Monday, 25 August 2014

LONGEST.DAY.EVER.

On Tuesday we decided to skip the all day bus tour and after breakfast we took a hike to find the bus depot for tomorrow.  In the past when travelling from Cusco to Machu Picchu, travelers would simply board the train for the four hour ride. During the rainy season from November to May there were often problems with mudslides, landslides and rockslides so now travelers during the rainy season take a two hour bus ride to a station just beyond Ollantaytambo and then a two hour train ride the rest of the way to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. 

After a quick breakfast we headed down the hill, past Q'orikancha, looking for the bus depot.  We wandered around and around several blocks, stopped in to hotel lobbies to ask for directions, and ended up at a local market.  I had seen these vendors in Lima as well:  there is a bunch of hard-boiled eggs in what looks like an aquarium - a small glass container.  On the side of the glass container is a bowl for holding the egg shells and below is a group of quail who are laying the eggs for the vendor to cook and sell.  Customers purchase the eggs and the vendor peels them, puts the egg shells in a bowl and then puts the peeled eggs in a plastic bag, sprinkles them with salt and gives the bag to the customer.  The other street food that was very popular was a boiled/steamed cob of Inca corn which is much larger than our sweet corn at home.  These are also sold in a plastic bag which customers use to hold the corn as they eat it.  I did not try either of these local treats.

Quail egg vendor


As we waited out a quick rain shower at the local market, John used the data on his phone to once again search for the bus station.  We saw lots of other interesting things in the city, but no bus station.  By now I was feeling tired and dizzy.  I suggested to John that it was time to go back to the hotel, and that we needed to grab a cab rather than walk.

Some of the sites from our strolls around Cusco:



I like the juxtaposition of the traditional dress and modern dress.  We saw women everywhere in Peru, including the airport, wearing the flat-brimmed beige hat, braids, brown pleated skirt and flat shoes, and carrying colourful bags slung over their shoulders carrying all sorts of things including their children! 

Just down the street from our hotel


Turns out this fountain is very close to the bus depot.
We walked around this plaza countless times; we knew we were close!




When we got back to the hotel, I laid down and was sure I would feel better once I had a quick rest.  WRONG! By 2 pm I was sick.  Really, really sick.  I won't go into graphic detail but I was vomiting and had diarrhea nonstop all afternoon and into the evening.  John relaxed just outside the hotel door on the patio, reading his book and playing games on his computer, and came in periodically to make sure I was still alive.  As the day progressed and my condition showed no signs of improving he somehow managed to find a pharmacist who spoke English and got me antibiotics, a Spanish version of Gatorade to restore my electrolytes and a canister of oxygen just like the Japanese tourist had at Sacsaywaman.

As  afternoon faded into evening I was still spending most of my time in the bathroom and I began to have serious doubts about my ability to embark on a two hour bus ride followed by a two hour train ride in the morning.  Our bus left at 7 am and we had strict instructions to be at the bus depot no later than 6:30 am.  We had made arrangements ahead of time to check out in the morning, leave our suitcases at the hotel and then check back in on Thursday evening.  We just planning to use our backpacks as overnight bags for the trip to Aguas Caliente.  The staff at the front desk assured us that the taxi driver would take us to the mysterious bus depot in the morning.  But I couldn't imagine leaving the bed, except to go to the bathroom, let alone leaving the room.

I was sure that I was going to miss out on our trip to Machu Picchu, which was the whole point of this trip and I suggested John go ahead without me, but he argued that he would rather stay with me and  not leave me behind.  I figured at least one of us would get to see it; he figured it would still be there and we could see it together another time.  I was too weak to argue, which is unusual for me!  I woke at 3 am, still sick and even more convinced that we were going to be spending another day in Cusco.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Cusco and the Sacred Valley

There was a free breakfast buffet at our hotel in a tiny dining alcove just off the front reception area so we had a quick breakfast and then headed out for our first full day in Cusco.  Every book, article and webpage that I had read said that the must-see site in Cusco was Qorikancha, so we went there first.  Tickets were only 10 Soles ($4 Canadian) and we hired a guide from the group of locals who were gathered outside the front door. 

Q'orikancha was a beautiful Inca temple with consisting of four small sanctuaries and a larger temple set around a courtyard.  Everything in the temple was covered with sheets of gold or silver and encrusted with precious jewels.  The Spaniards tore down much of the temple and built a church on the site in the seventeenth century and they carted off all of gold, silver and gems.  The locals note that Spanish portion of the building has been damaged by earthquakes but the Inca portion of the building, made of tightly interlocking blocks, stand firm.   Having the local guide was a great addition, as there were very few signs and no real pamphlet to use as a guide book.  He showed us how the Inca sections were built and explained how it was used as a celestial observatory.  We took lots of photos of the interior as well as the beautiful gardens, which are visible from the street. 

The Spanish Church built upon the Inca Foundation


The courtyard - two views


beautiful painted wooden ceiling in the courtyard
Inca StoryBoard
When you looked through the window in one small room, you could see through the a row of windows in all the other small rooms so that you were looking from one end of the building to the other. Amazing!
 




 
Looking through the windows


Inca building blocks

 
By the time we were done our tour, it was time for lunch.  We chose a restaurant from our guide book but as we followed the directions, we realized that the restaurant was at the top of this flight of stairs:
 

Time for plan B!  We found another restaurant, Los Perros, and settled in for a relaxing lunch.  The food was good, the service was good, and the restaurant was nice and clean.  Not a rave review, but it was OK.

After lunch we were wandering downtown and we signed up for a package tour of some of the sites in the Sacred Valley.   The tour would take place over two days.  We would go this afternoon to Sacsaywaman, Q'enqo and Tambomachay and then tomorrow we would tour Pisac, Ollantaytambo and other sites.

Sacsaywaman is located high above Cusco and is mostly a series of huge stone walls that zigzag across the plain.  Once again we heard the familiar refrain about 'when the Spanish came...' as to why so much of it was destroyed.  Our tour guide was very informative and we spent about half an hour hiking around the site and taking photos.  The Lonely Planet guide had directions on how to hike up to Sacsaywaman but I'm so glad we took a bus.  It's about 2 km straight uphill from Cusco and would have taken quite a long time.  Perhaps if I was twenty years younger and was in Cusco for a very long time I might hike to Sacsaywaman, but it doesn't seem like a good use of time and energy when tours are so inexpensive.

While we were there I noticed a Japanese tourist who was carrying what looked like a big can of hairspray with a fancy plastic lid on it.  Every once and awhile she would hold the lid over her mouth and take a hit from the can.  It was canned oxygen!  I have asthma and altitude is always a trigger for me.  I've had a few bad trips when I've brought the wrong puffer and struggled to catch my breath. My allergist had prescribed special puffers for me leading up to this trip, but the altitude was still causing some shortness of breath.  I was intrigued but too shy to ask her where she got it.





Cusco from Sacsaywaman; Plaza de Armas in the foreground


After Sacsaywaman it was on to Tambomachay, also known as 'the bath of the Incas.'  These ruins consist of three tired platforms and water springs feed the platforms and create a waterfall/shower.  The best thing at Tambomachay was that there was a group of women and children in traditional clothing with llamas and you could give them a donation and get your photo taken with them and the llamas.  I was so excited!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 
 


 
 
We travelled on to Q'enqo which is a great stone, formerly carved in the shape of a puma but destroyed by the Spanish who wanted to force the Incas to convert to Christianity.  Like many of the Inca sites we visited, it depends on which guidebook or which reference you read as different scholars have different ideas about exactly how this site was used.  It was interesting to see the amazing rock work sculpted so many years ago.  There are platforms and niches on the outside and then a huge chamber with a raised platform inside that was most likely used in some sort of ceremonial ritual. 
 
Puma statue (destroyed by Spaniards)



 
 
We rode the bus back to town and since we were at the Plaza de Armas we decided to have dinner and then head back to the hotel.  We found a restaurant upstairs (and if John or I remember the name of it, I'll add it here later.  I wasn't intending to blog this trip so I didn't keep accurate notes.)  We ordered a pisco sour and some appetizers - alpaca kabob and some other things - and then went to the washroom to freshen up.  I had been holding a llama, after all.  In the ladies room, there was a bucket of water with a spigot in it next to the sink.  Apparently the sink wasn't working.  When John returned from the men's room, he informed me that the sink wasn't working and there wasn't even a bucket of water. He hadn't been able to wash his hands.  Luckily I had some hand sanitizer in my purse so he just used that instead.  But if there was no way to wash your hands in the men's room, what about the staff?  How clean could the kitchen be?  We decided to just have our drinks and then head out and get dinner somewhere else.  When the food came, we changed our minds.  It was so delicious; we ate it and ordered more!
 
Then it was time to call it a night! 
 
Cusco at Twilight from Sacsaywaman
 








 

Monday, 18 August 2014

On to Cuzco


We slept in til almost 9:00 and then got ready and went downstairs to the breakfast buffet.  Wow!  It was really good with foods from around the world.  In addition to the usual fruit, yogurt, meat, cheese, eggs, pancakes there were tamales, sushi, dim sum, and the best chicken shawarma.

John and I went for a short walk around a nearby park. It was very hot and humid and there were stands on the street corners selling Inka Kola, this yellow soda pop.  After seeing it everywhere, John bought a bottle to try.  It tasted like a combination of bubble gum and cream soda.  Not my favourite.
The ubiquitous Inka Kola


Reynaldo picked us up and we were off to the airport for our flight to Cuzco.  For a Sunday morning there was really heavy traffic.  Reynaldo explained that today was a day for college admission exams.  Students can receive free college education but there are over 25000 applicants for 1500 spots. 

Our flight to Cuzco was quick and uneventful and we grabbed a cab ride to our hotel, the Terra Viva Cusco Saphi. When researching hotels on TripAdvisor, Booking.com and other websites, I had noticed that at some hotels the cab had to drop you off at the bottom of a hill and then you had to hike upstairs to the hotel.  At such a high altitude I knew I didn't want to be doing extra hiking, and I was thrilled when the cab dropped us off right at the front door.

our room with traditional alpaca decoration

the front of our hotel in Cusco


It was a great hotel and only $100 per night - close to the Plaza de Armas but far enough away that it was quiet at night.  Our room was big and bright, and there was a lovely interior courtyard where we could sit outside and relax.  In the lobby there was a pot of coca tea as well as loose coca leaves to help combat the altitude sickness that many people experience. 


Image from theculturetrip.com
Here's John in the doorway to our room. Notice the two bulls on the roof - one male, one female.  These are seen on homes and businesses everywhere around Cusco and mean different things, depending on who you ask.  There is usually a cross and sometimes a ladder as well.  According to some it brings good luck and good fortune to the residents, and the ladder and cross are there to ensure a speedy journey to heaven.  If you ask five people, you'll get five different answers!  For some differing opinions check out Yahoo, or this website or even this website.


We went for a walk downtown to Plaza de Armas and there was some sort of water balloon and shaving cream battle going on.  I'm not sure why, but everyone seemed to be having a great time.  There was a large crowd gathered to the one side so we went over there and watched some sort of dramatic presentation that involved two men in costumes having a pretend battle.  I really need to learn more Spanish so I can ask more questions! 


Some of the shaving cream fight participants


wearing a hat of shaving cream






Plaza de Armas was beautiful and I'm glad we stayed nearby.  I loved all the cobblestone streets, the historic buildings, the gardens - a great homebase for exploring Cusco. 


Shops and restaurants along the perimeter of Plaza de Armas




The Inca fountain - a new and controversial addition to the Plaza

 

The Plaza is beautiful and filled with restaurants, shops and people offering massages.  I guess they figure you need a massage after all the uphill hiking that you are doing in and around the Sacred Valley.  Facing the cathedral is a tall golden Inca statue which was added in 2011 and caused a great deal of controversy.  Some residents feel it is helping to restore the Inca presence to the city and others feel that the Plaza is a colonial area and the fountain should have been left in its original form.  I guess there used to be a statue that someone brought from New York with a Native American Indian with a bow and arrow at the top of the fountain.  I think that would look weirdly out of place in Cusco, but that's just my opinion!

We settled on a patio for a leisurely dinner overlooking the street and then were off to bed.  After all this walking and fresh air, the bed felt wonderful!

Machu Picchu - Here we come!

While we were staying in Argentina I had wanted to go on a side trip to Machu Picchu but somehow it never worked out with our schedule.  We decided that after spending our March Break in 2013 relaxing on the beach in Costa Rica in a state of near perpetual relaxation that we would go to Machu Picchu for March Break 2014.  What a very different holiday this was to be - six flights, four bus rides, two train rides, three different hotels....  it was a trip not a holiday!

As we left home early in the morning  on March 8th to head to Detroit airport the streets were covered with a thin layer of ice.  We had an uneventful flight from Detroit to Atlanta and then four hours to kill in the Delta Sky Lounge while waiting for our flight to Lima. They had a nice outdoor patio so we sat outside and enjoyed the warmth and sunshine, as well as the free drinks, snacks and wifi.  After such an incredibly cold and long winter, any chance to sit out on a patio in the sunshine was too good to miss.

When we went to board our flight to Lima, both John and I as well as two other guys were pulled aside and not allowed to board.  We like to take advantage of our Sky Miles Priority status and board early so we can get our bags into the overhead compartments before they run out of room.  After a few minutes, the staff gave me the go ahead to board, so I took both of our carry on bags and got on the plane while John waited, not so patiently, at the gate.  But when I got to my seat, another girl was there with the same seat assignment.

Unbeknownst to me, as soon as I had boarded the plane, the staff at the gate told John to "get her back."  (Meaning me). He tried texting me, but, to no avail.  Meanwhile, the girl and I flagged down a flight attendant to help us figure out what to do about our seat situation.  Then the another flight attendant came to get me, and as we started walking off the plane, John was walking onto the plane.  Even though we had booked our seats with his SkyMiles frequent flyer points and John was sure that we wouldn't be upgraded, we had been moved up to Business Class.  Hurray! After some negotiation with other passengers, we were able to get two seats together and finally settled in for our flight to Lima.

As we were relaxing with champagne and orange juice, the pilot came on to announce that there was an error message with the left engine and we had to roll back to the gate for the mechanics to check it out.

A little while later they announced that the light wasn't coming on any more so we could depart - almost an hour late.  I was a bit leery - why was the light coming on in the first place?  Did the light stop coming on or did they fix what was causing the light to come on? But soon we were airborne so I tried not to think about it. The seats folded down flat into beds, so after dinner and a movie (Nebraska), I laid down and had a nice long nap.

We landed in Lima around 12:40 am, quickly moved through customs and immigration, grabbed our luggage and then got a cab to our hotel, the Sheraton, which I had booked using my SPG bonus points.  Our cab driver, Reynaldo, was from Lima but had lived in Virginia for four years.  He told us all about Lima - 11 million people of the 29 million people in Peru live in Lima.
The interior of the Sheraton Convention Centre in Lima - hope you don't have vertigo!


When we checked in at the Sheraton they had upgraded us to the Club Level.  It seems our theory about not being upgraded when booking on points had been proven wrong twice in one day!  We had a quick shower in our lovely room and then went downstairs for our complimentary pisco sour.  Both Chile and Peru claim to be the origin of the this drink and I had been looking forward to trying the Peruvian version.  They tasted similar to me, although the Chilean version uses lemon juice and the Peruvian recipe calls for lime juice. It would be interesting to have a side by side taste test, but not at this late hour.  By 2:30 am, we were finally headed to bed.



Sunday, 22 June 2014

Costa Rica - March 2013

While we've both been busy working full time, John and I have found time to travel and recently had a request to update our travel blog.  So the details may be a bit fuzzy as time has passed, but I'll do the best I can to capture the key elements of some of our latest adventures.

We travelled to Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste in Costa Rica for one week in March 2013 for a holiday.  John had been working too many hours, so this was definitely a week for him to relax and unwind.  We lucked out and were upgraded to first class on both legs of the trip to Costa Rica, which made for an enjoyable flight. 

When we arrived in Liberia, Costa Rica we were met at the airport by Nan and Paul who owned the casita that we had rented for the week which we found on the Vacation Rentals by Owner website. 
They are a wonderful couple from the States who own two casitas - one that they live in and an identical one next door that they rent out.  It was perfect - just one bedroom, one bathroom with a kitchen, living room and a cool and shady covered patio where we spent lots of time.  There was a triathlon happening in the village that afternoon so we made a quick stop in nearby Playa Coco for groceries and then headed to our home away from home.

















Paul and Nan also owned the vacant lot next door to the casitas and we spent time watching the monkeys in the mango trees as well as the rooster and chickens who liked to wander through the yard every afternoon.  Most days consisted of a walk on the beach in the morning, then we would head back to the casita from breakfast and retreat to the patio during the heat of the day, head over to the pool at the hotel next door in the late afternoon, then out to dinner.  It was a lovely lazy way to pass the time.


Found this sea horse washed up on the beach one morning during one of our morning strolls and scooped him up and put him back in the ocean.  It reminded me of the Starfish Story that is near and dear to so many teachers.


 Even though Playa Hermosa is a very small town with only three streets we were able to find lots of great restaurants.  It was interesting that none of the streets have names so directions were challenging and we would walk and walk to find a restaurant only to find that they weren't open even though they were supposed to be open according to web sites like Fodors and Trip Advisor.  We just had to be flexible!

One day we had hiked around looking for a Mexican restaurant that we had read about but it was closed so instead we stopped at Papa Hog's Smokehouse which is owned by a couple from Quebec.  We had great smoked ribs and chicken, and while they were preparing our meal they told us we could go next door to the variety store to buy wine or beer to have with our meal.  They don't have a liquor license but you are allowed to bring your own.  Sweet!

Waiting for dinner at Papa Hog's



One evening we dined at the restaurant at Hotel La Finisterra which has the best view in Playa Hermosa.  The food was good but it was worth the hike up the hill just to enjoy the view.

By far, our best meal in Playa Hermosa was at Mario's.  It took us a
few days to figure out where Mario's restaurant is because it is at his home.  We hiked up the driveway one afternoon and his children were outside playing.  They ran inside to get their parents and we made a reservation for the following evening.  Mario asked us if there was anything we couldn't have (I have food allergies so this was greatly appreciated) and then told us that he would go spearfishing in the morning and we would have the catch of the day.  The next evening when we arrived it turned out the other couple who had also booked a reservation had had to cancel so it was just Mario, his wife and the two of us dining on the patio overlooking the lights of the town.  As each course was presented they told us about the local ingredients and we learned all about his chef training and why they had decided to return to Playa Hermosa.  We really gained an appreciation for the burdens and benefits of life in Costa Rica.  The food was great, the company was great, it was one of the most memorable meals of my life. 

We did take a few side trips while in Playa Hermosa including a hiking trip to a volcano.  Every one got off the van to go on a water tube ride and horseback trip so we had a private tour with our own tour guide.  Birdwatching is a huge tourist draw in Costa Rica and I almost felt bad that John and I couldn't fully appreciate all the cool birds that our tour guide pointed out to us on the volcano tour.  We didn't get to see a sloth - it was very windy and they don't tend to be out in the tree tops on windy days.  We did get to hear some of the loudest cicadas EVER - it sounded like hundreds of car alarms were going off all at once.  We also saw a marching column of army ants, and got to climb over trees and hike through streams.  We had booked the trip through the front desk at the hotel next door to our casita, Hotel Villa Del Sueno.  It was nice having the hotel next door - we could take advantage of their services even though we weren't staying there as Paul and Nan had a great relationship with the manager. 



A vine - behind me is a tree trunk.  Things grow BIG in the jungle!


Our other side trip was a ziplining tour not far from Playa Hermosa.  We got to fly through the jungle while the monkeys watched us from the trees. 



Lastly, we took a quick road trip with Nan and Paul to the hilltops overlooking the town to watch the sunset.  Just another beautiful day in paradise.  Usually I tend to check places off once I've been there but we had such a great time I'd love to go back again!