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