapes that decorated the walls and ceilings.
We descended into the catacombs, reminiscent of those we have seen elsewhere, but unusually creepy due to the near obsessive sorting of the various types of bones into bins, i.e., femurs, tibias, skulls, etc. Very bizarre - I guess the monks had a lot of time on their hands.
There was also an enormous 17th century library, not preserved in the least, with shelves that lined the walls of an enormous hall on two levels - it was a scene right out of Harry Potter. The rows of books looked as though they might disintegrate should anyone touch them!
We returned to our hotel late in the day. Katie said she wasn't feeling well - was it the Malarone? -so she stayed in her room and the three or us tracked down a chicken restaurant that had been recommended by our guide - apparently chicken is very popular in Peru. We were served a whole chicken with fries and corn. It was tasty but really nothing special. Of course, Teresa usually works wonders with chicken, so we're a tough audience!
Tomorrow, the plan is to slow down some - nothing special planned - possibly a walk to the cliffs overlooking the ocean - the view of the Pacific is said to be spectacular!
April 25, 2014: A Day Off
We lingered over breakfast this morning - no rush to do anything and nothing planned for today. We'll be changing hotels tomorrow, so we decided to check out the location of our next hotel in anticipation of our move. We walked to Cat Park, then followed Avenue Jose Pardo for about a mile until we arrived at the Hotel Dazzler, a seventeen story high-rise - akin to a Hyatt or Hilton - high-end but clearly lacking the charm of our current hotel, Casa Suyay.
We walked farther for another mile or so, eventually coming to a sprawling park atop the cliffs overlooking the ocean and extending south for at least another mile. The view was spectacular and we wandered for the next hour taking in the spectacular views.
We came upon a steep staircase leading down to the beach - about a three hundred foot drop. We could see that the beach itself was mostly gravel, and we'd been cautioned that riptides made the ocean too dangerous for swimming, so we chose to spare ourselves the exertion. Instead we watched surfers in the distance riding the breakers to shore.
We circled back to our hotel, stopping for lunch at a small café a few doors down.
We passed the remainder of the afternoon hanging out by the hotel, eventually returning to Cat Park in the evening, where we were entertained by an amazingly good pianist playing on an outdoor piano in the park, then listened to Salsa music while watching the locals dance the Samba.
April 26: Part Two
We spent the better part of this morning getting organized for the start of the next tour. We got an e-mail from Christopher just after 9 AM letting us know that he was en route from Panama City.
Shortly after 1 PM we gathered our bags and headed for the Dazzler Hotel. We were waiting in the lobby around 3 PM when a taxi pulled up and out hopped Christopher, happy as a clam!
He hadn't had lunch, so after getting everyone checked in, we headed to Parquetito, the same restaurant we'd visited our first night, where Christopher ordered a roasted guinea pig and some sort of goat dish.
Back at the hotel we met with our new group at 6:30 PM for an orientation to the Amazon Riverboat Adventure - I counted twenty-three people including our family.
Our new guide, Geraldine, introduced herself and answered questions - we asked about the cost of beer on the boat - seven dollars, she said. I gasped audibly!
She also told us that we would have no Internet access at all while on the Amazon riverboat. Yikes!! Talk about leaving civilization!
She said to meet in the lobby at 5:30 AM for a very early flight to Iquitos.
Up next - the Amazon Riverboat Adventure!
ON THE TRAIN TO MACHU PICCHU
Thanks Kaeli Conforti!