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)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Huacachina, Wine Tour, and Back to Lima: Day 7

Merry Christmas to all!

Though today did not feel like Christmas at all, but I knew it wouldn't. Being in a strange place where it is summer (south of the equator) in the middle of a desert is very different than any other Christmas I've had before.

Our winery tour was delayed which threw a kink in the day's plans a bit. It was originally set to leave in the morning but was changed to leave at noon, which meant there wouldn't be much time to do anything once we got back. It also meant timing would be weird for lunch, so Jessie, Steph and I went to go try to find an open grocery store to get some food to bring with us. We didn't have much luck, and ended up pretty much getting snacks and juice at a convenience store. Then, in a moment of brilliance, Jessie thought to ask the hotel if they could make some sandwiches to go. Ta da. Lunch!

We were loaded into another van for our winery tour, with the company of a couple from Normandy, France. We went to four wineries, though three of them were all right next to each other. It was interesting to see where they make the wine and pisco (the local drink). It doesn't really look like the wineries you're envisioning, I'm sure. It's still small-village Peru, which means they're not fancy facilities by any means and it still looks like developing country. Jim and the others reported that the "wines" were more like liquors, and the pisco is sort of like tequilla.

We returned to the hotel about three hours after we left, which meant Jim and I had one precious hour before we had to leave for our bus. We decided to stay close just in case of a problem, so we walked around the oasis area (since we hadn't seen it in daylight really). It seemed like it was no time at all and it was already time to say goodbye to Erik, Steph, and Jessie and go to the bus station all by ourselves.

Jim and I usually travel with just the two of us, yet for this trip since we've been with the others until now, it feels a little strange. We'll get the hang of it again, but we do miss our friends.

The bus ride back to Lima was pretty much just like the bus ride to Ica. Jim and I were in the same seats with the same attendant. The second movie (same one) was even cut off in the same place. That was mildly amusing. Jim and I thankfully were able to catch a taxi and get back into Jessie's apartment with her key and code with no problems, thank goodness. I was a little apprehensive of that for no good reason. I had checked my bag to be sure I still had the keys about 20,000,000 times on the way. :) (Erik-- I blame you since you asked me if I had them as the cab was leaving the hotel, haha.)

So here we are. Jim and I will catch our plane to Cuzco in the morning. We'll spend the day/night in Cuzco and catch the train to Aguas Calientes the next morning. We'll spend the day/night in Aguas Calientes (which means 'hot water', it's a small hot spring town, the nearest town to Machu Picchu), then catch a bus early in the morning to Machu Picchu. We plan to spend a whole day at the ruins... unless we get bored, which I doubt but you never know. Then we'll spend the night in Aguas Calientes again, catch the train to Ollanta early the next morning, explore Ollanta for a while, then get a bus to Cuzco from there. We'll spend Thursday night in Cuzco, catch the plane back to Lima Friday morning, spend Friday night at Jessie's again to collect our lugguge... then back to the states on New Year's Eve. We'll literally be taking off as the clock strikes midnight here. I'm not sure how much internet connection we'll have between now and then, but I'll update as we are able. Love to all.

Travel to Huacachina, Ica (Desert Oasis): Day 6

After grabbing breakfast and finishing up with some packing, we headed out for the Cruz Del Sur terminal to catch our 11:00 bus to Ica (That really left around 11:20). Ica is pronounced like eek-uh.

The Cruz Del Sur buses are really very nice… the seats are big and plush, they have nice footrests, there is a restroom on board (though they stress you can only use it for no. 1, lol), they provided a snack, and movies played onboard. The movies cracked me up because they were English language movies, played with audio dubbing in Spanish, with English subtitles. The four hour ride south on the Pan-American highway along the coast was much more pleasant than our jaunt up north in the van a few days prior. Maybe I'm getting old, but I'll admit… it was nice.

On the drive down we had a nice view of the ocean on our right and sand dunes to our left. There are many broken down buildings and small towns along the way. It looks a lot like places we've seen in India and South African townships, only less dense, but very impoverished. This is the most impoverished area that Jim's ever seen and I don't think he was expecting it. I can't say I was expecting to find it in such a state here, but I'm sorry to say that I've seen worse. There are even small rickshaw-like vehicles in the smaller towns (we didn't see them in Lima/Miraflores but we did see them on the way to Caral the other day)… I'm not sure what they're called here. (edit: Jessie says they're just called 'mototaxis'.)

When we arrived at our bus terminal we caught a small taxi-like thing that was again like something you'd see in India, and it was a short 7 minute drive to our hotel from there.

Ica is a city in the desert. We are staying specifically at an oasis (literally) in the middle of the desert next to the city called Huacachina. It's a cute little area with the oasis (lake?) in the center with hotels, restaurants, palm trees, and buildings surrounding that… all encompassed by massively large sand dunes. At least, they look massive to me, the biggest I've seen… but seeing as the only sand dunes I've been to before are the great sand dunes in southern Colorado, these may very well be shrimpy, who knows. :) All I know is that an oasis is something that I read about in story books as a kid… but in some ways didn't really believed they existed until I got here. It just hit me that, wow… this is a real oasis. That probably seems silly but it's true. The others felt the same way. I'm glad we came.

The hotel is very nice for the area (makes you feel a little guilty), yet only costs about $60US per night. The rooms are clean but simple, with a single pillow for each person, a single night stand with a lamp, a small lock box, one towel per person, and some small soaps by the sink. There are two small framed pictures on the wall, smaller than 8x10s. Since we are in the desert the weather allows for outdoor walking areas motel-style that surround a pool area complete with its own little restaurant and bar.

After leaving our things in our rooms we went down to chat by the pool and eat dinner for a while. (It is Christmas Eve so the menu was rather limited… I had a Peruvian take on a hamburger that included bananas, it was interesting.) (Jim addition: I had a shredded chicken club sandwich that was quite tasty - though, they seem to like to strip bread of its crust in this region -- this saddens me, as I rather enjoy crust.) Erik, Steph, and Jessie went to go chill in their room after that while Jim and I went to climb the giant dune behind the hotel at sunset/dusk. The sand felt so good on my bare feet. Dusk was a great time to go because the sand still had some warmth to it, but the air was a pleasant temperature and there was a breeze so we weren't too hot. I'm sure my legs will just be even more sore tomorrow (they hadn't really recovered yet and felt like jello when we got to the top) but the view was totally worth it. It was spectacular. Hopefully Jim will post some pictures because words cannot do it justice. You could see all of Huacachina (the oasis area) below, and to the other side of the dune you could see the Ica city lights.

Maybe some day we will come back here. You can ride these monstrous dune buggies (they seat something like 10 people) around the dunes… but Jim won't let me do it because he's worried about me being pregnant and he doesn't want to push his back since he has bad discs. He's probably right. It looks like tons of fun though. You can also go sledding/skiing/sandboarding down the dunes. For now, walking on the dunes will have to be enough. It was still really cool.

When we got back Steph, Jessie, Jim and I went walking around the little town. (Erik was starting to feel not-so-hot again so he went to bed early just in case.) We found a shop that sold little gas station style ice cream (but Peruvian brands, different than home) out of a cooler… they were delicious. We ate them while sitting in the dark on a wall surrounding the oasis water and just chatted about how Peru is much more of a developing nation (not as developed) as we were expecting. Just goes to show you to never have preconceived notions. I can handle it and it's fine, it's just not what I thought it was going to be. But that's why you travel, you know… the more you know, the more you know you don't know. That's one of the most important things that I learned on Semester at Sea and it's something that I've learned over and again.

Apparently there is wine country around here, so tomorrow we are going on a wine tour. Peruvian wine was the no. 1 requested item from my family when I asked them what they wanted… so even though I can't have any, my hope is to have Jim and the others taste out some good stuff for us so I can have it shipped back home. After that we'll see what we can fit in before we have to catch our bus back to Lima at 5pm. I would like to have more time here, but since Jessie couldn't join us until today and we want to be sure to have enough time for Machu Picchu, Jim and I have to get back. Erik, Steph, and Jessie are staying here for three nights then heading back to Lima (I thought they were going to go to a beach house in Asia, Peru [a town] but they're not). Steph and Erik did not want to join us to Machu Picchu so Jim and I are doing that part on our own. So tomorrow, we will part ways.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Laying Low: Day 5

We all needed a day of rest. Today was pretty uneventful... we hung around the apartment, grabbed lunch from Larcomar (the mall across the street), did laundry and dishes, took naps, splurged on massages at the Marriott down the block, and made dinner at the apartment. Luckily Jim and Erik are pretty much feeling back to normal, just still a little low on energy.

Some of Jessie's embassy friends are over now and we are going to go to Karaoke in a while. Jim and I probably won't really participate but we'll still go out.

Tomorrow morning we catch our bus to Ica for a new adventure with Jessie, Erik, and Steph. Jim and I will part ways with them Christmas evening on the 25th, when they go south to a beach house and we head back to Lima to catch a plane to Cuzco... then a train to Aguas Calientes then a bus to Machu Picchu! I'm looking forward to it!

PS- Samuel has been kicking around in my tummy and Jim says I already look bigger since we got here. Growth spurt!

Caral and Other Ancient Ruins: Day 4

Yesterday (Thursday, December 22nd) was a very, very long day.

Unfortunately we discovered when we got up at 5:30am that Erik had spent the night up sick and there was simply no way he was going to be able to go on the trip with us. Jim still wasn't feeling great, but well enough to go. We felt bad leaving Erik, but there really wasn't an alternative since the trip was already booked and prepaid. So Jim, Steph, and I got ready and were out the door by 6:30 to meet the taxi to drop us off in front of the tour office.

We packed into the tour van with the other passengers for the day... a couple from Germany (though the woman was originally from Peru) and an elderly mother and her two daughters from Barcelona, Spain (pronounced Barrthelohna, thank you very much). We filled 8 out of the 9 passenger seats... Erik would have been the ninth. It was a long, grueling 3.5 hour ride to Caral. I get carsick easily, and since the traffic in Lima is stop-and-go in a way I can't even describe, the roads for part of the ride were very bumpy, and we were in the back with little air flow... I felt pretty awful. Jim was in the same boat since he still wasn't feeling well from the day before. We picked up some crackers at the one rest stop in the middle, which helped a little, but we were so very grateful when we finally arrived at Caral after the last 23km of bumpy dirt road off the main highway.

Caral is in the middle of a desert area. It's no wonder that this massive complex of ancient ruins (the oldest known civilization in the Americas by my understanding, about 5,000 years old) went undiscovered until 1994... it's pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It is next to a river, which is where the ancient people farmed and got their water. There are older ruins in the Americas, but this is the oldest full civilization. Tourism of this area is still pretty new and not very well known, so the buildings there for tickets, restrooms, and lunch tables are pretty new. There were only two other small groups there aside from our group, so it felt like we had the place practically to ourselves.

The tour of the ruins lasted about an hour and a half. The tour guide that works full time at Caral led the tour in Spanish for the other tourists with us, and then our tour guide Enrique (that brought us to the site) translated it into English for the three of us, which was very nice of him. Unfortunately, that meant that our little pack of three was behind the rest of the group the entire time, but oh well. There were several step pyramids, temples, round kiva-like ceremonial sites, and living areas for the priests. Caral was a holy area, so only priests and the upper class lived there (middle/lower class lived in nearby settlements).

The paths around the ruins are all lined with a local desert plant called Achupalla (ah-choo-pay-uh) which I find absolutely fascinating. It's an air plant of sorts, in that it has no root system and gathers its water from the air. You can literally just pick these up and put them back down wherever you want.

Lunch was provided after the tour. Since Caral is in the middle of nowhere, that is literally the only choice for sustenance. They gave us chicken with some unidentified delicious green sauce, a full potato, a full sweet potato, and Incan corn (which has large kernels and generally not much taste, I prefer good ol' sweet corn). They also gave us chicha morada, the purple corn drink. It was delicious but a lot of starch, so I wasn't able to finish the corn/sweet potato but still felt hungry not long after lunch. Good thing we packed some snacks to eat in the van. We weren't the only ones that would be snacking on the drive.

Unbeknownst to us we were also to visit two more places that day (we thought we'd go to Caral and then come back). We drove about half an hour to a small museum in Vegueta, which was mildly interesting but so small I'm not sure it was worth the extra time to get there, then back north to Bandurria, another set of ruins/temples next to the ocean. They were also neat, but by 4:30 when we finally got in the van to leave we were getting antsy to get back to Erik and still had a 3.5 hour drive back to Miraflores.

The drive back wasn't any better than the drive to Caral... in fact, the traffic once in Lima was even worse, it was late, I was super hungry by the time 7:00 rolled around (and we were still stuck in traffic), and the car sickness had returned. The driving in Lima... well, imagine accelerating as much as possible for five feet, then slamming on the brakes, and repeating every 3 seconds for two hours. Bleh. It felt rather unnecessary. When they finally dropped us back off by the tour office, we happily grabbed a cab. (Jim addition for humor: imagine 3,000 people doing a powdery substance popular in the 80's, hopping in their cars and all trying to get through a 6-way intersection in East Boston - words simply fail to describe just how inconceivably psychotic it is. Also, at one point, we literally "hung" with about 5 police over an 8 block area and derived one simple question: what is it that a) traffic police actually do here, b) what, honestly, could they possibly do?)
Jessie had amazingly ordered some pizza for us (since it was so late and we didn't have the energy to go anywhere) that arrived just as we did. She became my favorite person in the whole wide world in that moment... I was so happy to be still and have food. We also ordered what ended up being a ton of miso soup and rice (to meet the order minimum) for Erik since he was recovering from being sick and hadn't eaten anything that day, which we all also helped eat.

All in all it was worth enduring the car sickness and the drive to see the ruins, but we all agreed that it would be best to lay low the next day. Erik was recovering, Jim was recovering, and we were all simply exhausted and sore.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Eating Well and Ruins in Lima: Day 3

**Note: I wrote about a loud noise that shook the walls a few nights ago. Jessie found out that it was actually a natural gas house explosion down the street. Luckily the house was unoccupied, so there were no fatalities and only one minor injury. It sounds like there was a gas leak that was ultimately ignited by a light.**

Today was a very busy day (we walked miles and miles) and we have to get up super early for our trip to Caral tomorrow, so this will be relatively brief for as much as we packed in for one day. I'm pretty exhausted so please forgive any weird grammar issues, but I'm afraid that if I don't write now it will never happen since tomorrow is just as busy! (And I must say, after all of the stair climbing yesterday and all of the walking today, my calves are quite sore!)

After wandering around by foot in the morning trying to find our way back to Crepes and Waffles, we finally had our breakfast and headed out by cab to Parque Kennedy. We were seeking the "Inca Market" that Jessie had told us about... we didn't find it there (a small, disappointing market was there instead), but we did find a place to print out our official passes to Machu Picchu since Jessie doesn't have a printer and we got some cold drinks before heading out on foot for our next destination, Huaca Pucllana.

On the way there we found a computer megastore... more like a mall filled with nothing but electronics stores... and since Jim, Erik, and Steph are all geeks of course we had to go wander through it. Further down the street we *did* find the "real" Inca Market, in a place we weren't expecting it to be (actually Plaza Inca), so we spent a little time wandering around looking at the trinkets and local handicrafts. Steph was very amused by a shirt with a picture of a llama on a motorcycle that said "llamaha" (you know, like Yamaha, since ll is pronounced like y).

It was about noon by the time we arrived at Huaca Pucllana, the ruins that are right in Miraflores. Admission was about 12 soles per person, or around 5 US dollars. It is an adobe pyramid thought to be used for ceremonial purposes by the Lima people from about AD 200 to 500. We waited around for our tour for around 45 minutes or so (you can't take yourself on a tour) and the tour itself lasted for around 45 minutes. All of the mud bricks in the structure were formed by hand and dried in the sun. They place them vertically in a "bookshelf" style, which is why they can withstand seismic activity since earthquakes are common. They repeated that the traditional ceremonial/feast dish was shark meat about four times, so I suppose we won't be forgetting that any time soon! They also had a section that showed many of the animals and crops that were raised there at that time, petting zoo/garden style (live animals and plants). We had a good time looking at the llamas, alpacas (different from the other llamas), cuy (guinea pigs, so cute!), ducks, corn, quinoa, yuca, and sweet potato.

Right at the entrance of the ruins is a high-end restaurant, Restaurant Huaca Pucllana, which has a beautiful large porch dining area that overlooks the ruins. They had hands down THE best butter I'd ever tasted until that point for the dinner rolls (topped only by the butter we would later have at dinner, coming soon) and superb dishes. Jim and I decided on goat cheese ravioli with a pumpkin sauce (we were a little meated-out at that point) while Erik and Steph had fish dishes. We all agreed it was the best meal so far.

Since it was getting to be pretty late, just after 4:00pm, we decided to just look at it from outside the fence and then catch a cab to our last stop, the Plaza de Armas or city center in central Lima (it was too far away to walk).

We set out on foot once more to a restored pyramid similar to the previous ruins about half a mile away (or maybe more), Huaca Huallamarca. The Plaza de Armas is a very pretty square with the palace and a beautiful cathedral surrounding a large fountain. We wandered around until after five, then we took a cab back to Jessie's apartment in Miraflores.

Jessie took us to dinner at a restaurant she'd been wanting to try by the water's edge. I can't remember the name at the moment, it started with a C and that's all I've got. :) All I know is that dinner topped lunch and the atmosphere was amazing... we were up on a balcony overlooking the waves of the Pacific Ocean as the sun set. The food was awesome and the rolls were served with three... count them, three... flavors of amazing butter: original, olive, and chili/cheese. Most of us had some sort of fish (I had grouper and prawns) with different flavors of risotto which were all very good, and we split a couple of beautifully arranged desserts amongst us.

They say that Lima is an up and coming food capital of the world, and I would agree. Yes, Jim and I tend to focus a lot on the food when we travel. Trying new things (and new interpretations of old things) is half of the fun!

We were all dead tired when we got home. Poor Jim isn't feeling very well (may be a light traveler's stomach bug) so he went straight to bed and is sleeping as I write. We have to get up at around 5:30am to catch our tour to Caral, so I just hope that he gets a good night's rest and is feeling better by the time morning comes. It is a three hour bus ride to our destination, so maybe he'll be able to take a nap.

As of yesterday the baby in the oven has decided it's pretty fun to start kicking around in my tummy at around bed time, so he'll probably keep me up again tonight. :) Happy resting everyone!


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Day 2 in Lima

Jim, Erik and I had a fabulous lunch just a few blocks from Jessie's apartment while Steph stayed at the apartment to sleep off her sickness. We each had a different kind of Ceviche. Mine was a more traditional ceviche common to the north, Erik had one with a mix of several types of seafood, and Jim had one with three kinds of chili powder. Believe it or not, Jim won on the ordering... his dish wasn't that spicy and I'd say it was the best of the bunch.

Afterward we took a path down from the top of the cliffs where most of the restaurants and housing are down to the beach, which was quite the little hike. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the beach, watching the surfers, gazing at the crabs, and exploring a little restaurant/shop area down there before hiking back up. The beaches are mostly rock, not sand, so not exactly the type where you want to be laying out and chilling. It seems that surfing is pretty big around this area. They do lessons... I might have considered it if I weren't pregnant, but that's okay, there will be another chance sometime.

We went back up to Jessie's place and took short catnaps while we waited for her to get home from work so we could head out for our next adventure. Luckily Steph was starting to feel better so when Jessie got home we all were able to head out together.

We walked about 20 minutes to a tour office to book a tour for Thursday to Caral, supposedly the oldest known civilization in the Americas. After that we headed to a restaurant near Kennady Park, and Jim and I both tried the alpaca, which was quite good. Mine was served on mashed sweet potato and Jim's was served on a cheesy risotto... once again Jim won on the ordering. While mine was delicious, his was exquisite. Alpaca is good, it tastes like something between beef and lamb. We all tried a glass of Inca Kola, the local soda which is supposed to be flavored with limon but tastes more like bubble gum.

We visited a small nearby market before heading to a custom shoe shop, Calzado Moore. I guess it's really popular with all of the diplomats and embassy workers in Lima, and Jessie had promised Stephanie a pair of custom boots for Christmas so we had to knock that off the list. This place makes leather/designer shoes and everything is made in-house. While Steph ordered her boots we might have all (at least, all of the women) bought some sandals that were on sale and I *might* have gotten a pair of comfy flats (sort of mary-jane-esque) that will work well for teaching. ;) I got both the sandals and the flats for 100 soles total, which equates to about $38 US, so I thought for two pairs of super comfy leather shoes that wasn't too bad of a deal! No way I'd find anything that look like these do in the states. We are calling that my Christmas present from Jim.

After the walk home we planned for tomorrow and pretty much called it a night. We'll start off by going to a waffle joint in the morning that Jessie says we *have* to go to, then we'll check out a market, a couple of different ruins right in Lima, visit the Plaza de Armas... then Jessie will meet us in central Lima for dinner and a fountain/light show that is supposedly cool. Better get to bed! (If we can sleep, it sounds like there is a party next door and the music is BLASTING... ha! It's Pitbull, which makes me laugh.)

-Sarah and Jim

Day 1 in Lima

Yesterday (Monday, December 19th) was a day full of errands.

After a lazy morning at Jessie's apartment recouping from travel exhaustion and making plans, etc. we headed out. (Jim and I, in typical fashion, had tried to be as ready as possible to leave ahead of time but still only ended up getting two hours of sleep the night before we got on the plane. Ugh, we do that every time no matter how hard we try. :( )

We met Jessie for lunch at a wonderful buffet restaurant called Polo Marino close to the US embassy (where she works) that had really good ceviche, sushi, and Peruvian dishes. My first taste of Lima's famous ceviche was very good and I'm looking forward to having more before we leave. The boys tried a local purple corn drink called chicha morada. I had some of Jim's and it was really good, just very very sweet, so I was glad I hadn't ordered a full glass for myself. I wouldn't have been able to finish it! I had a frozen limeade-type drink instead.

Following the meal we headed out for our errands. Jim and I were able to make reservations for our flights to Cuzco from Lima and the Machu Picchu tickets online, but you have to pay in person (or at lease we did; our cards wouldn't work on their sites online). Our first stop was to an ATM to withdraw money. Jim accidentally withdrew US dollars not realizing the machine could give us dollars instead of Soles (pronounced so-lace, the local currency)... so then we ended up at nearby Citibank to exchange the US dollars into soles. Luckily the woman at the counter was very nice; we got a good exchange rate with no exchange fee and she even helped us by making a little map to our next destination... Banco de la Nacion... all with our combined broken Spanish.

Between the four of us we can roughly communicate basics in Spanish, haha. Steph took 5 years of Spanish and teaches high school with a large population of Spanish speakers with whom she's been practicing, so hers is the strongest. Jim took Spanish in high school, but hasn't used it in over 10 years so he's forgotten most of it but still knows some basic phrases. I took French and Latin in high school/college (not fluent but I can fend for myself), so I can read most signs using root words and cognates... I picked up a little bit of basic Spanish during the kids' Spanish classes they have in my room on Fridays (greetings, animals, and fruit, hahaha), and I have my trusty Spanish Lonely Planet phrasebook. Erik speaks a few basic phrases from what I can tell. Between all of that we manage to get around.

We walked quite some ways to Banco de la Nacion to pay for our Machu Picchu tickets. After waiting in a line that would win the "Longest Line not in an Amusement Park" category for about half an hour, it took about one minute to present our reservation paper, pay for the tickets, and get our confirmation. Using my broken Spanish I said "Pagar Machu Picchu, por favor" (Pay Machu Picchu, please... I know, primitive!) and that got the point across. Haha. (Jessie thinks that between Christmas coming up, which is of course also celebrated here, and the possibility that today was payday for a lot of people, that could have been the cause for the long lines at the banks.)

Afterward we headed back to Jessie's place in Miraflores by taxi... Jim and I had more to do but I think Erik and Steph were a little tired of waiting on us and wanted naps, so we went back out on our own.

Driving in Lima is a lot like several other big cities I've been to that are not in the US. Trust me people, driving in Boston (which I'm not brave enough to do, btw), is nothing compared to traffic in most cities around the world. It's not quite as crazy here as, say, India or Vietnam, but it's not too far off. Erik describes it as a giant game of Marco Polo, whereby the driver honks "Marco" and the other drivers honk back "Polo" so everyone knows you're there as you weave your way in and out of traffic, stick your nose out to turn in the middle of traffic, and drive in two lanes at once. Fun cab rides, let me tell you. :) I'm used to it though. Still not quite as fun as rickshaws in India.

So Jim and I got into another cab to go to the Star Peru office to pay for our airline tickets to Cuzco. It was pleasantly uneventful. We visited a local grocery store to replace some of the milk and cereal we ate at Jessie's apartment and pick up a few other things, then got another cab back to Miraflores.

Except even with the address handed to him and telling the cab driver that the apartment was across from Larcomar, the cab driver dropped us off a mile or two from Jessie's place and we didn't realize it until we got out. We're still getting familiar with where we are and how things look. We didn't know how far off we were, but knew what direction to head since it was on the walkway by the coast overlooking the ocean, so Jim and I had a nice half hour walk back from there. At least the views were very pretty! The fog had rolled in, which added a peaceful feel to everything.

Back at Jessie's place we regrouped and then headed out to dinner at a great restaurant named Tanta. We had some great Peruvian dishes (I should have written down the names, mine was beef with potatoes and onions Peruvian style) and juices.

Unfortunately on the walk back home Steph started feeling sick. We're still not sure if it was just a bad sugar crash or if it's travel related or what. Either way, we dropped them off and then Jim and I went down to the park and Larcomar area across the street.

Jim took several nighttime shots of the skyline, then we headed down to the three story mall that is built into the cliffside there. We just wanted to check it out since it was so close. It was pretty much a bunch of stuff that you would find in US malls with the same prices, so not too exciting. We headed back as everything started closing down around 10pm.

Jim and Erik stayed up chatting like two teenage girls at a sleepover (they will kill me for saying it but they're such a cute pair of friends) until around midnight while I drifted off on the couch before heading to bed.

We were all woken up in the middle of the night by a big boom that shook the walls. It definitely wasn't thunder. We still don't know what it was... nobody on the streets acted out of the ordinary and there is nothing in the news about a bomb or anything like that, so we'll probably never know. Oh well, we were fine, it was just a big noise.

Since Steph was still feeling sick we ended up having another lazy morning around the apartment (hence me having time to write this, lol) even though we had intended to go out and do stuff hoping she might start feeling better. It's lunch time and she's still feeling ill though, so the three of us are going to head out to get some lunch and maybe stay close to the area today. I hope Steph starts to feel better!!

-Sarah (and Jim)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Safe in Lima

It's been quite some time since we've traveled out of the country... save for our wedding in the Bahamas last year. Seeing as this blog is mostly meant to 1) keep our parents happy with updates that we're safe and 2) preserve our memories for ourselves, we haven't had much need write anything since, oh... 2008 it looks like. And now with a Bambino on the way, it will probably be just as long before we have another trip worth writing about! ;) Sarah tends to do most of the writing, but I'll let you know if it's Jim's voice speaking to you.

Some people have been surprised that I would be traveling to a foreign country while 20-22 weeks pregnant. But this is me we're talking about! This is sort of our "babymoon" if you will and an opportunity we couldn't pass up. I'm in the second trimester which is the best time to go. I did my research and other women have gone to Machu Picchu at this stage in their pregnancies and they report that they were just fine. The best part is that my doctor has done this same trip and she was excited for us to go and not really concerned at all! She was giving us advice for restaurants, etc., it was great. :) My goal of course will be to stay rested and hydrated, and I will keep snacks around and I'll try not to push myself as hard as I usually do. But all should be fine!

We have officially arrived safely in Lima, Peru. The plan for this trip is to spend some time in Lima with our friends Steph and Erik at Steph's sister's apartment (Jessie works for the foreign service here) for about a week, then go with them to Ica (a nature preserve), then Jim and I will break off to go to Cuzco/Aguas Calientes/Machu Picchu before returning to Lima then heading home.

A shout out to Daddy for driving us to the airport yesterday morning… thank you Daddy! Sorry it ended up not being the smoothest ride back home for you, but we do really appreciate it.

I learned something in airport security yesterday: apparently a 2 lb. block of cheddar cheese next to an umbrella and over some camera lenses looks an awful lot like a big block of C4 next to a detonator on the security monitors. Luckily we made it through security just fine… it just took quite a while as they checked it for residue, etc. :) Luckily the TSA lady handling us was super nice, and we definitely got to keep the cheese. From now on I will be sure to check my cheese. We brought some cheeses to Jessie, Steph's sister who works for the foreign service in Lima, since cheese is so very pricey in Peru. (It sounds like one block of parmesan can run $20US!) She was thrilled as we unloaded all of the different varieties we brought, so it was totally worth it.

Our flights themselves were fairly uneventful. The only catch was that our flight from Houston to Lima was "canceled" for about half an hour or so… then they fixed whatever problem they were having and reinstated the flight just as we were on the verge of figuring out another plan. For a while there we thought maybe we were spending the night in Houston... which wouldn't have been so bad but we were happy when they reinstated the flight. Huzzah! So we got into Lima a few hours late due to the confusion, but no worse for the wear.

Samuel (the baby growing in my tummeh) was quite excited to go to Peru too, apparently. He was rocking and rolling more than ever before in there as we were waiting to take off from Houston. Jim felt him for the first time so that was pretty exciting for the happy papa-to-be. He quieted down after that though, thank goodness, so that was nice.

Jim has to rant: Dear Apple, please make it more clear that after I "Redeem" a digital copy of a movie by successfully authenticating against the iTunes store, copying it into iTunes and having it appear to be completely available, that I should then specifically Authorize the content prior to being able to play it (apparently with a second inexplicably required login!) We loaded four digital copies of movies we've recently purchased using this process, just to find out on the plane, when expecting to flip open the laptop and enjoy a good movie rather than watch the swill on the in-flight monitors, that we needed the internets to perform an authorization. This is definitely not the "smooth, user-friendly" experience that I have come to expect from Apple, and I'm really sad that we spent 6 hours on a plane with four movies locked away in iTunes and no way to play them. Grrr… /jimrant

Jessie arranged for a driver to pick us up in the airport. After long customs lines and a teensy bit of confusion when Erik and Steph "disappeared" for a bit (turns out they were randomly selected to have their bags inspected at customs), we found our driver and all was well. The views as we drove the half hour to Jessie's apartment reminded us a lot of Manila, with fewer power lines dangling down. Jessie's neighborhood, Miraflores, is very nice though.

Don't get me wrong. Jim and I aren't the kind of travelers that *need* luxury. We're happy in hostels and, while we might spring for one that has its own bathroom rather than a shared one, we're happy in meager accommodations. Driving up to Jessie's apartment complex, though... man, I should join the foreign service. This place is NICE. There are parks and playgrounds along the boardwalk, the building is white marblesque and gated with security, the works. The inside of her apartment has three bedrooms (plus a 'maid's quarters' that she uses for storage), three bathrooms, hardwood floors, is completely furnished for her with nice furniture, has a full dining room with a table with settings for 12, and a private balcony that has a stunning view overlooking the coast and the water below. Staying here for a week will be tough, let me tell you. ;)

Jessie greeted us at her apartment door (it was nearly 2am by this time so she didn't meet us at the airport since she had to get up and work at 6am) by telling us that there was apparently a light 4.something earthquake while we were in the car. I feel a little jipped! Being in an earthquake is one of those things I've always morbidly wanted to do... nothing damaging at all of course, I just want to feel a slight little earthquake that just shakes things a bit. But since we were in the car, none of us noticed at all. Boo!

After a good night's rest and hanging out at the apartment for the morning we will be meeting Jessie for lunch and looking into getting our tickets to Machu Picchu all settled. It should be a good day!

-Sarah and Jim