Our travels introduced us to many beautiful landscapes, intriguing cultures, questionable food and, well, really odd clothing. Here are the top five bizarre wearables we observed:
Iceland's climate is harsh - cold, windy and wet - so one must protect the entire face from freezing, including the beard and mustache. The beardcap does just that. Made from soft lambswood, it is a modern day "lambshed-hood" which was traditionally worn by Icelandic farmers walking long distances to their field sheds. Vík Prjónsdóttir produces these quirky caps which come in two styles - the Farmer and the Gentleman. Read more about our adventures in Iceland here.
On the small island of Taquile, in Lake Titicaca, Peru, the men wear belts made from their wives' hair. A young woman will use her shiny long hair to make a marriage belt which is a gift for her future husband. The bride mixes her hair with alpaca hair and the result is a black and white striped belt that her husband will wear every day for the rest of his life. The belt is sturdy and worn like a girdle so it supports his lower back. They say it helps the kidneys and prostate so in essence the bride is making a belt to protect the health of her future husband. Read more about Taquile, Peru here.
A common sight in China is a toddler missing a critical component of his wardrobe. They call these toilet training pants or split pants, and they feature a big opening in the crotch area (no diaper). The parent/grandparent will regularly fold the kid in half, bum towards the ground, and urge the baby to take care of business. You see it happening everywhere - on the sidewalk, in the park, over a garbage can at the train station, etc. We took extra care to avoid all puddles after seeing this! To read more about China, check out my China blog posts here.
The people pictured below are not Mexican luchadores or Marvel's latest superheroes. They are Chinese beachgoers wearing a form of extreme sun protection called the facekini. While the Icelandic beardcaps provide protection from the cold, the facekini provides protection from UV rays and jellyfish. In Asia, most people consider tanned skin to be less attractive than pale skin because a tan implies peasantry while pale skin implies you lead a pampered life. We often saw Asian tourists and locals cover up their skin and wear wide brim hats on sunny days. Drugstores advertised skin bleachers as opposed to self-tanners popular here in the US. Well, the facekini takes sun protection to a new level and has grown in popularity among the Chinese, particularly those from Quingdao. While I'm typically happy with sun-tan lotion, I could have used a facekini while snorkeling among Thailand's stinging sea bees!
Females of all ages in China were sporting headbands with animal ears. Typically they were cat ears but we saw lots of variations - bunnies, bears, mice, and my favorite... giraffes.
On this Valentine's Day, I thought it would be fun to highlight a romantic destination that is a little unexpected. When people think of romantic cities, Paris or Venice might immediately come to mind, and for good reason! Lima, on the other hand, is not a city that most people around the world associated with love, passion and sweethearts. But the Peruvians are quite romantic and dedicated an entire park to love - complete with poetry, art and dramatic views.
The Love Park, or Parque del Amor, is located in the Miraflores area of Lima. It is situated along the malecon which lies atop massive cliffs that cascade into a wide beach along the Pacific. The view can be breathtaking on a clear day, and especially romantic at sunset.
Legend has it that the origins of Parque del Amor lie with the Peruvian poet Antonio Cilloniz's lament "In the cities, they do not build monuments to lovers". Cilloniz has a valid point; most cities have monuments to war heroes and battles. This resonated with the town of Miraflores so they built El Parque del Amor in 1993 and opened it on Valentine's Day. The park is dedicated to all lovers and is artfully decorated in colorful mosaics, poems and a massive sculpture by Victor Delfin called El Beso (the kiss) which stands over the words of Anotonio Cilloniz. El Beso features two lovers embracing and is meant to celebrate the lovers who gather to watch the sunset over the Pacific.
It's a lovely park and definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in Lima. Happy Valentines Day!
In Aguas Calientes, the small town at the base of Machu Picchu, we were drawn into a local bar by the live music wafting out into the street. The band consisted of five local gents with flowing Inca manes going to town on the omnipresent pan flute to the delight of a full house of tourists and locals alike. With Machu Picchu only a short distance away, it was indeed magical. Amidst this backdrop, what better place, we thought, to sample the alpaca?
Alpaca holds a place of distinction as a staple food in Inca culture. It is lauded by those in the know for its leanness, lack of cholesterol, and most of all for its distinctive flavor.
The menu at this particular restaurant featured at least ten different preparations of alpaca. For me, the best way to try it out was to keep it simple, corrupting its natural flavor as little as possible. I therefore selected the grilled alpaca steak with avocado and a side of potatoes. I placed my order and received a satisfied nod from the Inca waiter, who apparently respected my choice of fare. Eva, who unfortunately does not boast the same lead-lined digestive system that will allow me to continue to post these entries during our trip, ordered a ham sandwich, which received a somewhat less enthusiastic response.
Here is what showed up a little while later. As a disclaimer, the dish shown here is being visually short-changed by the harsh phosphorescence of an old cell phone camera. In that place and time, it looked tasty.
Unfortunately, it tasted about how it looks in the bad cell phone photo. The meat did not resemble any I had previously tasted. The closest comparable that I've had is probably venison, although even that is a stretch. It's really a dish all its own.
While the leanness claims were certainly accurate, overall, I would rank the taste lower on the list of the creatures I've consumed over the years, though still a perfectly edible form of sustinance. (The dubious honor of last place has been held by the lowly camel since 2007, and from my perspective its throne is quite safe.) Perhaps the cut of meat or the preparation was not the best, or maybe the lustrous Inca manes of the guys on stage and their pan flute siren song simply overshadowed this humble meat. While I am not in a huge hurry to order another alpaca dish, I would certainly be willing to give it another try in a different time and place. However, on this day, it was the alpaca who got the last laugh.
We had a 4am wake-up call on day two in the Amazon. We ate breakfast at the Gryffendor table. In lieu of coffee, I tried the hot chocolate, which was fantastic. After several cups, we ventured out on a trek to see some otters in a nearby lake. We walked down to our boat through a blue mist and when arrived at the river we could see the sun rise in the distance.
We took the boat up river about 10 minutes and then we had to hike about 20 minutes to find the lake. The lake used to be a turn in the river and eventually was closed off due to sediment. It's home to a variety of animals including a family of otters, caymans, piranhas and birds. Once we arrived at the lake, we boarded a jury rigged pontoon boat, which consisted of two canoes connected by some wooden boards with benches nailed atop. As we began to float across the small lake, the sun began to rise and light up the jungle around us.
We never spotted those wily otters, but we did see our fair share of birds and we even fished for piranhas. Piranhas are difficult to catch because they nibble at the bait instead of swallowing it one bite. They are fast and agile and your bait quickly disappears from your hook. We used bits of raw beef and those picky piranhas only ate the red meat and left the fat. I was the first non jungle native to catch one!
After spending about an hour on the lake, the sun began to strengthen so we headed back to the lodge for a snack of cheese croissants and passion fruit juice and then prepared for our next expedition: the Macaw clay lick.
The clay lick consisted of a clay wall along the river bank. Macaws gather here to lick the clay when they feel completely safe from predators. Therefore, we had to sit in a hidden hut and remain very quiet while we waited for the macaws to show up.
Question for class 2A: Why do macaws lick clay?
When we arrived, we noticed a hawk perched on a branch near the clay lick. This was bad news for us because macaws are afraid of hawks. Eventually the hawk flew away and we noticed 8 or 9 macaws in the tree tops above, still very far away. Our guide noticed that they began to descend little by little toward the clay lick and we were very optimistic that we'd be able to see them up close. However, another hawk showed up and scared them away. Then a couple of loud boats came by and sealed the deal. No macaw close-ups for us.
Now, it may sound really boring sitting in a hut waiting to see macaws for an hour, but it turned out to be quite entertaining. First, the interaction between the hawks and the macaws was fascinating to witness. We also had some human entertainment from the other guide, Willian. He had been assigned to the Indian family with the young child (about 3 years old). They showed up after we had been waiting in the hut for about 30 minutes. The baby was sleeping, so we were in good shape. However, as the macaws started to descend the baby woke up and Willian tried his best to keep him quiet. This consisted of breaking off pieces of nature and pretending they were toys, dancing, and then finally he resorted to attempting to rationalize with the baby, asking him politely to go back to sleep. None of these tactics was successful and the baby's mom had to take him away from the hut. While Willian did not succeed in calming the baby, he managed to make us laugh.
We later witnessed Willian wearing the baby Bjorn with the 3 year old in it while hiking back to the lodge. He was sporting an supressed grimace on his face.
On our way back to the lodge we happened upon a group of squirrel monkeys eating fruit in a palm tree. We had to go off the main path to see them but it was worth it! We enjoyed watching them jump from treetop to treetop. Our guide, Robin, got really close with our camera and snapped a couple of great shots:
After lunch at the Gryffendor table, we had a little siesta before our afternoon adventure - visiting the chaman. The people of the Infierno often can't afford modern healthcare. Therefore they turn to the local chaman who uses native plants to treat a variety of aliments. The chaman also serves as a spiritual guide, and many people from the area take a hallucinogen called Ayahuasca while in his care, in order to see their future and understand their purpose in the world.
We had to take a boat about 15 mins along the river to arrive at his farm/clinic. We then took a tour of his farm. The chaman doesn't speak English so Robin (who once trained as a chaman's apprentice) translated for the group. Here were some of the things we saw:
Ayahuasca - a hallucinogen used by many in Amazonian Peru. People who have consumed ayahuasca report having massive spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth. The chaman said this helps rid people of evil spirits. In order to take Ayahuasca, one must refrain from alcohol, tobacco, red meat, and many other things for many months in advance.
I think this was the plant they used to make love potion. The chaman mixes it with a liquid and sells it to men. They must place the liquid on the skin of the desired lady, leave immediately and avoid seeing her for the next 3 days. After 3 days, she will be completely in love with him. The chaman was very serious about this!
We saw a few other plants including:
-Chuchuhuasi - painkiller
-Cordoncillo - used to make Novocain. We chewed some of the leaves and sure enough, our mouths went numb.
-Sanipanga - used as a red dye
At the end of the tour we sampled a couple of elixers which all tasted the same - like strong cough syrup.
After our visit to the chaman, we went back to the lodge for dinner. Right after dinner a few of us went on a night hike with Robin which turned out to be almost deadly.
We made our way through complete darkness in search of creatures of the night with only a few flashlights to guide the way. The first thing we happened upon was a colony of bullet ants having their way with some sort of shrub. Robin cautioned us to keep our distance from these massive, venomous ants, before proceeding to get bit by one of them. All was well, however, as he claimed he'd built up an immunity to them over the years (though still very painful!).
We were all now thoroughly worried about what other sorts of things we might unknowingly brush up against in the darkness of the Amazonian night. A few minutes later, someone's flashlight caught a spider descending from a tree right between the two Canadian girls. Intrigued, someone asked Robin what sort of spider it was. Robin immediately freaked out and pushed everyone away from the spider. He explained it was a Wandering Spider, one of the world's deadliest. He then proceeded to probe the spider with a stick, which I'm sure the spider appreciated. At this point (about 10 minutes into the 40 minute hike), Robin decided it was best to head back. On the short walk back to the lodge we also saw a tarantula and a wolf spider. All in all, a short but successful night hike, mainly because we made it back alive.
Upon our return to the lodge, folks were hanging out at the bar. William called me over saying he had something to show me. Already suspicious, I slowly approached him knowing he had something up his sleeve. He literally did. He straightened his arm and out crawled a giant tarantula. I was worried the spider would bite him, especially after our encounters on the night hike, but he told me that even if it bit him, it would just itch like a mosquito bite. He then passed the tarantula off to one of the other guides at the bar who escorted it back into the woods.
We spent the next few hours draining a bottle of Pisco with Robin, the Canadian girls and their Peruvian guide. We learned a little more about Peruvian foods (including brains), marriage customs (most don't get married because they can't afford it) and shared a few laughs.
I slept a lot better that night, and the next morning we departed around 8am for our journey back to Cusco. Below are a few more shots from the beautiful Amazon.
When thinking about the Amazon many words come to mind - humid, colorful, bugs, sunsets, monkeys, piranhas , wonder, mud, terror and spirituality. The jungle is not for everyone and if you are looking for a relaxing vacation, skip it all together. However, if you are looking for an adventure, enjoy viewing exotic wildlife in its natural habitat, don’t mind sweating for a few days straight, and love serene views like the one below, then make the trek out to the jungle.
We spent two nights at Posadas Amazonas, an eco lodge on the Tambopata river which is part of the Amazon region. To get here you must take a plane to Puerto Maldonado, Peru which is about a one hour flight from Cusco. In order to explore the Amazon, you need to book through an authorized tour group (in our case, a company called Rainforest Expeditions). They picked us up at the airport and brought us to their “office” which was basically an open air hut with a few computers, a bar and a storage closet. We were the first in our group to arrive so we waited for about an hour, sipping passion fruit juice while the other group members showed up. From this point, you have to take a small boat to your final destination, so passengers are only allowed to bring small bags. Upon arrival at the office, most people pack up small bags with enough supplies for the next couple of days and then lock up their larger bags at the office. We didn’t have to do this since we were already carrying backpacks.
At the office we met our guides - Willian (yes, it's spelled with an n) and Robin. They are both 20 something guys from the Tambopata region and grew up in the jungle. Willian was definitely the class clown and regularly made us laugh throughout the trip (often times unintentionally). Robin was more serious, super nice and very knowledgable about the jungle.
From the office we took a bus for about an hour across dirt roads and rickety wooden bridges (not kidding – sometimes they were just wooden planks that went over a five foot ditch) until you get to the boats. As we found out later, if it were raining, we would not have been able to use these roads.
During our bus ride, one of the guides explained a bit about the region. Althought the land is protected by the government, they have a problem with squatters, or people claiming the land as their own. In Peru, if the government doesn't kick out squatters within seventy two hours, they can stay and make a case for ownership that they have to take to a special court. Therefore we passed by many tents and shanties that serve as shelters for the squatters.
They also gave us an overview of the agreement that Rainforest Expeditions has with the local community called El Infierno. The company has a 20 year contract with the local people of the Infierno where they split profits from tourism 60/40 (60% goes to the locals). Rainforest Expeditions also employs the people from the local community to work at their lodges as tour guides and staff. The only other jobs in this area are mining or collecting Brazil nuts, so this is a pretty coveted job for the locals. It works out great for the company because nobody knows the jungle better than the people the people that grew up there. Also, Rainforest Expeditions runs 'eco-lodges' and therefore do little damage to the jungle, something that is very important to the people of El Infierno.
As we approached the boats, one of the guides explained that Rainforest Expeditions owns three lodges – Posadas Amazonas, which is a one hour boat ride up the river, Refugio Amazonas which is about a three hour boat ride up the river, and Tambopata Research Center which is an eight hour boat ride. Eight hours on a small boat is a really long ride so the last one is for those folks who are really into wildlife, birdwatching and nature photography. I would not recommend such a long boat ride for first time adventurers!
We then boarded our boat, which is basically a long, thin covered canoe with a motor. When boarding the boat, the first thing you notice are hundreds of butterflies fluttering around. I’ve never seen so many in one place in my life. I attempted to film them but put the camera away when the boat almost tipped. Since the boats are so thin, weight must be evenly distributed on each side of the boat or it starts to tip. It's a little un-nerving at first, but you get used it. The boat ride turned out to be quite pleasant. The breeze felt amazing in the humidity and we managed to cool off for a bit. They served an amazing lunch on the boat– fried rice in a plantain leaf. Luckily for me, we had a family from India on our boat and they were vegetarians. Therefore I didn’t have to worry about the staff serving birds for lunch. I think the fried rice was my favorite meal during our stay!
About an hour later, we arrived at our lodge, climbed out of the boat and then hikeed about ten mins to the lodge. Thankfully, porters carry your large bags so you don’t have to navigate these stairs with your luggage!
They welcome you to the lodge with a seat in their open air lobby and a glass of fresh juice or water. Since it's an eco lodge, they must explain how everything works:
- All rooms have three walls – one is open to the jungle
- Electricity is only available from 5pm to 9pm. Flashlights/headlamps are a must after 9pm.
- They serve breakfast, snacks, lunch and dinner at set times and you eat with your tour group. We really enjoyed eating with our group as we had the chance to get to know some of the other travelers.
We then went to our rooms which were pretty cool at first glance. I'd consider this glamping, but we certainly were anything but glamorous at this point.
The room was pristine and we later discovered that it takes a lot of work to keep the rooms this way every day.
After unpacking, we met up with our group for an afternoon hike out to the look-out tower. The groups are intentionally small - our group consisted of five other people - two girls from Canada who were a few years younger than us, and an older woman accompanied by her grown son and daughter, who were treating her to a Peruvian vacation! On our way our guide, Robin, pointed out some interesting trees like the Walking Palm Tree and the Brazil Nut tree. The Brazil nut is really important to the people of the Infierno. During rainy season, when tourism is slower, they gather and sell brazil nuts. It’s another way they make money.
We arrived at the tower which was essentially a scaffolding tower with wooden landings connected by stairs and supported by cables tied to nearby trees. It was rickety and really high up (150 feet) and Chris is afraid of heights so he had a hard time enjoying the view. The tower platform was about 4' x 8' and there were nine of us up there at once. At one point, Robin was sitting on the handrail on the top level without holding on! The view was fantastic and from up here we were able to spot many birds.
After our hike we were in desperate need of a shower. Our shower didn’t have warm water at first but we didn’t care- we just wanted to cool off. Before dinner, we had a couple of beers at the bar, played a destructive game of jenga (glasses were broken) and got to know some of the olther folks in our tour group.
Dinner was served at seven pm and we ate at long wooden tables complete with candelabras and large wooden chairs. It conjured up images of Hogwarts, and Chris quickly claimed our table the Gryffendor table. Unfortunately, no one else in our group got the joke.
We were so tired after dinner that we went to bed. Chris fell asleep under the mosquito net rather quickly but I barely slept because giant bugs kept flying into my net – including a rhinocerous beetle. I heard bats and birds in the room and animals rooting around outside. Eventually I dozed off but we had a four am wake up call so my slumber didn’t last long.
The next day were in store for many more treats and a little more terror ...
Part of the fun of travel is experiencing the way people live in other parts of the world. One of the most important aspects of this is, of course, the food! Peru and Colombia are no exception, and boast some pretty unique feasts for the senses. So with the first stage of our travels drawing to a close, it's time to look back on some of the more interesting delicacies we've sampled in this part of the world.
As a friend of ours recently commented, cuy must be some sort of running joke Peruvians play on tourists. Why would anyone want to eat guinea pig? Nonetheless, there are entire Peruvian towns dedicated to the cultivation and expert preparation of these furry critters. Clearly, this was something that could not go unsampled.
Part of the fun of being an active participant in the cuy industry is looking at the many interesting signs above local cuy joints. Take this variety for example:
Something about these seems a little wrong, but they still invoke a good chuckle.
Another typical example will advertise the cuy and include a picture like this:
I find this one interesting from a marketing perspective. For example, it's interesting to think that there's some segment of the population that sees it and gets hungrier.
However, the most common examples feature a photo of the cooked cuy prepared in the traditional fashion - something along these lines:
This type I find sort of intriguing. I actually find the tomato hat to be a nice touch, adding a bit of playfulness to an already weird meal. I knew it was only a matter of time before my own dish of cuy arrived, and eagerly awaited this masterful presentation.
Alas, however, when I finally did place my cuy order, it showed up like this:
Unfortunately, we waited until our last night in Peru to sample the cuy, and were running low on Peruvian cash. Turns out the #1 local cuy joint in Cusco does not take credit cards, so we had to resort to the touristy spot. To my dismay, this also meant no tomato hat. Still, I was also a bit relieved, as I had absolutely no idea how to butcher a whole cuy.
This particular cuy happened to be classed up a bit with some rosemary seasoning, and was then charcoal roasted while brushed with sort of a sweet and sour sauce, adding a nice crisp char to the surfaces. I am told there is only one way to eat cuy, and that is chicken wing style. No fork or knife required. Turns out it was good advice, as eating cuy is a pretty time consuming process.
So how does guinea pig taste? Ironically, a lot like pork. Actually, it's an incredibly tasty dish. The flavor sort of reminded me of the Asian style baby back pork ribs authored by my dad and savored by anyone who's attended one of our BC tailgates. Would I have it again? Without a doubt.
Up next: alpaca, chicharones, Inca Kola and a variety of tropical fruits
It may have taken us a while to get there, but Machu Picchu is worth it. It's stunning.
Our day began at 5am because the buses start leaving Aguas Calientes at 5:30am. There was a line of people waiting for the bus but it moved quickly and we were on our way shortly after 5:30am. The buses climbed the mountain through a series of switchbacks and as we ascended, the sun started to rise and it was clear that we were headed toward something really special.
When we arrived there was a pretty long line at the entrance but once the park opened at 6am it moved very quickly. To get into the site you must have an official ticket and your passport.
Upon entering the site, we stopped to admire the view and then took the obligatory photos thinking it would get a lot more crowded later.
At 7am, we could hike to the top of the actual mountain Machu Picchu. The hill you see behind us in the photos above is called Huayana Picchu. Machu Picchu sits across from Huayana Picchu and while it's peak is less pointy, it is much higher. We wanted to hike Huayana Picchu, but there is a daily limit for hikers and tickets were sold out a week in advance. We were able to snag a couple tickets for Machu Picchu mountain instead. The hike was challenging, especially being in high altitude but the view was spectacular. Here are some photos and a video from about 3/4 of the way to the top of Machu Picchu.
We almost made it to the top but turned around about 3/4 of the way up because we were running out of time and were afraid we wouldn't be able to take a full tour of the ruins.
By the time we got back down the mountain we were incredibly tired and hungry. We rested in a spot with a great view of the ruins. Then we left the park to get some food at the cafe. It was probably 10:30am and there was no line at the entrance. Everyone had come first thing in the morning. Because Peru limits the number of people who arrive each day, the site didn't feel that crowded.
The sun had started to break through the clouds and we were feeling refreshed after our snack so we hired a tour guide named Maria outside the entrance.
Maria is from Aguas Calientes and is incredibly passionate about Machu Picchu. She told us that she could never live anywhere else in the world because Machu Picchu is a huge mystery and every day she visits the site, she observes something new. Since so much is unknown about this culture, these observations are like tiny puzzle pieces that bring her one small step closer to understanding how the Incas lived.
We had already learned a lot from our tour in the Sacred Valley but Maria was choc full of new information:
- Machu Picchu was never finished. The Incas were in the process of building it when the Spanish conquistadors arrived. Once the Spanish started demolishing their cities and temples, the Incas abandoned Machu Picchu, burned all bridges and destroyed all roads leading to the city in order to hide it. They did a good job. The ruins were not discovered until 1911, when American Hiram Bingham, introduced it to the world. This is why it's often referred to as the Lost City of the Incas.
-Construction likely began in 1450 and it was probably abandoned in 1572 when the Spanish arrived. If this is true, the Incas only lived here for a little over 100 years.
-The city is about 8,000 feet above sea level and the terraces go all the way down the mountain to the river. It's likely the Incas started building the city from the river up to the peak. The terraces are used for 3 purposes: 1) agriculture - it gave them more space to grow a variety of crops at different climate levels 2) structural support- they supported the city, preventing it from falling down the mountain 3) decorative - they look pretty and were also in the form of the Chakana or Inca cross.
-They didn't use fancy tools to break apart the rock. The rock has natural fissures or cracks. The Incas would wedge a piece of wood into these gaps and saturate the wood with water, causing the wood to expand and break apart the rock into smaller pieces. Then they would polish the rock with other rocks to create stone cubes used for building.
- The location of Machu Picchu was strategic. Why choose to build a city so remote and high up? There were a few reasons. First, there was a natural rock quarry on the site which was their main resource for construction. Second, there was a natural spring that ran through the site that supplied water to the entire city. Third, they wanted to avoid floods which regularly destroyed towns in the valleys. Lastly, they wanted to avoid landslides and this site in particular was a little flatter and rockier than the surrounding mountains and therefore less likely to fall apart.
- The water spring was very important. They built a series of channels and fountains that run throughout the city. Experts believe that the same amount of water that flowed during the time of the Incas still flows today.
- There are several theories about who lived at Machu Picchu. The most common theory is that only nobles, priests and scholars lived here. Farmers and peasants came to work the land but returned to their villages after work.
- You can tell where the important people lived by the quality of the stone. For example, temples were among the nicest buildings with the best craftsmanship and beautifully polished stone. The King's house and the priest's house were also nicely done. The lesser nobles' homes were made of stone that was less polished and structured. In Inca times, those buildings would have been covered with clay. Note, it's believed that the King did not live here permanently but only visited for about 2 weeks at a time.
The Incas built all doors and windows in the shape of a trapezoid because it's sturdier. According to our guide, they got this idea by observing humans. If you stand with your feet together and something hits you or the earth moves, you are more likely to fall down than if you were to stand with your feet wide apart.
- Machu Picchu was a full working city. They had gardens, a central lawn where they held parties, schools, temples, and storage units. They also had a city map and a weatherman!
Religion was very important to the Incas and they had various temples throughout Machu Picchu. The Temple of the Sun was one of the most important and was located right next to the King's house. This is a semi-circular structure with two windows - one aligned directly with the sunrise during summer solstice in June and the other aligned with the sun during the winter solstice in December. When the sun came directly through each window and reflected off of a stone in the temple, the priest knew it was a new year (their new year began on the June solstice). This was the most important day of the year and the city celebrated with festivals and feasts for weeks.
Another important structure is the Temple of the Condor - which is stone carved into the shape of a condor - the totem for Heaven. There are many theories about the purpose of this temple. Some say the priest made sacrifices to the god of heaven on the head of the condor and then carried the animal into the temple as a metaphor for feeding the god. They also discovered dungeons below this temple.
It was truly a spectacular day! We caught at 2:30 train back to Ollantaytambo and then hired a taxi to take us back to Cusco for about 30 soles which is the equivalent of about $12. Not bad for a two hour ride back into town!
Upon our return to Cusco, our main packs (we only carried the mini packs to Machu) were waiting in another lovely little room at the Rumi Wasi. We showered, picked up a couple sandwiches (Chris finally had his chicharones sandwich) and went to bed early. We had an early flight to the jungle the next morning!
Hi Class 2A! We have another question for you. The Incas considered the condor, puma, and snake to be sacred animals because they represented each world - heaven, earth and the underworld. There was another animal that was very important to the Incas. Can you name the animal?
The Inca Cross is also called the Chakana and it represents balance, very similar to the yin-yang symbol. Our voyage to Machu Pichu was a perfect example of balance as we experienced the good and the very bad in just one day.
The road to Machu Picchu is long, even if you aren't hiking the 4 day Inca trail. Originally, we planned to hike the trail but quickly discovered that wasn't an option. You see, Peru limits the number of people that hike the trail so you have to reserve a spot months in advance. Tickets for May hikes were sold out by January.
To be honest, I wasn't that upset about it. I've camped one night in my life and was subjected to a series of ridiculous events including:
- 4 hrs of rowing in a canoe against a wall of wind (was supposed to take one hour)
- Trading beer for a missing friend with a river man wearing a tiny pair of jean cut-offs
- Swimming in the river to cool off only to find myself covered in green algae
- Chris trying to skin a catfish by nailing it's head to tree
- Not sleeping due to a combination of heat, rain, animals and fearing psychopaths in tiny cut-offs outside my tent
And that was in Illinois. Who knows what we would have encountered in the Andes!
Of course, with the bad comes the good: These crazy events were balanced by the wonderful company of good friends and they make for a good story that we'll tell for the rest of our lives.
Anyway, back to our journey to Machu Picchu. To get there you must take a bus from Cusco to Ollantayambo where you catch a 2 hour train - either Peru Rail or Inca Rail - to a town called Aguas Calientes. From Aguas, you take a 20 min bus ride up to Machu Picchu. In my last post, I wrote about our ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo which included a tour of a few sites in the Sacred Valley. After the tour, we boarded our train in Ollantaytambo at 4:30 pm. We chose the Inca Rail which was a really charming and somewhat old fashioned train.
The Good: The Inca Rail
The train ride was beautiful! The windows are open so you breathe fresh mountain air while sipping your coffee as you roll through beautiful mountains and rivers. The train also plays pan flute versions of popular songs including several Abba tunes and Africa by Toto.
We sat across from a really friendly couple from Brazil. The woman spoke perfect English and told me that she spent a year of high school living with a host family in small town Mississippi. Being Brazilian meant that she was the town celebrity for the year, since most of the locals had never left the South, let alone the country. One of her classmates pointed to a poster of a jungle, featuring huts, monkeys and jaguars and sincerely asked her if that was what her home looked like. She is from a city right outside of Brasilia (the capital of Brazil) so she found this misconception very amusing. She is still very close to her host family and they often fly her to her US home for a visit every now and then. Sorry for another tangent, but I love stories like this because it shows how travel not only expands horizons for the tourist, but also for the locals.
Getting back to our journey....
The Bad: Our Hostel- $35/night is too good to be true
We arrived in Aguas Calientes around 6:15pm and it was already dark. We had a free transfer from the train to our hostel. We quickly realized that there are no cars in Aguas Calientes, so our transfer consisted of the hostel owner finding us at the station and walking us 5 minutes to the hostel. We stayed at a place called Cusi Backpacker because it got rave reviews on Booking.com and it was only $35/night. Since we were arriving at 6:30pm and leaving for Machu Picchu at 5am the next morning we just need a place to crash so we thought we'd save some money on accommodations since everything else online seemed way overpriced and received pretty bad reviews. We had the only private double room with a private bathroom and the reviews said the place was basic, but very clean. We have stayed in our fair share of hostels in our younger days and figured this one would be tame compared to some of our past experiences.
We dropped our stuff off at the room which looked fine at first glance. Then we headed out to town for dinner. Upon returning to the room after dinner we realized we made a big mistake. First, we were hit like a ton of bricks by a putrid odor which we quickly determined was coming from the bathroom, more specifically, the shower drain. This smell had somehow materialized between the time we left for dinner and the time we returned. The hour was late and we could find no one to complain to and thus we closed the bathroom door tightly and opened the bedroom window. We realized at this point that our rented towels (yes, they rented towels) would also go unused, as we wanted to spend as little time as possible in that bathroom, with whatever science experiment was taking place in the shower drain. With the door shut, the stench was dulled just enough to make being in the bedroom not entirely intolerable, although still totally unpleasant.
Thoroughly disgusted, we attempted to sleep on our rented towels on top of the sheets. But the nightmare continued. Apparently Cusi Backpacker abuts the trash heap that serves as the meeting place for all the local hoboes of Aquas Calientes, who while away the wee hours yelling drunkenly at one another while banging loudly on anything they can find. Guess where that trash heap was located? Right outside our window. Fun.
We made it through the night drifting in and out of half-sleep and left at 5am the next morning glad to be rid of the place.
After all my years of travel including a decent period of cheap hosteling, I can now say that this was unequivocally the worst night I've spent in a hotel/hostel/guesthouse of any type. It was kind of a shame, because the owner/manager of the place seemed to be a really nice guy who seems to want to run a good business. We are rooting for him and hope he can make some changes to make this into a decent place. But we lived to tell the tale, so all's well that ends well. Plus, this is the only really bad hotel experience we've had thus far in South America and we've stayed at 8 places so far!
Now that I've thoroughly grossed you out, let's talk about food. We walked from our hostel for about 5 mins to the more touristy section of town and stopped at a restaurant with a wood burning fireplace and live music. The band consisted of 5 Peruvian men with long flowing black hair, 2 of which were playing the ever present pan flute. They were pretty good and definitely added to the ambiance. Chris decided it was time to try the alpaca - which cost as much as our hostel room by the way. I tried it too and it tasted very unique. The only adjective I can think of is earthy, but that is how everything tastes in the Andes. It might be worth trying it once just see what you think, but I'd never order it for an entree.
If we were to do it again...
Everyone recommends staying in Aguas Calientes the night before Machu Picchu so you can go up first thing (first bus leaves at 5:30 am). People start lining up for the first buses before 4am. This is not necessary, as the buses leave continuously and people who showed up a 5:30 ended up getting into Machu Picchu maybe 10 minutes later than those who had waited in line for two hours. If we were to do it again, we'd stay in Ollantaytambo the night before because the town is more charming than Aguas and you can get a nicer hotel at a good price. Then we'd take the first train up to Aguas Calientes and get on the bus right away to arrive at Machu Pichu around 9am which still gives you plenty of time to explore the site, hike the mountain and get back to Cusco for a late dinner.
One of my favorite lines from a movie was in Vanilla Sky where the character Brian says: Just remember, the sweet is never as sweet without the sour. We experienced the sour in Aguas Calientes and it will make every future good experience on journey that much sweeter.
Our train to Machu Picchu left at 4:30pm train from a small town called Ollantaytambo which is about a 2 hour bus ride from Cusco. We decided to take advantage of the day tour the Sacred Valley on the way there.
Friends on the bus
We embarked on our journey to the Sacred Valley in a small bus mostly full of Peruvians save another American, a couple from South Africa, and a few folks from France. We sat right behind the American girl who is originally from Iran but has lived in the US since she was 12. She was young - maybe 20 -and had graduated college early and was about to start medical school this summer. She was in Peru with a medical volunteer program in Cusco for about a month where she worked at a local clinic. She said the most common ailments in the area were water-borne parasites like tapeworm (especially in children) and, sadly, injuries from domestic violence, which is apparently common and largely ignored. She was recently engaged and picked out a ring for her fiance at the sliver shop we visited en route! She told us that Peru was very similar to Iran - both in terms of its landscape and people. She said that while people in Iran are more conservative, they are very friendly and willing to help visitors, like the Peruvians. She also drew similarities between the significant religious presence in each country - Catholicism in Peru and Islam in Iran. It was very interesting to hear the perspective of a young dual citizen of the USA and Iran.
Bus Music: Oxygen Radio
The bus driver tuned into Radio Oxigeno (GREAT name for a radio station in the Andes) which played the most random mix of music of all time. Every time I travel to Latin America, the radio stations manage to find the most obscure tunes from the last 30 years and play them alongside classics, local hits and global pop songs. Puerto Rico is particularly excels in this area. At one point Radio Oxigeno played Take That's Back For Good right after a pan flute song from a Peruvian band Alborada call Relampago Caballo, or Lightning Horse in English. If you watch the music video, fast forward to 1:30 but be careful - Relampago Caballo is a catchy tune. Chris and I find ourselves singing Re-lam-pa-go Ca-ba-llo - la-la-la-la-la-la-la all the time.
Sacred Valley Stops: Pisac & Ollantaytambo
Our first stop was Pisac, one of the most important Inca cities. In Pisac, we saw familiar Inca design - terraced hills, Inca crosses and stone structures. The landscape was stunning!
We learned a little more about their spiritual beliefs and why they built terraced lands. According to our guide, the Incas believed that reincarnation applied to important members of their society. They beleived that these people cycled between the difference worlds (Heavens, Earth, Underworld as outlined in my sun route post). After earth, the next stop would be heaven, then the underworld and then back to earth. When important members of society died, they prepared them for heaven by mummifying the bodies. They would remove all the organs and fill the bodies with scented leaves & herbs. Then they would put the mummies in the fetal position because they believed they would be born again in the next world. Before burying the mummies they would have many ceremonies with the mummies present. Then they would place the mummies in their final resting place - a hole in the side of the cliff facing east. Why bury them in the cliffs? Because they must go back into the earth where they came from. Why facing east? Because that is the direction where the sun rises, bringing forth a new day. They would bury clothes, food, and other items with the mummies to prepare them for the next world (sounds very familiar, doesn't it?).
Our guide also gave us some more insight into the terraced system the Incas used to farm. Not only did terraces give them more area to farm on these large mountains, but they also allowed them to cultivate a large variety of crops. First of all, the climate at the top of the mountain was much cooler and drier than at the bottom which was warmer and more humid. They also changed the soil on each level to control drainage, so the top levels were drier making it good land for grains like quinoa, while the bottom levels were more moist allowing them to grow things like coca, and the middle was larger and perfect for their 2 most important crops - potatoes and maize.
In Pisac, the nobles, priests and scholars lived at the highest points of the village - mainly for protection and to be closer to the heavens (in the case of the priest). They had quite the view!
After Pisac, we stopped for lunch (which included a ridiculously good dessert selection). Then we went to Ollantaytambo to see the ruins before catching our train. Ollaytatambo is a really amazing little town. Most of the buildings in use in town are original Incan structures. The only things on the exterior that have changed are the tops of the walls and the roofs. It's supposedly the village that most closely represents what a tradtional Incan town would have looked like.
In order to catch our train to Aguas Calientes, we had to cut our tour short. However the train ride was fantastic! I'll write more about that and Machu Picchu in the next post.
Cusco is easily my favorite city in Peru. Its winding cobble stone streets, terra cotta roofs and surrounding mountains make this city incredibly charming. We stayed in a really cute hotel called Rumi Wasi right off the Plaza de Armas. The building is from the late 16th century and is comprised of 4 levels overlooking a courtyard. Our room had a rooftop terrace with a spectacular view of the city! This is where we ate breakfast.
The other great thing about this hotel is that they bring you alpaca covered hot water bottles for your bed because it gets chilly at night.
The night we arrived we went to a great restauarant called Cicciolina. It was located a few blocks off the Plaza de Armas on the second floor of an old colonial building. We sat at the bar and had a few tapas including shrimp encrusted in quinoa and a yummy cheese platter. The ambiance was great and the food very good!
In the morning we had to arrange our travel to Machu Picchu which is slightly complicated. First, you must buy your ticket to Machu Picchu from an official cultural center which was about a 15 min walk from our hotel. It was a little difficult to find, but after asking about 5 people where it was we finally found it! On our way back, we often volunteered directions to other tourists likely looking fo the place (there would be no other reason for tourists to be in this neighborhood). After we finally got our tickets, we were able to book our train ticket to Aguas Calientes.
Happy to be done with travel arrangements, we spent the rest of the day walking around the city. First we hiked up to the Saqsayhuaman ruins and over to see the Cristo Blanco that overlooks the city. It was a clear day and the view was stunning!
While we were at the Cristo Blanco a bride and groom arrived to take pictures. The light was gorgeous and the couple was elated. There was a local musician playing for tourists at the Cristo. He played a song for the couple and they danced over Cusco. It was a very special moment and I'm so happy I caught it on video. Check it out:
After congratulating the couple we hiked back down the hill toward the city. We then went to San Blas to see the different markets, church and plaza. They were having a typical festival when we arrived so we sat in the plaza with a couple delicious baked goods and watched the local women dance while the band played (there was a lot of pan flute!!).
Afterwards we walked throughout the city stopping at many old churches, ruins and shops. We went back to our hotel to watch the sunset from our terrace. It was such a nice and relaxing day that was much needed, especially because our long journey to Machu Picchu began the very next day.
Here are few more pictures from Cusco:
Eva has been traveling for 15+ years, including an 8 month journey around the world.