11 July 2010


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.