Saturday, April 23, 2016

Jamisons Do Peru: part 3

It was time to ditch the touristy Sacred Valley, and move on to the more remote parts of Peru. Plus, the family had to get a little taste of what overlanding was all about. We picked up the rental car, and in true Peruvian form, it was a humongous hassle. Most simple things tend to be like that in the third world... But once all the commotion was done, we hit the road!! The day would be spent driving for eight hours down to Colca Canyon. The views out the windows would be the entertainment, as it was a day full of stunning endless mountains, remote Peruvian life, and Andean wildlife.

As lunch time drew close, we found a perfect little pull off, somewhere around 15,000ft, overlooking a beautiful lake! Time for the tailgate to come down and an overlanders' lunch made from whatever we happened to have in the back of the car. Jordan and Felicia decided to test out their young healthy lungs with a little high altitude sprint... the rest of us passed on it, seeing as how we were huffing and puffing just walking around while trying to find a place to pee! The race was close, and no one passed out thankfully, but the oxygen levels were probably at an all time low!! Would have loved to have a pulse oximeter to see what they were sat-ing after that!! Oh to be in your 20's again!!

Back on the road, everyday occurances for Chris and I surprised the family... no biggie as we dodge stray llamas and wait for a herd of cows to cross in front of us, swerve around a half way collapsed road, and abruptly find ourselves cruising on a bumpy dirt "highway" wondering when we would have our nice smooth pavement back. The answer is never, we will never get the pavement back. Ooopps, maybe we should have gotten a 4wd rental car! Welcome to our lives guys!

The dirt road seemed to go on forever, and once the most fabulously bright and stunning mountain sunset was over, we were all really ready to be out of the cars!! We pulled into Yanque, making turn after turn down skinny dirt roads, which at the time in the dark seemed as if we were literally in the middle of nowhere. We checked into our rooms at a tiny bed & breakfast called Miski Wasi and headed to the little town square for a peculiar bite to eat in the smallest restaurant, strolling back through the empty dirt roads wondering where the heck we were! Yanque is not necessarily the tourist destination Cusco was, it is actually just a tiny town a little west of the small Colca Canyon town of Chivay. Not knowing what to expect when we woke in the morning, we looked out to see a smoking volcano off to one side and roofless houses turned into ruins all around. There wasn't a gringo in sight, no English spoken, and definitely no one trying to sell you stuff in the streets! As we sat around sipping our coffee and watching the random llamas and donkeys stroll by we realized we were in a whole different world now, and it was good! Hello to the off the beaten path Peru!

Smokey volcano
You know something has been around a while when it has this as its security fence!

The next few days at Miski Wasi would end up being a highlight of the vacation. We were happy to sleep in and enjoy long breakfasts as we felt super pampered by the staff. We were the only guests at the simple six room B&B, and we were ok with that. The people running the quaint place were some of the sweetest people ever, even letting Chris and I sleep in our car in a gated area while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of the B&B.

We made a quick trip to the Chivay market for some fresh foods, and little did we know how fresh it was going to be until we were standing at the cheese stall and a pile of alpacas formed next to us. Don't mind us, we are just a few gringos who are not used to fresh carcasses being dumped on the ground. The only logical thing to do was pose with them for some pictures of course! Oh you gotta just love Peru! Loaded up on some olives, cheese, bread, and avocados, we enjoyed a few minutes of incredible people watching in the main square before heading "home" to meet up with our afternoon tour guide.

Mom enjoying some sun in the courtyard.
Cathedrals in the middle of nowhere
The little girl is wondering why we are staring at her eating jello next to the alpacas.

The owners of Miski Wasi had set us up with their wonderful daughter to give us a tour of the local sights. Unlike most American teens these days, this little girl was bilingual, responsible, and extremely well versed in her local culture and history! Amazing. She, and her dog "negro", led us on a hike around the terraced countryside of Yanque, answering a million questions about every little thing. We saw farmers in action, unique landscapes and plants, and even ancient Incan tombs set into the canyon walls and crumpled pre-Incan ruins that are off most tourists radar. The best part... natural hot springs, being fed by volcanic spring water into little rock pools. After the high altitude hiking, it was bliss to desend into the valley, step into hotsprings situated right on the riverbank, and soak our bones in the rejuventating waters! We had the place all to ourselves, and took our time absorbing all the rare trace minerals and healing properties we could. We stayed as it rained a quick afternoon shower on us, beers in hand, enjoying the process of moving back and forth between the hot, hotter, and hottest pools. Feeling zen, we fueled up on a quick picnic lunch of avocado cheese sandwiches and sweet pepinitos (a local fruit that tastes like a cucumber and melon), before making our way up out of the canyon and back to Miski Wasi.

Chris and Negro exploring Uyo Uyo ruins
Incan tombs
Without any expectations, and just kind of wanting to stay in for the night we arranged to have dinner in the hotel restaurant... Placing our orders a few hours in advance so that they could go get and prep everything (seeing as how this wasn't exactly the type of place that people randomly come into for dinner.) Well, this was not any average dinner in a tiny hotel in the middle of deserted no where Peru... this was a three course candlelit, mind your manners cause this place just turned all fancy on us, kind of dinner! Still being the only guests, we felt pampered in what seemed like our own personal restaurant. We drank, enjoyed the Peruvian panflute soundtrack in the background and watched a handful of people shuffle in and out of the bustling kitchen with ingredients, the air filling up with the delicious smells of our dinner... all for us! The food came out, and not only was it decoratively plated, it was delicious! Turns out those fresh alpacas from earlier in the market make a pretty tasty dinner when mixed with veggies and a red wine sauce!
Early the next morning we hit the dirt roads headed for Colca Canyon. We had a mission, cause in addition to looking into the second deepest canyon in the world, we wanted to see the elusive giant Andean condors! Condors being a national symbol in Peru, they play an important role in past and present day folklore and mythology. We had been seeing the condor paraphernalia all over Peru and even the huge "Temple of the Condor" at Machu Picchu... It was time to see the real deal! Joined by a whole hoard of tourists on day buses from Arequipa, we got situated at the Cruz del Condor. This place is famous for condor watching and attracts tons of people everyday between 7am-9am, hoping to get a glimpse of the largest flying bird in the world. As the temperature rises in the morning, the condors use the heat thermals to aid them in rising out of the canyon. In this particular spot they are known for putting on a show for the spectators below because they will circle around the viewing area, swooping low over the crowd, seemingly egged on by the ohhing and ahhing. The thing is, you can't control nature, so as we were waiting around and enjoying the views, the later it got the more we thought that today would be a no show! The tour groups started heading out, but we stayed... Not ready to give up quite yet, because even though none of us necessarily ever knew anything about condors before, we were all the sudden very very set on seeing them!! In the mean time, we let the crowds clear out, keep hoping for a show, and enjoy the stunning canyon views in front of us!
As the crowds cleared a little we decided to move to the higher overlook. As we made our way up the steps, a huge condor that had been perched on a rock all morning finally decided to make his move, and as he warmed up his wings he swooped around over our heads, casting a gigantic shadow beneath his 9-11 foot wingspan! As he flew off into the distance the show went on with more condors swooping around, giving us a chance to appreciate their colors and features a little better! The last two rose up out of the canyon together and flew circles around each other in opposite directions like a dance for the finale. Super cool! The Cruz del Condor cleared out, leaving only those of us with our own cars (just us!) to hang out a while and buy up the remaining 50 cent avocado sandwiches for sale by some smart local entrepreneurs!
10+ foot wingspan on this guy!!

With the condors long gone, we headed out to see one of the remote towns on the ridge of the canyon, and take a walk to get some more crazy views! As we stood on the cliff edge, looking down into the canyon, we tried to grasp the fact that this is more than twice as deep as The Grand Canyon in the U.S. The distance that we could see, not only down but also out across the mountain tops was mind boggling!!! Nature is freaking amazing! The pictures don't do it justice, not even a little bit!!

Hang on for dear life!
On the way back to Yanque we stopped at an overlook for a little picnic with intensely terraced landscapes so unique to this area that Chris and I had never seen something like this before or after this on the whole trip! A scenic canyon surrounded by terraces, still in use but made before the Incans! Wow!
They think they look like they are holding up the tunnel...

Later that night we found a little pizza joint in Chivay and indulged in some beer and pizza, wishing that time would slow down and the family vacation wasn't coming to an end soon!! We said goodbye to Miski Wasi, the amazing people there, and the reisdent neighborhood alpacas. It was sad to leave another great place, but with only two days left for the family in Peru we needed to move on!
The tiniest spoons in the world
The dead hamster on the wall was a mystery



Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Machu Picchu & Cusco

It was finally time for Machu Picchu, the big ticket item of the family vacation... and when I say big ticket I don't just mean because it is sought after, well known, mysterious, and classified as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. I also mean a literal big ticket item, entrance going for $55 plus a round trip train ticket for $110 and bus tickets for $24, plus a night in a hotel in Aguas Calientes. Lets be real, Peru has really figured out how to milk this Machu Picchu thing!! Nevertheless, we were stoked on it!

We headed off with just our overnight packs towards Aguas Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu, only accessible via train or foot. We caught the Vistadome train out of the ruin filled town of Ollantaytambo and enjoyed the huge skylight windows, allowing us to soak in every bit of the scenic hour and a half long ride. In a way Aguas Calientes is a bit charming... there is a loud flowing stream heading straight through the middle of town, there are no cars, and the main street is situated on either side of the train tracks. On the other hand, it is chuck full of tourist, and an overwhelming amout of crappy restaurants with someone out front trying to lure you in. Lets just say that we fell for the lure, and ended up in a weird little restaurant on the main square, eating less than mediocre food for mediocre prices. Although the meal sucked, the family got a chance to experience what Chris and I do when tired and trying to find some grub in a new town in a foriegn country, without the use of wifi or tripadvisor to guide us... sometimes it turns out excellent, and sometimes it doesn't! And in the end you just pray you dont get sick from one of those crappy meals, especially when the bathrooms were on the sub par side of things and the next day is Machu Picchu day!!!

All aboard!
The views from the train

The main drag in Aguas Calientes
The crazy plan was to meet in the hotel lobby at 4:15am, dark and early, scarf down a quick breakfast before racing out to get in line for the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. We desperately wanted to beat the crowds and get on the first bus up the mountain... and to our surprise so did about 200 others! So, as we waited in a long line in the dark, we got more and more excited for the day ahead... hell, if this many people were here, it must be good!
Just as the sun began to light up the misty sky, we were on our way up the steep twenty minute ride of endless switchbacks, bringing us to the narrow ridge that the massive ruins are perched on. The entrance had only a few bus loads of people ahead of us, so we went straight for the iconic lookout point over Machu Picchu to see it au natural. And wouldn't you know, our early morning push came through for us, as the mystical fog lifted off the ruins, we looked out over Machu Picchu, not a single person had yet made it down into the ruins! Each day, up to 2,500 folks come and marvel over these ruins, but only a small lucky handful of those people see it like this! The early morning was worth it, because by 8am the crowds filled the picture with streams of people, flowing like blood through the arteries of the ancient city!
First glimpse
The sun is showing up, as are the crowds
As the crowds rolled in, we made arrangements for a guide to take us through the ruins. Elmer, a long time M.P. guide, led us around explaining who lived where, what the purpose of this and that were. Had we not had Elmer, we would have oohed and aahed, but had no idea what the actual purpose or meaning was. For example, some of the stone walls are perfect rectangular shapes and fit in next to each other so impressively tight that a credit card couldn't slide between them. This style was only in the living quarters or ceremonial buildings of society's top tier. Along with their aesthetically pleasing walls, this upper echelon of society had "bathrooms" and miniature canals flowing through or near their residence giving them first dibs at water access before it made its way downhill to the common folk. When the king made his visits from Cusco he had a comparatively massive living space even stocked with a harem of ladies, according to Elmer at least! The common people's areas still displayed impressive stone work, just in a more rugged way. Other stones were carved to match a mointain peak behind it and even an alter abstarctly formed into a huge condor. Construction of Machu Picchu finished somewhere in the 1470's, and after all the hard work, only retained a civilization for roughly one hundred years. It's believed that the population fled as the Spanish conquistadores began conquering the Andes. Seems like a whole lot of work for just a hundred years, jeeze!!
Looks like the cover of my Lonely Planet!

After the two hour tour, Elmer was off, and we quickly ducked for cover from the hot sun in one of the few covered areas of the park. Combine the early wake up call with the high altitude, strong sun, and hoards of people... We were getting pooped! We pulled out our lunch and refueled because seeing as how this is a visit none of us were likely to make again, we had to keep exploring... but not til after we exited the park to use the one and only bathroom available in all of Machu Picchu and seek out some hard to find, rip off water! What the heck?!?

The other side of MP
When we bought the tickets for MP, the iconic HuanyaPichu hike was already sold out. HuanyaPichu is the peak in the back of ruins, and they stricly only allow a small number of people up the steep skinny trail per day. We were, however, able to score tickets for Machu Picchu Mountain, the peak on the other side of the ruins which is much higher than HuanyaPichu anyway! Jordan, Felicia, Chris, and I headed off to conquer the mountain, just now looking up for the first time and realizing how high it really was!! The next hour and a half would be comprised of nothing but a rapid vertical climb on gigantic ancient Incan steps, the trail constantly getting steeper and more narrow as we skirted along a frighteningly vertical drop off.
Starting the steep climb
Always smiling! :)
Halfway there!

The heat and the altitude were intense, and they were closing the trail soon, so we kinda had to book it! Lucky for us there was always an excuse to stop for a quick breather because Machu Picchu was beginning to look smaller and smaller under us. We made it to the top just in time... the trail was closing and we were literally the last ones they allowed to keep going up! Whew, just in the nick of time to see a view of a lifetime over this beauty!! The summit, where Incan priests once performed rituals, towers at 10,000 feet above sea level, giving us unparalleled views of the famous Inca sanctuary (now 2,000 feet below us) and stunning panoramas of the surrounding endless mountains. It really puts into perspective how freaking far out and high up this place is... And all the sudden it seems very reasonable that the Spanish never found this gem!

Getting higher!

Looking tiny from 2,000ft above!
Fullfilled with the sights and ecstatic that the weather was so perfect, it was time to go... With only one last thing to conquer... The endless line for the bus back to Aguas Calientes!!! It has all the sudden begun to feel like we've just been at Busch Gardens all day! As if we hadn't had enough stairs for the day, Chris and I decided to take the 45 minutes of steep stairs down to get a big order for pizza in before the rest of the fam made it through the line and down on the bus. I'm not sure which was worst, standing in line for 45 minutes, or 45 minutes of more knee crunching stone steps, accompanied by thousands of tiny mosquitos! I suppose the wood fired pizza was worth it when we all chowed down just in time to battle it out with a couple hundred tourist again, this time to make it onto the train platform, where we would need to take matters into our own hands by opening up a side door for the crowds to pour through like a pack of rats behind us! It's going to feel so good to get back to home sweet home at Kuychi Rumi!!
The line for the bus
I had penciled a few flexi days into the vacation itinerary, and the family was ready to cash one in for an extra day in our comfy little house at Kuychi Rumi. And this day was just for hanging out, playing with our three favorite Peruvian doggies, napping, and cooking up heaps of delicious food. There was a seriously awesome grill area and bonfire pit on the property and we couldn't leave without getting some use out of it! So, we loaded up on booze and ate a big ol' BBQ with Johan and Julio. Dinner was followed by a late night around the bonfire with an awesome Peruvian family that was also staying at Kuychi Rumi. It was a night full of boisterous laughing, loud music, new friends, and probably a whole lot of misunderstood stories as we all attemped our best Spanglish throughout the night! We all learned something important that night... the more alcohol ingested, the less a language barrier matters... all you really need to know is "salud"!
We would miss our house, the vast beautiful gardens surrounding it, the delicious fresh breakfasts, the dogs, Johan's company and good stories, the warm eucalyptus fires and late night chats with Julio, and the overall comfort... But it was time to move on and see what else Peru had in store for us. Thanks Kuychi Rumi for such a wonderful stay!!!
As we made our way to Cusco, we quickly stopped at the very huge handicraft market of Pisac. This place was an endless maze of stalls, and I taught the family the Latin American market tradition of bartering as we meandered around. It is so unnatural for an American to barter this way when shopping, so it took some getting used to, but we left there with some stellar deals on nice Peruvian artisan stuff including a fluffy, soft alpaca fur blanket.
Yes, you can hold baby alpacas and llamas here!
Shop til ya drop girl!
Lovely laughing old woman
My moms has never looked this tall in her entire life
Chris and I had spent a couple days in Cusco already, and were ready to show the fam the city! We are not really fans of big cities, but this one is a rare exception! In lieu of some expensive options downtown, we had booked a few rooms in an old Spanish Conquistadore's home turned hacienda. At a tenth of the price, it was a 20 minute steep walk from city, but totally a unique little place off the beaten tourist path. The hacienda had a big open air tiled courtyard, a few cozy yet slightly musty lounge areas, and quite possibly the worst breakfast option of the trip... but, it had life and character and history, plus it was run by a super friendly young local guy who went out of his way to make us comfortable. What more could ya ask for for $20 a night?!? The first night we made the walk down the hill to get a quick glimpe of the city and grab some grub. We opted for a recommended "peruvian hamburger" place, doubting there would be anything Peruvian about it until we tried the alpaca meat burger... totally no longer an american food!
This is how you have to open the door
Cusco by night

Alpaca burger
We wandered the immaculate cobblestone streets of Cusco, gawking at the huge cathedrals and flower filled squares. We learned about cacao plants and sampled local chocolates at the Choco Museum. Found a delicious gourmet Peruvian lunch in a little bistro called Moreno, the number one ranked restaurant in Cusco. Immersed ourselves in everything coca related while chewing wads of the bitter leaf as we were walking around the Coca Museum. Shopped til we found my mom the most perfect alpaca poncho, 100% baby alpaca to be specific! In the afternoon when the one and only rain shower of the vacation passed over, we just ducked into a store on the main square to get out of the rain and ended up in the back of the store with cheap massages. The massages were soso, the most memorable thing from the massages was the background music of classic American songs covered by Peruvian Panflute bands! "Would you rather be a tortoise or a snail" by Simon & Garfunkel will always be "would you rather be a llama or a snail" to us now!!
Cusco by day
Main square
Seriously delish!!
Cathedral in main square
Inside one of the cathedrals
Roaming the cathedral
Chipmunk cheeks stuffed with coca leaves in the museum!
Cusco was wonderful, it embodied the most glamourous part of Peru, and it was a city anyone could fall in love with. But for us, one day was enough... It was time to hit the pavement, show the family a little bit of our overlanding life on the road
Saksaywaman ruins from a distance
Overlooking Cusco on our way out of town
Bye Cusco!