The Hills Are Alive!

The day after my Lago Titicaca exploration, we were scheduled to fly out from Puno back to Lima. Woke up at an unearthly hour 4th day in a row to find that the clear skies of the morning before had transformed into gloomy and overcast. I’d been following weather reports that were so off the mark until that point – cloudy in Cusco, rain in Machu Picchu, rain at Titicaca,  all in reality ending up being warm and sunny days and cold nights – that I sniggered at another rainy day forecast. There was a little icy drizzle as we bundled up into the car, but nothing had prepared us for this sight from the airport after security check:

Juliaca to Arequipa

SNOW????? Oooh, we didn’t see THAT coming! Never a cause for complaint, especially when a camera is handy to click away. Except, soon there were announcements that the flight was cancelled, and we would have to queue up to reschedule. As the announcement was made first in Spanish, we were the last to figure it out, and ended up in the tail end of that queue with little hopes of getting out that day.

With plenty of time on hand waiting for our turn, we made a Plan B, and a Plan C. The brightest idea we had was to drive to Arequipa, 5 hours away (sunny forecast), and fly out of there. The lady from the airline had heard that the road might be dangerous or blocked, but if we could make it to Arequipa, she would have our flight changed at no extra cost. Nice!

I must admit I was excited at the prospect of a road trip. We rushed through a late morning breakfast, and soon, were on the road. Predictably, the landscape was gorgeous. A light sprinkling of snow on brown mountains gave it a cake-dusted-with-icing sugar look. We marvelled more than once about the sudden snowfall. And I couldn’t resist all those moving vehicle photos that I warn people about.

Juliaca to ArequipaJuliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

The sun made an appearance at midday, skies turned blue, and all was well on the road.

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

And then, this:

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Hey, all those photos with a greenish colour cast are through the tinted windows, thanks to Souvik’s strange reluctance to open windows. Maybe it was the cold? I didn’t notice ;-)

I requested Señor Jimmy, who was driving the car, and taking photos on his own camera at the same time, to stop if we spotted any grazing llamas. He obliged.

Juliaca to ArequipaJuliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Llamas, alpacas, does it matter? I was pretty much on top of the world, whooping with joy, no other people for miles around!

Juliaca to Arequipa Juliaca to Arequipa Juliaca to Arequipa

There was only one roadblock on the way. A long lineup of vehicles, because a bus had broken down. No movement for almost an hour, then some aggressive moves by some cars, and good old-fashioned road rage. I’ve added to my limited Spanish vocabulary “El Burro” and even contributed “estúpido”, coz one must learn the ways of the locals, right?

Soon after that traffic cleared, the landscape had a drastic transformation too.

Juliaca to Arequipa

No more snow. Only desert. And the hint of canyons.

Juliaca to ArequipaJuliaca to ArequipaJuliaca to Arequipa Juliaca to Arequipa Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Juliaca to Arequipa

Arequipa itself is one of the major cities of Peru, and has a long and interesting history and culture. I would have loved to visit, especially the Colca Cańon nearby, but time’s too short, and Lima is calling. Saving Arequipa for another trip!

After an eventful 5 hours, one of those rare drives where I stayed awake throughout the way, we arrived at the airport. The LAN airways staff were super helpful, and we had our flight changes without any trouble.

I like to think that this was a bonus adventure thrown in at the tail end of my stay in Peru, and I left with a lingering image of awesomeness:

Juliaca to Arequipa

A Lake in the Mountains

Lake Titicaca features in geography text books as the highest navigable lake in the world. I missed that nugget when I was in school, but life dragged me by the collar and dropped me off right by the lakeside to drive home the point. Not that I was an unwilling traveller. After following the route of the sun (in reverse direction), we got to the coldest spot of my Peruvian adventure, at 12,000 ft above sea level, tucked into the Andes mountain, this enormous lake with sea-like proportions.

Lake Titicaca

The hotel I picked was higher up, at Mirador del Titicaca, a short drive from Puno city, up up up onto a hill. The hotel has only a few rooms, all of them looking out at the lake from glass windows. You can spend all your time in the cozy confines of its lobby with the fireplace, or your heated room, and admire away from a distance.

Lake Titicaca

Or, you can sign up, like I did, for a boat ride into the lake, to visit one or more of the islands, and have a mini adventure.

Lake Titicaca

A day tour promises a visit to one of the many floating islands of Uros, and then to a larger island, Taquile, for about USD 25. The floating island is a concept that I’d read about in plenty, but not quite grasped the concept until actually setting foot on one. The totora reeds that grow abundantly in the lake are employed in everything on the island, right from the ‘floor’ to houses and boats. There’s no terra firma to step on, just a dense carpet-like squishiness, and your foot sinks into the reedy floor, with a bit of a swing. No shuffling possible, you have to tread purposefully for every step.

After being welcomed by this colourful lady on the island, we were whisked off on one of the smaller boats for a ride into the reeds.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

Then, returning to the island, the chief spoke to us about their life, with some scaled demo models.

Lake Titicaca

Of course, there were pretty things available to buy, and photos to be taken:

We had a friendly bunch on our boat, all eager to take photos of each other, and have their own too.

Lake Titicaca

After a short snooze, we arrived at Taquile, and my heart sank at the thought of climbing the hill.

Lake Titicaca

I’m sure our guide said something about the island and its people, but all fell on my deaf ears, as I panted my way up into the thin atmosphere. If I had missed the altitude sickness before, it hit me right then. The only relief was stopping for scenic photos. Until I finally arrived at the plaza, where the group had been waiting for me to go to lunch.

Lunch was a simple affair at the home of one of the local families. They had long tables set out in the courtyard, and a young man serenaded us with his songs, while we were served quinoa soup and trout, followed by a herby tea.

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

After lunch came the easier bit of going downhill, which was trickier than it seemed, thanks to the never-ending uneven steps. I wasn’t complaining.

The return journey was long, and we’d been warned of winds and waves that might pose a threat – apparently a couple of days back, tourists were stranded on the islands because the winds had been too strong for the boats. We were spared of that fate, and the winds worked in our favour, sending us back a little faster than we anticipated.

Lake Titicaca

The dark clouds threatened to bring rain, and more cold weather. I was glad to be back in my cozy room before any of that happened. Souvik finished his day’s work in Juliaca nearby, and we stepped our later at night for a meal of delicious wood fired pizzas accompanied by the aji (chili) and ajo (garlic) sauces at Pizzeria del Buho.

The Route of the Sun

From Cusco, we were headed to Puno, to see the Lake Titicaca. I would have liked to go by train, as the Perurail Andean Explorer sounded like a lot of fun. Until I discovered the tourist buses, following the Route of the Sun, similar to the train at a fraction of the cost (think 70-80% cheaper).

The hotel at Cusco recommended Turismo Mer, and we complied, opting for the fully loaded tour, with 5 stops, taking 10 hours for under 400 km.

We started off in the butt-freezing cold of the early morning on Monday, half asleep from the exertions of the Machu Picchu trip the day before, and promptly dozed off as the bus started.

About an hour into the journey, we had the first stop at a colonial church of Andahuaylillas. It was too cold to stick around inside the church, so Souvik and I stayed outdoors, trying to thaw out in the sun.

Cusco to Puno

I dozed off some more, until the next stop at Raqch’i, to see the ruins of an Inka built Temple of Wiracocha. There were some interesting handicrafts for sale at the plaza before the temple ruins, where I would have loved to linger.

Our guide, Mareta, had a soothing voice but dramatic flair, and brought to life the structure, and what it may have been used for. One of the rare instances where I found a guide adding value to the sightseeing!

After Raqch’i, and the exertion of getting on and off the bus, it was soon time for lunch at Sicuani. My hopes for a good lunch were rock bottom, coz how can the food be great, when cooked in such large quantities (4-5 busloads)? And how wrong I was. It was a traditional Peruvian spread, complete with Alpaca meat and quinoa soup, and the most divine dishes I’ve had in a while. Toasted corn, chips, Peruvian lentils, peas and potato, salad – I was back in my veggie heaven.

Cusco to Puno

The lentils were a delight for me, and I had to go for dal chawal (rice and lentils) seconds. There was an incentive for rushing through lunch – photo ops:

Cusco to Puno

After a good meal, and more shopping for Souvik – sweater and rug – we weren’t allowed to rest in the bus for another 30 minutes. That’s because we were nearing the highest point on the tour, at 14000 ft, at La Raya, where we stopped for more photos.

All along the way, I tried valiantly to get a good picture of alpacas grazing, and wasn’t successful at all. This was the best I could manage.

Cusco to Puno

Our last stop on the bus route, before arriving at Puno, was Pukara, to see the museum, and the famous toritos del Pukara (the bulls of Pukara). The bulls are the cutest little fellows that you see on rooftops, they are supposed to bring good fortune.

Rumi Wasi

Cusco to Puno

Naturally we were tempted to stop and admire and shop. They come in multitudes of colours, but the natural ones look the best.

Cusco to Puno

The plaza itself had the most awesome colours going for it.

Cusco to Puno

Cusco to Puno

After this stop, I had more dozing opportunities until we got near Puno, and had our first sighting of Lake Titicaca, with the abundance of totora reeds.

Cusco to Puno

We were booked in the delightful Mirador del Titicaca, where we checked in to more beautiful views of the lake while Souvik recovered from a short, bad case of soroche (altitude sickness).

Lake Titicaca

Been here, done this… The mother of all tourism in Peru: Machu Picchu

Peru is practically synonymous with Machu Picchu, and the thought that I would travel to the country and not see the site was unthinkable. There were plenty of obstacles along the way, some of them in my mind alone. Apparently, this is the high season, because of the influx of American tourists, and Machu Picchu tickets get booked months in advance as they only allow a limited number in each day. The other aspect is that sitting in Indonesia, it wasn’t the easiest thing to research on how to find your way to MaPi. There are 6-day treks, 2-day treks, trains, buses, tour operators, and goodness knows what else. Plus all the reading I was doing was in English blogs, whereas I’m sure Spanish ones might have better and more current information.

Luckily, there are some good sites to get the information you need. Here’s one: http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/how-to-travel-to-machu-picchu

If, like me, you’re looking for the easiest option (effort-wise), these are the steps to follow:

  1. Book entrance tickets for Machu Picchu first.
  2. Next, train tickets from Cusco or Ollantaytambo (another town with some more ruins), and back. Dates depend on whether you want to stay in the Machu Picchu town for one or two nights before visiting the site or not. We did a day trip, so no hotel required at Machu Picchu. Actually the town is at the foothills of the mountain and is better known as Aguas Calientes (hot springs), and looks pretty tacky, whatever little we saw of it, and overpriced too, because of its location.
  3. Third, hotel and flight tickets for Cusco. We flew LAN airlines from Lima to Cusco, and have been very impressed by their professionalism and customer orientation (more on that later). Hotels in Cusco are aplenty, just use http://www.tripadvisor.com for reviews and decision-making.
  4. All of the above can also be done with the help of a travel agent or tour operator, but I like to be independent, as far as possible.
  5. Don’t forget to carry your passport/ ID on your trip, because they will check multiple times.

Getting back to my blogging frame of mind, once all the tickets were booked, I should’ve been relaxed and ready, but instead, I had a couple of sleepless nights thinking of the train that we had to catch, and the bus ride to the entrance of the monument, and how I might miss something if I overslept, as even the alarm is different on the other phone (remember I lost my iPhone?). Consequently, I was waking up much before the alarm, which is probably a good thing.

Our hotel folks were sweet enough to pack us a lunch bag as we had the early morning train to catch. Quite a fancy train experience in the Perurail Vistadome:

Machu Picchu

With its enormous glass windows on the sides and the top, we could admire the beautiful landscapes along the way. Pictures from moving vehicles aren’t the best, but I can’t resist posting one:

Machu Picchu

The 3-hour+ ride is easy going, there are guide books and souvenirs of Machu Picchu on sale. We bought a book, and had the Lonely Planet guide on the iPad, as we didn’t want to have a guide there.

Disembarking at Aguas Calientes, we had a short walk to the bus terminal, paid for a return ticket, and had a bumpy, dusty 8 km, 25 minute ride to the entrance of Machu Picchu. It’s also possible to hike up the trail to the entrance from the train station. There are steps carved into the hillside, so you probably end up covering 2-4 km only, but all uphill. We were looking for the least effort, so bus it was.

I mentioned that numbers are limited, but it still seemed quite a lot of people out there. Probably because everyone was jostling for the best spot for selfies. We did our bit to add to the crowd.

Machu Picchu

As soon as I set up the tripod for a timed photo of the two of us, the guards came whistling, so poor Souvik ended up lugging it all the way for nothing.

After having a bunch of unsatisfactory ‘iconic’ shots of the monument, we started our exploration of Machu Picchu. Not much is known about the structure, and a lot is assumptive. Believed to be built at the height of the Inca period, around 1450 A.D, as a retreat for the rulers from the cold winters of Cusco, this place stayed undiscovered by the Spanish conquistadors. However it came to light in the western world when Hiram Bingham, an American historian, made an exploration in the region. He followed the same policy of other invaders though, and took back a number of artefacts to Yale University for ‘further study’, but those were never returned to the site.

Regardless, Machu Picchu stands as one of the finest examples of Inca planning, architecture and engineering. The structure is much bigger than it appears in photos. It is believed to have housed any number between 500 to 1200 people in its heyday. The mountain is terraced on all sides to prevent landslides, and for agriculture. The agricultural section is separated from the ‘urban section’ by a dry moat. There is a Temple dedicated to the Sun God, a grand central plaza, ceremonial structures, residential areas, bathing areas, working areas, even tombs for the rulers. No amount of photos and explanations can replicate the feeling of walking through the structure, and feeling it for yourself. Unsurprisingly, this place is on the bucket list for so many people, and we were fortunate to be there.

Señor San Roman had told me the day before that the Inca style of building was to mimic their natural surroundings. I do see shades of that in some of the structures. The triangular sections above the walls do look like the mountains around the area!. You don’t notice the terraces unless you look very closely. It’s beautiful. The Incas paid special attention to the stones in the scared structures. See how the temple walls and the tomb are polished to a smooth finish, as compared to other (less important) structures above? And all the walls are just stacks of stones, no mortar to bind them together. They use principles like offset alignments of the stone and trapezoidal doors, windows, niches, to withstand seismic shocks. There are channels to manage the flow of fresh water, and waste water. It’s probably all done manually, without the use of any beasts of burden.

By the time we got there, it was midday, and after a couple of hours of exploration, going through each section and figuring out its function, we were depleted of energy in the hot sun. Quite a change from the previous days of bitter cold and grey skies. Though I keep saying ‘easiest path’, there’s a LOT of climbing up and down the steps that take a toll on your feet and knees and breath. A quick look at the photos, and we could find no good ones of ourselves, so against all our good sense, we climbed back up on the hill to the guardians huts, for that iconic shot. Most of the crowd had dissipated and we had the place to ourselves. This time we got it right.

Machu Picchu

The Incas probably built this section for the guards as a lookout point, and to watch over their structure, little knowing that it would be THE spot for 99% of all photos of Machu Picchu down the ages!

We had a train to catch in the evening, so we reversed our tracks, back on the dusty bumpy bus ride to the train station. The night ride had nothing to admire on the outside, but the staff on the train put up a spirited ‘fashion show’ for us, showcasing some lovely alpaca wool garments with great flair, and of course, an opportunity to buy later.

That night I slept like a log.

There’s a lot to do in Cusco!

DSights in Cuscoay 2 in Cusco dawned a little overcast and grim, quite like my mood carried forward from the previous evening.

A breakfast sandwich loaded with avocados and olives and Cusco cheese plus tomatoes improved my outlook a little bit. Souvik and I walked down to the Plaza de Armas to meet a colleague over a coffee in a particularly cheery cafe, by which time the sun was out in full force and my gloomy spirits had lifted too.

Some quick research over the internet had thrown up a few options for me to explore, and I picked 2 sites – Qurikancha and Sacsaywaman, both within walking distance of the plaza.

Qurikancha, at its height of glory, was an opulent Temple dedicated to the Sun God, with walls of gold and solid stone masonry. After the Spanish invaded, they demolished the temple and built a church over the site, incorporating some of the Inca stonework. Those stone walls stood the test of time, through numerous earthquakes, while the church was damaged. I found little to see for my 10 soles ticket; and left largely disappointed, except while reading about the Inca theories of astronomy and such stuff. To give you an idea, the Incas observed not just the stars, but the dark spaces between stars too, and their constellations were a combination of the two (see the astronomy photo below).

The outdoor was more fun.

Sights in Cusco

Sights in Cusco

Even the llama managed a little smirk.

Señor San Roman, Souvik’s colleague, had offered to walk to Sacsaywaman with me, and I was glad to have a local expert to hang out with. Off we went, trundling along at an easy pace, all the way up the hill, catching interesting sights along the way.

The combination ticket for some 10 different attractions is quite a bit, but I opted for the partial ticket of 70 soles to enter Sacsaywaman. If you think this is a tongue twister, say ‘sexy woman’ and you’ll be very close to the correct pronunciation. See, the Incas were visionary – with all these names for future generations to remember easily.

This site is a fortress, started by a pre-Inca culture, but expanded by the Incas. The stonework is breathtaking, even if it is just a ruin, after the Spanish tore down most of the structures to build their own city in Cusco. I learnt that the Inca method was to cut the stones to the perfect size, and stack them in a precise manner without the use of mortar to bind them. Amazing! And the size of the stones, especially the lowest ones!! The mind boggles thinking about how they must have transported and constructed such buildings.

Since this is built on a hill, I was able to get some beautiful views of the historic centre of the city.

And some words of wisdom:

Sacsayhuaman ruins

I obeyed, and was rewarded with some alpaca sightings. Had to follow them around for a few minutes to allow them to get used to my presence.

Here is a ‘working’ alpaca – will pose for money, but the ladies were on a break and I took advantage.

Coz nothing is cuter than an alpaca with tassles, right?

Señor San Roman owns a beautiful B&B near the Plaza de Armas, called Rumi Wasi, where we stopped on our way back, for a traditional afternoon snack of choclo con queso and mate de coca.

After a long day, it was time to catch the last rays of the sun at the Plaza, and a quick self-timed rare photo of Souvik & I together.

Sights in Cusco

Walking in Cusco..or..the day I lost my iPhone

I’ve spent a lot of time planning this mini-travel within Peru, to Cusco and Machu Picchu. Initially, Souvik was only supposed to join me for Machu Picchu, but when he decided to make it a work trip, I added Puno to the list. After tons of research on http://www.tripadvisor.com, and some panic buttons pressed, in the nick of time I managed to book Pension Alemana in Cusco, a darling little B&B in a nice part of town. One of my reasons for picking this place? The gorgeous views from the hotel:

Rooftop view of Cusco

Rooftop view of Cusco

After an invigorating cup of mate de coca (my latest morning ritual – coca tea) to help acclimatise to the high altitude, I was ready for Cusco.

Walking down to the Plaza de Armas, I had my first sight of the iconic Andean ladies with their llamas – they are ever willing to pose for photos for a little money.

Sights in Cusco

Sights in Cusco

Sights in Cusco

The walking lanes are no less picturesque. And steep.

When I spotted these ladies, lined up, selling stuff along the steps, I HAD to buy something, just to have a picture. Goodness knows what I ended up drinking! Probably chicha.

Sights in CuscoSights in Cusco

A few steps on, Plaza de Armas was a sight to behold. My photos do no justice to the scale and the magnificence of the site. This is the centre of the historic town of Cusco or Cuzco, which was the capital of the Inca empire.

You may enter any of the cathedrals, for a fee, but I’d rather enjoy the feel of the sun on my face, after a week in grey-skies Lima. The local souvenir sellers didn’t bother me much because, apparently, I look quite Peruvian, until the camera came out. Then there was an endless stream of llama keyrings, and Inca pendants, and whatnot.

Looking up my Lonely Planet, I thought of doing their walking tour, which was meant to take me back to the area of my hotel at the end. Starting from the Plaza, I walked to the Mercado de San Pedro, but not before a quick stop at the Choco Museum for a quick snack of …ahem… chocolate.

Plaza de Armas

The Inca flag has all the colours of the rainbow. Those are to be found in most of the local garments and handicrafts.

The market of San Pedro was as fun as a market ought to be! Some of the ladies offered their bread to taste, and I was a willing sampler.

Getting out of the market, loaded with a snack pack of dried fruits and nuts, I went about my merry way on that walking tour towards the Palace of Justice, stopping, as usual for photographs.

Sights in Cusco Sights in Cusco

The sights were so interesting that I kept putting my phone (with the directions) away, to bring out the camera, and also munch on those nuts. That’s it. In the space of 2 minutes (the interval between peeking at the phone), my iPhone was gone. I have a strong feeling somebody may have followed me and stolen it, or just observed my inattention and taken the opportunity. Whatever it was, the phone was gone. Thankfully I had a 2nd phone with the local number, and called Souvik who was about 10 minutes away. We couldn’t call the iPhone because of some international dialling issues, so I rushed back to the hotel to access the iPad and lock down the phone remotely. In the grief of losing the phone (it’s like losing an arm, the amount of dependence I had on that), I was probably not thinking clearly. I should have changed all my apple and gmail passwords, which I didn’t. Within a couple of hours, the thieves had disabled the Find My iPhone feature, and all hope was lost. I simply couldn’t focus on anything after that, and hung about the hotel room, moping, cursing my own stupidity.

Souvik did his best to drag me out after that, but my heart simply wasn’t in it. We sat in the plaza for a while, watching the kids play and dance, and after a comforting meal at Inkazuela, called it a day.

Colours of Barranco

The bike tour from the day before opened my eyes to the Bohemian district of Barranco. While most parts of Lima look dull and grey, and Miraflores and San Isidro are well-manicured and modern, it’s Barranco that carries the labels of Bohemian, artsy and old-worldly.

The district has been preserved, mostly by the artistic community, not to the glossy levels of its upmarket neighbours, but in the most charming manner in its riot of colours. I had pre-conceived notions of what South America should look like, and Barranco satisfied some of them. I’ve also noticed that there is a concerted effort to make some of the districts safer, especially for tourists – there are information kiosks in a number of street corners, and quite a few tourism police keeping an eye on everyone. The results have been great for me – I’ve been able to walk on streets, camera in hand, without facing any trouble so far.

Enjoy!

I lunched at La Bodega Verde, close to the Puenta de Los Suspiros – a happy meal of quinoa burger with hummus. Seriously, I am now in love with quinoa.

I was lured into the MATE museum, that houses the photographs of Mario Testino. He is a world renowned Peruvian photographer, and I was fascinated by his work. I had bought a combination ticket to 3 museums, but the other 2 (Pedro de Osma & MAC) did not hold the same attraction for me, as one has a collection of religious art, and the other is contemporary, but I could understand neither. Still, the walk was fun. Gotta go back into Barranco in the evening to get a glimpse of all the colours of the night.