Saturday, June 19, 2010

Travel Log: Friday, June 18, Lima

Lima is a big city. Lima is to Quito as New York is to, let's say, Portland. And as such, there is a lot of everything. The city is physically large, and the streets, large and small, are very congested. Last night, while in a cab to dinner, we sat in the traffic-jammed express road, and in the middle, saw the newly inaugurated express bus, running down an exclusive lane, with passengers shoulder to shoulder. This morning,walking thru a market district near the "Chinatown," we saw whole streets similarly congested with people. Also similar to the jewelry district in LA, or the garment district in NYC, stores withe similar goods are grouped together. On our first taxi ride into town, I remember seeing at least three solid blocks of small offset print shops. Today we passed similar districts, with yarn, cloth and sewing supplies, hardware and others.

The Mundial, or soccer World Cup started on June 11, and we, especially the girls, have been following along, tracking scores and winners and losers. In Lima, as in many other big cities around the world, they have set up a huge screen in public spaces for a "fan fest." This morning, we went to the Plaza de Armas near our hotel to watch as team USA tied Slovenia 2-2. There were proably about 800 people watching, including one lucky municipal worker, whose job this morning apparantly was to polish the lamposts!

Along with people and cars (mostly taxis) Lima also has some beautiful colonial buildings, churches and museums. Yesterday we visited the catacombs at Santo Dominico's church and the Museum of the Inquisition. (Plenty of food for thought in there - regarding fanatacism and tolerance.) This afternoon we went to the Museum of the Nation, which, along with lots of pre-conquest artifacts, included an extensive photo exhibit documenting the years between 1980 and 2000 and the terrorism of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the government's sometimes excessive response. The exhibit "Yuyanapaq. to remember." is part of the report of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commision.

Travel Log: Thursday, June 17, Cuzco to Lima

On our ride in from Urubamba yesterday we learned that the "paro" that had been planned for the 14th was canceled on the afternoon of the 13th. Oh well, better safe than sorry. However, we were told, the paro planned for the 17th and 18th would go forward, and not only would it impact transportation between cities, but roads would also be blocked inside Cuzco.

Armed with this information, we visited the TACA office yesterday to reconfirm our tickets, and to verify that the paro would not impact air travel.

Our choices to get to the airport this morning were either to get a very early cab, or walk. We opted to walk, a trip which turned out to be quite pleasant without cars. We saw some people marching, some rocks in the streets, a couple groups heading to the airport, one pulling their rolling luggage, another in the front of one of these three-wheeled bike transports, ususally used for light deliveries. When we got to the airport, after about an hour walk, a large group of people standing outside had us worried that we wouldn´t be allowed to enter, but we quickly realized these were just arriving passengers, waiting for a cab to the center!

By far the biggest hassle was getting from the check-in counter to the gate. No one knew which gate we should go to, Gate 4 upstairs, or Gate 10, downstairs. When we went thru the downstairs security - after waiting for the security people to get to their posts and turn on all the machinery, we entered a completely empty corridor (not counting the guy sweeping the floor). When the security folks finally agreed to let us go upstairs to Gate 4 and check for ourselves, the security upstairs didn't want to let us through. There were a few other passengers caught in this information vortex. Since no one knew anything about this flight, which was mislabled on the flight monitors, we assumed we were the first passengers thru the gate - perhaps the others were caught by the paro? So when we arrived at Gate 4 to find 200 people already waiting in line, our bafflement was complete. Walking from the gate, downstairs past the still-empty corridor with Gate 10, and out onto the tarmac ... well, I just had to laugh.

Travel Log: Wednesday, June 16, Ollantaytambo to Cuzco

We took a cab from Ollantaytambo to Urubamba, and then a colectivo - basically another cab, from Urubamba to Cuzco. The tourist population of Cuzco has grown since we were last here, and it is difficult to walk more than a few steps without being acosted by someone trying to sell you something: dinner, massage, city tour, sweater; and that pictoresque native in her beautiful Andean dress, with the baby on her back and
the baby lamb? - "take my foto mister?" Ugh!

The Plaza de Armas was crowded today with a dance contest, similar to what we witnessed our last night here last week. Beautiful costumes and dances. In the evening, in front of the Cathedral, we witnessed a couple of the groups performing these same dances, without their costumes, just for the pleasure of doing so. That was kinda neat to see: young people, in their early 20's, clearly more comfortable in western clothes, but still immensely proud of their cultural traditions.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Travel Log, Tuesday, June 15, Moray, Salineras

After breakfast we boarded a "combi" - a small mini-van stuffed with about 20 people, and rode it to Urubamba, switched to a bus headed to Chinchero, and got off on the road to Maras, where we caught a cab to Moray.

Moray is an interesting site consisting of about 15 concentric terraces, the lower eight being perfectly circular. The steps up and down the walls consist of rocks jutting out from the terrace walls, three or four per wall. Unlike in other terraced sites we've seen, the steps are symetrical and form a double zig-zag pattern down the levels, equidistant from a center line formed by a channel carved in a large rock on each terrace wall.

Moray is set in stark but beautiful Andean highlands, at about 11,000 feet above sea level. Across the river valley, snow covered peaks abound, Montaña Veronica dominates the view from Moray.

About 10 km from Moray are the salt "mines" of Salineras. This is a working site, which consists of hundreds of rectangular shallow pools along a hillside which collect mineral spring water. As the water evaporates, the workers collect the salt. We hiked down the hill from Salineras, stopped at a strategically located restaurant for some juice, and then caught a combi (this time packed with about 25 people) back to Ollantaytambo.

While the kids chilled at the hospedaje, Debby and I explored the small ruins of Q'ellorq'ay. These are right across some agricultural fields from where we are staying, are completely unvisited, and consist of a medium sized complex of rooms, a fountain and terraced fields. As with all Incan sites we´ve seen, walls are filled with windows, doors and large and small niches, all built in trapezoidal shapes. The terraces at this site are actively agricultural - corn stalks and cows share the site with ghosts of past civilizations.

Travel Log, Monday, June 14, Ollantaytambo

We got up somewhat early today (6:30) to have breakfast at our hospedaje, and explore the main ruins in town before the tour buses started to arrive. It is a large site, with residential, agricultural, ceremonial and miltary sectors. After you enter the site, you climb through terraced agricultural land to the Temple of the Sun, a large structure made of large, highly carved and polished stones. We continued to climb, to a structure high on an outcropping that provided views up three valleys. The structure has 4 large trapezoidal nitches on one side - my theory is that they once housed gold statues visible from miles away. Coming down from this "Inkawatana" we dropped into a residential area with a ceremonial fountian. A guard told me that this residential area was burried by a mud slide, and relocated across the river to the sector which is still used today, the sector we walked thru yesterday.

After lunch (and ice cream) Debby and I walked down to the Albergue, a nice B & B run by the sister of a collegue of Debby's. She is a fascinating woman, an artist, who first arrived in Peru 30 years ago in a dugout canoe, paddling thru the jungle from Ecuador.

By the way, no paro today.

Travel Log, Sunday, June 13, Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo

After all the climbing and hiking yesterday, we slept in this morning, as our only commitment was a 10:00 am train out. Debby and I walked through town a bit in the morning, looking for fruit and bread for breakfast, as the typical 28 sole breakfast buffet ($9) is a little outside our budget. Aguas Calientes is a bit like a ski resort town: beautiful setting, almost purely pedestrian, service oriented to tourists, and no real reason to exist except for the nearby major attraction, in this case, the Machu Pichu ruins.

Taking the train out during the day, we could see what we missed on our night trip in. The train runs along the river and steep, lushly vegetated walls come right down to it. From Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo the route rises about 400 meters, which is apparantely enough to change the negetation from the almost jungle-like setting of the ruins to a very dry, almost parched (this time of year) landscape of rocky peaks, with glimpses of snow covered pearks in the distance.

Daylight also let us see the destruction that the February rains brought. Numerous sections of the route were either washed out by the river below, or covered up from mud and rock slides from the slopes above.

We arrived back in Ollantaytambo around 1:30 and checked into the hospedaje we had started to stay at 2 days before. After a light lunch, Debby and I decided to explore the town a bit. Up to this point, we hadn't really gotten a handle on this town. There is a town squqare, which is curently being reconstructed, and what is most apparant, is the steady stream of tourists passing from the square, across the bridge, and up to the ruins. However, as we walked, we "discovered" another part of the town, which is all stone streets and walls, with drainage canals running thru it. We climbed up to the ruins of Pinkaylluna on the east side of town, which are very interesting, and could see the whole town, including this "medieval" sector and just across the river to the west, agricultural fields.

Travel Log, Saturday, June 12, Machu Pichu Ruins

Up early one more time to try to catch the morning light at Machu Pichu. Although super-excited about this part of the trip, Nikki is not a willing early riser. Nonetheless, we got on the bus at 6:00 and got in before the crowds, and early enough for Mia and I to climb Huayna Pichu, the steep pinnacle one sees behind the ruins in the classic photo of Machu Pichu. (They only allow 200 up, starting at 7:00 and another 200 at 11:00.) The trail is steep, but almost completely on stone steps, and provides great views of the valley and surrounding peaks. Debby and Nikki explored the ruins (Nikki maxed out on climbing at Pisac) until we reunited around 10:00. We chilled a bit, then explored more of the ruins. Even with the non-stop buses bringing tour groups in, the site is so big that it is fairly easy to get (relatively) away from the crush. Around 2:00 we headed down, opting to walk instead of paying another $21.00 (US) fo the 30 minute ride back to town. We did a lot of walking, but everyone had a great day. The ruins are truely magnificent, and a marvel of order and design from a culture that used mostly stone and wood tools to create them.

Travel Log, Friday, June 11, Pisac Ruins to Ollantaytambo

Our plan: wake up early and climb to the ruins. We did wake at 5:15 or so, and we were moving by 6:00. The sky was already light, but the mountains prevent the sun from hitting the town until about 9:00 or 9:30.

The ruins are probably 1,000 feet above the town and the hike is steep, through amazing terraces constructed by the Incas. Some of the terraces are on slopes of 60 degrees or more! Apart from the terraces, the first ruin you see while climbing up is a circular structure, that probably served as a watch tower/lookout - the views to the valley below from here are all-encompassing. From here, we continued to climb to the ancient village of Pasaqá, where the walls and windows of most of the structure, probably residences, are quite well preserved. The trail continues up, to the Intiwatana, which contains temples to the Sun and the Moon, among other structures. The site is huge, and by this time, we are pretty tired, so we sort of bee-lined to the exit (actually the entrance, as most people arrive by bus/taxi and hike down, unlike us) although we admired the Kalla Qasa, an "urban neighborhood" up hill from the trail as we passed by.

We took a cab back into Pisac, and had a big delicious meal before heading back to our hotel to pack and check out.

We boarded a bus for Urubamba, down the valley from Pisac, through some beautiful terrain. The valley bottom is narrow, and the mountains rise steeply on both sides. An occasional break in the ridgeline showed snow covered peaks and snowfields in the distance. Culivated fields, although this is the dry season, were visible quite high up the mountainsides.

We switched in Urubamba from the small bus to a taxi for the final leg into Ollantaytambo. From the driver we learned more about the devasting floods of February. It had rained for two days straight, and the river quickly rose, overflowed its banks, and took out bridges and destroyed adobe houses by saturating their lower bricks. After just two days, the river receded to normal levels, but the destruction remained.

At the hostel we stayed at the first night in Cuzco, the proprietress told us that we could use the kitchen, but they would charge us 5 soles (almost $2) extra to cover the cost of gas. We thought this a little excessive, since in Cuenca, a whole tank of gas, which lasted us about a month, costs only $2.00. But then we learned that a tank of gas in Peru, which is about 1/2 the size of the tanks in Ecuador, costas about 34 soles (almost $13). This is a source of contention among the populace, especially in the Cuzco region where the gas comes from , and it is bubbling up now because the government is planning on exporting the gas to other countries. (I learned later that it is natural gas which comes from this region, and the plan to sell it for about 17 soles a tank. The gas they have to buy is gasified petroleum, which is much more expensive, and the whole situation is benefiting a single businessman in Lima, who is undoubtedly well-connected with the current president.) There have been protests recently in the area, and, as in Ecuador, the preferred method of protest is to close the roads (and rail lines). Last week the organizers announced another "paro" for June 14, as well as June 17 and 18. So, while we had planned to stay in Ollantaytambo for a night, then go to Machu Pichu on the train on the June 12 and return on June 14, we decide to be pro-active. Our thinking is that if there is a paro on the 14th (still actually under discussion) then we´d be stuck in Aguas Calientes for at least an extra day, and perhaps more. Aguas Calientes is the last place to stay before the Machu Pichu ruins, and it has a reputation for overpriced everything. And they distinguished themselves during the February rains, when tourist were stranded there due to the closing of the tracks, by raising prices up to 5x their regular rates!

The ideal solution would have been to change our return to Sunday, June 13, but the only train with available seats was the 10:00 am run - hardly enough time to see the ruins, so we hastily decided to go up tonight, taking a 6:00 pm train. We'll visit Machu Pichu on Saturday, and return on the 10:00 train on Sunday.

On the train, which actually starts off as a bus since the tracks are not yet completely cleared, we met a Limeña going up to Machu Pichu, who told us about a cheap hotel. So we beelined past mobs of hotel hawkers to this place, Hostal Guiller, which isn't too bad, and costs only 45 soles/night ($15) for all for us - a definite bargain.

Travel Log, Thursday, June 10, Pisac

The road from Cuzco to Pisac is well-paved, but half washed out in several places, as the ground beneath it was loosened and washed away by the heavy rains in January and February that closed Machu Pichu for a month and left several thousand tourists stranded. I learned from a lady in the Pisac tourist office that it also completely burried the nearby town of Taray and killed nine people there, and eight in Pisac. Although Machu Pichu made the news, the whole "Sacred Valley" was devasted.

Pisac is a lovely little town, nestled in the Andes, below Incan ruins of the same name. Although the main market day is Sunday, they also have a Thursday crafts market, so after a delicious, if non-typical, lunch (finished with a chocolate brownie, vanilla ice cream, and apple strudel) we shopped! Nikki bought some old money and a small stuffed llama; Mia bought a hat and some earings; Debby got a pendant and some earings; and Don got a sweater, a bracelet and a hat. The market occupies the entire central square, and although it ends around 5:00, workers were still disassembling the stalls and hauling away the wooden tables and bamboo and tarp walls when we came home from dinner at 8:00.

Most of the houses in town (and the ones we saw on the road from Cuzco) are made of adobe. Many have a mud and watttle facades, with images in relief of Inca symbols or themes. I saw a sign at the tourist office for a contest for the best facades, and a taxi driver later confirmed that this is a manner of developing local pride and to improve the town's image for the tourist trade.

Travel Log, Wednesday, June 9, Cuzco

The day awoke sunny but cold, with frost on the roof tiles. The sun seems to rise a bit sooner here than in Cuenca, (probably because Cuzco is further east in the time zone.) and although I could pull the curtain back and see the blue sky, I couldn't pull myself from under the four wool blankets to step out into our cold room.

We all did finally get up, and after a breakfast of bread, jam and tea, we moved to a slightly more down-scale (but warmer) hostel for less than half the price (50 soles, or about $18.00 compared to 130 soles, about $46). After we cooked up a second breakfast in the hostal kitchen, we walked down to the bus station to catch a bus to Tombomachay, the first of four Inca ruins we'd visit today. Tombomachay is about five miles from Cusco, and a small site, with typical tight fitting stonework. Nikki bought a beautiful aplaca wool hat from some vendors at the site, against our wishes, but it 's a beautiful hat.

After Tombomachay, we basically walked across the highway to Puku Pukara, and afterwards, flagged a bus which took us to Q'enqo, where Debby and I had a guide (the girls preferred to explore on their own) and learned a bit about the site. By far the most impressive site of the day however, was Saqsaywaman, only about one mile from Cuzco. It is an enormous site , which includes a huge field with three tiers of large stone walls. At the base is a huge parade field, maybe the size of 8 to 10 soccer fields laid side by side. On the other side of the field is a large rock hill, with terraced flanks and stairs through the middle of it. On the other side of this is a quite large filed, surrounded by a low stone wall. We walked back to Cusco from Saqasywaman, and after dinner, came down to the Plaza de Armas to witness a folklore dance competition. Lots of beautifully dressed kids performing traditional dances in the street in front of the Cathedral.

As I write this at night in the hostal, I can still hear the music from the festival wafting up from below.