Monday, August 31, 2009

Our last days...
Chilling in Cusco

Finally, on our last day we had downtime. We had nothing that we absolutely had to see and decided to stay in town, so we slept in until 8 am. Ah, vacation.

Walking down the street of our hostel.
We stayed in San Blas, a convenient neighborhood on top of a hill with lovely views and quiet, narrow streets.

Our favorite drawings by a local artist at the contemporary museum.
There was also a convention on climate change which was intriguing to me since I just taught two units on climate this past year.

Hanging out in the center of town in Plaza de Armas.

We read, journaled and wrote postcards until the sun went down and it turned cold. Then we went to an amazing restaurant, Ciciollina, recommended by my friend, Natalie. Anyone visitng Cusco should definitely go (more than once)! Finally a purely relaxing day and a lovely way to end our stay in Cusco. A day and a half exploring Cusco was fine. It was a bit larger than expected, and a little too touristy but very pleasant nonetheless.

Lima: 12 hours in transit

En route back to the states, Shinae, Andrew and I had a 12 hour layover in Lima so we decided to taxi into the city center and explore some more.
City center.
After going through some sketchy parts, we arrived at the city center which was decent looking.

Hanging out in the public park with locals.

We spent most of our day chilling here watching families hang out on this Saturday. It was actually nice to get out of touristy Cusco get a glimpse of everyday life. We even stumbled upon a gastronomica (food) festival! We kept eating and eating (fried yuccas, rice pudding, flan, corn nuts, churros).

French fries anyone?

One of the joys of traveling is that you just never know what you are going to see... potatoes being transported out of a taxi to a chain fast food restaurant similar to McDonalds because that's how they roll in Peru.

We were really glad to go into a different part of Lima. We got a broader aspect of Lima and Peru and normal city life. We were pleasantly surprised that we enjoyed Lima this much.

My backpack that traveled around Peru with me.
I even got my sleeping back to fit in there too!

I returned home to Brooklyn, but I had only lived here for a little over a month so it didn't quite feel like home yet. So, I was a little confused as to where I was returning "home" to. I was starting a new job yet again. I have to stop doing this (the new job, not traveling). Work has been a little insane, which is why week 2 of Peru is 4 months late.

I don't think we will forget the Peruvian cities, towns and countryside nor the skies, waters and mountains and the wonderful people. What more could we want?

Of course the never ending question - what next? As normal, I usually decide a month or so before taking off. What I do know is that I will NOT be working next summer. I need a break from this insane teaching. Sharlene and I would love to do a 10 year reunion in Copenhagen, explore more of Europe and Morroco. I would also love to go back to South America and peruse Argentina and Patagonia. We shall see. Until next summer ...

Shinae, Andrew, Sharlene and I took on Peru!
It was awesome to travel with you guys!!! Thanks for the good times!
Inca trail - 4 day trek to Machu Picchu!

The main reason why we came to Peru was to do the 4 day Inca trail trek into Machu Picchu. We booked with Peru Treks 4 months in advance. They were responsible and reasonably priced. We highly recommend them. So, here we go!

Day #1: Easy going

It was pretty tame starting at 5:45 am with about 4 hours on the bus and 6 hours of level hiking (12 km). We reached our campsite by 4 pm.

Shinae, me and Sharlene trekking along the beautiful scenery.

Even though the trail was booked to the max (250 trekkers plus porters), it didn't feel crowded. Often, we were the only ones in sight. We had great weather the entire trek!

Day #2: Up, up, up and down.
This day was the killer day. We awoke at 6 am and hiked from 7 am to 2:30 with an hour break. 12 km straight up and down.

At the top of Dead Woman's Pass (a major mountain peak). We made it, or did we?

Hooray! 4200 m!
We went up ~1,200 m from 7:00 am to 1:00 pm, and it was at high altitude. Then another 1.5 hours down tortuous steps with NO bano (bathroom). That was mean.

Day #3: Ruins along the mountainside
This day was our favorite and longest hike. It was a relaxing 15 km from 7 am to 4. We passed several amazing hidden ruins, two minor passes and a lot of steps down.

View from our campsite.

A secluded mountainside ruin.

The end of Day 3.
We were exhausted from over 2,000 steps down this day.

Overall, The trail wasn't as difficult as I thought it was going to be, perhaps because I had heard so many stories and warnings beforehand. It wasn't exactly easy though.

Day #4: Machu Picchu at last!

We awoke at 3:30 am to do a mad 2 hour dash into Machu Picchu. I'm not really sure why we had to sprint into the ruins at this absurd hour. It's not like the ruins were going anywhere. But the other trekkers were viscious! Someone actually said, "Move out of my way or I'll punch you in the face." Another person asked, "Are you going to Machu Picchu?" No, I am going for a brisk stroll on this random mountainside at 5 am.

Peering down at Machu Picchu at sunrise from the sungate at about 6 am.
It was worth it to descend upon Machu Picchu at sunrise as clouds were rolling over the ruins.

We made it! Our awesome Peru Treks group.
Thanks guys for the support, great laughs and times!

Jumping for Machu Picchu!
5 takes at 7 am after a 2 hour hike and 4 day trek. Good times!

The llama refused to cooperate for a picture!

The restored walls of Machu Picchu.
Explorers accidentally stumbled upon this lost city last century.

Macchu Picchu in all its glory.

It really is that incredible. I think retracing the path that the Incas originally took to reach this city and learning the history made us appreciate these ruins much more. Also, our head guide, Freddy, imparted his love of the land on us.

Overall, the Inca Trail definitely met our expectations, and we had pretty high ones built up over the past years! Trekking these 45 km with my friends and a great group to Machu Picchu is something I'll definitely never forget!
Peru week #2: In and around Cusco

Sacred Valley

Hiking around the town of Amaru in the Sacred Valley

After meeting up with Sharlene and Andrew and spending a night in Cusco, we headed out to the small village in Amaru in the Sacred Valley for another homestay. We took a minivan and local bus to get to this town.

Me and Berta, our host family's daughter.

Like our other host family, Quechua is their main language, but Berta knew some Spanish and loved to talk to us. Oh, I am wearing glasses because about a week into travels I had a hint of an eye infection. And of course my stomach wasn't normal either. That's traveling for you. But, no worries... fiesta time!

Shinae, me and Sharlene leaping in style at the fiesta!
Fiesta #2 for Shinae and I.

Our host dad washing his feet to prepare to walk us to the religious ceremony occurring in town. We actually scaled down the mountain pretty quickly.

The local market in the center of Pisac.

There was some miscommunication. We didn't exactly know where Shinae and Andrew were. So our host dad announced over the loudspeaker "Andrew y Shinae" to this main square to try and locate them. Alas, they were not in town, but up in the ruins on the mountainside.

Sharlene at the Pisac ruins

So we went up to the ruins to look for them, but the ruins were pretty big and Andrew's clothing blended in with the mountains. We didn't find them but saw some pretty amazing sights.

We finally found Andrew and Shinae back in town and all headed back to Cusco together.

Sacsayhuaman Ruins
Impressive ruins with the largest rocks.
We stopped by here on the way back to Cusco.

Jesus overlooking the city.
He's pimped out up there.

Alpaca and me.
FYI: Alpaca = short and fluffy. Llama = tall and good walking partner. It took Shinae and I one week to figure this out.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Peru week #1: The Peru Sprint!

My Peru prep and travels were quite different in many ways than previous trips. Best of all, I got to be with Shinae from start to finish. No solo traveling at all! Also, it was the most planned trip. We had a legit itinerary with all hostels book. Surprisingly most buses were also booked from the stateside which I didn't even know that was possible. So long for getting bus tickets the morning of and hostels upon arrival. And we actually had a small grasp of the local language. Unfortunately, I bought along work for the first time for those long bus rides. That's life. But Peru was the same in the sense of strapping on the backpack and "do-it-yourself" trying to take the local way. As always, Peru bought crazy adventures as my travels always do!

Week 1: The Peru sprint

In our first week, Shinae and I made a grand tour around Peru. We started in Lima. Then we bussed 8 hours down the west coast to Nazca. Next we took a 9 hour overnight bus southeast to Arequipa and then a 6 hour ride east to Puno to island hop on Lake Tititaca. Finally we headed north 7 hours to end in Cusco. We moved every single night and was on some long mode of transportation every single day for the first week. But it was definitely worth it! Here's what we saw.

Lima: a decent capital
We spent a morning walking around Miraflores, a nice district bordering the beach before heading on our 8 hour bus ride in the afternoon. We were surprised at how pleasant this section of the city was compared to the Central American capitals that we'd been in such as Guatemala City and San Jose.

The beach view at Miraflores in Lima. It was a very gray morning.

Nazca: a desert town with wacky wonders
So we purposely scheduled an extra 20 hrs of busses to stop by this desert town to see the Nazca lines, which are wacky formations dug out in the desert sand by the natives sometime between 200 BC to 600 AD. These lines range from drawings of monkeys, whales, birds, geometric shapes from a few to several hundred meters long. The motivation behind these lines is still not entirely clear, but they can only be discerned from the air. It was just the type of quirky thing we were interested in.

We had to take a sobrevuelto (overflight) to see them. After waking up at 7:30 am and much miscommunication and waiting around a random swimming pool, we were finally transferred to the tiny airport at 2 pm where 6 of us and a pilot boarded a propeller plane to get a peek at the lines.

Shinae and I in front of the 6 passenger plane to see the Nazca lines.

Nazca lines: Do you see the astronaut waving at you?
He's probably over 1000 ft tall and was our favorite.
It was fascinating, if not a little upsetting on the stomach as the tiny plane plunged left and right.

La hummingbird.
The flight was 30 minutes long. Our stomachs probably could not handle any more.

View of the desert from the plane.

The town of Nazca itself was actually surprisingly a happening place. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening just chilling here, and even went to the local planetarium (how could we not? Shinae is an astrophysicist and I taught astronomy) with our newly acquired friends from our hostel, Rob and Nick from the UK.

Nazca's main square was clean and a great place to watch the locals.

We had some of our favorite food in Peru in some of the local joints in Nazca. We got a two course feast for 6 soles ($2).
The set lunch menu at a local restaurant.
When we asked for the menu, the man just took this sign off the wall and bought it to our table.
We had no idea what the items were so we just named two and hoped for the best. It was delicious. And our items got erased from the board rather quickly so we must've chosen well. We were the only gringos (foreigners) eating there.

Man with his fruit at the Sunday market smiling for my camera.
Rob, Nick (two Brits we hung out with around town), me and Shinae at our Walk On Inn hostel before our night buses. This is where the roosters crowed at 1 am!

The Nazca lines was definitely worth the extra 20 hours of bussing. Plus we got to see a lot of the Peruvian countryside and an interesting small town. Now off to Arequipa on the night bus.

Cruz del Sur bus: rolling high classMe cold on the bus, but riding in style!

OK. Anyone who had to take any long bus trips should definitely go VIP on the first floor of this bus. It's the most luxurious bus I've ever ridden, and I've ridden some pretty nice ones abroad. But most importantly, they were keen on safety. We heard stories about the Pan American highway being notorious for robberies, especially on night busses. I normally like to travel long rides overnight since it kills two birds with one stone, but for safety we always tried to travel during the day. I remember Shinae asking "Is it just robberies? If so I'm fine with that. But if it's violent robberies and rape, then that's not OK." We read that it was the latter. Not OK. But Cruz del Sur video-taped each passenger, had speed limit control and a GPS system to track the busses, so we felt safe. And so goes our bussing around Peru in style.

Arequipa: a beautiful city nestled in the mountains

After the most pleasant overnight bus, we arrived in Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. It's tucked high in the mountains at 2500 m.

Me in the city center .
We bartered for paintings from a local artist here.

We really enjoyed this city. It was filled with locals, and the buildings, though rebuilt after earthquakes, had character. The city was admist a week long celebration of its founding so we happened upon festivals. It felt manageable and walkable.
We enjoyed wandering this monastery and getting lost in all the nooks and crannies.View of the mountains from inside the monastary.
The mountains and volcano Misti are the backdrop of the city.

Alpaca relleno with quinoa cakes.
Our first "luxury" meal for about $10. We had alpaca relleno (alpaca meat, which taste like beef but is 50% less fatty, in red bell peppers). It was quite tasty. Though overall the food in Peru is nothing spectacular, but I didn't have high expectations.

Shinae in front of our favorite hostal - La casa del los penguinos (Penguin House)!
How can you go wrong here? It's runned by a kind Dutch lady, was impeccably clean, had hot water, had marvelous breakfast with peanut butter AND was decorated in penguins.

We were traveling mid-class. Most of our hostels were about $30/night for 2 ppl with private bath so $15/person. We could get as cheap as $8/person, but we are working people, not that young and only traveling for two weeks!

View from the cafe overlooking the main square.

What AM I wearing?!?! Sandals and socks? Never in the states...

When traveling I start to get creative with my limited clothing. I only bought one small backpack. The temperature sometimes got up to 75 deg during the day with scorching sun, but dropped to 40 deg in the city at night once the sun disappeared. COLD! It was winter in Peru. But winter = dry season.

Our day in Arequipa was quite relaxing and eventful. And it also allowed us to slowly acclimate to higher altitudes. Off to our next destination.

Puno: uninteresting town, but a launch point for Lake Titicaca

Our morning bus crept and winded up through the mountains as we climbed to an even higher altitude of 3800 m. 6 hours later we descended upon Puno, the town which is the hub for the beautiful Lake Tititaca. Forced to spend the afternoon and evening here, we managed to find an ineresting coca museum and some of the tastiest food.


We accidentally got raw trout. We were very cautious about eating the food in Peru; everyone we knew who went to Peru got terrible food poisening. It was a shame since I normally love street food, but since we were traveling everyday, doing homestays without proper bathrooms, trekking, etc, being sick did not bode well. But we broke our rule for 5-6 deliously fresh, savory lime infused pieces of forbidden trout. Fortunately there were no negative consequences.

Lake Titicaca: the highest navigatable lake

Uros: Floating Islands
These islands are unique. Familes live on one island with about 5 or so houses. There are about 50 islands though it changes daily as families join their islands for fiestas or break apart during feuds. They go into Puno, about 30 minutes away when they need certain ammenities.

Local moms bidding us farewell on the island.

Jumping on the island.
It's made of about a meter thick of reeds which is very bouncy! The houses and boats are also made of reeds and you also can eat too. Very useful.

Amantani: our homestay

Our main goal of the islands was to do a homestay. We arranged to stay with a local family here through a reputable tour group, All Tour, that worked closely with the community. After a 3 hour boat ride from the floating islands, 10 of us went to different houses.
Shinae following our "mom" and her cute little lamb from the dock to our home.

Me in front of our home. It was surprisingly a nice proper structure.
We got a spacious room with beds and a decent outhouse!

There is no electricity, roads or cars on the island. The 5,000 people lead a simple, yet happy life. We got a glimpse of the locals' daily life. Their native language is Quechua, but fortunately the mom and daughter spoke Spanish also so we could communicate.

Reading with the children at the local library.

BIO conversation on Peruvian Island in Spanish? Eh? We ended up conversing with a young local of 25 yrs old (on the left) who was curious about biology. He asked "Why do virus attack humans?" "Why do we get headaches?" "Why do we dream?" We explained about viruses in our broken Spanish. The second two questions were a bit harder since even in English the answers are a bit unclear, let alone convey that in Spanish! But this was definitely one of the highlights of the homestay for me to be able to share my knowlege of biology with the locals. How cool is that!?! I could see myself doing that more long term.

View on our 45 min hike UP to patchapapa temple at the top of the mountain.

The temple at sunset.
We circled it 3 times to gain energy from the lake. I hope this last me a long time!

Mom prepping me for the fiesta after dinner. And we thought we would just go in our fleece.
Me and Shinae in our fiesta clothes. Notice the stylish headlight which we had to use to walk around at night. Our mom had so much energy and kept us dancing!!

Our host mom, her 12 year old daugher (Maria Luz) and 3 year old daughter in the kitchen.

We had 3 delicious meals here - lots of potatoes (oh so many potatoes in so many colors! white, purple, yellow...). We were so grateful for their hospitality and insight into their daily life. They seem to be kind and happy people.

Boating away from Amantani in the morning.

Tequile: Island hopping

The next day we took a 45 min boat ride to another island, Tequile. The culture is slightly different. It's more industrialized on this island, and they specialized in textiles.
Ridiculous views all around!
We hiked admist crystal clear blue waters and skies. It reminded me a bit of island hopping in Greece, except obviously a bit grimier.

Handmade textiles which the islanders specialize in.
The top is actually a back brace. Maybe I should've bought one!Shinae and I on Tequile.Shinae chilling while boating back to the mainland.
I got sunburned through my pants.

After another night in Puno where we hung out with more newly aquired friends Jessica and Dana over good food, we were ready to head to Cusco to meet up with Sharlene and Andrew. We couldn't believe our trip was half way over. We had covered so much terriotory already and were extremely pleased with our variety of experiences - capital city, dessert with wacky wonders, town, city nestled in mountains, islands and homestay. 7 days, 5 places, packing our bags and moving each night, 32 hrs of busses, 8.5 hrs of flying and 8 hrs of boating. Not bad at all!

Shinae and I had a wonderful time bussing around and exploring beautiful Peru! We acquired a good sense and appreciation for the country.

Off to Cusco!