Monday, 29 June 2009

... Peru: Home Sweet Home

The fact we bounced down the LAX runway, albeit ahead of schedule, is probably why there was none of that weird round of applause for the pilot. LAX is still a nightmare although your luggage comes off a damn sight quicker than in Lima.  People were lined up outside onto the street to get through security and most people were, unsurprisingly, in foul moods.  How can it be so bad?  I've never had this much hassle at any other airport!  No wonder people get grumpy when travelling from or through LAX.  All I can say is I am glad I printed out my boarding pass after checking in online whilst I was still in Cuzco. Food options still sucked despite the fact I was in a different terminal from when I flew down although at least I got a Starbucks.

We departed on time and arrived in Vancouver early.  However, YVR appear to be trying some new fandangled automated thing for Canadians coming through Customs involving scanning your passport & customs declaration card. I know I wasn't the only one in the queue that seemed to never end who asked "And this saves us time how?"

Ah, it's good to be home.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

... Peru: "Snit" & Tuck

The flight from Cuzco to Lima quite possibly took less time than it did to collect my backpack.  Ah good ol' Peruvian Time! Once I was all checked in it was time to grab a Starbucks and pick up a few last minute items from the duty free before some dinner.  Funky t-shirts ahoy!   I was craving some protein & greens and so a great tasting tuna salad washed down with one final pisco sour hit the spot. Yum!

I eventually went through security & customs just after 2300 hrs.  When leaving Lima on an International flight there is a departure tax of US$31 (which can also be paid in the equivalent Soles) paid just before the security screening.  Security didn't seem to care that I still had my Swiss army knife in my carry on (must remember to shove that into my checked luggage in LAX because they WILL care) and yet they confiscated my bottle of water. Death by water is obviously rife in the skies above!

As I reached passport control I was stood in front of this woman who proceeded to ask me if I was travelling with the male in front of us.  A little bizarre but nevertheless I replied with a polite "No".  "Then I was before you" came the snotty reply.  I didn't know where to look in either amusement nor shock but I was too tired for this kind of crap so decided to give back as good as I got. No, let's make that better. "I think not but who really cares, we all get through eventually".  She waltzed in front of me, did this weird pirouette and then shot me this look that was half attempt model pose and half "I'm sucking on a lemon".  I started laughing namely because this woman was certainly no oil painting and reminded me of the Bride of Wildenstein but also because it really was the bizarrest thing I have ever seen. Do people really act like this?  Apparently so.  I couldn't resist, gave a little curtsy and an extremely polite "Age before beauty". The look that followed was priceless. She looked like a slapped arse.  I could hear a certain someone in my head (you know who you are! *smile*) saying "You're terrible Muriel."

"And your plastic surgeon should be shot." 

Of course she is on my LIM-LAX flight.

... Peru: Shop Until I Drop

Despite a late night last night what with travelling back to Cuzco via Ollantaytambo by train/minivan and then hitting the main square to enjoy some food, I was up at the crack of dawn.  I think I must be used to it by now which kind of worries me as I ponder if this means I'll be getting up 2 hours earlier once I am back home thanks to the time difference!?! Breakfast and then packing were the first order of the day before my roomie & I headed out to Centre Artesenal Cuzco, the large artisan market at the end of town to basically shop until we dropped or at least shop until we began to worry about getting it all into our luggage for our trip home.

I've discovered that I can haggle like there is no tomorrow! My first attempt was in Aguas Calientes when I got back down from my wonderful trip to Machu Picchu.  All I have ever really wanted to purchase on this trip was an Alpaca blanket and I was able to score a real beauty.  But it didn't stop there.  My new found "talent" leads me to be coming home with two very stuffed bags thanks to the purchase of several chullo hats, an Alpaca jumper, two mugs, a rock decorated with the Nazca lines, a decorated plate, some bright pink Alpaca socks (I kid you not!), a couple of change purses, some alpaca gloves and not one but TWO Alpaca blankets.  Without going silly you can bargain with the seller for that "special price" they initially offer you. The market in Cuzco is also a neat place to wander around the many stalls looking at all the bright colourful textiles that the locals have made.

With only the morning left in Cuzco before flying back to Lima, a trip to the market was an ideal way to whittle away some time.  It's always the way on the last day of a trip I find - that bittersweetness of being sad your holiday is at an end but knowing you are ready for your comfort zone of home and just wanting it to not take you three flights to get there.  I stopped in at the LAN office here in Cuzco and managed to confirm my flights home... at last...  There had been an initial spot of panic last night when I was unable to get any of my confirmation codes to work online. Thankfully all is good now and I even had two of my three boarding passes before I'd even stepped into an airport.  In South America it is strongly recommended that you confirm all your flights at least 24 hours before heading home just because many of the carriers here are notorious for overbooking and also flights get cancelled like no-one's business.

My roomie had yet to try cuy, so on our way back to the hotel to catch our airport-bound cab we stopped for lunchSumaq Misky prides itself on its cuy options and for those of you who love Indian food they'll even do it Tandoori style! As I devoured a very tasty bean burger I sat across from a plate containing something with 4 little paws & a head complete with teeth kind of staring at me.  It's a little different looking at a baked guinea pig when you are not the one eating it, I mean had I been eating it I at least wouldn't have had to look it in the face. 

And now it's time to take my head out of the clouds, head back to sea-level and a +6hr wait at Jorge Chávez International Airport for my Int'l flight to LAX.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

... Peru: Atchoo Picchu

Machu Picchu is probably the best known archaeological site in South America and one of the best known in the World.  No-one knew it even existed until some American stumbled upon it in 1911.  He had been looking for the lost city of Vikabamba.  Interestingly (or not?, you take your pick) it is said that Bingham is who Indiana Jones is based on.  Knowledge of the site still remains sketchy and even today its function is based heavily on speculation and educated guesswork.

So it was a pre-crack of dawn start in a bid to be at least somewhat at the front of the queue for an early morning bus up to the ruins.  Of course it appeared that everyone else had the same bright idea too. Even at 0520hrs they were queuing up the street to get on a bus.  Thankfully the buses run frequently in a kind of sweatshop manner and so we were soon on board and heading up into the clouds. And the sun wasn't even up yet!

First impressions? Queue, queue, queue & queue.  It was a bit like Disney World with the crowds and this wasn't even the mad rush!  That apparently falls between 1000hrs & 1400 hrs.  It kind of puts a dampner on the experience... at first.  But then you walk through the entrance gate and are greeted with the sight that is known Worldwide and so even had Mickey jumped out to say hello all would've been forgiven.  What greets your eyes simply is unbelievable.

If you want to be one of 400 people to be able to hike up Wayna Picchu (the mountain you see in all the classic shots just behind the ruins) you have to queue again for one of ONLY 400 tickets and hope you get in either the 0700 hrs or 1000 hrs group.  This lead to an Amazing Race-esque sprint through the grounds to the ticket booth and of course that was right at the other end.  Nic. Needs. Oxygen.  It didn't help that I am full of a cold either and trying not to sneeze or cough up a lung every 5 minutes. I just made it.  I was #349 out of 400.

I chose the 1000 hrs trek namely because I wanted to see the sunrise at around 0720 hrs from within the ruins.  It was worth it even knowing that I would be thus trekking up there in the heat.  So I picked a spot and just watched & waited for the sun to grace the ruins with its presence.  For a brief moment one wonders if there is going to be this huge flash of light as everyone's cameras go off simultaneously but thankfully that didn't happen. I didn't come to Machu Picchu to see the Inca version of the winning goal in the World Cup final after all! It was worth the wait.  One of those things that goes onto the internal hard drive for life.

The grounds are a great cardio workout.  The never ending series of stones steps and of course the altitude.  I had to have my classic postcard shot... or lots of them which of course was the case so cue the kind of workout a stairmaster would be proud of.  But it was Wayna Picchu that I set as my challenge for the day.  They say it takes about 45mins to an hour to get up there... it took Little Miss A Type just under 25 mins. I basically ran up there for a very hard workout - I was humbled.  The trek itself is a series of steep stone steps with not very much room to pass anyone going up or coming down.  Cue a Rocky-esque moment when I reached the Temple of the Moon at the top all covered in sweat & rosy-cheeked.

And then of course I looked down and literally crapped my pants trying to get back to the start point waaaaaaaay down below.  Needless to say it took me slightly longer on the return journey. But the fabulous views from the top were definitely worth the effort and the pseudo soiling of pants.

Friday, 26 June 2009

... Peru: Back To Civilization

Yay! I slept better last night.  It was still bloody cold and of course I tossed & turned yet again. Woke up with a bit of a headache and appear to be full of a head cold.  I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and when I got back was momentarily thinking "where's my tent?" because the one I thought I had left didn't appear to be where it should be.  Was the altitude playing tricks on me?  Turns out I was thrown off because my tent mate had woken up not long after I had left thinking someone was trying to get in and so she had reclosed the zipper.  That caused a mini fit of giggles at 0200hrs.

I was up at 0610hrs raring to go. Unfortunately when you are travelling in a group you kind of have to wait for everyone else. Patience is not my middle name. Once breakfast was out of the way and everyone was packed we boarded a bus that was to take us back to Ollantaytambo where we would then board the train headed for Aguas Calientes.  No hiking today and I have a bed with my name written all over it waiting for me!  Who knew that such simple things could mean so much!?!  

The road down to Lares town from the hot springs should've been an indication of what was to come for the next 3 or so hours until we reached Calca.  About 5 minutes into the ride we came head on with a bulldozer and we were the ones that had to back up precariously. I spent the entire duration of that little incident with the words "Don't. Look. Down!" playing over & over in my head.  Most of the time during this journey I would look out of the window and find myself wondering why I couldn't see any of the roadside but instead a huge drop into the valley below.  I sat there wishing I had sat on the other side of the bus... ignorance is bliss and all that.  This was surely the Peruvian version of the Road of Death!?! It was interesting that the driver floored it around the hair pin bends and yet whenever we went through a tiny bit of water he would slow right down.  Yeah, that really made sense! There were a few bum clenching-stomach churning-white knuckle moments that's for sure.  I was glad when we stopped for a quick break in Calca.  A "kiss the ground & thank the Lord above" kind of moment.  I should've been suspicious from the offset when I saw the driver had a poster of a F1 Ferrari plastered to his windshield! 

Market in Calca
We finally reached Ollantaytambo, after a stop for lunch in Yanahuara which means "dark underworld", and headed straight for the train station.  It was tourist central and I was one of them! The train departed not long after 1600hrs and on time!  Whilst it was still daylight the views through the valley & into the mountains were fantastic including those of the snow capped Nevado Veronica, the highest peak at 5822m.  

Aguas Calientes is an exploitive town but a necessary evil for getting to and from Machu Picchu.  This is really the only one good reason to stay in this touristy & overpriced town and of course to get a head start on the hordes of daytrippers enroute to the showpiece of Peru.  This means getting up even before the crack of dawn to get an early bus up there or hike if you do so desire.  Quite frankly I felt I had filled my quota for the foreseeable future when it came to the latter option aside from yomping around Machu Picchu in the morning and so bus is the transportation mode of choice.

And so I have a 0415 hr start in the morning as a result.  The things I do in the name of travel.... oh it's such a hard life.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

... Peru: Lares Trek Day 2

I didn't sleep very well last night and awoke with a killer migraine.  My head was spinning and I tossed & turned most of the night.  I also felt like my sinuses were about to implode in my face. It froze overnight too, although for most part I was warm in my sleeping bag.  My tent mate woke up with part of her face swollen so with the pair of us our tent could've been aptly named the Geriatric Tent. 

I was up just before 0700hrs and greeted with a very bright & warm sunshine.  The area where we had camped was indeed beautiful... now if only I could shake this feeling that I wanted to die so that I could enjoy it.  Imitrex to the rescue! The migraine was probably due to the altitude. I ditched the sarochi pills so that I could start knocking back the 400mg ibuprofens!  We enjoyed breakfast in the sunshine then it was time to be on our way again through the beautiful Andean Mountains, lush valleys & little villages.  I keep expecting to bump into Gollum at any moment!

Lunch was at a place called Chankachaka.  Trust me, I am NOT making any of these names up.  It started to drizzle not long after but that didn't dampen our spirits, no pun intended.  We didn't have too much further to go to reach Lares and I actually ran the last part of the trek.  Don't ask me why... I can't even really blame the altitude. *someone whispers "Little Miss A Type"*

Our camp for the night was on the grounds of a hot springs just outside of Lares town.  Just how soothing was it to dip your feet into those!?!  Had I had something more appropriate to wear then I might have actually gone in.  I think though that some of us were more excited at the prospect of real toilets!  We took a trip down into Lares town to take a look around. We had been given 30 minutes to explore and I think we were all back at the bus with 20 minutes left.  If that doesn't scream "There's bugger all to see" then I don't know what does.

It was a member of the group's birthday today and so we had a little celebration during dinner complete with some far too sweet wine & some Peruvian beer.  Our cooks even made a cake without an oven and it was pretty damn tasty too!

The trek has been truly amazing - the sights, the experiences, the simple yet tasty Peruvian food that our cooks have whipped up every meal time.  But, I can't begin to tell you how much I am looking forward to sleeping in a bed tomorrow night....

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

... Peru: Lares Trek Day 1

My 50 million layers of clothing meant that I was at least pseudo warm during the night.  I woke up (for real) just before 0700hrs feeling a little stiff but at least still able to feel my bits.  I actually woke up 3 times during the night... the rain that hit around 0100hrs (swift yet sleepy "oh that's just bloody great" although it had thankfully stopped by the time I did get up), the rooster that started crowing at 0500hrs ("Shut the [insert choice expletive] up") and then the two dogs that decided to start humping ("Are they doing what I think they're doing?"). Oh yes I kid you not.  Day 1 of the Lares Trek already filled with so much excitement!

After a nice hot cup of coca tea it was time for breakfast - a special porridge made from quinoa & apple which was really tasty.  Not long after that it was time to start trekking at around 0930hrs once everything had been packed away.  Of course I was wearing far too many layers and began a semi strip whilst hiking through the wilderness. 

Forging ahead, 3 of us almost got stampeded on by a herd (or is it pack??) of llamas and mules coming the other way.  Then of course there were the necessary bathroom breaks where you basically duck behind a rock or a bush and just hope some perverted llama isn't watching and laughing at how white your rear is.

We bumped into a bunch of young children who didn't even speak Spanish but the indigenous language of Quechua.  Without the use of words a bond was created between two very different nationalities (the 3 of us being Canadian) through the giving of simple gifts.... a notebook & a pencil.   They were ecstatic. My fellow traveller drew a monkey, the kids giggled and then one of them drew his house.  This was the highlight of my trip up to press.

Lunch was by a beautiful lake at the foot of Ipsayqocha Pass (4450 metres) before it was time to tackle it.  Nice! Nothing like lugging a full stomach along to boot. But, altitude sickness be damned!  I was the first to the top.  I was breathless - not in awe at the magnificent scenery but from the lack of oxygen!  The scenery of course was magnificent. I took lots of photos.

At least it was then downhill for most part to our camp for the night at Chac'chapata which we reached at around 1630hrs.  I settled into my sleeping bag wearing my many layers at around 2030hrs having looked up into the sky at billions of stars with not one iota of light pollution.   The sound of the nearby river running was the last thing I remember before I fell asleep. Bliss.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

... Peru: She Can Be Taught!

Today was a day of learning things....

Today I learnt that Peruvian time is about quadruple what you actually think it is. So, if someone says "5 minutes" then expect that to mean at least a minimum of 20.

Today I learnt that when Peruvians strike they really strike!  A looming strike scheduled for tomorrow means that we are having to change our plans.  This is because the roads are expected to be barricaded & closed meaning that if we were to try to drive back to our start point in Kiswarani we are probably not going to get very far. We are actually starting our trek tonight from Patakancha and doing our Lares Trek hike in reverse.

Today I learnt that trying to run up mountains when you are already at least 11000 ft above sea level is going to kick you up your arse. But I still did it anyway because I am a freak of nature. We had our "intro hike" at Pisaq where we saw the first of our Inca ruins. The fascinating thing about these are the fact that they are literally built into the mountainside and half way up.  The views were, as you can imagine, amazing!

I am currently in Ollantaytambo, a rural village in the Sacred Valley.  Try saying that name after a few pisco sours. I can't even spell it unless I look it up. Surprisingly it has internet albeit slow.  It is dominated by a massive Inca fortress consisting of huge steep terraces that deserved a good yomp around all whilst my heart felt like it was going to explode out of my chest.  Apparently it is one of the few places where the Spanish conquisitors lost a major battle.  If Pisaq was impressive then this was just breathtaking... literally.

It is our last point of civilization before I head out into the wilderness. No crackberry, no internet, no crackbook, no shower, no bed... the list goes on.  I'm currently dressed in x2 pants, a sport top, long sleeved shirt, t shirt, fleece, jacket, scarf, hat & two pair of gloves waiting for a bus to take me to Patakancha which was due to arrive 20 minutes ago....

The adventure continues.....

Monday, 22 June 2009

... Peru: Where Guinea Pigs Fear To Tread....

This high-flying (11000 ft) Andean city is the heart of a once mighty Inca empire and now the undisputed archaeological capital of the Americas.  Despite its modernisation, it holds onto its historical past like nobody's business!  Massive Inca-built walls line steep, narrow cobblestone streets and even form the foundations of the modern buildings.  It is also of course the gateway to Machu Picchu, which I shall be visiting at the end of my trip.

We left our hotel this morning at 0700hrs and so the first order of the day at the airport was to hit Starbucks. Our LAN flight left Lima at 0930hrs for Cuzco taking about 50 minutes. Upon walking out of the airport in Cuzco you can tell that something is different about the air.  Not that I was crawling on hands & knees gasping for breath mind you but it just seems.. well, different.  I bought some "Saroche" pills which, upon closer examination, are just tylenol, acetylsalicylic acid & caffeine so I suspect only really supply a little bit of symptomatic relief - a bit of a rip off really.  I have been guzzling coca tea like there is no tomorrow so will wait to see if that helps too.  The leaves do contain small amounts of cocaine but the amount is really minute - less than 0.4%.  Unfortunately the high altitude makes you pee even more than usual and so my tiny bladder is cursing the day I was born.  From people I have spoken to it seems like a good day to acclimatize is usually all you need to be pretty much back to normal.  Still I am not being overly cocky and am doing thing at a slightly slowly than usual Nic-pace.

We have arrived in Cuzco a few days before Cuzco's most important festival Inti Raymi (June 24th).  It is the "Festival of the Sun" and the whole city celebrates on the streets.  Today, for reasons yet unbeknownst to me, everyone was out in the street in their brightly coloured traditional outfits dancing up a storm as though it was a dress rehearsal.  It was wonderful to watch especially seeing as I will be on day 1 of my trek on the 24th.  The heaving streets of performers & spectators was also a good way to make sure that my pace whilst exploring wasn't "Tazmanian Devil" on the Nic activity richter scale.

The parade head down to the main square, Plaza de Armas. The plaza is encompassed by a variety of colonial buildings, the cathedral and two churches.  The cathedral and the church La Compañia de Jesus are both strikingly ornate. It was a good "first port of call" to watch the performances before grabbing a bite to eat.  Eats consisted of Andean Quinoa soup and a veggie sandwich washed down with the very lush chicha.

After satisfying my grumbling stomach I decided to somewhat ignore this altitude malarky somewhat and hike up to the San Blas barrio.  It's a stiff uphill walk from the plaza through the narrow cobblestoned streets but the views from the top are amazing.  Besides you can always stop to get a quick breather whilst you explore the quaint little artisan shops or better yet pose for a picture with a Llama.  Where else in the world.....?

Time to head back to my hotel to put on some warmer clothing now that is has gone dark and to meet up with my roomie and two others from my group. We had earlier made plans to hunt out somewhere suitable to eat dins together. This pescatarian has been contemplating sharing some cuy for dinner with my roomie.... I'll let you know how that goes, if it goes. It will mean that I won't be able to look Peanut & Snowflake in the eye again however.....

Sunday, 21 June 2009

... Peru: The Truth is Out There

You could be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing to see here.  The town itself is a dive. It wasn't until some Scientist flew across the sun-bleached expanse in 1939 that something of a 'The Truth Is Out There' phenomenon was discovered. Paul Kosok flew across the desert and noticed a series of extensive lines & figures etched into the ground below. Believing it to be some kind of irrigation system, what he had actually discovered were the Nazca Lines.

Spread over an area of 500 aq km there are over 800 straight lines, 300 geometric figures  and approximately 70 spectacular & elaborate animal & plant drawings (biomorphs).  The lines were made by removing the dark sun-baked stones from the surface and piling them up on either side of the line that was to be created exposing the lighter soil below. Simple huh!?!

The absolute best way to see these beauties is to leave Lima at 0500hrs with 4 other travellers & two guides, drive for 5 hours along the Panamericana with the guide who thinks he is a Formula 1 driver behind the wheel and then take a bird's-eye view from a sobrevuelo (overflight).  There is the observation tower at Mirador but that really only gives you a sketchy idea of the lines - you see a tree and some hands (or a frog depending on how you look at it). Walking the lines is strictly forbidden - it would irreparably damage them. This is probably also a good idea bearing in mind all the warnings of Landmines. I do have quite the penchant for my legs & other body parts.

Our flight left late in true South American laid back style but once we were up there it was worth it. Especially as I got to sit at the front in the cockpit with the pilot!  We flew over a whale, a set of trapezoids, an astronaut, dog & monkey, condor, spider, humming bird, heron, parrot, tree and hands (frog). It was kind of like being on a rollercoaster but the kind where you scream if you wanna go faster.

Endless questions remain. Who constructed the lines and why? And how on earth did they know what they were doing when the lines can only really be appreciated from the air!?!?

As we began our long drive back to Lima, I could've sworn I saw Mulder & Scully in the distance.... 

Nazca itself has nothing to offer. We did however visit a really neat Pottery/Ceramic place where they make the stuff as it was made by the Wari people. It was therefore interesting to learn all about "Peruvian Kama Sutra".... I kid you not.  The pottery for that was...let's say interesting!

We stopped for dinner at a restaurant called El Catador in Ica.  It is also where they make Pisco and so after a much needed meal (fish & yuca for me) washed down with some chica morada, we had a tour. The kind of Pisco depends on the type of grape and due to that environment they cannot make dry wines but only sweeter ones. I also learned that there are three parts to Pisco:
Head of Pisco - Methanol. Toxic. Used for sterilizing;
Body of Pisco - Ethanol. Consumable. 20-60% alcohol;
Tail of Pisco - Propanol & water. Used for sterilizing.
Of course to fully appreciate all this we had a taste testing! It's an interesting liquor and I think I prefer it as a pisco sour.

After Ica it was dark and we still had Huacachina to visit. We were almost all in the frame of mind of "nah... don't bother.. it's late... let's get back" but I am ever so glad we didn't.  A mere 5km west of Ica, this town of approximately 200 people is surrounded by towering sand dunes complete with its own lagoon. It is one of the 5 top places mentioned along the infamous "Gringo Trail" (yes, there is such a trail) and the place to go to dune buggy and sand board! I now have sand lodged into bodily nooks & crannies that I didn't even know existed. Admittedly there was a brief period at the top of what appeared to be a bottomless drop where we were all stood there looking at our buggy driver like he was mad as he suggested we fling ourselves down there on sandboards.  After hurtling down the first dune, all giggling very loudly until we realised it really was to one's advantage to keep your mouth shut, we wanted more! What an adrenaline rush!

And so I got back to Lima 4 hours later than planned having missed meeting my Lares Trek tour group and walking in on my roomate whom I had never met until I woke her up.  Fun times!  Nothing like making an entrance.  She was at least extremely good natured especially as she had, not surprisingly given the late hour, assumed she had the room to herself.

Next stop Cuzco departing at 0700hrs!