Monday, September 05, 2011

Peru- the second edition: Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca

Part 1of our story is here. The Ollantataytambo train station and the train surprised us. Clearly, Machu Picchu is the crown jewel of this country and everything related to it is of supreme quality. The Hiram Bingham express that runs this route, alongside River Urubamba is often touted to be one of the most luxurious and beautiful rides in the world. Of course, being on a budget, we opted to take the beauty and leave the luxury out, and took the cheaper version meant for backpackers called Expedition. And here's just how 'unfancy' that was- transparent roofs, neatly packed food kits and gorge-ous view.
The ride was a mere four hours and most of it was spent looking at the furious Urubamba gushing by the sides of the train. The anticipation of finally getting close to Machu Picchu is at such a peak that everything else preceding it seems like a mere ritual. The food was pretty good, I remember a small salad, a mini chicken quiche and some dessert.
We got off at Aguas Calientes, spanish for hot springs. This is the base town to get to MP and you can either hike up or take a bus to there. Mild panicking happened since there was no one from the hotel to pick us up. But of course, we only had to cross a small bridge to our hotel. Hotels here are not very fancy, and even though this one was not bad, I strongly suspect we were the only guests. It was tough to not see the whole town the same night but we tried. After buying our tickets for the next day, we handpicked a restaurant for dinner. The walls of this cozy place were lined with visiting cards of it's guests over the years. Every inch of wall space. As much as I thought it was a very cool idea, I'm guessing they haven't cleaned their walls or repainted in years. Ugh.
The next day we woke up at bright and early around 5 am, munched on some breakfast and saved some bananas for later. We were a little mad that daylight broke while we were waiting for the bus to get full. The ride up to the top is killer. As a perfectly matched, mountain-sick husband and wife couple, we avoided eye contact and mention of being pukey till we got there perfectly fine. You get into the ruins and realize, there's no point of coming so early, because the fog curtains are yet to reveal the hidden secrets. I'm lying, the fog covered ruins is one of the most mystical sights I have ever seen and the photos do no justice.
Although stunningly beautiful, Machu Picchu today is not how Hiram Bingham found it 150 years back. A lot of what we see was rebuilt. Some structures are authentic but it's difficult to pick them out. The ruins themselves are divided into different sections, the agricultural area, the temples and the residential areas. I will spare you the details lest the guides have nothing new to tell you when you get there. Llamas roam around lazily but according to our guide (get one), they are not usually found in these areas and are placed here merely for tourist delight. Of course, we asked him about Rajinikanth's Endhiran shoot which he clearly remembered. Except he thought it was Shah Rukh Khan (!). He pointed out the spots they shot in and we gave him instructions on how to find the video on youtube. After we did a round of the main sections, our guide told us where to go to get the standard postcard picture of the ruins. He then told us we could climb WaynaPicchu or Huayna Picchu, a steep peak that frames the ruins in the back, in 30 minutes. RIGHT. We huffed and puffed and climbed the steep hill in about twice of that time and later found out that we did pretty well for ourselves. The climb is really steep and scary at times. You have a steel rope to cling on to and gazillion feet of nothingness below. At the top were a group of people patiently waiting to take pictures the second the fog clears. It was 40 min before the fog cleared enough for us to get a decent snap and we gave up on asking people to take one of us in that precious window of a few seconds.
The hike down was only slightly scarier but we made it and after sauntering around and munching on our energy bars and bananas (trash saved in backpacks), took the climb up to the picture spot. I would say this is THE most beautiful view of the ruins but then again, is it because most pictures I've seen are from here? After taking enough pictures we sat down at the edge for an hour, taking in the views and stamping it down in our memory, thankful for our journeys to get there.
We took the bus back to Aguas Calientes around noon. I got a lovely 10$ massage from a petite smiling lady who made my back crack a few times. Lunch was Aji de Gallina (crumbled hen in a yellow sauce with peppers) at a fairly empty but nice place next door. We took the train back to Cuzco at around 4pm. Due to the rains, we had to complete half our journey by bus but everything was arranged by PeruRail and for a change, our hotel contact was there to pick us up. After some semi -Indian dinner that I was too woozy to eat, heads hit pillows for the night. Our hostel, Los ninos is a charming old place that was built to sustain projects related to children. Though it was slightly more expensive that other places i researched I thought this would be a great way to give back. The building has a courtyard in the centre and 2 floors of rooms all around. The place is sparsely but beautifully decorated with neat and cute bathrooms (don't ask me how bathrooms can be cute, they can). I wish we had more time to spend there but the next morning, we had a taxi ready to take us to our bus. Our next destination was Puno and Lake Titicaca. There are more expensive luxurious ways of getting there from Cusco but we picked a bus ride. 8 hours, only made possible by mountain sickness tablets in our pockets. Now, the ride itself includes 4 stops and guided tours around attractions on the way. Also included is a buffet lunch, snacks and drinks. Since we were ascending to an altitude of 4000m, the bus was stocked with oxygen cylinders in case we felt altitude sickness. As nervous I was, the trip was pretty good. The motion sickness tablets knocked me out for the first few hours of the ride and I was up for each of the stops. We stopped at an old cathedral, some more ruins near a market, a museum and La Raya, the highest point. At La Raya I even got to pose with a cute little girl in full Peruvian gear, dragging along a tiny llama. She is probably the tiniest most entrepreneurial kid I've seen. She would wander into the picture frames of the tourists and collect money for it.
Lunch beat all our expectations. The food was good and the company, great. At our table was a restaurant owner from Brazil and other varied travelers. We reached Puno around 5 that evening and our hostel guy was there to pick us up. Puno is filled with unfinished houses because a finished house attracts a tax. So every house leaves something unfinished to claim the exemption.
Our hostel was the top floor of a house split into 5 rooms with attached bathrooms. Two friendly brothers ran the place and arranged our trip to Lake Titicaca the next day. We got their recommendation on where to eat and set out to explore. The fried chicken that was recommended was good, but very salty. For being small, Puno is pretty crowded but for the most part it didn't seem that touristy. Next morning, we headed to our boat. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world and is jointly owned by Bolivia and Peru. This lake had a lot of floating islands, made of reeds, that natives lived on. These are the biggest attractions in this area. While they could have moved on to shore since there is no more danger of spanish conquest, they prefer to live on water. Their income comes from tourism, which is somewhat awkward for a tourist. On one hand, you feel bad that they are tolerating you for their livelihood but then on the other, maybe it is better than being exploited and not getting anything out of it. Some packages to the islands even involve staying with the residents for a couple of nights.
Our guide was Vladimir and he let us know that each island is home to one family. The islands have schools and hospitals and groups of islands takes turns allowing tourists for the day. I guess that way they can actually get some peaceful time without cameras. As our boat drew closer to these magical islands, we saw ladies in colorful garb inviting us to visit them. It was all such a new experience.
The islands are very spongy, it feels somewhat like walking on a raft over water, slightly steadier. Vladimir had warned us about stepping on the reeds at the edges since they could give away. A group of residents proceeded to show us how they built the islands, their homes and their boats, all with the reeds. They could even eat the insides of them. they had props and miniature models of the items, clearly this was a very well rehearsed deal. After that, we walked around the island, it had four small homes, a cooking area and a nursery for small kids (!). The homes were tiny, with reed beds and little TVs. We got to see a lot of guinea pigs but lest you go awww, these are delicacies and was probably going to be dinner for them. One of the ladies offered to put some Peruvian clothes on me and I was shutter-delighted. In return for their kindness I bought some jewelry and handicraft from their mini shop. Vladimir had told us that we could also give back by taking the reed boats for a ride for 10 Soles and we all opted for it. These reed boats are simply stunning. The fronts are designed to look like dragons and it felt like being in a movie set. The ladies sang us songs as they bid us goodbye, including, from what I was told, a very popular Peruvian movie song.
From there we went on the reed boat to another floating island where we received a similar welcome and were led directly to the arts stalls. The lake itself is stunning and the experience of the floating islands is one for the travel books. After a great lunch with some excellent fish, we said goodbye to Puno. Next stop was Lima. More food, more adventures and ceviche. Enough for a Part III.
(Even though I'm past the deadline I would like to bring your attention to the Responsible Travel movement here at Un(T)ravel)

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Journey to Peru - First edition

I guess blogs are so last decade But then so are DSLRs and posting food recipes and I'm not yet beyond them.

In Feb this year, as we battled the crazy winter, we decided to pursue our dream of going to South America. Within a couple of weeks, tickets were booked, the planning excel sheet made and captions thought of for the Machu Picchu Wall photos on Facebook.

We flew into Lima, the capital city of Peru. Contrary to popular belief, we were not welcomed by a garland of Lima beans. In fact, we were welcomed by an absent hostel pick-up and we had to reach him by walking up to another hostel representative and asking in my excellent Spanish if he knew Diego. Luckily he did. But I wouldn't try that again.

Lima reminded me of an Indian metropolis. Bustling with activity even at midnight while smiling hopeful election candidates grinned at you from every angle. There were a few casinos with gaudy lights. Most homes resembled an Osama hideout (or a US consulate depending on where you live) with high walls, tall metal grills and the unmistakable web of an electric fence. Every single house. We spent the night in a small but clean hostel with an attached bathroom.

Our flight to Cuzco next morning was short but delightful. Considering we usually get little more than water on our domestic jaunts here, a short flight with a packed snack box was enough to make me giddy with excitement. Of course, having been warned that Cuzco was synonymous with altitude sickness, the husband thought he was truly giddy when we disembarked. Had to break it to him that it was all in his pretty head because nothing sets in for at least 12 hours.

Our master plan was to get out of Cuzco before that happened. So we got our driver to do a quick tour of the city. Cuzco is an ancient city that flourished under the Incan ruler Pachacutec. We stopped for the beautiful Qorikancha which is an Inca temple that was rebuilt on by the Spanish.They conquered the Incan empire and made Cuzco their capital in the 16th century. That is why it is almost commonplace to see Incan ruins transposed with Spanish Baroque architecture. Makes you hate the Spanish a wee bit. The main square or the Plaza de Armas (it's called the same in most Latin American cities) is also beautiful and I wished we had a little more time to spend time and money at the little shops there. Really.

It was a Saturday and the day of the Cuzco Market. You should know that anything that ends with 'market' is a must-do on my list. This one reminded me of the farmers markets in India. We were treated to indoor stalls of nuts, meat, breads, wounded vegetables, handicrafts and other interesting things. The market place ended in a bunch of food stalls. Even though we didn't want to possibly sabotage the rest of our trip by eating there, we were very tempted. After all, this part of the market was featured in Anthony Bourdain's Peru edition 'No Reservations' which we religiously saw and took notes on before we left. Yeah, we are very sophisticated foodies that way.

Next stop was Barrio de San Blas. It is a neighbourhood of extremely small roads (even by Indian standards) that culminate in a small plaza. That day there was a little market there (happy dance) and native women weaving. I'm not naive enough to think this was all genuine and so not for tourist consumption. Still, it was a pretty sight. They also had a small stage with four dummies sitting on a stage as if waiting for a modest felicitation function to start. My extensive Spanish did not allow me to inquire about this strange sight.

By now our driver was a bit restless and we agreed to be taken away to Ollantaytambo, our next stop. This ride, I must say, was one of the most scenic ones in my entire life. Maybe because it was so unexpected. Rolling virgin green meadows, shiny lakes and the absence of humans. Of course that didn't stop us from dozing off (all future episodes of unintentional sleep will be attributed to jet lag or too much food).
We were woken up by our polite driver at a restaurant mid-way. Even though we expected as much quality as other guide-endorsed eateries, this place blew our minds. The bread was the best on the trip and the other two dishes were pretty good too. Though I must say my husband's tres leche would trump theirs any day (I was secretly disappointed that not one tres leche we had on the trip was better than his).

Ollanta is at a lower altitude and the center of the Sacred valley - so named because of the high fertility levels. You would take about 10 min to walk from one end of the town to other. It was probably the same size when the Incans used it as their capital centuries earlier. People come here to look at Ollanta's own ruins and to start the Inca trail. We, of course, were far too lazy to do the trail. I mean, why do the trail when you have a perfectly fine and scenic train route?

Our hostel here was fantastic.
They upgraded us to a room with three beds (I like options). This is also where we saw and fell in love with a world map shower curtain. You can now find the same one in our bathroom (no, we didn't steal it).

Food was excellent everywhere we went. The trout is the area is delicious and easy to spot on most menus. I am always such a happy camper in countries with good gastronomic value.

Our guide Percy was on the clock to pick us up the next morning. Now, we are usually the kind of people who stay a safe distance from paid guides but Percy was one of the most useful people on our trip. The narrations make the ruins so much more enigmatic than they seem and you can appear more knowledgeable on your return.

We started our day at the Ollantaytambo ruins where the terraced fortress is almost as pretty as Machu Picchu. Besides being a good starter hike, there were several fountains and chambers which, according to Percy could have been anything from the Princess chambers and bathrooms to temples. So much for the guide. Also popular is the cliff that is said to resemble an Inca chief's face. It does. I'm sure if you look hard enough it will also resemble Tiger Woods.

From there we drove to the Pisac Sunday Market. I actually engineered our trip so that we land here on a Sunday. The market was pretty good, lot of pretty jewelry, stoles, handicrafts and masks. The Mr was mildly cold and treated himself to a sweater of baby sheep wool (or Maybe sheep wool, like Percy says). I bought some earrings and a mask after indulging myself in some Spanish bargaining (Muy caro!). The main square in Pisac has a carnival going on. Native women dancing with their heavy skirts was a highlight. We stopped for lunch at Percy's favorite lunch place. Delicious quinoa soup and trout were had along with mazamorra morada (purple corn jelly). YummO!

We then took the road to see the terraces at Pisac. While the ride here almost made us wish we had eaten our Dramamines, we survived and the view was more than worth it. It was almost like being in front of a panoramic Chinese painting. Percy showed us the little holes in the mountains where mummies were thought to be buried with treasures. Of course, the Spanish plundered them only to be deeply disappointed at finding nothing more than good bones for their chihuahuas (or whatever fashionable canines they had back then).

We rushed back to Ollanta to catch our train to Aguas Calientes. As we passed by little boys throwing water on cars and pedestrians, we were a little disappointed at not being able to walk into the specially marked homes for some chicha. This was probably a good thing. As we learnt, some chicha is fermented by human saliva. Yeah, you read right.


On that lovely note, we shall end this edition. Coming up next- Machu Picchu, Puno and more Lima

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A chico and chica in Costa Rica

We wrapped our 2009 with a vacation to this beautiful tropical paradise and got drunk on adventure, good food and pretty sights. There could've been no better end to a roller-coaster year.

I was attracted to Costa Rica since the moment I saw that my Yoga haunt was having a teacher training there. Well, I didn't end up trained but it seemed like a perfect spot for a winter getaway - reasonably priced, tons of activities and close enough to not lose half our week in travel.

Two weeks before we left I hit the library and cleaned out the Central America travel shelves. Clearly, I ended up with too much information to process but Lonely Planet's budget travel books were handy. Since the country has a ton of beautiful destinations, I used the internet and the books to narrow it down to a handful. We were going just 2 weeks before Christmas so I didn't want to be stranded without a bed and a roof over my head. I charted out a rough itinerary and booked a few hostels and inns. From our previous experiences, hostels have mostly turned out great. We stick to private rooms with attached bathrooms so we usually get hotel amenities and a great atmosphere for much less. The last bit of preparation was to brush up on my basic spanish. There is an online educational soap-opera called Destinos which was fun and quite useful.

The airport we flew into is about 18 km north east of the capital city - San Jose. While most people use SJ as a hub to move around, it did not have any big attractions so we decided to skip it and get right on with the rest of our trip. Our first stop was to be Arenal, home to an active volcano and numerous hot-springs. Due to a flight cancellation, we missed the last bus to Arenal and were left with no choice but to take a taxi. Taxis are quite expensive for long trips, but one such ride across a trip could be slipped in. And guess what, I bargained at the taxi office, in my broken Spanish, and shaved off 30 USD from my bill.

We reached Arenal late that evening and headed straight to a hot springs called Eco Termales. For about 30$ a person, we could lounge in 5 different hot water pools of varying temperatures. The place was clean, barely crowded and extremely relaxing. My only gripe was that the showers in the changing rooms had no hot water. Yeah, irony.

We took a taxi to El Castillo from there and checked into our volcano view cabin - Cabinas El Castillo. This place is supposed to have the best views of the lava flows at night. Sadly, very sadly, the volcano fell dormant 2 weeks before we got there (probably) as an after effect of a mild quake. Nevertheless, the cabins were charming and the food excellent. The Tilapia at their restaurant is highly recommended.

Early next day we found that the top of the volcano was still hidden by heavy fog and got a ride from two friendly Canadians to the Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal (exactly what it sounds like). We took a trek/ hike into the forests to a lovely viewpoint from where we could see the fog much more clearly. Well, the other couple had been here 4 days and still not seen the volcano so we shut up. The hike was beautiful though, we saw caotis, birds, grass-cutter ants, mint blue beetles and some fascinating flowering plants.

We bid our goodbyes to El Castillo and it's still hidden, freshly dormant volcano. Maybe next time. Our next stop was Santa Elena. To get here, the easiest way is a taxi-boat-taxi ride. The whole things costs around 20$ per person and was arranged by our hostel in Santa Elena. Considering we had not paid for it nor had any receipts to show, everything went smoothly. The boat ride across Lake Arenal is fabulous. The lush greenscapes, the view of the volcano and the rolling hills made us happy we chose this mode of travel. At the other side of the shore, we had a taxi waiting for us. This part of the ride was extremely windy and scary. The roads are bad, the lanes narrow and the terrain scary. Motion sickness tablets are surely a godsend. We passed through several small villages and little towns before we reached the rather touristy destination of Santa Elena. You know it's a tourist spot when the place has only 3 small streets but more than 10 hostels, 6 restaurants and 2 huge and hip souvenir stores.

We stayed in Pension Santa Elena which is a charming little hostel. Even though our room was only slightly larger than our bed, the folks there are extremely helpful and
gave us all the information we needed on the adventures, trips and tours, not to mention the good discounts on them. On the first night there we went to a quaint little restaurant called Morphos and followed it up with a quick visit to the TreeHouse restaurant. Nestled under the canopy of a tree, this place is lighted beautifully, has great cocktails and peppy Tico Music.

Early the next morning we headed out to the Monteverde National Park. Monteverde is one of the world's most beautiful cloud forests. By definition, the altitude and location of a forest ensures a lot of rain clouds and a permanent light dewy , misty look. Walking through this place is nothing short of dreamy and early mornings are a great time. We took a guide so that we could spot some of the birds and the animals. The guides are extremely knowledgeable ornithologists and nature lovers and they come equipped with binoculars and great spotting power. Through our hike, we spotted a ton of colorful birds and some white faced monkeys. After a point, our guide and fellow hikers proved to be too much of bird enthusiasts for our standards so we broke away and headed out on our own. We trekked up to a point called the inter continental divide. On a clear day, it is rumored that you can see both the Pacific and the Carribean seas from this point. We saw fog. The hike itself took about 3 hours but the entrance ticket is valid for the whole day. There are buses at several times to take you back to Santa Elena.

After the morning hike we geared up for the big adventure of the trip- canopy zip lining. I had read about this and seen it on TV a few times, I knew it absolutely had to figure on our list. We asked Diego at Pension Santa Elena for the biggest and the scariest and he suggested Extremo Canopy. It is said that canopy ziplining in this area is one of the best in the world, simply because you zip line between mountains and the scenery is just to die for. For 40 dollars per person you get to slide on 14 cables, each of varying lengths and at different heights. It is pretty scary but the sights definitely trump the fear factor. We even got to see two full rainbows in the valley below us as we were zipping across. The last one called the Superman is a 1 km long zipline between two cliffs at almost 600m height at the lowest point below. I do not have any words to describe that ride. Since the day was clear, we could also see the Pacific coast from that height even though it was almost 200 km away. There are some awesome videos on youtube if you search for it.

We had planned on visiting Jaco for it's beaches but were advised to skip it and head directly to Manuel Antonio and Quepos. So the next morning we took a shuttle ride at about $30 per person for the 4 hour ride. We got off at Manuel Antonio Backpackers hostel for our next stop. The guy here thought I was a Latina for all of 2 minutes and that has remained a bragging point for my Spanish skills since then. Manuel Antonio is marked by its lovely Pacific beaches and the adjoining national park is home to many species of animals. Quepos, a bustling town about 20 minutes away is the nearest hub to this destination. After checking out the hostel we headed to the beach.

The public beach is outside the national park and fairly crowded. Folks there will try to fleece you for bringing you drinks and for renting the lounge chairs but otherwise it is a pretty beach. While there, we even managed to snag a good deal for a sea kayaking /snorkeling package the next day for about 45 per head including lunch. Sunset was spectacular and we walked up the hill to our hostel - a 3 mile hike. We did stop for dinner at El Avion. This place has an old unwanted Airplane inside which they have a bar. The food is pretty good and you have a view of the ocean as well, almost like the perfect date.

The next day was our date with the ocean. After a nice breakfast at Alejandro's down the street we took our free shuttle to the kayaking area. This place is a small cove in the ocean and the water is unbelievably minty icy blue. We had another couple and the guide in their own kayaks. I have only been kayaking once before and that was in a lake that was just a glorified swimming pool. Compared to that, the ocean is a bit difficult. We stopped our kayaks a little into the sea and dove in to check out the fishes. The reefs are pretty dead and nothing compared to Seychelles or South France but the fishes made up for it. There were quite a few varieties in bright beautiful tropical shades that teased you by almost touching your fingers. The rest of our kayaking trip involved an unexpected underwater moment and the loss of a favorite top that I shall not dwell into. As is customary by now, I also ended up with a few scratches on my feet and a dark tan. But, the color of the water was totally worth it. Too bad we couldn't take the camera along. The lunch that came with the package was at the local Best Western- really good food, especially the juices and the Arroz con Pollo. We later checked back into this same hotel and decided we needed some luxury on our last day- namely an ocean view, a tiny TV and free towels.

That night we went to a spa, my first such experience ever. The fact that it was pouring heavily and we couldn't be doing anything else made me feel a tad better. Plus of course, the massage was right out of a catalogue, complete with doors open to a drizzly green tropical paradise with a light aroma of incense and several calm Buddhas staring at you. After days of heavy adventure and a lot of activity, this was pure indulgence. And Heaven. The dinner that night was at a local version of KFC. Also heaven :D

The next day was our last day. We headed out to the Manuel Antonio National Park. This hike was memorable because of the sheer number of animals we got to see and at the end of the hike we landed on some of the prettiest beaches I have laid eyes on.
White sands, coconut trees, green green trees, very few people and the infinite turquoise sea. The white faced monkeys we struggled to spot in Monteverde were literally posing for us here. Not to mention raccoons, iguanas and all the unnamed animals by the mangroves at the edge of the park. Beautiful, beautiful Manuel Antonio.

As we took our bus from Quepos to the San Jose airport later that day we knew we had missed some of the incredible beaches on the Caribbean and on the Nicoya Peninsula. Yet, I think this was one of our best vacations ever. Things to do, things to eat and things to remember. Just how we like it.