Saturday, April 19, 2014

London Day 1.5ish - Flying with the (sick) Toddler (by Jim)

Saturday @ 4am...

Ahh beloved jet lag, how I do not love thee! This could be a variation on my normal tendency towards deficient sleeping habits, but I’m guessing that the jet lag isn’t helping a bit. Oh well, I guess it gives me a bit of time to finally blog, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Here completes the end of our first full day in London! After a grueling flight across the pond, we’ve managed to see a bit of the area around the London Eye and a certain Cutie actually fell asleep at what could be considered a fairly reasonable hour (midnight GMT). Given that a lot of folks online have suggested that toddlers don’t adjust well, this is not a terribly bad bit of progress.

The flight... while I’m not going to dramatically say it was a nightmare, which it truly could have been, I will say that it sure wasn’t my idea of a great time. Sam decided that sleep wasn’t something he was going to do (interestingly enough, unless it was smack dab in the middle of the hallway on the floor). He arguably had one of the very best seating options out of anyone on the plane (well, maybe first class excepted) with the carry cot, but one might have thought that it was made of metal spikes and live alligators for as well as he would react to it when we would put him down. If my memory serves right, he took about 3, 30-45 minute “naps” between my and grandma’s laps and was otherwise “that toddler” that I’m sure caused many people to grumble about under their breaths. I had promised myself that I would not get horribly angry about having an evil toddler, but I won’t lie, it was unbelievably difficult. I feel bad for the little guy, he was still running a fever of about 101 degrees after a full 4+ days of being terribly sick, but we had been so hopeful that he’d be exhausted enough to sleep and he was acting like a demon. C’este la vie, we lived and the plane landed, but I’m sure hoping that we won’t repeat that debacle in the other direction.

Amisha’s flat is truly amazing - we couldn’t have imagined the view, let alone the ultimate awesomeness for which it exudes. The location, only about a 5 minute walk from the London Eye and the Waterloo station, is unbelievable. Amisha, we owe you enormously for letting us use it!

After arriving in London, we managed to get through customs and out of the airport with little issue. Sarah was amazing and scheduled a cab for us, so while we were running a ton later than planned, a driver was waiting for us as we left the baggage claim. After taking a moment to settle in a bit at the flat, we set out to grab some “lunch/dinner” at the pizza place right next to the apartment building per Sam’s “pizza!” request and enjoyed some very tasty food. We’ll ignore the ensuing shock and realization that this trip won’t be cheap due to the lovely lack of power the USD has compared to the GBP, but it was tasty! We closed the grub run out with some excellent deserts and wandered over to the Eye.

The Eye and the park that surrounds it were bustling and beautiful. We hadn’t realized just how clearly you can see across the River Thames and found ourselves looking at the famed Big Ben. Big Ben, of course, was preceded by several minutes of staring at the cute fake bunny cage/breakout setup that they have in honor and prep of Easter. Apparently there will be a hunt for the escaped bunnies and Sam was fascinated at the plastic one living in the cage.

The rest of the evening was that; an evening. Sam was clearly jet lagged, crabby and generally fought us every step of the way in everything. Every once in a while he would be cute, but overall it was tough. We put him down at 9 thinking that he would be tired enough to sleep, which he apparently did for about 4 hours, but he awoke at midnight screaming. Apparently I was so out of it that I slept through a long session of lung exercise and grandma rescued him from his jail. I awoke at 4:30am and wondered where the child had gone. I found him staring into space on the couch with grandma passed out next to him. I relieved her of Cutie duty and managed to get him to pass out about 30 minutws after by dimming the lights. He was so out of it that I moved him to his crib again easily and he slept fairly well until roughly noon.

Once the crew was up and ready, we took off to find some lunch. We noticed “The Hole in the Wall” pub and decided to try their advertised fish ‘n chips. The grub was good and Cutie had a few moments of cuteness after he excitedly face plant NOMmed his way through part of the gigantic fillet. After more grumples from the little man, we set off to find a grocery. We found a good little one, but chose to seek out another that had come up on Google Maps. I/it apparently got confused about directions and we got to see several blocks of additional city before heading back and ending up at the Waterloo station for restroom breaks. Ironically, this led us up the second floor, which is exactly where the other store was (M&S). After paying our 30p to pee :), we took a bench break, bought some grub to stock up the kitchen and hit the pastry shop below where Robin wanted to have a snack. The Pain a Chocolate we all got was good and tasty and we set out to go back to the flat.

Sam insisted we take another walk after some hanging about, so he and I set out to wander again. I ended up snapping some fun shots of the Eye, Big Ben and a few other views and we came back to make and eat some delicious sandwiches. After that, Sam was still very awake and was demanding yet another “go bye bye”, so we did a quicker walk around the pier and came back to the flat - Sam nearly nodded off during this walk, so I bathed him (which, he protested severely) and put him down much to his displeasure around midnight. Luckily he only resisted for his normal 20 minutes or so and has been sleeping well since - here’s to hoping he gets a full night’s rest and is delightful tomorrow. Luckily today he was fever free and far closer to acting like himself, so we’re really optimistic that he’s on the mend and getting into the flow of things.

Now if I could only manage to sleep... here’s to trying. Cheers!

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Last Day in Peru: Day 13

We made breakfast at Jessie's apartment and did some laundry in the morning. We headed out to do the last of our shopping at the Inca Plaza (yes Carrie, we found some yarn... first time I'd seen it the whole trip but then again I wasn't looking for it before!), then went to La Mar for our last meal out in Peru (a late lunch).

La Mar is an upscale restaurant that supposedly has the best ceviche (also cebiche) in all of Lima. It isn't too far from Jessie's apartment; it's only about a 5-10 minute taxi ride. My doctor also recommended this place, so it was the last thing on my 'to do' list for this trip to Peru.

We were really impressed overall. It is a nice atmosphere of gray stone, dark wood, and turquoise-colored cloth and decorations. We ended up sitting at the bar because the place was absolutely HOPPING at 4pm. It is only open from noon until 5pm; in Lima it is more common for people to eat lunch and dinner later than most people in the US. 3-4pm is a more common lunch time and 9pm is a common dinner time.

Jim and I both ordered a limonada, our favorite drink while in Peru that I've ordered with almost every meal. It's like lemonade, only with limes and always fresh-squeezed. None of this Minute Maid silliness; this is the real stuff.

They served as a complimentary appetizer freshly fried potato, sweet potato, and plantain chips with three different sauces as well as freshly fried (still warm) corn kernels called cancha that are common around here. The cancha are light, salty, and crunchy.

Jim and I ordered a sampler of five different cebiches, and all were equally delicious. There was the more traditional Peruvian lime, a sweet one with soy, a Chinese-fusion style with sesame and ginger, A chili-flavored Peruvian take, and a multi-seafood cebiche. All of them definitely topped any cebiche I had the week prior. Between the different cebiches and the chips and toasted corn, we were stuffed. What a fabulous way to end our time in Peru.

Now we are back at Jessie's getting ready to pack up as the laundry finishes drying. We'll head to the airport around 8:30pm to allow for traffic (since it's New Year's Eve) for our 11:39pm flight. We're taking the red-eye to New Jersey (Newark), then it's another 4-5 hour flight to Denver from there. I guess when Erik and Steph went home on Thursday their first flight (to Houston) ended up being canceled because the plane didn't land in Lima on time or something and they had to switch to a continental flight through Newark, so cross your fingers for us that we get home on schedule. If all goes well we should get home Sunday afternoon... otherwise it may be later.

Well Peru, it's been great, but it's time for us to go home. Buenas noches y Feliz Año Nuevo.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Back to Lima: Day 12

Not much to write about today. We had a leisurely breakfast at Rumi Punku before catching a cab to the Cuzco airport, where our flight was inevitably delayed. I'm coming to find this is the norm around here. This delay was due to "air traffic". Really, did 5 planes unexpectedly need to land or something? This makes me really appreciate air traffic control in the US. We landed in Lima a little after 4pm, went to Jessie's apartment, changed, grabbed dinner, went grocery shopping for breakfast and the plane ride home tomorrow... and that's about it.

So maybe I'll write about some of the random things we've noticed in Peru that haven't made it to the blog yet for one reason or another.

  • emission control in the US is something that we are coming to appreciate more and more
  • traffic laws, while frustrating at times, are apparently something we appreciate as well
  • I'm amazed that we've only seen two accidents (and only fender-benders) the whole time we've been here with as bad as the traffic is... the drivers are skilled in their art, I will give them that
  • horns, while monotone, can communicate so much
  • "mufflers are a gift from a superior being" -Jim
  • apparently Decepticons from Transformers are very popular... tons of mototaxis have Decepticon logos on them
  • The butter here is far superior
  • Fruits are far superior... probably because, like most of the rest of the world, they only really sell what's in season. I think that we lose something by making so many produce products available year round in our stores.
  • The Peruvian personal space bubble is smaller than ours in the US (though that's true in most of the rest of the world, too.)
  • The US has 10 times the amount of available cereal brands in the grocery stores
  • If your "agua sin/con gas" (bottled water with or without carbonation) is served in a glass bottle, you are in a fancy-pants restaurant; if the water is served from a pitcher, but is filtered or from a bottle, then you are at a seriously fancy-pants restaurant :)
  • Jim has a theory that Peru supports: most of the world does not refrigerate eggs; it's not necessary. We crazy paranoid US citizens are about the only ones that feel the need to do it.
  • When traveling in touristy areas it's amazing how much you run into the same people. We saw "strong-feature Swiss family" on our flight to Cuzco, at Machu Picchu, and when we returned to Cuzco after at the Plaza de Armas. "Scruffy French-speaking backpackers" were also on our train to and from Machu Picchu with us.
  • Volkswagen is also popular in Peru. Yessss.
  • The sides of buildings (even houses) become advertisements and political campaigns. I saw more "Ollanta 2011" (presidential campaign) painted on the sides of mud brick buildings all over Peru than I could count. There are also a lot of Claro ads like this (a phone company) and we even saw a few for Coca-Cola.
  • Sometimes the machismo culture works in your favor. Like when the guy checking you in at the airport notices that you're pregnant and upgrades your seat to be more toward the front of the plane. (Though Jim notes the machismo here is very subtle and polite. I would agree. More like chivalry, really.)
  • I must be showing a lot more because 4 people noticed I was pregnant without me saying anything... just starting on Tuesday... yet many people have been shocked to find out I'm already 22 weeks along. I guess I'm not showing as early as many people.
  • Sam likes to have "evening raves" in my tummy... he gets really active between 9pm and 11pm. Gonna be a night owl like his momma.
  • Hotel breakfasts are often complimentary in the Cuzco/Machu Picchu area and consist of breads, jam, the awesome butter, avocados, kalamata olives (which they call black olives), awesome fresh fruit, millet/cereals, cheeses, and random proteins. Sometimes for the protein it's a mini hotdog like thing.
  • Health foods seem to be less prevalent here than in the US... as far as we've found. Apparently the 'craze' hasn't hit here.
  • Jim is excited because you can buy 'raw' computer parts (Jim wants me to call them raw computer giblets, but I figured you wouldn't know what that means) in stores here that you usually have to buy online at home.
  • I really wish I weren't allergic to all things cute and fluffy. I'd love an alpaca sweater but alas... that would make me very, very itchy.
  • As is always the case, traveling reminds us just how good we have it at home. We are glad that tomorrow is our go-home day... well, the flight takes off just before the new year and we won't be home until Sunday if all goes well, but still. There's nothing in the world like your very own comfy bed.
  • Jim is someone who apparently needs his routine and is looking forward to getting back into it. (I am okay without it, hahaha.)
  • We are once again reminded of how nice it is to use tap water when brushing our teeth.
  • We are reminded that we love living in a dry climate. Blech to humidity.

Ollantaytambo and Back to Cusco: Day 11

We started the day with our train ride from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, a city about halfway back on the way to Cusco. This time we took the Expedition, the cheaper 'backpacker' train. It was still a nice train, it just didn't have the plushy seats, music, and nice snacks the Vistadome did and the ride wasn't quite as smooth, but it was totally fine. If you're looking to save a few bucks it's a totally viable train. The only reason we didn't take that one on the way up is because the ones that worked well for us timing-wise were already full… the cheaper trains tend to fill up more quickly.

When we arrived, we went into the little town to check it out and to have lunch at a Lonely Planet recommended cafe, called Heart's Cafe that gives some of its proceeds to local people in need of warm clothing. We also looked at the ruins in the area… from outside the entrance gates. It was going to be the equivalent of about $65US per person to go in… and seeing as we needed to get back to Cusco at a decent time to see the museums we had missed, and we had already seen so many different ruins (and were sore from the day before), we decided to simply admire them from afar. They were still pretty spectacular.

We wandered around for a bit after that finding a ride back to Cusco. The guidebook just said something to the effect of 'find a bus, "collectivo" (van that they fill with as many people as possible), or taxi to take you back', with not much more description. Since the passengers from our train had gone a couple hours before and the next one wasn't due in for a couple more hours, there weren't as many of them hanging around as when we first got off the train so it took a little while, but eventually a cab drove by and asked if we needed to get to Cusco. Why yes, yes we did… we asked how much and he said 10 soles per person. I had him write it down because I was sure I misheard him… seeing as our ride in a cab to Poroy train station only 30 minutes from Cusco was 30 soles (for both of us) and this would be a two hour trip, I was sure it couldn't have been right. We were expecting at least 50 soles per person for such a long ride. But no, that's what he meant… he picked up some other passengers to fill the cab on the way, which is why it was a little cheaper I think. The others were native Peruvians from what I can tell; a woman sat next to Jim and me in the back and a man with his four year old daughter on his lap sat in the front. (Another thing that would never happen in the states, by the way… I am my mother's daughter and all I could see on the ride back was the taxi driver having to slam on the breaks and the little girl flying through the windshield… but that never happened so I digress…)

The ride back, other than the fact that I was squished in the middle seat, was rather pleasant. The countryside between Ollantaytambo and Cuzco is absolutely breathtaking. The mountain air is clean and we drove with the windows down, which was great until we got behind some diesel-spewing trucks, but that was brief. We drove by several villages and farms as we climbed from about 6,000 feet in elevation for Ollantaytambo to Cuzco's 10,000 feet. (I keep flipping between the spellings for Cuzco/Cusco because I've seen both and can't decide which one is better, haha.) Almost every single building is made with mud brick adobe; you can still see straw poking out of the mud bricks. I guess I didn't realize that Peruvians in the countryside really do dress in the 'traditional' Peruvian dress… I mostly saw women wearing a skirt, sweater/shawl, Peruvian hat, socks, and sandals/shoes… I even saw a group of women leading their donkey carrying a load of yellow flowers for them. We drove by so quickly we weren't able to snap a picture, but I'll never forget it.

Entering the Cuzco valley from outside offers an amazing view of the city. There are many houses and buildings up on the slopes of the surrounding mountains, with the center of town down at the center of the valley below. As soon as you enter the city the construction changes to more western-style-brick/cement construction than adobe, though there are still some buildings made with the mud bricks.

The taxi stopped at some unknown neighborhood to let everyone out. We asked in our best broken Spanish how much it would be for him to continue to the Plaza de Armas area to our hotel, and he said just 10 soles more, so we jumped on it. When we got there we gave him 40 soles instead of just 30; he had gotten us there safely, dealt with our limited Spanish, and we were expecting to pay so much more anyway that we felt he deserved the tip. (You don't usually tip cab drivers around here.)

Rumi Punku, our hotel, had definitely settled things with the agency from before and said our night here was already paid. When we got to our room, we discovered we had gotten one of the 'superior' rooms (we only paid for a standard room) with a king bed, bigger TV, nicer shower, and even bath robes. I never thought I would get so excited about a bath robe, but they're too big to pack when all you can bring with you is a tiny backpack and it's cold getting out of showers around here. I'm not sure if maybe they had just run out of standard rooms after they told us one was available when we booked this before we left, or if they felt bad for waking Jim up at 10pm the time before, but it was a nice, unexpected surprise. The only "problem" is that the wifi doesn't reach this room so we have to go out to the main area to use it ::puts hand on forehead dramatically:: so I may never make it. ;)

After settling in we set out for the Inka Museum, one of the largest museums in Cusco from my understanding. It has many artifacts from the Inka empire, though few of them are from Machu Picchu but instead are from other areas. By my understanding, when Hiram Bingham 'discovered' Machu Picchu in 1911 (though he didn't really discover it but I digress) he brought many of the artifacts back to Yale University, where he worked. They remained at Yale until last year, as there has been a battle between Yale and the Peruvian government to get them back. Peru argued that the artifacts were a 'loan' and that they belonged back in their native lands, while Yale argued that Peru didn't have the facilities to properly care for the artifacts and they were worried about them degrading over time. It sounds like they reached an agreement for the artifacts to return to a Peruvian university under Yale's supervision for preservation, though I'm not sure when that happened if it has yet nor do I know which to which university in Peru they are going.

Regardless, there were a lot of cool artifacts at the Inka museum. Their displays are a little outdated, but it was worth the visit nonetheless. There were several stone tools, ceramics, and even some Peruvian mummies. My favorite display was a to-scale model of Machu Picchu. It was great to get an effectively birds-eye view of the entire complex that we had just visited.

We went into the Plaza de Armas in search of dinner. We found a good one at the Inka Cafe (at least I think that's what it was called)… we ended up having some french onion soup because it sounded so very yummy, and it was delicious. It may be lame, but I am crazy for soup.

After dinner we picked up a CD of supposedly traditional Peruvian/Incan music for my classroom. I had no way to listen to it and will have no way to until I get home, so I have absolutely no idea if it's any good or not! We'll see!

We then headed to the Museo de Arte Precolombian (MAP). Precolombian as in before columbus, or before European influence. This museum had far superior displays, with most in Spanish, English, and French… though you could tell that they were written by an artist instead of by an anthropologist, as they were more opinion than fact. I could go into a rant about how some fine artists can be rather full of themselves, as the person who wrote all of these obviously was, but I digress. Let's just say that when it comes to ancient art, I get along better with the anthropologists.

And that's the end of our tale in Cuzco. This morning we had a leisurely breakfast and are getting ready to head back to the airport in Lima.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Machu Picchu: Day 10

Part I: Machu Picchu

Take that, naysayers... I went to Machu Picchu five months pregnant in the rainy season and survived to tell the tale! Not only that, but I enjoyed myself quite thoroughly... thank you very much! ;)

Machu Picchu was everything it's cracked up to be and more. It is the cherry on the top of this trip. I am so very glad that we came. Cross another one off the bucket list.

We caught the bus and entered the park at around 6:30am, and didn't leave until 4:00pm. We hiked around most of that time, with only a 1-1.5 hour lunch break in between. I don't even know how many calories we burned, but I definitely treated myself to a Twix on the walk from the bus back to the hotel. I figured I probably burned at least that many calories and deserved a little sugar. ;)

I'm trying to think of how to even describe Machu Picchu for you. It's a much bigger complex than I had imagined. I mean, I knew it was big, but I guess I just wasn't expecting it to be SO extensive. We walked around for probably at least 8 hours and (with a few small exceptions) we didn't visit the same place twice. I think we got to pretty much everything in the main complex that didn't require a two hour separate one-way hike, but there's a chance we could have missed something even after eight hours of exploring. Wow.

The purpose of Machu Picchu is still debated by scholars, but the best guess is that it was built as an estate for the Incan king Pachacuti in the 1400s. It reminds me of the South American equivalent of a European castle and its grounds. It may have later served as a sort of Incan army base at the time of the Conquistadors, though the Conquistadors never found/looted Machu Picchu.

We started out by climbing the steps toward the higher parts of the ruins, and even ended up going onto part of the Inca Trail before turning back to the main site. We got some pretty incredible views from up there.

The only bummer to Machu Picchu is that the restrooms are located OUTSIDE of the entrance gates. You can re-enter the park, but it means going out, paying the 1 sole to use the restroom every time (yes, you end up having to pay to use the restroom at tourist attractions in a lot of foreign countries), then waiting in line to get back into the park, presenting your passport and ticket again, and hiking back to the ruins. I understand not wanting to disturb the site with restroom facilities, fine... but why not put them INSIDE of the gates? It would be a 20 foot difference. Also, it can be quite a long hike from some points of the ruins to the entrance gates and back. We had to put a lot of strategy into viewing different parts of the ruins, exiting, and coming back in to the park to maximize efficiency.

After our first 'break' if you will, we headed back to visit the main part of the ruins in more detail (rather than the upper trails). We saw the Temple of the Sun and bath houses, which were my favorite part. Did you know that they had running water at Machu Picchu? In both dry and rainy seasons, the water from a spring and condensation from the clouds runs down a series of ducts they carved that then cascade from bath house to bath house. The first was ceremonial, but the others were for domestic use. They were pretty cool. I'm sure they were running even heavier than normal with the off-and-on rain showers during the day.

We then climbed to another section with the sacred plaza and 'royal palace'. From the top of this area you can see over the other side of this wide yet narrow mountain, which is surrounded on three sides by the mighty Urumbaba river. We also encountered a cute little animal that is like all of our favorites in one... it looks like a rabbit-squirrel-chipmunk and is a bit larger than your average wild rabbit at home. We didn't know what it was at the time, but a little research tells me it's called a Viscacha. Simply adorable.

To exit the park again from there we had to go through the residential/industrial sector, even though we had intended to explore that part after lunch (for some reason, one of the park workers wouldn't let us go down the path that led to the exit and made us go around... even though it wasn't roped off and there were no signs, so strange). We went through them fairly quickly, but it still took quite a bit of time to get back to the entrance that way. Probably an extra hour (we might have stopped for some pictures, to be fair).

There is one place to have lunch up there... a buffet with Vegas prices at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge just outside the gates. Again, it was okay... nothing to write home about, but it was sustenance. You're not supposed to bring food into the park (though we brought a few snacks just in case), though they didn't seem to enforce that... if we'd had any way to make a picnic lunch (there are no real grocery stores here that we've found) that might have been better if we could have gotten away with it. Oh well.

We explored the residential and industrial sector for the remainder of the afternoon. I know that saying 'it was really cool' is kind of lame, but it was... the amount of stone work in this place is incredible. I love how they worked with the large boulders already in the mountains, adding to them and carving them away. Simply amazing. We also met some friendly llamas (alpacas? something else?) that are apparently the residential 'lawn mowers' that eat the grasses to keep them trimmed.

I held off as long as I could, but by 4:00 I needed another 'break' and it turns out you can't re-enter the park after that time. So Jim an I said our goodbyes to Machu Picchu... just as well, we were both exhausted by that point and I think we covered just about everything.

All in all I really enjoyed the experience. It will be fun to tell my little Samuel that he climbed Machu Picchu in the womb, too, haha. I think he enjoyed it; he kicked around every now and again. ;) It did rain off and on through the day, though more off than on, but I was so glad that we were fully prepared with waterproof breathable hiking shoes, quick dry pants, rain coats, ponchos, and umbrellas. We used all of it. And the rain sort of added to the feel... it was misty and the clouds were low-lying giving everything a quiet, mystical feel. There were still lots of people there, almost too many for our tastes at the peak of the day, yet apparently it was still a lot less than enter the park during the high season. Once again, I prefer travel in the off season, apparently. Jim and I aren't really fans of big crowds; the ones there today were quite enough as it was.

Part II: Aguas Calientes Fails at Food

After such a long day of hiking around, a good dinner was essential. Unfortunately as it would turn out, Aguas Calientes doesn't have much of a food scene at all. I was polite yesterday when I said the "Mexican" food we tried wasn't anything to write home about... anyone who knows me knows that I'm not a super picky eater, but I couldn't finish these 'tacos', they turned my stomach, and the glasses they poured our drinks into smelled like they'd been dried with a musty towel. Yuck. Tonight, as we wandered around in search of food for dinner, we found that all of the restaurants are the same.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no snob... I'm perfectly content at hole-in-the-wall restaurants... they usually do their thing, and they do it well. The problem with these places is that they try too hard to cater to tourists. They try to make pretty much everything under the sun, and they do NONE of it well. I didn't know you could screw up pizza so bad, but this makes Dominoes look gourmet. Each restaurant serves pizza, Mexican food, Chinese food, Peruvian food, Italian food, soups, salads, everything... but they don't do any of it well. It's pretty bad when you walk up to two different restaurants and the people coming out of them tell you the food is not good. It's also a bad sign when the people on the street trying to get you to go into their restaurant literally try to barter with you to get you to go in... "okay, 30 soles and free drinks, any item on the menu... okay okay, 20 soles and free drinks..." you get the idea. Most of these places looked absolutely dead, either completely devoid of other diners or with one or two groups (the ones that came out and told us not to go). I've eaten at holes in the wall in southern China that hands down were waaay better... because they specialize in what they do well.

Not going to lie, I had a hormonal pregnant moment. It was dark, it was raining, I was tired and hungry, we'd been walking around for what had to be almost an hour finding 20,000 restaurants that all looked the same... not edible, jacks of all trades but masters of none. The last thing I wanted to get was food poisoning, and I was about ready to just go without dinner. I was nearly in tears (blaming the hormones) when Jim and I decided to go back to Inkaterra, where we had lunch yesterday. It's a hotel restaurant. I probably just killed a Semester at Sea angel, it's such a 'rich tourist' thing to do... but you know what, I tried.

This is where all the people were. The place was absolutely packed. And it may make me not a great traveler or whatever... but it was such a relief to see humanity; the mark of a good restaurant. This chef has to be trained well. They have a fixed menu; you choose an appetizer, main dish, and dessert for a fixed price. They have about 10 different dishes for each and they do those 10 dishes well. There are vegetarian options too. Every single thing we had (Jim and I always share bites to try one another's food) was exquisite, well presented, hot, and well-timed. I didn't question the cleanliness at all. They even have a guy whose sole job is to monitor tables and report on the radio (quietly) when a table needs attention. No waiting for more water and perfectly timed delicious dishes. They were also quick with the check... a rarity around here.

Jim and I decided to share dishes so that we could both try the cuy (guinea pig), which was on our 'bucket list' while also sharing some fettuccine. Both were great. Jim really loved the guinea pig. I thought it was good... I don't know that I'll add it to my 'favorite foods' list, but it was definitely palatable. It was prepared with candied orange rind and served on a bed of blended corn and potatoes.

All in all, I'm so glad that Inkaterra was there to 'save' me. While their prices are a little high, they aren't as outrageous as they could be; they are about what I'd expect to pay for a meal of the same quality in the United States. Highly recommended in a town without much of a food scene.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Train to Aguas Calientes: Day 9

Just after I posted yesterday's blog the phone in our room rang. It was the front desk saying they didn't recognize the website/agency we'd used to book the room and we'd need to charge it again separately... at 10:00pm. So though I was still okay, poor Jim was woken back up and then couldn't get back to sleep (couldn't turn his brain off) and ended up writing emails to the agency and looking into how to dispute charges and everything else for another hour. So while we liked the hotel overall, we were a little disappointed with the late call. Could they not have said something earlier when we stopped by the front desk? The good news is that we heard back from the agency today and it sounds like there was a staff change at the hotel or something and it's being resolved. Since our card was charged twice it seems that they'll use the second room charge for when we stay there again when we're back to Cuzco on Thursday.

Jim and I woke up early again so we could catch our train on Peru Rail. Unfortunately, I woke us up about half an hour earlier than we needed, even with extra fluff time, because I misread our train tickets. I thought the departure time was 7:55 and we needed to be at the station half an hour before that... no no, 7:55 is when we needed to be at the station, 8:25 was train time. So I woke us up at 5:30am so we could check out/get breakfast/find a cab to the station (which is 30 mins away from Cuzco)... just so we could go sit in the station for over an hour before we needed to be there. Hahaha. Oh well, better that way than late I suppose.

Peru Rail certainly takes pride in their company. They are the only rail company that will take you from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, but their monopoly on the market hasn't depleted their level of service. The entire experience with them was flawless. They have a great website that is easy to use and I was able to book our tickets from home before we left with no problems. The station was as clean as a train station can get and rather nice, the staff was helpful and friendly, and the train was on time.

The train ride itself was a lot of fun for me. It is about a four hour ride from start to finish. We were on the Vistadome, which is the midrange train, for the ride there. (We'll be taking the Expedition, the cheaper train, on the way back.) It was a nice, clean train... I daresay much nicer than the inside of an airplane. The seats were plush and there were windows on the sides of the roof of the Vistadome (hence the name) so you can see the tops of the mountains on the ride. They announced points of interest and sites in both Spanish and English as we went along and played soft, pleasant Peruvian flute music for the duration of the trip. They even served a snack midway through the trip... quinoa (local to Peru) with diced carrots and zuchinni, small Peruvian potatoes in the yummy green sauce I have yet to learn the name of with Andean cheese, and small sweet unidentified little shortbread-esque cookies. It was served in the most adorable little blue and yellow basket to top it off.

The views from the train were spectacular. The mountains at first felt a lot like Colorado complete with cactus (minus the pine trees), but as we descended more toward Aguas Calientes it feels more like a temperate rain forest. There were several villages along the way with farms for vegetables (I saw a carrot harvest), cows, pigs, goats, and sheep. Jim, of course, fell in love with the border collie he saw overlooking its flock of sheep. Many of the buildings were made with a simple mud/straw brick and thatched roofs.

We arrived in Aguas Calientes around half past noon. Our hotel, Machu Picchu Green Nature, sent someone to guide us to the hotel from the station... which was impressive, seeing as I had just e-mailed them the night before with our arrival time. It was a short walk to the hotel, but I'm glad he was there so that we could find it more expediently... the rain, as promised, had started. It wasn't a heavy rain, though, and it let up shortly after we arrived. The hotel is nice enough for a mid-range place... a step above a plain hostel, but not super nice like some of the crazy expensive places one could stay around here. There are some rooms in Aguas Calientes that can run $600US+ per night, and then there's the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (which is the only hotel right by the Machu Picchu site, half an hour drive from Aguas Calientes) which starts at a mere $980US per night. Our room is $92US per night... much more reasonable. :) The desk clerk was friendly and gave us a map of the area and some nice advice on the town and its layout.

While there were rain showers off and on throughout the afternoon, they were never too heavy nor did they last for long. I would say there was more time without rain than with rain for sure, and it was rather pleasant anyway. It was a nice temperature; we were both hiking in short sleeves for most of the afternoon. You can tell by my poofy hair that it is super humid, though. :)

When reading some of the travel reviews of hotels online, many people complained that Aguas Calientes was nothing special, that you wouldn't want to be 'stuck' here for more than one night, etc. I beg to differ... those people must be people who hate nature and have no imaginations at all. It's such a beautiful little mountain town up here, with rivers, riverwalks, waterfalls, and tons of vegetation. We had a nice lunch at Inkaterra and then set out to explore the area.

We ended up taking a little hike up to a "botanical garden" area about half an hour away (and on the way, in part, to Machu Picchu). The buses heading to MP passed us several times, as they run frequently. The "botanical garden" is more like a trail on the side of the mountain that happens to have labeled plants along the way. When we got there a gentleman asked us for 10 soles each, which we assumed must be the admission... but then he proceeded to guide us the whole way through, so we're wondering now if that was for a tour and something got lost in translation. He was so sweet to try to speak to us in English. There are over 200 species of orchids here (though smaller/different than you're used to seeing in the store) and not all were flowering, so most of the tour consisted of the guide pointing to a plant, saying "here, the orchid, the flower, take a picture?", walking two more feet, pointing to another plant, saying, "here, the orchid, the flower, take a picture"... and again... you get the point. In the end it was probably a good thing he guided us though; he pointed out some very, very tiny orchids that we would have missed if left to ourselves. I have the feeling we would have gotten much more out of it if we understood Spanish (the guy seemed to really know and love his plants), but that's okay.

On our way back the clouds lifted away from the top of the nearby mountain and we caught a glimpse of part of Machu Picchu from afar. It made me that much more excited for tomorrow. Aguas Calientes is in a valley by the river, whereas Machu Picchu is at the top of a mountain. It's quite the climb to get up there; the buses go through a series of switchbacks. We could see them going up and down from where we were.

By the time we got back to Aguas Calientes, I was absolutely exhausted. We'd actually done quite a bit of hiking. We had just enough energy to change, go get dinner (nothing to write home about that time, unfortunately, we tried a Peruvian take on Mexican food... not so great), buy water for tomorrow (we'll be filling up our camel baks with bottled water), and head back to the hotel.

I'm using the last of my energy to write this (better when it's fresh) and soon it's time to go to sleep so that we can wake up even earlier... we are hoping to catch the sunrise at Machu Picchu. We need to get ready and eat breakfast (the hotels here start serving breakfast at 4:30am since many people go early) and walk to the bus for the 5:30am bus departure to the ruins, which open at 6am. Today's sunset wasn't anything spectacular so we may not spend the *whole* day up there after that... but we're staying until we don't feel like it any more. :)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Cuzco... day... what are we on now? 8?

I'm starting to lose track of the days.

We woke early to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare for our flight from Lima to Cuzco. And we were there with plenty of time... which means of course our flight was delayed. That's how it works, you know. It was delayed officially for an hour and a half, then we boarded quite some time after that, and then once we were on the plane, the plane just... sat there... for what seemed like forever. When all was said and done we arrived in Cuzco almost 4 hours later than originally planned, which meant we couldn't see as much for the day as I would have liked. That's okay, though... that's why we left plenty of time for each leg of the journey, to allow for cancellations and delays as they happened.

I knew that I loved Cuzco the second I saw it out of the plane window. I am truly a mountain girl at heart. It is a mountain town at 11,000 feet with beautiful green mountains and blue skies. I was so happy to have fresh mountain air again instead of dank, polluted big city air. Even if it's thinner, I like it better.

We caught a taxi to our hotel, the Rumi Punku. Rumi means stones, and Punku means door. This place is absolutely adorable. It has a beautiful courtyard area filled with plants that the rooms face instead of the streets, so the rooms are relatively quiet. I get wifi in the room (yays!) and there is even a mini-fridge, which I wasn't expecting. It's the little things. And yay for extra pillows and blankets; it gets a little chilly here at night. (No worse than home in the mountains in the summer/fall, though.)

Jim and I headed out ASAP because we wanted to make it to Quorikancha before it closed. Cuzco is such an interesting mix of old Incan streets and buildings with colonial Spanish and modern architecture alike all on top of it, giving it an almost European feel. Cuzco is sort of unique in that it was still occupied by the Incas (they hadn't abandoned it) at the time of Pizarro's conquest with the conquistadores from Spain. Quorikancha is no exception, as it is basically a Spanish cathedral built upon the Incan temple that the kings are rumored to have both frequented and, at one time, been buried in. All of the Incan artifacts (including the mummies of the kings) are now long gone with the conquistadores, but the building is now quite beautiful and serves as both a church and a museum. It sits up on a hill in the back, and Jim and I spent some time taking in the view of the town below and the mountains behind around sunset. It was quite stunning and relaxing.

Can I just say that my husband is the best travel partner ever?

We caught dinner at Inkanto near the bustling Plaza de Armas. (For it being the 'low season' since it is technically monsoon season things are pretty busy here, I'd hate to see it in the high season! I love traveling in the off season.) We had intended to try another restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet that offered traditional Peruvian dishes, but alas... where it was supposed to be is now a Starbucks, so either they went out of business or I really need to work on my map reading skills. I'm thinking it's the former. No matter, the nearby Inkanto offered both Italian and Peruvian dishes, so I had another round of Lomo Saltado (a beef/onion dish I'm growing to really like) with risotto and Jim had a Peruvian style lamb shank served with gnocchi which was also very delicious. Jim also had his first pisco sour mixed drink, which is very popular here. He says it is a lot like a margarita, since pisco is a lot like tequilla.

We had intended to go to a precolombian art museum (The Museo de Arte Precolombino) that stays open until 10pm after dinner, but between the altitude, getting up so early today, and needing to get up early tomorrow... we decided it best to head to bed. Hopefully we can catch the museum on our way back through Cuzco later in the week. We stopped to get bottled water on the way back to the hotel. You can never have enough bottled water when you can't drink the tap water, especially when it's important to fend off any potential for altitude sickness. So far we are doing okay!

Cuzco is already my favorite stop in Peru so far. I am so glad that we decided to come here. I am very excited for Aguas Calientes and then Machu Picchu next... tomorrow, the train!

-Sarah and Jim (who is already asleep, lol)