11 July 2010

Cusco

We bid farewell to Ollantaytambo on Saturday morning with a leisurely breakfast at El Albergue, and then hopped in a van to drive back through the Sacred Valley to Cusco. To our surprise, the hotel paired us up with another couple who were headed to the same hotel at the same time. And to our amusement, they were Oregonians.

We wound our way up through the same landscape we saw a few days before, but we were no less amazed by it than we were the first time. The sky is impossibly vivid against the pink hills. Women walk donkeys and pigs on leashes. Children cradle baby goats in well-worn slings. Old ladies in traditional native dress sit on the side of the road, shaded by anachronistic billboards for cell phones or cheap beer. Electrical transmission towers are the only real indication that life is any different in these small towns than it was a hundred years ago

Things are different in Cusco.

Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire. It's nearly a thousand years old, and almost half a million people live here. It's bigger in every way than its neighbors.

There are two things a typical traveler will notice right away:

1. There's not a whole lot of oxygen in the air. At an average altitude of about 11,000 feet, Cusco is not the highest city in the area, but it IS the highest one in which you're likely to sleep.

2. It's very hilly. Absolutely everything is uphill or downhill from where you are.

We saved Cusco for the end of our stay in the Sacred Valley area to give ourselves a chance to acclimatize. Melissa's been taking diamox to speed up the process-- a godsend since she gets an altitude headache in Santa Fe. Steve's allergic to sulfa drugs, so diamox was not even an option. Other than tiring out faster than we would at sea level, we've been blissfully unaffected by the headaches and nausea that sometimes plague visitors to Cusco.

We checked into El Balcon, a beautiful old home with a dachshund and weimaraner in matching sweaters, and a parrot who taunts them from the leafy apple tree that shades the inn's courtyard. Then we met the couple in the next room-- more Oregonians!

Our room is ten stairs up from the courtyard. A tiny Peruvian man hoisted our enormous suitcases up on his back, while we lumbered up behind him. Every step felt like twenty. Feeling completely pathetic, we ducked into the hotel dining room for a taste of local medicine-- coca tea.

Coca tea (mate de coca to the locals) is a simple preparation of dried, whole coca leaves soaked in near-boiling water. It's a stimulant, and (supposedly) increases oxygen absorption in the blood. It also (supposedly) aids digestion and reduces intestinal gas. Win-win-win! While there is a very small amount of cocaine in the tea, it won't get you stoned. It's illegal to bring the leaves into the U.S., so don't expect any herbal souvenirs.



After our tea, we set out to explore Cusco. We pointed ourselves downhill to the Plaza de Armas, and our legs mostly cooperated.



Everywhere in the Sacred Valley, someone wants to sell you something. In Cusco, it's unrelenting, and the density of street peddlers increases markedly with proximity to the Plaza de Armas. At almost every door, a young woman jumped out to offer "Señorita, manicure?" or "Señor, (wink) massage?" Artists approach with their portfolios. Old ladies in bright, new traditional clothing, and children with baby goats in newish, mass-produced slings offer to pose for a picture for a small "propina". They're caricatures of the people in the Sacred Valley-- Las Vegas Show Incas playing their parts.

We left the Plaza de Armas, and found a kinder, gentler square a few blocks from the madness. Plaza Regocio was also lined with cafes and souvenir shops, but there were very few tourists, and therefore, very few hawkers. We eventually made our way to Chez Maggy-- a highly recommended pizzeria, and one of the older restaurants in the area. Dinner was good, cheap, and a fun change of pace.

That was Saturday. Sunday in Cusco is all about the World Cup. We're hanging out at Mr. Beans, a small, charming bar that's attached to the brand spanking new Hotel Brituvian. Brituvian is a joint venture between Brit Cliff Morris and his Peruvian wife Mariela Rodriguez. Cliff wasn't the first expat we've met here.

Walking near the ruins alone near Ollantaytambo, Melissa met Winn. Steve was sipping a latte at... wait for it... Incabucks. Winn traveled from North Carolina to the Sacred Valley seven months ago. She met Wow, a Quechua-speaking native whose family traces their roots in Ollanta to the Incas. Winn opened an inn, Casa de Wow, just a few days ago. Wow is an artisan, and makes all the furniture and textiles for the guest rooms. And there were others. The hostess at a restaurant where we ate lunch was Canadian. The waiter with blondish dreadlocks at another restaurant was from Barcelona. As Winn explained, local businesses "love to hire gringos because they're trustworthy". As sensitive liberal-ish Pacific Northwesterners, we sort of hate that description, but it's impossible to ignore reality here. There's poverty, there's desperation, there's purse-snatching, and there's plenty of counterfeit cash passing around, even from established businesses who clearly know what they're handing you.

We saved our phony 10 soles note as a souvenir.



Location:Tambo De Montero,Cuzco,Peru

09 July 2010

The OMFG day

Today we visited Machu Picchu. High-stakes emotional poker… this was one of those experiences that could totally fall short of expectations (see Zermatt). After all, everyone is familiar with the emblematic photographs of Machu Picchu: how could the real thing possibly live up to those hopelessly exotic images?

Well, it did.


Our photos aren’t as hauntingly evocative – no clouds clinging to the ridgetop, and we mostly saw the site in the harsh light of midday. There were a lot of people there, too, no question about it. But despite those things, seeing Machu Picchu was an astounding experience. It met expectations, and what’s more, it revealed all sorts of fascinating aspects we’d never even considered.

While we grumbled at the midnight freight switching that echoed in our room last night, we appreciated the proximity of our hotel this morning. We were able to gulp some coffee at 4:45 and still be on the platform in plenty of time for the train’s scheduled 5:07 AM departure. We were there, but the train wasn’t. It finally showed up and we departed around 6:15. An inauspicious start, because we’d hoped to get to the ruins near sunrise.



There was a silver lining, however: as the sky brightened, we were able to see more of the river valley through which we traveled. Occasionally we caught glimpses high, high up the side of the gorge to snowy peaks and glaciers. More often our views were of a valley of varying width, speckled with farms and pasture land, and occasionally punctuated with the unmistakable precision of Inca stone work. The sides of the valley were invariably steep, ascending thousands of feet to the often hidden snow peaks above.



Near the end of our journey, the vegetation was almost tropical in its luxuriance. Parasitic plants grew on the branches of trees, sprouting crimson flowers. Lacy vines, almost fern-like, grew rampant over rocks and trees, lending a fuzzy haze to the landscape. When the train pulled into Aguas Calientes, we stepped out into warm, jungle-y air. No time to linger, however, and we quickly made our way to our next mode of transport: buses, which ply the steep road that lifts visitors from Aguas Calientes through a series of ten switchbacks to the very top of the ridge upon which Machu Picchu sits.

In any other situation, the views from the bus ride would be the attraction itself. When we crossed the Urubamba River and passed into the Machu Picchu Sanctuary, we immediately began climbing up the side of one of the many impossibly steep landforms that crowd this area. With each successive switchback, our view became more expansive: we gazed directly across the river valley at near-vertical mountainsides, and frequently got glimpses almost straight back down to where we’d started. Additionally, as we gained height, we saw more and more of the surrounding mountain range, up to glaciated peaks in several directions.

We finally reached the top of the ridge. The bus stopped, we piled out and hustled past the attractive hotel and commercial complex that forms the entrance to the ruins. We handed our tickets to the attendant and passed into… wonderland.



We had no idea that the scenery surrounding Machu Picchu was so spectacular. Our trains, planes, and automobiles (well, buses) journey took us through an ever-more-spectacular landscape, culminating in the ruins themselves.

While it deserves its reputation as a mysterious and sacred place, to the visitor Machu Picchu also evokes a different sort of emotion. Tiptoeing next to vertigo-inducing drops of thousands of feet, surrounded by peaks, bathed in mountain sunshine, we felt like kids in a tree house or hidden fort. No question: in the right light, Machu Picchu can appear other worldly, ethereal, profound. But in the bright light of midday, it’s a mountain top hideout, an awesome, fantastic aerie above it all. It’s a whole lot of fun.

American national parks, or public spaces in general, rise to a certain level of safety and ADA compliance. You won’t find any wheelchair ramps at Machu Picchu. Hell, you won’t find handrails, warning signs, or safety barriers here either. With the exception of a few inobtrusive directional signs, the site appears untouched by modern interference. The distance from the bottom to the top of the site isn’t more than a few hundred feet, but a few things conspire to make it a little more challenging to navigate than it looks in pictures. First and foremost, it’s a maze. There are all sorts of wacky dead ends. More importantly, the stone paths and stairs are uneven, and require a little more caution than your typical trail back home. We saw some brazen young men bolt down in flip flops, but for mere mortals, comfortable hiking boots are a better idea. Then there’s the altitude. At 9000 feet in the tropics, the sunlight is very intense, and unless you’re well acclimatized, you’ll tire and burn more quickly than you would at sea level.

Every view from every angle at Machu Picchu is wow-worthy, but moments after you reach the Watchman’s Hut at the top and start your descent, there it is— The View. It’s the archetypal image of the entire complex anchored by the peak of Huainu Pichhu as a backdrop. It’s the spot where the view of Machu Picchu you’ve held in your mind slides into place and matches up perfectly with the view in front of you.



As the hours wore on, the number of visitors clambering over the ruins increased dramatically. By 12:30, we’d had enough. We made our way back to the entrance and gulped down water and beer and ate the sandwiches we’d gotten at the hotel. We watched as more and more tourists poured through the entrance gates to the ruins. We weighed our options and decided to quit while we were ahead. We hopped on the next bus back down to Aguas Calientes, and on the way down the hill we passed eleven buses full of more visitors on their way up.

Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site at risk, and may soon be officially categorized as “in danger.” The glut of tourism has brought some wealth into an area that desperately needs it, but if Peru doesn’t find a way to balance the flow of cash with the strain that so many visitors place on the park, the gravy train won’t last long. Twenty years ago, the only visitors to Machu Picchu were those who made the four day trek from Cusco. Today in high season, 5000 people visit the site every day. It's convenient, to be sure, and allows a much wider audience to see this amazing place, but - like many similar sites worldwide - it's being loved to death.

We took the cheaper backpacker train in the morning just to get to Machu Picchu earlier, but we were looking forward to the return trip on the glass-topped “Vistadome” train. After we’d walked through the entire town of Aguas Calientes, and its endless market of souvenirs, we were both ready for a shower and a nap. We decided to see if there was an earlier train to Ollantaytambo, but we learned instead that our train was delayed two hours, and the only earlier option was to get on the backpacker train with no refund for the difference. PeruRail is not a well-oiled machine like Eurail. It gets you where you want to go… eventually. We had no confidence that our already-delayed train would get us back to Ollanta before 10PM, and really, what’s the point of a panoramic view in the dark? We cut our losses and downgraded to the backpacker train. And of course, it was late too.

Back at the hotel, we settled into El Albergue’s diningroom for an early dinner of traditional goodies—First, Incan french fries: fried yucca served with huancaina, a deliriously delicious Andean sauce of queso fresco, garlic, and aji amarillo chile. Then, Incan filet mignon: alpaca tenderloin in elderberry sauce. It was a delicious meal in a lovely setting, and the perfect prelude to what we needed most…

Twelve hours of sleep.

08 July 2010

On vacation - finally!

Had our last breakfast at the Doubletree El Pardo before heading to the airport. Check-in was tedious but uneventful, and we got to our gate in plenty of time. Our hour-long flight was equally uneventful, although it was fun to fly from the never-ending fog bank of Lima into the sunshine of the Andes. Our plane circled past a number of impressively jagged peaks before landing at Cusco’s charmingly low-tech airport. It’s nice to occasionally experience a place that isn’t quite at the cutting edge of 21st century technology.

Not that Cusco isn’t trying. After meeting the driver from our hotel in Ollantaytambo, we drove into the center of town to pick up tickets for Machu Picchu and it’s clear that Cusco is riding a boom of tourism-driven wealth. There’s new construction and refurbishment everywhere, and the town is bustling with tourist-related businesses – restaurants, adventure tour companies, bars, and internet cafes… it’s reminiscent of Boulder or Zermatt or any other outdoor-oriented sports town. Lots of robust outdoorsy types to go along with the typical hippie trail backpacker crowd.

In short order we were on our way out of town. The road climbs steeply to the north as you leave the Cusco basin, past more and more construction. Unlike the true shanty towns that border Lima to the south, these dwellings – although by no means luxurious – appear more working-class in nature. We saw lots of kids in school uniforms and backpacks returning home as we passed. At the crest of the basin, intense construction stopped and we moved into an agricultural zone of scattered farms and ranches.

We followed a river valley for several miles, then turned right and immediately began climbing again, topping out at the town of Chinchero at about 12,500 feet. The road meandered through high plateau land with fantastic views of surrounding glaciated peaks, then began its descent to the Urubamba River valley, over a vertical mile below. This is the famous Sacred Valley, home to the Incas and the site of countless archaeological wonders. We caught occasional glimpses of ancient terraces and other examples of the amazing stonework for which the Incas are famed.



The road from Urubamba wound along the river, through groves of eucalyptus and bamboo, past small pastures and fields, lots of stone walls (ancient and modern) to the bustling town of Ollantaytambo. Like Cusco, Ollanta is enjoying a boom economy, and this formerly quiet Inca village is full of the sounds of construction. The main square, unfortunately, is a major construction zone right now.

Our hotel, located perhaps a quarter mile downhill from the town proper is also the Ollantaytambo train station. They've added on to the original station building and now have about a dozen beautifully simple, spacious, and comfortable rooms. The hotel also boasts a nice restaurant and an espresso bar that serves delicious coffee drinks - even at 5 AM, which is handy, since we'll be on the platform about that time tomorrow morning.

July 6 - a farewell dinner

Last night we bid farewell to the folks from ESCO Peru. We held a celebratory dinner at an interesting place called Pescados Capitales. The name is a pun on the seven deadly sins - the Spanish words “pecados capitales” means capital sins, and the restaurant’s logo is that term with a scrawled “S” (peScados) changing the term to something fishy instead. The restaurant enjoys a reputation as one of Lima’s best cebicherias, and we certainly had some delicious food. Mostly though, we enjoyed the company of some really nice people. Sometimes “go-live” dinners are awkward affairs of forced and insincere joviality. Not so the case last night: the laughter was genuine, as were the tears at the end of the evening.

04 July 2010

Here, it's just 4 de Julio

No hotdogs, lemonade, or fireworks for us this Independence Day. We ate lomo saltado, drank pisco sours, and watched dancing horses this year, and we'll always remember this unusual fourth (lower case) of July in Peru.

Melissa's flight arrived pretty much on time - which meant that by the time she got through Immigration and Customs and we made the trip back to our hotel and got unpacked, it was around 2:30 AM local time. Still, we were reasonably rested when we met ESCO folks from both Portland and Lima in the hotel lobby a few hours later at 10:30 AM to take our bus to the Hacienda Los Ficus.

The Hacienda is located south of Lima, in the midst of rolling Andean foothills and farmland of the Lurin River valley. En route, we passed from the upscale shops and seaside apartments in Miraflores to the decidedly more working class district of Chorillos, and further south, past extensive shantytowns and the desolate sand dunes that border the Pacific. We turned inland and drove past Pachacamac, where both the Huari (~ 650 AD) and later, the Inca (~1400 AD) tribes built large administrative centers. It's an interesting enough place, but kind of bleak and windswept and (on this midwinter's day) chilly.

Anyway, the fun really began after we passed Pachacamac. We drove down an endless row of pork restaurants: dozens of them, all vying for business with signs, flags, streetside shills, and apparently identical menus. After that, we drove on ever-more-bumpy dirt roads, past truck farms, walled compounds, empty trash-filled lots, and half-finished (or half-ruined) buildings... the usual third world agglomeration of poverty, can-do ingenuity and ambition, and a slightly frumpy Mother Nature.

After halting several times to ask directions to the place, we eventually pulled up to a high steel security gate. A no-nonsense uniformed guard wearing a bulletproof vest opened the gate and directed us inside where we saw... another equally imposing security gate. The second set of doors swung open and we entered a complete oasis of tranquility and grace. What a surprise!

Hacienda los Ficus is named for the grove of ficus trees that form an arching, shaded canopy and provide a border to the paddocks, gardens, and stables of the complex. It's beautifully maintained, with bouganvillea and all sorts of other tropical greenery that someone more familiar than I could probably name without breaking a sweat. There's also an organic vegetable garden, used to provide ingredients for meals at the Hacienda, and also for La Rosa Nautica Restaurant (a landmark restaurant in Miraflores), which is also owned by these folks.



But the real raison d'etre for the Hacienda is the horses. The Peruvian Paso Horse is famous (at least among those who pay attention to such things) for having the smoothest ride in the world. It's the Cadillac of horses.

In a pleasant outdoor pavilion, seated on comfortable upholstered wicker furniture and fortified with pisco sours and appetizers, we watched as they demonstrated the stages of training the Paso Horse: first a yearling, then a three year old, and finally an adult horse were brought into the paddock to demonstrate the unique gait inherently possessed by this breed.

The grand finale involved five horses and riders performing together, twirling and trotting in near-perfect synch. Following that, interested audience members had a chance to ride (briefly) the horses. Without much difficulty, we both passed on the opportunity. However, we weren't unaffected by the performance. I almost can't believe we're writing this: really, horses are a huge yawn to both of us, and we've never understood the adoration they evoke in some people. We're still skeptical, but what moved us today was a combination of a couple of things.

First, the passion evident in this anachronistic labor of love: to devote countless hours and resources to the training and preservation of these impressive animals. Second, and more importantly, was the realization that we were seeing an important piece of the Peruvian national identity. These horses (well, not these, but their direct ancestors) were ridden by the Conquistadores when they kicked ass down the road at Pachacamac in 1532. Roots are deep here, and tangled.

Okay, so there were actually three things that moved us. After the show, we went back to the stables, and the horses were friendly. Golden retriever friendly. I leaned in to take a picture of one particularly handsome fella, and he leaned in closer still and brushed my arm with the side of his head. We aren't going to get a horse any time soon, but it's no longer as mysterious a passion to us as, say, golf.

Isabel made arrangements for our group of 10 to eat lunch at a new "concept" restaurant in the area. Whereas Miraflores is full of trendy eateries, the idea of a concept restaurant located in what could charitably be termed a Peruvian Dogpatch was... well, let's just say there were some doubters among us.

We drove further east, first on a potholed but paved road, then we turned south onto a narrow dirt road that led past fields of knee-high corn (but it's mid-winter here!), occasional walled compounds with elaborately carved wooden gates, and finally to a hand-painted sign tacked high on a eucalyptus tree: La Gloria. Our second surprise of the day, and a lesson that in Peru, there's some sort of metaphor about poverty, wealth, and the way things look from the curb, but we haven't quite figured it out yet.

The premise behind La Gloria del Campo is simple and audacious: it's summer camp, but with gourmet dining. The restaurant is an enormous raised, thatch-roofed affair that overlooks the Andean foothills and (nearer by) an outdoor kitchen, supplied by on-site organic vegetable gardens and featuring several enormous kiln-style clay ovens. The space is simple, evocative of camp, but exceptionally comfortable. On a Sunday afternoon, large tables seating 12 or more were filled with happy, chattering diners.

The menu ranges from simple pizzas and pasta dishes to more elaborate fare: roast suckling pig, local standby lomo saltado, and, inevitably, cui. Guinea pig. They were out of cui the day we dined at La Gloria, and no one at our table, neither visitor nor local, was all that upset about it.

The food at La Gloria doesn't match the complexity or quality you'll find in other Lima restaurants. And the place has drawn lots of criticism online for its high-end pricing. Despite the negatives, there's an undeniable charm to sitting comfortably at a large table with friends, enjoying all the accoutrements of a nice restaurant in a setting that looks like Tarzan's patio.

We got back to Lima in the late afternoon, with a short stop at Plaza Mayor to see the impressive Presidential Palace, which is flanked on all sides by guys with machine guns. We didn't linger.

Tomorrow, Steve will tie up loose ends at the office, and Melissa will walk to the Inca Market to see every conceivable Peruvian souvenir. Pssst. You-- yes, you-- there may very well be a mug or a t-shirt coming your way soon.

19 May 2010

The Geeky Joy of Planning

For me, much of the pleasure of travel comes from planning the next trip. The wealth of information available online just enhances that anticipatory pleasure. These days, in addition to getting the nuts-and-bolts info that was formerly available via Fodor’s and other travel books, I can use TripAdvisor to easily compare consumer reviews of restaurants, hotels, and tourist attractions. I can incorporate suggestions from viaMichelin.com to devise the perfect road trip through France. And I can use Google Maps and Google Earth to see actual images of places I’ll be visiting.

As I’ve been researching our destinations in Peru, I’ve come across yet another online resource that just knocks me out: Google has partnered with Panoramio.com to provide an enormous amount of user-provided photo content to their maps. Individuals can upload landscape photos of everything from the Eiffel Tower to their own backyard, and can quickly associate those photos with the specific spot from which they were taken. I’ve uploaded pictures of street scenes and tied them to the precise spot where I was standing when I took the photo. That content then becomes visible to anyone else who uses Google Street View to look at that location.

The concept becomes really fascinating when multiple users contribute similar photos. As you can imagine, we weren’t the first people to snap a photo of the pyramid in front of the Louvre. And as more and more users upload their pics of that same location, some sort of magic happens behind the scenes at Google Maps that overlaps those photos, creating a sort of montage through which you can navigate from one shot to another. It’s an incredibly cool effect: you virtually pan through a scene, and seasons change, night follows day, all sorts of transient factors happen while the primary subject of the scene remains unchanged.



Click on the screen shot above and you'll see what I mean: each of the arrow icons on the borders of the photo are links to other related pics. The round bubble-looking icons inside the body of the photo are also links that "zoom" to a similar photo taken closer to the subject. The large carat icons on the bottom of the photo move you forward and backward in the indicated directions. Finally, the big transparent trapezoid represents a the rectangular frame of another photo taken from a slightly different perspective. And to bring context to this whole wacky thing, in the lower right hand corner, a small map displays where you're standing and what direction you're looking. Initially confusing, this whole concept is quickly mastered, and allows you to virtually walk down the streets of Paris (not to mention a whole host of other locations).

Anyway, the point here is that there are all sorts of emerging technologies that enhance the whole experience of travel. We’ve arranged lodging in the tiny village of Ollantaytambo, Peru and reserved seats on the train to Machu Picchu, all without lifting a finger off our keyboard. Pretty amazing, and pretty darn fun.

11 April 2010

Heaven.




Before we came to Iceland, I read that The Blue Lagoon was for tourists, and the locals go to the municipal pool. I planned to go to the city pool, because, well, I didn't come to Iceland for some canned, theme-park type experience. Then I spoke with several other travelers, including that amazing British "grandmum" from our South Coast tour. When she told us the Blue Lagoon was the highlight of her stay, I arranged our visit.

The Blue Lagoon is like no other pool I've ever seen. It's man-made, but on such a large scale that it feels like a lake. I don't think there's any point in it where you can see the whole thing. It's 5000 square meters, and set in the middle of a remote field of black volcanic rocks covered in arctic moss. The water is salty and very warm, with some spots that are downright hot. The bottom is sandy in some spots, muddy in others, and contains so much white silica that the water has an other-worldly milky blue glow. There are some "hot pots" (jacuzzis) , saunas, and steam rooms nearby for those who want even more heat. On one end of the pool, there's a waterfall that beats against your back for the most amazing massage. And on the edges of the water, there are boxes of purified clay and minerals from the water that you can use as a mask. My face is baby-soft from it. It's free to use there, but it's stupid-expensive to buy. A small tube is something like $70.

The Blue Lagoon is, for the moment, my favorite place on Earth besides home.

We're going back to The Blue Lagoon tomorrow. And then, home.

10 April 2010

A different kind of south beach.

On Saturday morning, we left to see Iceland's south coast. Rain and wind pounded the van while we crossed the mountains, and the windows were so fogged up that we couldn't see a thing. We knew we were at our first stop, Seljalandsfoss waterfall, by its the sound. Warmer temperatures here have accelerated glacial melt, producing a thundering stream of muddy water the likes of which our guide Andre (the same man who guided Steve and me through the Golden Circle in March) had never seen. You can usually walk behind the Seljalandsfoss fall; if you do a Google search, you can see lots of images of tourists walking behind the tall, gentle fall. On our visit, the volume of water made the back route inaccessible. Caroline stayed by the van with the other members of our group to keep dry. I borrowed a waterproof jacket from Andre to wear over my coat and followed him across the narrow river. Where it was shallow, we jumped from rock to rock. Then we reached a footbridge. Ironically, I stayed dry across the rocks, but the spray from the fall was so intense on the bridge that it soaked through my jeans and my base layer in seconds. I spent the rest of the day in cold, sloshy denim, but it was worth it.

video


The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route in Iceland for a reason-- the sites are close to Reykjavik, and the loop is very dense with high-value stops. Every fifteen minutes, you reach something beautiful. The south coast is both more subtle and more extreme. We drove for long, boring stretches between sites, and when we reached them, they were not immediately spectacular.

Reynisfjara Beach is the southernmost point in Iceland, a stark, barren stretch of coastline. At first, the sand is not sand at all-- it's rocks. As you approach the water, the rocks get smaller and smaller, and eventually, you reach a band of fine-grained black sand. I only appreciated the view once I got close to the water, where the violent white waves against the black sand looks like a normal beach in negative exposure. The waves are notoriously unpredictable here, and I've never seen such erratic tides. One moment they'd gently roll to shore far from where we stood; a couple of minutes later, they'd race so much faster and farther in that I grabbed Caroline (who has not yet developed a healthy respect for nature's dangers) and moved to higher ground. We walked along the beach for a while, and then got back in the van to leave for or our wildest destination of the entire trip.

After driving on the highway for half an hour or so, Andre turned on to winding gravel road. The road was bouncy and uneven, and when we eventually reached our destination, the other vehicles there were all 4X4s. We parked in a gravel lot at the edge of a field of black volcanic rocks. They ranged in size from pebbles to boulders, and covered the ground over hills and under streams leading to the snout of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier.

A tangent: Mýrdalsjökull glacier is redundant; in Icelandic, most places are identified with logical toponyms. A -jökull is a glacier, a -fjörður is a fjord, a -foss is a waterfall, a -hraun is a lava field, a -fell is a mountain, a -vatn is a lake, a -vik is an inlet, and so forth. Once I figured this out, it made it a lot easier to decipher place names here.

The hike to the glacier wasn't far, but there was no obvious route. It was like one of those mazes on childrens' paper place mats: we'd set off in one direction, only to reach a stream that was too wide to cross. Andre took off ahead of us, and found a path that put us directly on the glacier's snout. I followed behind one of our tour-mates-- a spry British grand-mum who left her daughter and granddaughter behind because they were too slow. I pulled out my camera on some of the flat stretches, but the sky and glacier are both so white than my pictures all looked washed-out. We lingered at the glacier for a long time, with everyone hiking off in different directions. Andre encouraged us to stand at the edge of the glacier, but not to venture more than a few feet on to the ice. It was obvious from the edge that the ice in front of us was melting, and there was no way to tell where the weak spots might be.

Next we drove to the Skógafoss waterfall, which is usually larger than Seljalandsfoss. You would never know that from our visit! Skógafoss was impressive, but seemed gentle compared to Seljalandsfoss. I'd read that there's almost always a rainbow at Skógafoss, but the sky was a solid sheet of white while we were there.

Our final stop was Skógar, a tiny village just south of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. If "Eyjafjallajökull" looks strangely familiar, it's because the volcano that erupted last month was under this glacier. We visited Skógasafn, an Icelandic folk museum, and toured their tiny, century-old farmhouse to get a rare glimpse of a truly old Icelandic building.

We got back to Reykjavik at about 6PM, damp and exhausted. We warmed up at Indian Mango-- a highly regarded restaurant downtown where Caroline had her first taste of local lamb and I had the "vegetarian dish". I asked the waitress what was in it, and she just shrugged and said "whatever he feels like putting in it each day, but it's always good". And it was.

09 April 2010

Volcano's-a-no-go

We made up for this week's dearth of sleep with twelve uninterrupted hours of shut-eye for me, and thirteen for Caroline. As Caroline got ready for our trip to the volcano, the hotel's concierge gave me the bad news: a storm rolled in overnight, and our guide was forced to cancel our trip. The conditions weren't dangerous, per se, but views of the volcano were completely obstructed by the cloud cover.

We decided to take a walk up to The Pearl, a large dome that sits atop six enormous water towers on a hill high above Reykjavik. It's a ten minute walk from our hotel thanks to a fully paved path, and the fresh air felt great. The path had several small gravel trails leading off through the trees in different directions. It's the sort of place that would be thoroughly creepy in any other city. Not here. Reykjavik, even in its park-like crevices, feels perfectly safe.

We stopped at The Pearl's fourth floor cafeteria for skyr (MUCH better here than the one we tried in Portland!) and coffee, and then went back down to the lobby to visit the Saga Museum. It's a small wax museum, but it's worth a visit. The figures are incredibly realistic, and since this is Iceland, many of them are downright frightening. The audio tour takes about thirty minutes, and guides you through the most important events in Iceland's early history.

From The Pearl, we went downtown to hunt for a pair of "cute" fingerless wool gloves. Caroline saw some in the gift shop at Geysir, but we ran out of time and couldn't buy them there. They cover your wrist and wrap around your thumb only, but they leave your fingers completely exposed. Since fingers and toes get cold so quickly, I asked the shopkeeper, while Caroline tried them on, why someone other than my daughter might want such gloves.

"They're helpful for hunting, fishing, smoking..."

Caroline doesn't hunt, fish, or smoke, but she loves her cute fingerless gloves so much that I had to remind her to take them off at dinner (edit: and again at bedtime).

For dinner, we went back to The Pearl. We had a reservation at Perlan, the rotating restaurant at the top of the dome. Like all such restaurants, the food was secondary to the view. The view was spectacular! You can see the city from the fourth floor cafeteria, but it's not panoramic, and of course, it doesn't rotate. Let me back up. The food was secondary for me. For Caroline, it was more memorable: her crispy duck was served with her very first taste of pan-seared foie gras. She was tentative at first, but then she metered it out and spread a little on each bite of duck. She really amazes me, my daughter. I felt out of sorts if I traveled as far as Staten Island at her age. Caroline is always open to new experiences. No, that's an understatement. She's eager for new experiences.

Tomorrow, black sand beaches and waterfalls along Iceland's south coast.

Icelanders scare their children to sleep

The Hotel Loftleiðir is a strange mix of awful and awesome. At the top of the "awesome" list is a unique concept. At 9PM on Thursday nights, guests are invited to pick up a cup of complimentary hot chocolate on the way into the hotel's small theater, where a professional actor reads a selection of bedtime stories.

The actor warned the children, who were mostly British, that Icelandic bedtime stories are a little different than the ones they read at home. One story was about a giantess and her eight beautiful baby giants who turned to stone in the sun. Then there was the reading from Egil's Saga, in which Egil, age 7, murders someone with an axe.

They wouldn't be Vikings if they raised their kids on Goodnight Moon.

08 April 2010

All that glitters.

An hour after we got to bed last night-- and a mere four hours before our wake-up call, I heard Caroline whimper and retch. I don't know how she did it, but with only four hours of sleep in the last forty-eight hours and no ability to keep down a sip of water, she worked up the enthusiasm to get out of bed and see the Golden Circle. It was a gamble, but it paid off. She took things slowly in the beginning, and felt perfectly normal within a couple of hours.

Our Golden Circle experience was quite different than my tour with Steve last month. There's snow on the ground now, and some of the water at Gullfoss, Þingvellir, and Kerið is frozen. The snow in Reykjavik and at Þingvellir is powdery dry and crunchy when you walk across it, and it sparkles in the sunshine. It's lovely. Although it must have been colder for Caroline and me, there was virtually no wind. This time around, we were able to really explore each site. We started our Gullfoss visit way up high by the visitor center this time, walked down to the main viewing area, and then went down as close to the water as we could. At the bottom of the trail, atop a series of volcanic rocks near the edge of a cliff, Caroline learned a fundamental climbing rule the hard way: when you climb up, you need to be able to get down. Fortunately for Caroline, she only weighs seventy pounds and her mom was there to grab her.

Steve and I were hammered by the wind at Geysir so hard that we took a couple of quick (but lucky) pictures and ran back to the bus. Caroline and I were able to linger here long enough to watch Strokkur erupt several times. Strokkur erupts (on average) every four minutes. Some of the eruptions are very small; others are massive. Sometimes there are two or three in quick succession, and other times, it seems quiet for a long time. We stayed in the field for about twenty minutes, and sure enough, we saw Strokkur erupt five times. Here's a small eruption, but the only one I was able to capture from start to finish:

video

We got back to our hotel at about 5PM, had a quick dinner in the hotel's restaurant, and tried to decide what to do tomorrow. We really wanted to sign up for The Mountaineers of Iceland's 4X4 drive across the "Myrdalsjokull Glacier to the erupting volcano on Fimmvörðuháls which is situated near the Glacier Eyjafjallajökull". We tossed it back and forth, and decided that the 4PM-4AM itinerary was too ambitious, and the $400+ price tag was too expensive.

And then we booked it anyway.

07 April 2010

The Northern Lights

We had a perfectly clear sky tonight, and unexpectedly high auroral activity. We took a bus to a remote, dark field near a river-- a river we could hear but could not see. There were glowing fingers across the sky in every direction... but there was no color. None. Well, that's not true. If you closed your eyes for a solid minute, twirled around, and aimed just right, you might catch faint green streaks in your peripheral vision. Head on, the light was fuzzy beige. Our tour guide could spot aurora streams forming long before we could, and she was always right about where they appeared, but her hopes for a vivid show died shortly after midnight when the fuzzy beige lights shut down almost completely.

The forecast is similar for tomorrow night, so we'll probably skip the icy cold field in favor of a soothing geothermal pool.

I actually know my way around Reykjavik.

Two weeks ago, I visited Iceland as a tourist. Now I'm back as a guide. It sounds crazy, and I don't pretend to know a fraction of what there is to know about this place, but I know enough to walk my daughter to every tourist site in old downtown Reykjavik with minimal assistance from a map. I still can't find my way around Southeast Portland without GPS, so I'm pretty pleased with myself.

Our plane took off on time, and there were no volcanic eruptions to waylay us. We checked into our hotel, raided the breakfast buffet for hard boiled eggs, skyr, and fresh quince, and then set out on foot to see the city. That's exactly what Steve and I did two weeks ago, only our hotel was downtown, right on the water. Caroline and I are staying at a slightly nicer hotel, but it's far from the action. After some of the wild weather Steve and I encountered, I was nervous when I saw snow on the ground. It may indeed be colder, but it was so sunny and wind-free that our three mile loop felt perfectly refreshing after all those hours in the car, at the airport, and on the plane. We visited Hallsgrimska, the Sun Voyager, and Laugavegur, Reykjavik's main shopping street. We popped into Isey, where I had the unique opportunity to report back to the shopkeeper about all the compliments I've received back home on one of her designs.

To my complete delight, Caroline was more focused on the little things than the landmarks--
the crazy drivers, the nerve-wracking sound that alerts pedestrians that their time in the crosswalk is running out, the streets named for historical figures from the Sagas, and the oddities on grocery store shelves. We agreed that hardfiskur is not an appealing snack food, but that Muu is a fabulous name for milk.

After lunch, we returned to the hotel for a much-needed nap. Now we're waiting with bated breath and crossed fingers to find out if the clouds and ions will cooperate long enough for us to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

06 April 2010

Iceland II

In nine hours, my baby girl will get her very first passport stamp. To prepare for our trip, she's studied Icelandic culture, literature, tourist attractions, and a little bit about volcanoes.

She learned about patronyms and matronyms, and rechristened our puppy as Jasper Carolinesdoggie.

She read 700 pages of The Sagas of the Icelanders, and declared that it takes effort to follow at times "because everyone's name starts with Thor and they all want to kill each other".

She hopes Katla doesn't blow up while we're there.

Location:SeaTac Airport, United States

23 March 2010

Amazing day

This is far too short a trip for self-indulgent jetlag woes, so we requested a 7AM wake-up call and scheduled an all-day tour of Iceland's famous Golden Circle.

We hate tours. We hate tour buses, tourists, and smarmy tour guides. We prefer to do our own research and explore on our own. With only three days in Iceland however, we compromised: we signed up with a smallish tour group for the eight hour trek through some of Iceland's most dramatic natural wonders. Andre from Iceland Horizons proved to be an excellent tour guide-- genuinely enthusiastic, and with extensive knowledge of history, geology, mythology, and comparative languages. There were only nine other people in our group, and they were very good company.

We left Reykjavik at 9 AM on a rain-free but very windy morning, and our first stop was the Nwsjavellir power plant. Icelanders get their power and hot water from super-hot volcanic steam under the Earth's crust. The plant is located in the middle of a thousand year old lava field, and except for a sparse carpet of arctic moss, it looks like Mars - utterly inhospitable and decidedly un-Earthly.

From there we drove into a peaceful agricultural valley lined with greenhouses and field after field of wind-blown Icelandic horses. These stocky little creatures were developed as a distinct breed and are protected by law in Iceland - no other horses are allowed on the island. In their heavy winter coats and long manes, they're a picturesque feature on the landscape.

Our next major stop was Kerið, a beautiful volcanic crater lake. It looks like an ampitheater-- so much so that a few musicians, including Björk, have played concerts on the lake.

One of the highlights of our trip was a stop at Geysir, the eponymous body that gives all geysers their name. Geysir itself is now extinct, but we followed signs a mere two hundred or so meters up hill to Strokkur, a large, active, and frequent belcher. You could see Strokkur's spray from the road, yet this short walk felt sort of like an ascent of K2. The wind was like a solid wall that made it hard to move forward. It left us gasping for air, but it whipped our faces with such force that it was hard to breathe. It felt like an endless pool or a hamster wheel. Once we made it there, It was literally difficult to stand still for pictures of Strokkur; we had to brace ourselves against the wind with our legs slightly apart to get these shots. We looked absolutely ridiculous, which is why there are no pictures of us in front of Strokkur. It probably sounds miserable, but it wasn't-- it was thrilling! The geyser's spray is less impressive than the flash-boil that precedes it when the gray, spritzy flat surface of the water rises into a breathtakingly vivid blue dome.

Like all the larger sites along the Golden Circle, Geysir has a comfortable, modern cafeteria/gift shop. Our group stayed for lunch to give our extremities a chance to thaw. The bathroom stalls are painted flat white, and visitors are encouraged to leave an autograph. Based on an unscientific sampling around one particular potty, the majority of tourists here are from Norway and Sweden. I may never be in the Olympics, but now at least I can say that I represented my country on a bathroom wall somewhere in Iceland.

After lunch, we got back in the van and left for Gullfoss,a waterfall along the Hvitá river. We thought we'd be jaded after spending a day at Iguazu Falls in '08, but Gullfoss was beautiful. The falls descend in two stages, cutting through the landscape and forming a deep, steep-sided gorge. Gulfoss doesn't approach Iguazu's scale or magnificence, but it's impressive and exciting and not at all the sort of falls you'd see on a hike back home. The wind picked up speed (you can hear it in the video below) but thankfully, it didn't come straight at us as we worked our way to the top of the park high above Gullfoss.

Final stop, Þingvellir national park, which straddles the rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. You can see right at the surface just how the Earth's pulling apart here. It's scenic in a spooky way, but it's also very beautiful. I've never seen such fundamental geologic processes so plainly displayed - the Þingvellir valley is scored with hundreds of fissures, clear evidence that this is the youngest land on the planet.

We got back to the hotel at about 5:30, wind-whipped, sore, and exhausted. The cumulative effect of several hour-long stops in the freezing breeze was a deep-down core-level chill that permeated our bodies. The perfect antidote: steamy-hot sulfurous water pounding on our muscles. Fortunately, Reykjavik hotels suffer no shortage of hot water.

We had low expectations for Reykjavik's dining scene even after our wonderful Indian meal last night, so we didn't put a whole lot of effort into finding a restaurant for dinner. We walked to Argentína Steikhús, which looked and sounded like an expensive tourist trap, but had the virtue of being half a block from our hotel. Steve ordered the chef's menu; I ordered a plain old steak. Hey, it's a steakhouse. We knew our meals would be slightly out of synch, but I wasn't hungry enough to care.

Within minutes we had a bottle of 2001 Gruaud Larose and an amuse bouche. I wish I'd paid more attention to the waiter's description, because whatever it was, the amuse was delicious. Bresaola, perhaps? Rolled and stuffed with something nutty, bright, herbal, and yummy. Our jaded palates perked up, and for good reason: what followed was an utterly delightful, lovingly prepared, perfectly paced meal.

The four-course special menu started with a ravioli filled with spinach and an egg yolk, drizzled with an oxtail ragout. The waiter brought out two servings: we waved off the second plate, explaining that only Steve had ordered the multi-course meal. The waiter shrugged and offered the extra ravioli to Melissa as an offering on the house. We both agreed the ravioli was delicious: unctuous yolk melding with the sharp spinach and tender pasta, the entire dish punctuated with the deep, earthy richness of the oxtail ragout.

The second course was a small portion of Icelandic salmon, cold-cured in salt and lemon zest. Two small squares of salmon were topped with arctic char roe and a drizzle of creme fraiche. Once again, our waiter brought two plates and offered the second to Melissa, explaining that "it didn't make sense to wait without eating" for the steak she'd ordered. What a gracious way to insure that we both enjoyed a harmonious dining experience. The fish was buttery tender, wonderfully delicate. The roe and sauce added an extra dimension of texture and flavor, but the fish itself was the standout: utterly fresh, faintly briny, just perfect fresh salmon.

And Melissa ate it. Melissa ate fish. As she explained, the presentation made her decision fairly easy: the dish was beautiful, a jewel-like presentation that was as much art as food. In any case, delicious as the food was, the big celebratory moment was when Melissa voluntarily tried it!

Our main courses were a couple of nice steaks accompanied by stir fried veggies. Melissa had a baked potato, Steve was served some complimentary french fries with garlic and rosemary. Probably the most pedestrian part of the meal - a steak is, after all, just a steak.

For dessert, Steve's meal included three mini-servings: a creme brulee, tiramisu, and a lemon sorbet. Melissa ordered a pavlova meringue served with mango and passionfruit reductions.

By the time we finished our desserts, we'd polished off the Bordeaux as well, and things got a little silly. We decided we had to try brennevin, the local Icelandic liqueur: a caraway-flavored brandy that's traditionally used to wash down local delicacies like sour sheep testicles. After we downed our shots of brennevin, our waiter (perhaps sensing an opportunity to laugh at impulsive tourists) suggested we next try "Opal", an herb-infused vodka that ranks among the worst alcoholic concoctions I've ever tried. Melissa claims to enjoy it, and backed up her claim a day later by purchasing a bottle of the stuff at the airport duty-free store.

We rolled out of the Argentina Steikhús several hours after entering - satiated, a little buzzed, and utterly charmed that we'd stumbled into such a pleasant and enjoyable meal in this quirky northern capital. The frigid wind that had howled all day during our tour had finally subsided, and we walked through the chilly night air back to our hotel. A very full, very fun day.

Gullfoss

So windy here at Gulfoss that it's hard to hold on to the cameras. And c-c-cold, but breathtakingly beautiful. We have some good geyser pictures to add from home.

video

22 March 2010

P.U.

Iceland and India make strange bedfellows, but the two nations share a friendly trade relationship and strong diplomatic ties. Our hotel sits across the street from the Indian embassy, which looks more like a strip mall Quizno's than the domestic seat of a foreign government. Two of the ten best restaurants on this tiny Viking island are Indian, and tonight we decided to try one of them. We had good Indian food in Amsterdam and in Buenos Aires, but our dinner tonight at Austur India Fjelagid was... different. Better. It was a well executed synthesis of traditional Indian presentations with local herbs, fish, and wild berries. Good wine list, too.

And speaking of liquid refreshment, Iceland has the best tap water on the planet-- exceptionally cold and pure. Turn the faucet a few degrees to the left however, and you're in for a surprise: just as the cold water is completely unadulterated, so is the hot water. Only the hot water comes from deep geothermally heated sulfurous pools. At its best the hot water smells like a gently poached egg; at its worst it smells like Nair. The smell's growing on us. It's a very cool reminder that Iceland's water heater is the Mid Atlantic Ridge.

Fusion

What's a cantina without grilled whale enchiladas?

Reykjavik

Eyjafjallajokull volcano slept peacefully for 190 years, and woke up, quite inconvenently, while we were four hours into our flight. Somewhere over Hudson Bay, our pilot took a three hour detour to Boston. Nobody knew when it would be safe to reopen Keflavik, so we all waited. And waited. We waited fifteen hours, and learned that Icelanders are a cheerful, patient bunch. They form orderly lines without supervision, they smile a lot, they lovingly scratch each other's scalps, and they're exceptionally enthusiastic to hear that their home is your destination and not your layover. If you have to be stranded at an airport with hundreds of strangers, Icelanders are the lot you want.

Mother Nature and the Fosshotel Baron took pity on us: the former gave us perfect weather, and the latter gave us an upgrade. We got in at 4AM Monday morning, and slept like babies for six hours. We stared out our window at the picture-perfect landscape for a few minutes, and then set out on foot to explore the city. Our first stop was the Sun Voyager-- a modernist steel sculpture in the shape of an ancient Viking ship. From there we explored the length of Laugavegur, Reykjavik's main shopping street, lined with boutiques, quirky restaurants, and galleries. Laugavegur leads toward the historic center of town, where we stopped for croissants and coffee. The old town is composed almost entirely of two story wooden framed buildings, often sheathed in corrugated iron and painted bright primary colors - it's a rustic contrast to the formal architecture of more traditional European capitals and reminds us that although this is culturally part of Europe, it's a very different place indeed. On our way back to the hotel, we took a different route and wandered up a small hill to the site of Hallgrimskirkja, a striking Church with a steeple so tall that we could see it from almost everywhere in the city.

At street level, Reykjavik has generic Scandinavian charm: stark buildings, clean sidewalks, and unprounouncable street names laden with diacritical marks. Look up, and there's nothing generic about Reykjavik. Each of the city's brightly colored roofs forms a pointilist blob on a technicolor skyline framed on all sides by blue water and icy volcanic mountains. Unless you peek through an alley, the low rise buildings on a typical street are high enough to camouflage the fact that this city, so tidy and civilized, is surrounded on all sides by wilderness.

Tomorrow, wilderness.

20 March 2010

Seismic Setback




We were 37,000 feet above Northern Canada in a region as white, scarred, and barren as the surface of the moon when our Captain gave us the bad news: a volcano erupted in Iceland. Not that we're eager to fly into a cloud of burning soot or anything, but we were totally bummed to see the animated airplane on our flight map change its course.

Dang.

Noted.

15 February 2010

They eat what?

TripAdvisor's top two restaurants in Paris are Guy Savoy and Taillevant. French food. TripAdvisor's top two restaurants in Barcelona are Con Gracia and Montiel. Spanish Food. TripAdvisor's top two restaurants in Vienna are Immervoll and Purstner. Austrian food.

It's an obvious and logical pattern, and it says something fairly profound about Icelandic cuisine that TripAdvisor's top two restaurants in Reykjavík are Indian Mango and Cafe Haiti.

Iceland is famous for the sort of dishes that travelers eat strictly for bragging rights. Hákarl, the fermented, decayed flesh of the otherwise poisonous Greenland shark, smells so strongly of death and windex that Anthony Bourdain called it the most disgusting thing he'd ever eaten. Round the menu out with singed sheep heads, boiled ram testicles, and liver-suet pudding.

Eager to embrace at least one traditional Icelandic edible before our trip, I picked up three little cups of Siggi's Skyr at my local grocery store.



Skyr is made from skim milk, and then strained until it's very thick. We love greek yogurt and routinely strain our own homemade yogurt at home, but skyr is... different. Odd. It's so dense and sticky that it's downright unpleasant. I watched my little son thrust his tongue repeatedly against the roof of his mouth like a dog trying to make sense of peanut butter. He put in a valiant effort, but he only got a couple of ounces down before he declared skyr gross.

"When in Rome" we'll eat as the Romans eat, because the Romans eat Italian food instead of Hákarl. When in Reykjavík, we'll eat wood fired pizza and lamb tikka masala.

06 February 2010

Iceland!

A slightly belated anniversary trip... to Iceland, of all places. It's a place Melissa's always wanted to visit, and what better time to visit than in March? Pros: Northern Lights, more hours to enjoy Reykjavik's famous nightlife, fewer tourists (hmmm, why would that be?); Cons: frostbite.

We can't wait!