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I Finally Uploaded My Blog...3 Months Late

A quick stop in Arequipa

It was one year ago while lounging on the “Redneck Riviera” in Florida when Sherri asked out of the blue “You want to go to Peru?” I have longed to see Machu Picchu for quite awhile, so we spent the rest of the vacation researching our next trip. To our dismay, we realized that the best time to go would be the dry season (winter time there) about 9 months away. We spent that interval reading tripadvisor and scouring every internet blog about Peru. We watched every PBS, Nat-Geo, and Discovery channel documentary on the country. We read several books about the Incans and Machu Picchu. I highly recommend Kim MacQuarrie’s “The Last Days of the Incas.” I couldn’t finish Hiram Bingham’s book; it’s too dry and outdated. I tried to immerse myself in Spanish with the Rosetta Stone. I learned enough to get through an episode of Dora the Explorer. In preparation for the Inca Trail, we wanted to get into some semblance of shape. We dusted off the old treadmill and started exercising. We also had to drop a small fortune on hiking clothes and gear. We ended up getting vaccinations for hepatitis A, yellow fever, and typhoid. A few days before leaving, we dumped the crying kids off on their grandparents. We also decided to take Diamox to help us acclimate to the altitude when we got there. That medication made everything (especially sodas) tastes awful.

The trip from Memphis to Miami and then to Lima was uneventful. We travelled on American Airlines because their partnership in the One World Alliance allowed for better rates LAN Peru flights. We had heard nice reviews about flying LAN from Miami to Lima but their flight schedule did not work for our itinerary.We arrived in Lima at midnight and decided to stay overnight at the airport since our connecting flight was at 5 AM. The airport was packed with people like us awaiting their connection flights. There was still much activity as many of the shops and kiosks stay open through the night. There were plenty of places to exchange our dollars to soles, and multiple ATM’s. We ended up renting a cell phone with Peru-Rent-A-Cell. It would be a mistake we regretted throughout the trip. The lady assured us that we would get good reception in all the places that we were going. We barely got any reception over the next two weeks. Every time our family tried calling us, the phone never rang. Inexplicably, we had no problems calling them, albeit at much more exorbitant rates.

We found that it was impossible to sleep outside of the terminals. There were many chairs in the food court area, but most were occupied and not comfortable enough (for us) to sleep on. Once they opened the terminal and we arrived at the departure gate, we actually had plenty of room to stretch out and got two hours of shut eye. Unlike the United States where the airport tax is paid when you purchase your ticket, the tax in Peru is paid right before you go through security. They take dollars and soles.

We flew into Arequipa and had pre-arranged transportation to our hotel Casa Arequipa. This was a great little boutique hotel in a nice, quiet area about a 20 minute walk from the Plaza de Armas. I believe it was a large private house that had been transformed into a hotel. We stayed in the Balcony Room.

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Our first stop was to see ‘Juanita’ in the Andean Sanctuaries museum. The tour first included a 30-45 minute video about her discovery (I believe it was the same as the National Geographic episode, but I was so tired that I fell asleep). Then an English-speaking guide explained the Incan artifacts on display. Finally, we came to a temperature-controlled area containing the frozen mummy. We then headed over to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina convent built in 1580. We didn’t see any nuns (~ 20 still live there). The buildings were beautiful and the gardens well-kept. I need to find some nuns to tend to my yard at home. We rushed through the place, but still managed to spend over an hour there.

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We then took a taxi for a 10 minute ride to Sol de Mayo, one of the oldest and nicest restaurants in Arequipa. We dined outdoors as it was a beautiful day. The waiters were very attentive and professional. They gave us a dish of HUGE roasted corn kernals to snack on. We ordered way too much since we wanted to try foods characteristic of the Arequipa area. We started with some chicha morado (sweet juice made with purple potatoes) and an appetizer of ocopa (fried potatoes with a cheese sauce). Sherri elected for the picante de camarones (spicy shrimp stew), and I had the ‘Doble’ which included chicharron (deep fried pork belly) and rocoto relleno (fried stuffed pepper). The food was very good, but I think I clotted off one of my coronary arteries.

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We had arranged with the hotel for a guided tour of the city. We were driven to a small "farm" on the city outskirts. There, we could get a great view of the city, the surrounding river, and Mt. Misti in the background. Interestingly, we saw several poor, adobe-style houses that really stood apart from the cleaner stone buildings characteristic of "The White City" of Arequipa. Our guide explained that poor people from the countryside would hastily build shelters on occupied land--essentially become squatters. Eventually, as enough come together, they will form a district, elect a mayor, and become part of the city.

We then went to a large local market and saw several varieties of potatoes both fresh and dried. We were especially interested in the fruits and bought some that we have never seen before. With the dry and dusty air, we were both parched. There was a whole row of women selling made-to-order shakes and juices. We split a chirimoya shake. It tasted much better than it looked--sweet and custard-like. The guide showed us some more sites including several cathedrals. My favorite, though, was a store which served as a small outlet for the brand name alpaca clothing lines. Arequipa is the center of alpaca goods in Peru, and I knew Sherri wasn't leaving town without some. Being the cheapskate that I am, I was thrilled with "saving" 50% or more on all the junk she bought.

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After saying goodbye to our guide, we headed over to ZigZag that night. The tour book had described the food as "Peruvian-alpine," whatever that means. We both started with salad "appetizers." They were big, tasty dishes that were filling on their own. Then they brought out our entrees. I had the "trio of meats" (alpaca, beef, and lamb). They were served with three types of sauces, my favorite being an anchovy butter, at least that's what I think they said. I know that may sound pretty disgusting but it was really good. Sherri had the "trio of fish" (tuna, salmon, and some whitefish). My food satisfied my carnivorous instinct, but Sherri thought that the fish was only mediocre. Sherri thought that the lemonade was the best she’s ever had. Ever. We drank the equivalent of 2 pitchers over dinner. Since we were warned that some areas in Arequipa are dangerous at night, we took a taxi back to the hotel for only 4 soles (~$1.25). I slept well that night, albeit 20 lbs. heavier.

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During our breakfast the next morning, we tried some of the fruit that we bought at the market. The lucuma was starchy and mildly sweet, similar to a sweet potato. The grenadilla was essentially a passionfruit. We ate the seeds and the surrounding mucus-like flesh. Our least favorite was the pacaes. It is a pod with a small amount of flesh surrounding an inedible seed. It wasn’t really bad, but it was just too hard to eat. We spent the rest of the morning touring the Casa de Moral, a well-preserved house from the early 1700’s.

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Sherri also had to shop for more alpaca. Fortunately, most of the shops had clothing designs that were very outdated to our standards. They would go well with a Members Only jacket or leg warmers. Unfortunately, Sherri found the Kuna by Alpaca 111 store. It looks like our kids won’t be going to college after all. We wanted ceviche for lunch because we were going to be heading further inland for the rest of the trip. We ended up at Chicha, a more casual chain restaurant in the Gaston Acurio empire. Sherri loved her sea bass ceviche as did I with the ceviche mixto.

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We then flew out of the Arequipa airport which is small but pretty cool. The jets take off right in front of you and the mountains create a nice backdrop.

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We arrived in Juliaca where our pre-arranged car from All Ways Travel drove us to Puno. Juliaca was the dirtiest and ugliest place that we saw in Peru. There were many people selling cheap clothing. Our driver told us that most are black market textiles smuggled from Bolivia to avoid paying Peruvian taxes. Then again, when I asked about World Cup updates, he also told us that the USA got blown away by England when in fact they managed a 1-1 tie.

We checked into the Casa Andina Private Collection in Puno and got upgraded to a suite! Yay! I was feeling the fatigue from the altitude, so I wore out the free coca tea in the hotel lobby. Our room had a nice view of Lake Titicaca, an oxygen machine, and a jacuzzi spa that I couldn’t figure out how to work. It was already late so we had dinner at Alma, a nice restaurant in the hotel and possibly the best in the city. The quinoa soup was perfect as it was very cold outside. We did not enjoy the kingfish tiradito, a ceviche-like dish with Japanese influences. It was just too sweet. Trout is the specialty in the region. I had the some with a yellow chili beurre blanc sauce. Sherri had the kingfish with a sesame honey glaze. Both were very elegant and well prepared dishes.

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Posted by evilnoah 06.09.2010 07:16 Archived in Peru Tagged peru arequipa Comments (0)

A Pleasant Pause In Puno

A Day Trip on Lake Titicaca

The next morning we were met by a representative from All Ways Travel for our Lake Titicaca tour. I don’t think All Ways Travel actually does the tour. I believe they outsource the tour to other operators because I think the other tourists on our boat were from many different tour companies. In all honesty, I was not looking forward to this leg of our trip. After reading so many blogs and reviews on the internet, I had the impression that it would be so touristy, contrived, and crowded. I was right, but I loved it anyway.

We first went to the Uros Islands where people live on a floating mass made of reeds. This lifestyle made sense centuries ago when the Lake Titicaca region was wrought with brutal tribal warfare. These floating islands were easier to defend. Nowadays, I really don’t think there would be too many people choosing this lifestyle unless there was an influx of tourist dollars. Nevertheless, the islands were impressive and the people very friendly. Many of the women were embroidering small tapestries. Many were for sale but we suspected that they were machine-made as they were all fairly identical. We still bought one because the prices were not too bad and they looked nice.

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Everybody then piled onto a double-decker boat also made from reeds. We were rowed to another island which had a restaurant, a small fish hatchery, and a “hotel”—a hut with a bed. Curiously, I never did see a single bathroom or sink. Makes you wonder…

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We spent the next 3 hours en route to Taquile Island. From the roof of the boat, there were great views of the lake and distant mountains in Bolivia. Titicaca is so immense it really seems like you are on the ocean.

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When we arrived at Taquile, we had a lengthy walk uphill in the thin air. As we struggled to get to the top, we were easily lapped by the locals—small toddlers and elderly locals alike. The view from the town square was reminiscent of a picturesque landscape of the Greek Isles.

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We ate lunch at a small restaurant (trout of course), took dozens of pictures of the locals and their distinctive garb, and bought more trinkets at the gift shop. Unlike the rest of the country, these islanders will not haggle, even over mass-produced items.

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The village itself was an enigma. An isolated island with outhouses juxtaposed next to solar panels and satellite dishes. We had opted not to do a homestay on one of the islands, so we headed back to Puno.

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Once again, we got back to the hotel late and ate at Alma. I had the causa with trout tartare followed by saqta de gallina (hen stew). Sherri did well with the vegetable napoleon and the beef tenderloin with a molle pepper sauce.

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Posted by evilnoah 06.09.2010 08:58 Archived in Peru Tagged peru titicaca puno uros taquile Comments (0)

Nine Long Hours

Our Andean Explorer Experience

sunny

We woke early the following morning to catch the Andean Explorer train to Cusco. There was a train stop right in front of our hotel, but it is used for this train only in the Cusco to Puno direction. We had to arrange for a taxi to bring us downtown. The trip started off well. A Peruvian band played as we boarded. The car was elegant with white tablecloth and comfortable chairs. It was all downhill from there. This was the rockiest train I have ever been on (even worse than the overnight train in China). The ride was even bumpier than the old school wooden roller-coasters.

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To the staff’s credit they prepared and served pretty good food despite all of the shaking going on. They provided entertainment with the Peruvian band and a “fashion” show. While the scenery was interesting, it also got extremely repetitive after nine hours of traveling. The ride was just too bumpy to sleep or read. In retrospect, we should have flown. It would have been cheaper, and we could have had more time in Cusco.

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We arrived after dark where our pre-arranged driver was waiting for us. I'm glad Sherri thought of that because the station was practically deserted, and I didn't see any taxis nearby. We had found a great deal online, so we decided to splurge at the Hotel Monasterio. The rooms were not especially spacious. There was no pool, spa, or gym. But that is expected as they once housed monks. The history alone was the appeal for us. Originally built as a seminary in 1592, it still retains an ornate chapel, original oil paintings, and a eerie monastic ambience. One of our guides even swore that the place is haunted. The religious chanting music they subtly played probably helped contribute to this atmosphere. The staff was very attentive which always makes me feel guilty. There was definitely an eye for details. They put their hotel logo everywhere--on the doors, embroidered in the bedsheets, and even drawn into the sand in the cigarette ashtrays. As we were to find out during our stay there, the Monasterio has a truly awesome breakfast buffet. Not only did they have the usual American stalwarts (omelet station, bacon, sausage, cereal), but they also had traditional Peruvian foods including sweet or savory tamales with creole relish. Their spread of various pastries alone was enough to stock a patisserie.

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We ate dinner at Illariy, the fancy restaurant in our hotel. Located adjacent to the monastery courtyard and enclosed by glass walls, the dining area gives the ambience of being outdoors without freezing your butt off. The meal started with a seafood causa amuse-bouche. I had a spicy seafood chowder followed by a skirt steak with a chimichurri sauce. Sherri ordered their signature dishes (a crab pastry Napoleon and yet another trout entree). The food was good, especially the chowder. It was pricey especially for Peruvian (and my own cheap) standards, but still affordable by American standards.

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Posted by evilnoah 06.09.2010 10:00 Archived in Peru Tagged peru train cusco puno andean explorer Comments (0)

Lots of Big Rocks

Exploring The Ruins of Pisac and Ollantaytambo

sunny

We had arranged our Cusco/Sacred Valley travels with Sofia Barreda. She was quick to respond to my e-mails and took our preferences and suggested a good itinerary including a guide and a driver. We set off the next morning with David Ramos whom we had requested as he has been highly praised on tripadvisor. We spent the morning at Pisac exploring the ruins first. There was a good amount of walking in the bright, hot sun making this a good warm-up for the days to come.

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David took us to a local restaurant for lunch where I had the traditional lomo saltado and Sherri some vegetarian dish. It wasn’t crowded there so I don’t think all the big tourist buses stop there. It must be obligatory for someone to play a big-ass harp while you eat. Of course it is good etiquette (or karma) to tip. Afterwards, we perused the Pisac market. It wasn’t very crowded since it was a Tuesday (Sunday is THE day to go there). Sherri was able to buy some nice replica Moche pottery pieces that she had been coveting.

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Next stop was Ollantaytambo. The sheer size of the stones was magnificent. It boggles the mind how well much effort was spent moving these gigantic stones from a distant mountain and assembling them to such a perfect fit. Unfortunately, the Incans never finished this fort and the Spanish dismantled some of it to build a church. After sucking air on our way to the top, we got a great view of the setting sun casting shadows on the opposing mountain.

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David then took us into a traditional Peruvian home in the town. One item hanging from the ceiling immediately caught my attention—the dried llama fetus. Somehow I don’t think they sell those at my local Walmart. I thought about trying to procure one as a souvenir, but I think it would be an issue getting through customs. There were also a bunch of guinea pigs freely roaming around the house. If only they knew their ultimate fate, they’d make a break for the open door.

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We made it back to Cusco for our Llama Path briefing for the Inca Trail. Since this was peak season, we were surprised to hear that there would be only 5 people in our trekking group. Three had already dropped out for various reasons. Our guide was Raulito (Raul), a twenty-something year-old former porter already with 7 years of experience as a guide. We also were joined by single-mother Jackie from Miami and Amy and Steve, a couple who had quit their software sales jobs to travel the world for a year. After the meeting, we wanted to grab a quick bite for dinner as it was already late and we had to pack. There was no street food in the main tourist areas and all the restaurants were full service seating. With great reluctance and embarrassment, we ended up at McDonald’s. It was sad to see the place packed with so many tourists. I just don’t understand why people travel so far and eat the same junk food that you can find at home. Maybe they had to pack too.

Posted by evilnoah 06.09.2010 10:32 Archived in Peru Tagged peru valley sacred pisac ollantaytambo Comments (0)

Finding New Muscles That Can Hurt

Our first day on the Inca Trail

sunny

We were up at 3 AM to meet up with the Llama Path bus. I don’t think the Monasterio gets too many trekkers because the half-asleep clerk at the checkout desk gave us the "WTF are you bothering me at this hour?" look. We stored our extra luggage at the hotel for our return in 5 days. We had both hired an extra porter to carry our stuff. We only used half that allocated weight. Near Ollantaytambo we stopped at a small restaurant for breakfast. They had some unappealing scrambled eggs, pancakes and cereal. I had been having some bad stomach pains all morning so I barely ate anything. Hamburglar: 1, Me: 0. We got our passports stamped at the starting checkpoint, and we were on our way. In order to carry my Canon 400D dslr in an easily accessible manner, I used a Kinesis holster bag with a belt hooked to my Camelbak Fourteener. Sherri assured me that looked like an absolute TOOL.

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The morning hike was nice and flat. The trail followed along the Urubamba river with the snow-capped Veronica Mountain trailing in the distance. The only distraction from this gorgeous scenery was the abundance of land mines on the trail. The locals use donkeys which apparently eat much and drop ass anywhere. Raul explained that there are two main trails from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. We were taking the royal Incan trail through the mountains which was used by the Inca and his family. The other road used by commoners remains flat through the valley and make it to Machu Picchu in a day. The railroad also follows that same direction.

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We saw the first large ruins, Llactapata, from atop a ridge in the distance. At that point we passed a female trekker from another group who was being led on a donkey back in the direction towards Ollantaytambo. She was the first casualty of the trail. By the time we made it to the camp for lunch, our porters had already set up the dining tent and cooked a wonderful meal of trout. We were treated like kings of the wilderness.

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The afternoon was much tougher. We started to march up into the mountains. My dslr camera felt like a 50 lb. weight. That McDonald’s burger felt ready to come out—either up or down. My steady pace turned into a slow shuffle. Sherri and I were lagging farther behind as Amy and Steve demonstrated their championship speed-walking form. I was utterly exhausted when I staggered into camp. Raul decided to camp further up the mountain at the second campsite, Llulluchapampa. There was only one other group there—an Argentine family traveling as a private group with Llama Path. At the time, we didn’t realize how lucky it was to camp away from the crowds. Our tents were already set up with bowls of warm water and soap outside our tents for us to wash up. There were several two-person tents for the trekkers. There was a larger tent used as a kitchen and dining room. At night, the porters all slept in it. We changed out of our sweaty clothes into warm fleece as the weather was freezing. We went through our porter introductions. Amazingly one of our porters was 60 years old! He had started only 4 years ago because his family needed the money. Maybe he too got swindled by Madoff. We had another hearty meal and turned in for the night.

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Sherri had never camped out before and was miserable. Even with an air mattress and sleeping bag, the ground was uncomfortable. Despite being on a terrace, there was a slope downward. I kept waking up with my feet ready to fall out the tent. The worst part was having to use my lumpy pack as a pillow. My head and neck were so sore.

The headlamps we brought were absolutely crucial as we were engulfed in pure darkness. I had to make a midnight run to the latrine which was about 75 yards down the hill from our tents. These were squatters which had not been cleaned for while. I walked into one stall, closed the door, did my business, and realized I was trapped. The door was jammed stuck. There was no doorknob. It swung inwards so I couldn’t push it open. Plus the toilet wouldn’t flush! Sadly, if you are stuck in a commode high in the Andes, nobody can hear you scream. I faced spending the night in this small cesspool of a prison. I cursed my stupidity. Why did I need to close the stall door when there was absolutely nobody around! Fortunately, I spied a small sliver of space between the floor and the bottom of the door. I was able to wiggle the very tips of my fingers under there and gradually pull the door open. Freedom at last! I returned to my tent minus my dignity.

Posted by evilnoah 06.09.2010 11:00 Archived in Peru Tagged peru valley trail sacred machu picchu inca Comments (0)

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