Sunday, September 9, 2007

Aguas Calientes to Vancouver

We returned from Machu Picchu to a very wet Aguas Calientes, which I guess was not surprising since Aguas Calientes means Hot Waters. It was raining so hard we were reluctant to leave our very comfortable hotel suite looking out over the river and mountains. But since it was one of our last nights on the road, we walked around the town and settled on one of the many attractive cafes serving Peruvian food and Pizza. We were subsequently told we should have eaten at India Felix, but we didn’t discover it until lunch the next day. We’ll be recommending it the Moodies who are off to South America later this year.

While Aguas Calientes didn’t seem very attractive when we first arrived, it is a much better place than that described in most of the guidebooks. It has a dramatic setting with two rivers and a train track running through the town. A lot of money has been spent on upgrading the pedestrian realm, with new sidewalks and public spaces. Although the choice of hotels is limited at the moment, there are lots of cafes and restaurants, and far too many shops selling native artifacts.

We probably should have planned to go for a hike or visited the local museum on our last day. But we just were not up to it after climbing around Machu Picchu. Also, we had had far too many early mornings in the previous week. So we decided to sleep in and take it easy, until we discovered the hotel had a 9 am check out to accommodate its 10:30 check in time.

So we strolled about the town, running into others on our tour, who had also decided to not climb any more mountains or go on a hike. And we did have an excellent lunch at India Felix.

The train set off at exactly 3:55 and we were soon entertained by members of the crew doing native dances and putting on a fashion show down the aisle. I had to buy a black sweater, although afterwards discovered that Peruvian sweaters look much better on handsome Peruvians than they do on bald Canadians! When the train made a short stop at a small town, a young girl was out on the tracks trying to sell a wall hanging. I purchased it, although the negotiations had to end when the train started to move. She had a big smile on her face as we pulled away. Hopefully, one of my daughters will like it.

We didn’t take the train all the way back to Cusco. Because it has to do quite a bit of shunting from track to track, you can save forty minutes by getting off at the second last stop. Sure enough, the tour company was there with a big bus, from which we were transferred to a small bus and dropped off at our hotel. That evening we sought out the MAP restaurant, considered the best in Cusco, but couldn’t find it. So we ended up eating at the Inka Grill, another popular spot. I had the roast guinea pig, like Jesus did.

The next morning we discovered the Cusco Novatel also had a 9 am check-out. But the sun was shining and we wanted to see the town before flying back to Lima and on to Vancouver. Fortunately, we came upon a parade, with some wonderful costumes and music going through the main square. It was very joyous and a lovely way to say goodbye to Cusco.

Again, the flight to Peru was uneventful, which as you’ll recall, is good, but not always common in South America. We debated whether to go into Lima and try and see the Gold Museum, but weren’t sure if we would make it through the traffic in time. Furthermore, we had been so careful over the past week to ensure nothing went wrong to delay our return home. So we decided to check in early for our 11:30 flight and spend our time in the business lounge, finalizing the blogs and enjoying the airline’s hospitality. Unfortunately, this couldn’t happen. There was no one at the Continental Airlines desk to check us in until 7 pm, and without a boarding pass, we couldn’t get through customs and into the lounge. So I worked away in a restaurant, while Sally read, and went to the counter at 7:15. It was just being set up. At 8:15, it was still being set up. Then we learned what the problem was. The entire Continental Airlines world wide computer system was down! Eventually the system came back up, but of course, the flight was delayed.

So we now sit on Continental flight 261 from Houston to Vancouver. We are both quite excited at the prospect of being home. Other than having a camera stolen in Malaysia, difficulty getting a Belarus Transit Visa, and some challenges in India, we both agree the trip has gone very well. We have been to some wonderful places, and had many good surprises. While there are some places we won’t rush back to, such as Moscow, there are many we would like to see again: the Adriatic Coast for example, and Buenos Aires, as well as places we missed like Chile, Northern Brazil and other parts of Argentina. We would also like to return to New Zealand. But there are also many places that we haven’t been to that we would like to see. Ireland is near the top of our list.

During our travels, we often extolled the benefits of House Exchanges. Hopefully we can get back to doing that, fitting them in between work. But we also hope that not too far in the distance, we can be like the Homelink Members whose listing reads, ready to go anywhere, anytime! That’s our next travel goal for the future.

Machu Picchu: one of the 7 wonders of the world

At 4:30 in the morning we received our wake-up call. At 5:30, we were loaded into a waiting van and taken to the train station. We didn't take our luggage, just an overnight bag, since we were warned there was not much luggage space on the Vistadome 2 train. We didn't get off the bus in front of the station like most other passengers. Instead our driver went up a narrow lane and dropped us off right at the train. I guess this why people pay the extra premium for tours!

There are three train services from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the town next to Machu Picchu; the backpackers’ special, the Vistadome, and the Hiram Bingham. The premium for the Vistadone is about $50 and definitely worth it. The Hiram Bingham is a luxury train and costs about 3 or 4 times what the Vistadome costs. You also have to take a bus to catch it since it doesn’t come into Cusco. It might be worth investigating, especially if you want your breakfast and dinner served by men in dinner jackets. Although, our crew looked quite smart in their navy suits.

If you have the choice, try and sit on the left side of the train going and the right side returning. We quickly realized that this was going to be a very memorable journey with constantly changing scenery. After some good views of Cusco, we went through small towns and villages set into the mountains. At one point, a lot of cacti appeared. Then we were in the jungle. Every once in a while we saw Inca ruins and regretted that we were not fit enough to have done the 4 day Inca Trail hike from Cusco, which Georgia and many others had done.

I found that I wasn't taking as many photos as others on the train; but then, they lived in places like Tampa and Virginia and didn't regularly travel the Sea to Sky highway.

Around 9:30 we arrived in Aguas Calientes, a small town which initially didn’t appear to be that attractive, from where we took an exciting 30 minute bus ride climbing up a tortuous road to the site.

Machu Picchu is one of the new 7 wonders of the world. While I did not find it to be as impressive as the temples around Angkor Wat, or Bourabadour in Indonesia, (the largest religious structure in the southern hemisphere), it is an amazing sight in a very majestic setting. We soon realized that visiting it is not for the faint of heart, especially those with a fear of heights, or in poor physical condition. There can be a lot of climbing along very narrow unprotected steps. But there are also lots of easy trails. Just like Whistler.

Not a lot is known about the origins of Machu Picchu. It was probably built in the 15th century for religious and military purposes. It was 'discovered' in 1911 by Hiram Bingham who was exploring in Peru for Yale University and the National Geographic Society. He apparently was told about the ruins by one of the locals who he paid to take him there. He returned on a number of occasions, taking many artifacts with him. The Peruvians would like some of them back.

The lack of information about Machu Picchu is illustrated by the story of some skeletons that were found at the site. 135 skeletons were found and it was determined that 109 were females. This led to speculation that the site accommodated primarily women who were fleeing the Spaniards in Cusco, and were the chosen ones of the Inca.

However, it was recently determined through more sophisticated DNA analysis that the ratio of men to women was about 50/50. This has put an end to this speculation. However, one thing that is certain is that the Spaniards never discovered Machu Picchu. As we wandered around our guide kept pointing out things that are still unknown, like two small circular pools carved into the rock. What are they?

As we wandered around we noticed some new construction taking place. It seems that much of what is there is restored, in part since Hiram Bingham did a lot of damage by trying to burn off all the vegetation that had covered much of the site. We also came across some llamas that have free roam around the property.

We spent much of the day looking around; but we didn't go back the second day as initially anticipated, since Sally has a fear of heights, and many of the better climbs can be quite treacherous coming down. But we saw enough to appreciate the special qualities of the place, and are now keen to learn more about the Incas and their place in history.

Machu Picchu had always been planned as our last stop of this journey. It was a very good way to end it. We were glad that we had booked a tour through a travel agent, and can heartily recommend Florencia at Barcelo Verger Business Travel in Buenos Aires. Whatever you do, book a tour with someone. It’s so much easier.

One final thing. There is a very nice hotel, the Sanctuary Lodge at the top of the mountain. It’s about $600 a night or more. We chose not to stay there, preferring to pay less and be in the town. We don’t regret this decision. But we did have the buffet lunch there. This, I do recommend, since it allows you to have a break, and then go back for more climbing with a stomach full of ceviche and alpaca.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Cusco: on the road to Machu Picchu

I was looking forward to seeing Cusco, since this is where Georgia spent some time working in a clinic late last year. She said we would like it.

The flight from Lima took about an hour. It was uneventful, which is a good thing for any flight in South America. We flew on LAN, the main Peruvian airline, since this is what Florencia recommended. I was beginning to trust Florencia’s judgement after our night in Lima.

The first thing I noticed after arrival was that my fingers were tingling, almost vibrating. I didn’t know whether this was due to the altitude, or the Diomox, the drug Sally was giving me for the altitude. I also noticed I was easily out of breath, but wasn't sure if that was due to the altitude or the fact I had spent too much time during this trip on the computer when I should have been at the gym.

At most of the airports, bus and train stations we have been to for the past eight months, everyone has had someone to greet them, except us. In Peru it was different. Once again, we were met at the airport by our Viajes Pacifico/Gray Line Peru driver. He looked after our baggage, took us to our hotel, and checked us in. All we did was sit in the skylit courtyard and drink coca tea which apparently helps you adjust to the altitude.

While we were told to rest, we were keen to see the town. Tourism has taken over Cusco in the last 20 years. We couldn’t go anywhere without someone wanting to shine our shoes, or sell us knitted dolls, wall hangings, paintings, table cloths, carpets, hats, cloth bags, and on and on. Most of the stuff was very colourful, and quite beautiful, but we kept thinking we’re 35 years too old to be buying it! But we did get a couple of small things, since that’s what keeps the economy of the place going.

In the afternoon, we did an organized city tour with 20 other English speaking people. It had been a long time since we were with so many English speaking people. Our first stop was Korikancha, the Inca Temple of the Sun, where we all stood around and admired the amazing stonework. Built around 1350, there was no mortar between the stones. Instead, the stones were cut so that they slotted into one another. The objective was to create buildings that could withstand earthquakes. And they did. Unfortunately, they didn’t withstand the Spanish who destroyed much of what the Incas had built, and used the stones to build their own structures.

We then went to the Spanish Cathedral, but we weren’t that keen to see it since the Spaniards had been so cruel to the Incas and had built the cathedral on the foundations of an Inca Palace; we had already seen a lot of magnificent churches on this trip; and it was also very cold inside. But it was impressive, and I was particularly intrigued with the ‘black Jesus’ that had been sent from Spain with the hope that it might attract more natives to the Catholic religion. I also was amused by a painting of the ‘Last Supper’ featuring a guinea pig as the central dish.

We then set off for Saqsayhuaman, a megalithic complex about 2 km outside the city. Not much is known about its origins, but it is speculated that 20,000 men worked for more than 50 years on its construction. Some of the rocks are immense, and again, it was designed to withstand earthquakes. But the Spaniards destroyed much of it, and used the stones for other projects, including their cathedrals.

It was all quite interesting. The guide was good, and we regretted not paying more attention at school when we learned about the Inca Civilization. But we had not come here to see these sights. We were really here to see Machu Picchu, our next day’s destination. We were also interested in seeing a bit more of Cusco.

So we were quite happy when we were loaded into the bus around 6 o’clock and taken back to the main square, where we could check out restaurants for dinner, and be assaulted by more delightful young Peruvian boys and girls and older ladies trying to sell us things.

That evening, we did find a good restaurant, with a very interesting buffet. We had some excellent ceviche, whipped up by the chef on hand, which I followed with Alpaca carpaccio. We ate a number of things that we had never had before, some of which were quite good. The local river trout tasted much better than most of the meats. During dinner we were accompanied by Peruvian flute players, and just as we were ready to leave the dancers arrived.

But it was all very good, except for the fact that El Condor Paso had taken over from The Girl from Ipanema. One lady on the bus wanted to know if the music was written by Art Garfunkle.

We went to bed quite early, since we had to be up at 4:30 the next morning, to catch the train to Machu Picchu.

Lovely Lima

Sally says Lima has been the biggest surprise of the trip. That may be because her guidebook misled her by suggesting it was a dangerous place with little to see. It may also be the result of staying one night at the Hotel Lima Country Club, perhaps the nicest hotel of our trip.

Unfortunately, our flight out of Buenos Aires was delayed 4 hours. As a result, we missed the afternoon tour of the city that had been arranged through the hotel. But we managed to join a night tour, which although probably not as good, did allow us a brief glimpse of a few areas of the city. We particularly enjoyed San Isidro, where our hotel was located, and Miraflores, with its outstanding waterfront parks and elegant homes and shops. These were once small villages, but today are two of the main residential and tourist neighbourhoods. They are where you want to stay.

We also saw some of the historic centre, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The highlight was the Plaza Mayor or Main Square, laid out in 1535 by Lima’s founder Francisco Pizarro, and bounded by The Presidential Palace, the Cathedral, Municipal Offices, and a club. With its brightly painted yellow ochre buildings, and 17th century ornamental bronze fountain, it was most impressive.

A few interesting facts that I picked up on the tour. Lima’s population is over 9 million and the region is divided into 43 municipalities with 43 mayors. There is a large Chinese population which migrated to the country in the 19th century. There is no subway system; no streetcar system (since the tracks were removed years ago); just buses and unmetered taxis. Every fare has to be negotiated.

Our tour started around 6:30 which is in the beginning of the rush hour. The traffic congestion was horrendous, despite the efforts of traffic police in bright green gloves perched above many of the key intersections.

Adding to the congestion were jugglers and acrobats who wandered through the traffic, performing for a few centimos or sols. There were also a variety of vendors selling everything from stuffed animals to food and magazines. At least I didn't see women running out into the street on red lights holding up advertising banners, like they have in Buenos Aires!

I didn’t remember much about Lima's history from high school. But it's a very old place. Some of its archeological sites date back to 200 BC. From the 16th to 19th centuries it was a Spanish Colony, gaining independence on July 28, 1821. Local citizens remember the date since one of the city's streets is named Avenue July 28. Naming streets after important dates is quite a common practice throughout South America. Perhaps Vancouver should have a street commemorating its date of incorporation. I think it’s in May.

Following the tour, the eight of us were taken to a restaurant for dinner and a show. We expected a large venue, but were surprised to find a small restaurant with few other customers. We were seated next to the small stage, and the next thing we knew, the show began. It was a one hour extravaganza with a Peruvian band, and a very unusual variety of native dancers, acrobats, scissor musicians, and showgirls.

The food was very good as well, since it blends a lot of different cultures. We enjoyed some Pisca Sours, Peru's national cocktail, but didn’t try the local wine. Yes, there is a Peruvian wine industry, centred in the area where the recent earthquake hit.

While it was all quite entertaining, we were pleased to leave around 10 and return to the luxurious surroundings of our hotel. It had been a long day, what with the delay at the airport, and a two hour time change, and we were happy to sink into a king size bed in a king sized room ( 675 sq.ft. I measured it!) We slept quite well, despite the effects of the altitude sickness pills Sally insisted that we take to prepare us for Cusco, our next destination.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the Peruvian Gold Museum, which I had been told was a must, nor many of the other museums and grand colonial buildings. I suspect Sally’s guide book was correct in that relative to other major South American cities, there is not a lot to see, but much of what we did see was quite lovely. If you are coming to Peru to see Machu Picchu, it is worth staying over for a couple of days. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll be back too.