cusco

Peru Adventure – Cusco/Lima

July 15, 2014

Coffee!!!!

Coffee!!!!

After a lively, late night dinner with our tour group that included the opportunity to make our own Pisco Sours, surprisingly we were up early for our final morning in Cusco. Our first stop was to Starbucks. Don’t judge. Old habits die hard, and Starbucks has free wifi. And reliable caffeinated beverages. And we wanted to Facetime with our sons. We hadn’t seen their cute little faces in days. We were due.

Just another morning in Cusco city

Just another morning in Cusco city

This Starbucks store sits on the second floor of an old building right off the main plaza, so it offers a nice view of the city while you wait for your latte. While we were sitting there, a procession of local, Catholic school children was making its way down the street in front of the store. Some were dressed in uniforms. Some were in angel costumes. All were adorable. It was one of those scenes you just don’t get to see in suburban Denver, so we snapped a few photos to share with our kids.I don’t feel one bit bad for visiting that highly commercial, Seattle-based coffeehouse. The way I had it figured, we were supporting American workers.

Love how the locals use blankets as backpacks

Love how the locals use blankets as backpacks

With caffeine on board, we went out to find some final souvenirs before heading to the airport. Walking around the central area in Cusco is fun. The city is both modern and ancient. You’re just as likely to encounter a hip student on a cell phone as you are a woman in traditional dress walking an alpaca. We lucked out and ran into Ray while we were trying to decide the best place to buy some last-minute gifts. It’s great to have a local to give you tips when you’re not familiar with an area. They can be invaluable in suggesting restaurants and pointing you in the right direction for exactly what you need. It helps when that person is also energetic, fun, and an all-around nice person. I was glad to discover that Ray is on Facebook. Facebook, for all its absurdities, makes the world a bit smaller by allowing me to stay in touch with amazing people I meet along my life’s journey.

Salud!

Salud!

We got to the airport with time to spare before our scheduled departure. While we were sitting there waiting, Andrew went off to buy some snacks. He returned carrying a bottle of Inca Cola. We’d seen this on the menu nearly everywhere we went. Inca Cola is Peru’s answer to Coca Cola. It looks like Mountain Dew, but Ray told us it tasted like bubblegum. Andrew poured us each a sample in a plastic cup and we toasted to our trip and our successful completion of the Inca Trail. Salud! Turns out it does taste pretty much like bubblegum soda, which I thought would be horrific but really wasn’t as disgusting as I had imagined. Not saying I’ll be buying cases of it on Amazon or anything, but I always figure I’m better for every new thing I’m brave enough to try.

Dinner at Saqra

Dinner at Saqra

We arrived in Lima hungry and tired. When we checked in at our hotel for our last night, I pulled up TripAdvisor and looked for a restaurant nearby. Saqra was ranked #14 in Lima and, bonus, it was just around the block from the hotel. It was a definite find. The ambiance was modern, fun, and funky, and the food was delicious. Up until that point, the four of us had been fairly conservative about what we ate and drank because, well, we were nervous about being sick on the Inca Trail. But with our trek behind us, all bets were off. We started with our first official Pisco Sours of the trip. The night before we’d sampled them but didn’t commit. I finally understood why people rave about these drinks. They’re tasty, they hit you like a ton of bricks (hello…cheap date here), and despite the lovely buzz there were no ill-effects afterwards. We ordered a couple appetizers, Parmesan scallops (which were served on their lovely shells) and ceviche to start. Perfecto! I settled upon ravioli for my main course and was not disappointed. The most fun part about Saqra was the restrooms, which were infinitely more amusing after a Pisco Sour. There are two unisex rooms. One is decorated with walls covered floor to ceiling in padded, red vinyl. The other room is entirely mirrored. Neither was occupied, so I had my choice. I won’t share which one I drew me in first, but I will tell you that a second Pisco Sour and another glass of agua con gas guaranteed that I eventually got to experience them both. When I got back to the table, as gauche as it is, I mentioned that the restrooms were not to be missed. I was curious to see what room would intrigue my friends. I’m all about initiating spirited (and occasionally inappropriate) dinner conversation among friends.

After dinner, we were worn out from shopping, touring, sampling, flying, drinking, and laughing, so we called it an early night. We had to rest up for our last full day in the City of Kings. Tomorrow we would tour Lima, visit a museum, and enjoy one last Peruvian meal before boarding a red-eye back to the States. As excited as I was to see our boys, I was melancholy about leaving Peru. Or maybe it was merely the effect of my Pisco Sours wearing off.

Peru Adventure – The Sacred Valley

July 10, 2014

Cristo Blanco watching over Cusco

White Jesus watching over Cusco

We started our day in a van around 7:30 a.m. We had a busy day planned, so we got right to it. Our first destination was a statue that sits high above Cusco. Ray called it “White Jesus,” but it is officially called Cristo Blanco. The statue was a thank you gift from some Christian Palestinians in the mid-1940s after they sought refuge in Peru. Considering that we were about to take a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, it seemed a little strange to be hanging out by a white Jesus but the view was worth it. From there, we were also able to get a glimpse of our first Inca ruin, Sacsayhuaman. Ray told us the correct pronunciation for that word. Then he told us most gringos call it “Sexy Woman,” and that stuck. Go figure.

After our photo-op, we got back into the touring van and descended down the winding road toward the first of our two cultural destinations of the day. We were going to a local village where women still practice the art of weaving as it has been done for centuries. One of the reasons I chose G Adventures for our trip was their dedication to helping the communities they visit through Planeterra, a charitable organization they founded. Planeterra’s mission is to protect iconic destinations from being exploited by partnering with community members and finding ways to support them, help the environment, and encourage local business.

Weaving the old school way

Weaving the old school way

As we pulled up to the village, our van slowed to pick up a diminutive woman in traditional costume who served as our guide for the tour. Lucila explained how they shear the wool from alpacas, clean it using the roots from a plant, and then color it by creating dye from different native plants and minerals. Once the wool is dyed, they spin it and then weave it into hats, scarves, and other textiles that the families sell to folks who visit the co-op. If the women use the ancient weaving process (shown here), it can take a month to make one patterned table runner. If they use the more modern looms provided by the Planeterra foundation, these same textiles take half the time to create. Either way, they’re producing handcrafted, truly Peruvian souvenirs for tourists while sustaining their community and preserving cultural traditions. We bought gifts for everyone on our list and felt good about supporting these families and the Planeterra mission. Total win/win.

Ray explaining the Inca terraces

Ray explaining the Inca terraces

Our next stop was to Pisac to tour our first Inca ruin. As we pulled up, we could see the agricultural terracing the Incas had set up. It was my first opportunity to acknowledge that we were actually in Peru and about to experience something I’d only seen in photos. I felt so small in the expanse and could not wait to stand there in the midst of what the Incas had created. Once we negotiated the maze of tour buses and finally reached the entrance, Ray took over. He told us how the terracing allowed the Incas to grow diverse crops depending upon the altitude at which they were planted. The Incas were not only master builders, but they were masters of their environment as well, creating channels and rerouting snow melt water to irrigate their crops from the top down. We toured the ruins and got some practice huffing and puffing our way up the stairs. Ray told us he was going to be evaluating our group fitness. As the oldest person in our group, I crossed my fingers that I would not turn out to be the weakest link.

The perfect setting for an authentic Peruvian lunch

The perfect setting for an authentic Peruvian lunch

In the meantime, I needed something more than oxygen. Lunch. Did someone say lunch? We had an hour-long bus ride to reach our lunch destination, another Planeterra brainchild. To foster preservation of native, Peruvian cuisine, Planeterra had worked with one small, struggling community to create a top-notch restaurant that serves traditional cuisine crafted from local produce to weary travelers like our group. Ray assured us that the meal would be excellent. It was. In a state-of-the-art kitchen in the middle of nowhere, Peruvians who had been trained as chefs by Planeterra had spent their morning whipping up delicacies for us. We had appetizers, a delicious green salad (you have no idea how excited I was about that “safe” lettuce), a rocoto pepper stuffed with ground alpaca (so good), and mazamorra morada (spiced pudding made with purple corn and fruit) for dessert. It was probably the best meal we’d eaten yet in Peru. To rest after lunch, we all took turns trying our hand at Sapo, a Peruvian tossing game similar to our Cornhole game where you try to land a beanbag in a hole. Instead of tossing a bean bag, we were tossing heavy, metal coins into holes on a table to score points. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but it was a fun way to interact with our fellow travelers. I found myself grateful that hand-eye coordination is not a skill required to hike the Inca Trail.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Our late afternoon plan included yet another bus ride. This time we were headed toward our last civilized accommodation before becoming ground sleepers. We arrived in Ollantaytambo (oy-on-tay-tom-bo), checked into a super cute inn, and had just enough time to unpack our souvenirs and freshen up before hitting our last destination of the day. Within walking distance of the inn and situated at the junction of two valleys sit the Inca ruins at Ollantaytambo. The sun was starting to sink behind the Andes and we were losing daylight. Because of this, as we were entering the ruins, most of the crowds there were leaving. Like all the other ruins, this one included an impressive number of stairs. Ray broke it down into sections for us, giving us time to gasp for air while he told us about our surroundings. Of all the ruins we saw on our tour, these became my favorite. The stonework was incredible, and the setting was impressive. Scanning the nearby hills, small ruins were evident all over the place. Maybe it was the setting sun. Maybe it was the excitement of the trek we would begin the next day. Maybe it was the recognition that we were in truly sacred territory. In any case, something that evening made those ruins stand out. What the Incas were able to do in the formidable terrain of the surrounding Andes is awe-inspiring. And despite the cold wind blowing down the valleys and into the site while we walked around, I was getting a warm, fuzzy feeling about where this trip would take me.

Peru Adventure – Cusco

July 9, 2014

Cusco

Cusco

Before we could begin our Inca Trail trek, we needed to spend some time acclimatizing to the higher altitude. We were already fortunate enough to be coming from the Mile High City, but any Coloradoan can tell you there’s a big difference between physical exertion at 5,280 feet and physical exertion at 14,000 feet. We needed some time to get ourselves ready. So on Wednesday morning, we headed back to the Lima airport to board a flight to Cusco, which sits at 11,200 feet. A combination of Inca and Spanish culture, a blend of old and new, Cusco did not disappoint. For starters, landing at the airport there was more eventful than I was prepared for. As you descend toward the city, the Andes rough you up and force you through sharp turns as the pilots maneuver to land in the narrow, high valley where Cusco rests. I’d like to say that regular flights over the Rocky Mountains had prepared me for this, but they didn’t. But then I’m not sure anything can prepare you for the wonder of Cusco.

Our G Adventures guide, Ray, was waiting for us safely outside baggage claim. He efficiently loaded us into a large van for the 15 minute trip from the airport to our hotel and began briefing us about the rest of the events for the day. After a couple of free days wandering around Lima sans guide, I was looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about Peru from a local. A guide will make or break a tour, and immediately I knew we were in good hands with Ray. He was born and raised in Cusco, spoke Quechua (the language of the local natives), and finished his degree in tourism at the university in Cusco by completing his thesis on the Incas. And if his expertise were not enough, Ray’s impeccable people skills carried us from that first van trip through our last night in Cusco. He somehow managed to keep us motivated and on track for our entire tenure with him without ever making us feel rushed. I later discovered that he’s a Gemini like me. I knew I liked him.

Grains available for purchase from local farmers in the San Pedro Market

Bags of grain in the San Pedro Market

We had a quick stop at the hotel to freshen up before heading out for a walking tour of Cusco. Ray first took us to the San Pedro market. We wandered the aisles of this packed, open air venue where you could buy produce, grains, meat, herbs, textiles, and other assorted items. I marveled at the size of the Inca corn, which makes our corn nut snacks look piddly. We stopped occasionally to make food purchases from several local vendors so we could sample traditional bread and some tropical fruits that we can’t find here at home. It was one of those things that we might not have experienced without a good guide. We might have found the market on our own, but the likelihood that we would have felt comfortable purchasing and ingesting unknown foods is slim. The most interesting fruit we sampled was the granadilla, which had a hard outer shell similar to a gourd but which was very similar to a passion fruit. The flesh around the seeds was gelatinous (think chia seed consistency) and you had to suck the fruit from the outer shell. It was a fun experience. Nothing like getting to know your new friends by mouthing fruit on a street in Cusco.

Looks like a good time to walk your alpaca

Looks like a good time to walk your alpaca

We walked from the market toward the main plaza. Along the way I took time to marvel at the architecture. The bottom portion of many of the buildings was fashioned from different materials than most of the top parts of the same buildings. Ray explained that over the course of hundreds of years and dozens of earthquakes, the Inca walls remained in tact while the Spanish buildings erected on their ruins crumbled. Consequently, Cusco has a very new, old feel. I marveled as we walked near one of the old Spanish churches erected by the Conquistadors. Outside there was a street performer who had painted himself gold and was posing as a living statue for cash, a scene I could easily imagine any day of the week on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Passing right in front of the church at the same time, however, was a woman in traditional costume walking an alpaca. That was when I knew we were in for something special over the next week.

Noting we were hungry and a bit worse for the rapid altitude change, Ray directed us to a spot to grab a late lunch. He told us that our best bet was soup. Better not to overburden your system when your body is already struggling to acclimate. I was definitely feeling somewhat off already, so at Ray’s suggestion I tried the quinua (quinoa to us North Americans) soup…just the right amount of protein and comfort. Perfecto!

Later we met back at the hotel for a briefing about our journey into the Sacred Valley of the Incas and our Inca Trail trek. We were at last introduced to the whole of our hiking group. There were fourteen of us, six Americans, four Brits, a Swiss couple, and two Danish twenty-somethings. We quickly surmised that we were older than most of our fellow travelers by at least 20 years. We tried to imagine our advanced age would not be a handicap but, just in case, I began referring to us as “the old folks.” (It was what “the kids” were thinking anyway.) We covered logistics and were reminded that our packing limit for the next five days was 6 kilograms (about 13 pounds) and that had to include our sleeping bag and ground pad. They gave us the trip bags to pack for our porters and sent us back to our rooms to begin the arduous task of packing, weighing, and repacking. I was thrilled to realize I’d estimated well at home. My first time to the bag scale left me a half kilo under the allowed weight. Woohoo! I got to add in another shirt and the portable battery charger for my iPhone. All was right with the world.

Comfort food of potential destruction

Comfort food of potential destruction

Dinner was at a quaint, well-reviewed restaurant called Nuna Raymi’s. While my friends all went with more traditional Peruvian food, I was still feeling not quite 100% so I opted for the comfort of pasta. And I was enjoying my spaghetti with olive oil and chunks of delicious, locally crafted cheese until I thought for a second about the fresh basil and tomatoes in the entrée that I’d happily been gnawing. My mind did the inadvisable and considered that they may have been washed in water that hadn’t been boiled. I am not much of a worrier, but for about thirty seconds I entertained the horrific idea of uncontrollable, unscheduled, and just plain ugly potty breaks in the presence of 10 strangers with no proper toilets, limited foliage, and pack-out-your-own trash. I considered the swamp ass that would certainly follow such episodes and the irreparable damage it would inflict on my limited undergarments and two pairs of pants over the next five days. I imagined sleeping in a tent with these clothing items and my unclean self. I shuddered. Too late now. There was a reason why I purchased and packed Imodium AD and filled a prescription for Cipro. Why borrow trouble? One way or another, it would all be fine, right? I’m not much of a praying woman, but I’ll admit that on that note I sent some positive energy out to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to encourage her to look after me, just in case.