Thursday, September 18, 2014

Exploring Cusco

Today was reserved for exploring Cusco. We woke up late after a much-deserved post-Machu slumber and decided to hit the San Blas neighborhood. San Blas is the hip, bohemian, artsy neighborhood in Cusco. We arrived around 10:30am and the place was dead. It took us about 45mins to even find a place that would cook us food. After getting food in our bellies we went shopping and exploring. Apparently this neighborhood doesn't even get going until after noon.

San Blas Plaza

Overlooking San Blas Plaza

Streets of San Blas

Streets of San Blas

Church in San Blas Plaza

We toured around, checking out a lot of the local artisan shops and just slowly made our way down the super steep hills back toward the Plaza Arames.

No horns please

Snacks found in a mercado in Cusco

Later that day we went to check out Saqsaywaman, an Incan ruins site just 1mile outside of Cusco. It was pretty rad and provided sweeping views of cusco. We were there at sunset, so added bonus for beautiful sunset over the mountains of Cusco as the mountains cast shadows on the town below.

Overlooking Cusco

Saqsaywaman ruins

Saqsaywaman ruins

Saqsaywaman ruins

Saqsaywaman ruins

Saqsaywaman ruins

Overlooking Cusco from Saqsaywaman

Overlooking Cusco

Saqsaywaman ruins selfie

Bill and Llamas!

Llama selfie!

Saqsaywaman ruins

For dinner, I had to eat cuy, aka guinea pig! We made reservations at this local spot for dinner and pre-ordered a roasted cuy. There's two typical ways cuy is prepared, oven roasted, or pan fried. Oven roasted is the preferred way, but it takes over half an hour so if you're going to do it, it's best to call ahead so you're not sitting there forever, hence the reservations.

The cuy came out nicely presented with top hat and all! After presentation (and pictures), the cuy was taken back and chopped in quarters. It's cliche to say, but it really did taste like chicken! Actually, more like a mix between chicken and rabbit. It was quite good and simply prepared, letting the rodent's natural taste speak for itself. I would definitely eat it again. That being said, I haven't been "right" since. Seriously. Not sure if it was the cuy or lord only knows what else. Bill had Alpaca Kebabs that night, he opted out of the cuy. The alpaca was amazingly delicious! It tasted like a nice veal. I was really impressed.

Over roasted guinea pig, aka cuy

Nice top hat on my delicious cuy

After dinner we headed to the Pisco Museum. It's not really a museum, per-se, but a bar with hundreds of pisco. I didn't even know this many piscos existed. The museum's mantra is to "spread pisco to the world". For those of you who don't know, pisco is a liquor distilled from grape juice. The juice only is extracted, and then distilled. Like tequila, by law, Peruvian pisco can only come from 8 different grape varietals over 5 regions of Peru. If it didn't come from those 8 grapes in those 5 regions, it's not pisco. We opted for the guided tasting which got us a flight of pisco, 4 different types: aromatic, non-aromatic, a blend, and one from partially fermented juice. The tasting was guided by  pisco expert who sat at our table with us and told us everything we'd ever want to know about pisco. The best part, for me, was the ability to ask a zillion questions to an expert. At $10 each, it was well worth it and was a very enjoyable, educational experience. After it was all said and done, I preferred the partially fermented variety, but at the end of the day, I don't really care for pisco. It always gives me a headache and I don't really enjoy the high it produces.

Hundreds of Pisco at the Pisco Museum

We didn't really do much today and took it easy. Tomorrow, we tour the Sacred Valley!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Machu Picchu

The road to Machu Picchu began at 7:30am-ish at the Poroy train station. Poroy is located just outside Cusco city limits. We boarded Peru Rail’s Expedition car. A high-end coach with nice reclining seats, tables, snack service, and a windowed roof for an almost unobstructed view of our surroundings. A pretty nice train car in almost every way.

Our three hour journey from Poroy to Aguas Calientes was spectacular. Carving it’s way through the Andean valley, the sights were unparalleled. Snow capped peaks dusted with clouds, horses sipping from the river, Andean herders shepherding their flock, alpacas grazing on what appeared to be 60 degree slopes, and sparsely populated towns constructed from adobe were just some of the visual treats along the way. It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of trains. In fact, my dream trip is the Trans-Manchurian or Trans-Siberian railway journey going from Moscow to Beijing by way of Mongolia or St. Petersburg to the eastern coast of Russia respectively. I’ve done Durango to Silverton, the Skunk Train, Verde Canyon, various California coastal Amtrak journeys, and all of western Europe via various railways. Traveling by train, in my opinion, is the best way to travel and a train journey to one of the most wondrous places on earth was no exception.

We arrives in Aguas Calientes, aka Banos Calientes, and had to board a local bus which actually took you up to the Machu Picchu ruins. The bus costs an additional $20 USD on top of the $69 Machu Picchu entry, on top of the $169 round-trip train ride. That’s a cost of over $250 just to _see_ the historic site with your own eyes. It’s kind of sad to me that in order to even see this wondrous site, you've got to be “wealthy” by world standards. Sure, we could have taken a bus from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, but the cost still would have been over $100 USD. If you take the number of tourists that visit Machu Picchu annually, just on ticket prices alone, they're making a killing.

Anyway, back to the bus ride. The road up to the site is a sort-of-paved, narrow set of switchbacks that’s traversed by medium-sized tourist busses holding approximately 40 people at a time. The busses run within about a minute of each other, regardless of occupancy, constantly. The road itself is only really wide enough to allow one bus, which makes approaching busses passing each other a harrowing event often preceded by one bus driver slamming on the brakes and sliding to a stop to avoid collision. I am not exaggerating. The busses are driving much too fast for the dangerous roads, taking seemingly blind turns with what appears to be reckless abandon, but I've got to think there’s some method to the madness. Or, perhaps, that’s what my brain told me in order to remain calm enough not to freak the fuck out. The bus ride can be summed up in three words: HOLY FUCKING SHIT.

We finally made it, 25mins later, to the site. Tourists everywhere. The place was packed and there was a long line of tired looking adventurers waiting for a return bus back down the hill. We presented our documentation and our passports (thank god Ludwig told us our original passports were required) and entered the site. We climbed the first set of many stairs and followed the arrow and suddenly…… “Oh. My. God.”, I said out loud as my eyes first saw the site. I really couldn't believe it. I was in awe. Speechless. Really. The hundreds of pictures I'd seen previously meant nothing and I assure you, mean nothing to you until you actually feast your eyes upon it in real life. It’s impossible to describe and impossible to capture in a picture or video the sheer size, scale, and beauty of it all. Surrounded by pointy, heavily vegetative peaks with fluffy, puffy clouds, Machu Picchu was awe inspiring.

We spent the next couple of hours walking, climbing, and scaling the ruins. It’s rough and definitely not easy, but so very worth it. The heat, or perhaps the sheer vigor of the experience, got the best of one visitor who had to be carried out, very slowly and carefully, on a stretcher. I remember feeling bad for the guy, but very thankful at the same time that, despite my limitations, I’m otherwise healthy enough and strong enough to push through and conquer such things. 

The energy felt at the site was undeniable. Anyone who has been to other sites situated along energy grid lines such as Sedona, AZ or Stonehenge will know what I'm talking about. A very calming, introspective, energy was present and I made sure at points to just simply sit and be, or stand silently and ponder. 

We returned to the shitshow that was the return bus queue with what we thought would be plenty of time to stand in line, bus down, and walk to the train station for our train. Can you guess how this portion of story is going to end? As it turns out, the gigantic line I saw upon arrival was a dwarf in comparison to the line in it’s current state. We walked, and walked, and walked downhill until we finally encountered the back of the line. About a minute later, it started to rain. Slowly at first, then harder as time went on. The steady flow of busses continued up the hill, dropping people off, loading return passengers, then heading back down the hill, but their pace had slowed, presumably due to the rain. Slowly we advanced through the line, constantly checking our clocks. 

“Ok, dude, if we're on in 15 mins we’ll be fine. We have plenty of time.”

* 20 mins passess *

“Fuck, dude, this line’s moving slowly.”

* 10 more minutes pass *

“Ok… we MUST be on a bus in 10 mins or we’re seriously fucked.”

Five  mins passes and, FINALLY, we’re on the bus! We board and get comfy for the 25 minutes hell-ride we know we're about to experience, only now with 100% more rain! Sweet. So about two minutes into the ride I glance up and see a big digital clock at the front of the bus… and it’s reading 15 minutes faster than I thought it was. “OMG, did I lose track of time?”, I thought. “Did the last part of the line and boarding take way longer than I thought?”, I questioned. “We're totally going to miss our train”, I said to myself. We arrived at the bus stop with just five minutes until the train was supposed to depart.

We jumped off the bus, rushing through an endless maze of vendors toward the train depot as quickly as physically possible. I felt like I was in Amazing Race. No time to think, just instinct. If we missed the train we were screwed. We turned the corner and tried to enter the train complex, but were stopped by guards! 

“Botelos”, they requested.

Fuck. We frantically dug through our backpacks to produce the train tickets and were allowed to pass. We continued, rounded the corner and stopped dead in our tracks looking at a packed train depot. “Did we miss our train, what’s going on? Is this the waiting group for another train? Surely our train has boarded, the trains board thirty minutes in advance! We're fucked.”

I walked to the lady behind the information booth with ticket in hand and asked, “has this train left?”. 

“No, it hasn’t boarded yet.”, she replied.

I ripped my phone out of my pocket and it became clear… the fucking clock in the bus was like a half an hour fast!! LOL. It never even occurred to me, while on the bus, to confirm the times. I just assumed it was right. Also, Bill never thought to question or confirm the times either. Sometimes I'm surprised we're still alive and have made it this far in life. heh

We weren't able to get a return train to Poroy, so we had to get a return train to Ollantay (CHECK SPELLING) which is about a 1.5 hour drive from Cusco. Taxis are so cheap we just figured we'd pay a taxi to take us back to Cusco, a fairly typical venture. We ended up meeting a really cool Colombian couple named Andreas and Juanita on the train ride back. They were seated across from us and we ended up chatting with them the entire ride back. They were both from Bogota, but came to the United States ten years ago in search of a better life. They're currently living in Indiana (and claim to actually like it), but planning on moving to Tampa and buying a house within the next year. They seemed impressed with our choice of Medellin as a vacation destination and both proclaimed it was their favorite and most beautiful city in all of Colombia. We ended up splitting a taxi back to Cusco with them and chatted the entire ride home. It was really interesting hearing their stories about moving to America, their experiences with the immigration process, and getting to pick their brains about what exactly they love about the USA vs. their homeland of Colombia. It opened my eyes to a lot of things and I feel very grateful and fortunate to have been able to spend that time with them.

We basically got back to Cusco around 9pm, ate, and passed out. What a day!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lima to Cusco

Lima to Cusco was a little rough. So we forgot to pre-checkin to our flights, but arrived 1hr 20mins early. They specifically say you need to checkin one hour prior. Well, what they don’t tell you is that they oversell every flight. So if there’s 120 seats avail, they sell 130 knowing that a certain percentage will cancel or just not shows up. Well, what happens when 120 people checkin for a flight, before the 1hr checkin cutoff? You get fucked like we did. They were fairly accommodating and since they're a part of Star Alliance booked us on a LAN flight for 1:20pm instead of or 11:15am Avianca flight. They also gave us free lunch vouchers… to McDonalds. So I got a free orange juice out of it, since that’s pretty much all I can eat at McDonald’s. I tried explaining that I wasn't able to eat anything there, but they only have arrangements with McDonald’s. I asked for cash, but they declined. lol

We had some time to kill and Bill had two McDonald’s vouchers burning holes in his pocket so we hit the food area. Luckily I was able to find a rotisserie chicken place. As I opened my wallet to pay, I noticed something was gone… my debit card. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. I had been warned not to bring it, and had also heard very recent horror stories about people’s accounts getting drained in Lima. I rushed to the nearest WiFi and checked my accounts… no fraud. Thank god. I msg’d Julie and had her call the bank and cancel my account and order me a new card. Phew. What happened was, I’m an idiot, and forgot to extract my card from the ATM when I used it in Lima the night before. The machines work differently in Peru and I was running on zero energy and hangry. Turisto estupido. Luckily I had a few hundred Euros stashed.

We arrived at Cusco and checked in to Hostel Frankenstein. A sweet little hostel just one block from the main plaza in Cusco. This hostel is owned by Ludwig, a quirky and eccentric German guy who’s been living here for 10 years. He runs every aspect of the place himself. Solo. The place is decorated as you would expect… weird, but awesome. Ludwig really is one of the most interesting people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting and conversing with. When asked if he liked living in Cusco, his response was, “No, I’m tired of it… I’m ready to move to the amazon”. 

“Oh, to run a jungle expedition type thing?”, I inquired.

“No, to open a botanical garden and beer garden”, he replied, serious as can be. 

LOL!!! Classic.

At 11,800 feet elevation, elevation sickness is no joke. I was winded, dizzy, and a bit light headed after traversing only two flights of stairs! I didn’t think it would affect me so greatly.

After we got settled he sat us down for like half an hour and told us _everything_ we could possibly need or want to know. Very informative and worth the $10/night price of admission alone. After getting the lay of the land, Bill and I headed out to explore Cusco. We didm’t get but a block to the main square when my jaw dropped. Cusco is b e a u t i f u l. Wow. I was shocked and awed. I had no idea. Cobblestone streets, amazing architecture, and immaculately kept. Obviously we were in the Plaza de Aramas and Cusco is the jump-off point to Macu Piccu, a Wonder of the World, as well as the Sacred Valley, a wonder in it’s own right, but this was above and beyond all expectations. 

We didn't explore long. I was dizzy and legs were seriously cramping after only a few short blocks. I’m totally comfortable and used to walking the hills of San Francisco and can easily walk for miles and miles. The altitude was preventing oxygen from getting to my muscles and making them cramp. We decided to turn in and rest for our 7:45am train departure to Machu Picchu!