Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Lake Titicaca, Peru

Amber:   After Machu Picchu, (and Tim proposing!!; what a perfect place to be proposed to by my best friend!  Of course I said yes, and gave him numerous kisses as an affirmation!) we all agreed that no Inca ruin would compare, (really, its so amazing, will any set of ruins ever?) so said farewell to the Sacred Valley and headed south to Lake Titicaca.  We had a short lay over in Cuzco before our night bus, and were caught in a surprise hail storm.  We were walking along the street one moment, and the next, huge rain drops began to fall.  Within moments, the rain had turned to heavy hail, and the wind had picked up. Dwight thankfully found that the entrance to our destination was literally a doorway away from where we were huddled beneath an awning.  The streets filled with hail, which must have stopped some of the street drains, as when the hail turned back to rain, the street filled with rivers of water and slush and almost spilled over onto the sidewalk.  It was quiet the show, complete with thunder and lightening!

After a night bus to Puno, the small, dirty town on the edge of Lake Titicaca, we arrived with no real set plan. We wanted to see the highest navigable lake in the world, and the famous reed islands, and that's about all we knew. Within an hour, however, we booked a night stay on one of the Eros Islands for all six Alaskans. We thought it would be a more authentic view of how the local Eros people lived, as opposed to taking just a day tour and only stopping at the islands that sell their art work.

The Eros Islands are made completely from floating rafts of reeds.  Multiple times a year the locals harvest more reeds and lay them down on top of the old reeds. The original base of the islands are the reeds roots, cut from the lake bed much like sod, and sown together to make the desirable sized island.  (The island we stayed on was a couple hundred meters long, and probably twenty meters across). Then reeds are piled flat, in opposite directions to make a sturdy foundation, and while they are only about a meter high, are several meters deep.  The islands do float, so the locals anchor them to the lake floor.  Our host explained to us that if a big wind picked up, the reed island could drift across the lake to the shores of Bolivia. As they had no passports, it could present quite the problem!

The reeds are actually very soft, so doesn't take long for them to decay, especially the ones exposed to the lake water.  They must be continually harvested and placed throughout the island.  All the time.  They pick up their houses, lay the reeds, put down their houses.  I though mowing my lawn was a lot of work.

 About three to four families live per 'island,' and everything is made of reeds.  Their houses, their boats, their yards.  Now, there are wooden frames to their homes, but those too are walled and roofed with reeds.  And we were picked up form Puno in a small fiberglass boat, complete with an engine.

We weren't sure what to expect from our stay at Isla Khantati.  We had chosen it due to a small blip in Lonely Planet, and just as the book said, "Mama" Cristina was very charming!  The cabins were clean, complete with hot water bottles at the foot of your bed at night and a mountain of thick blankets, and the food was surprisingly delicious.  We were later told that Cristina has traveled throughout South America, Europe and the United States to learn about hospitality, food sanitation and preparation, and first aid.  There were even hot water showers (solar), and an eco toilet. We went on a little excision in a traditional reed catamaran to collect fish from a net, but I think my favorite was when we got to play dress up in the local cloths.  Eloise, Heather and I looked adorable!!

There was an adorable cat that loved to be held and pet that followed us around during our stay.  She would purr while we relaxed on our little patios or hammocks, scratching her ears or holding her in our laps.  When we had first arrived, our host had told us something, that was lost in translation, when Heather picked her up.  Because of his concern, we asked if it was okay that we hold the cat.  He seemed to shrug it off, and Jerami, Eloise, Heather, Dwight, Tim and I all enjoyed giving her attention.  And then....!  Heather came walking very calmly yet quickly over to Tim and I, asking where Mama Cristina was.  There was a tick firmly attached to Heather's belly!   She found Mama Cristina, and Mama Cristina calmly plucked the tick out with a pair of tweezers.  Poor Heather!!!  Happily, she didn't die of tick bite (ha ha), and the cat stopped getting picked up!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Machu Picchu Part 2: Climbing Wayna Picchu

Tim: After getting an amazing view of the Machu Picchu ruins from the guard house, we moved on to the Inca Bridge. This involved a 15 minute hike away from the main site. The trail to the Inca bridge was at times vary narrow an exposed along a sheer cliff dropping off thousands of feet. Once we reached the bridge we had an awesome view of a very narrow bridge (4 split logs 8 feet long) spanning a narrow gap in the trail placed along a rock cliff. Apparently, a tourist died when they slipped and fell of the bridge, so tourists are no longer able to walk over the bridge. There was a fence barrier blocking are approach to the bridge some 25 meters out.

We hiked back to the main ruins. The site was still fairly foggy so we opted to begin our climb of Wayna Picchu the mountain on the opposite side of the ruins as the guard house and much taller. The hike took us about 45 minutes to reach the top. Because all of the hikers are let through the gate at the same time there is a little bit of a traffic jam hiking up. Some portions of the trail are very very steep with stone steps that are more like stone ladders.

We were almost to the very top when we reach a part of the path that led through a narrow cave. I went through first. The cave path was short enough that we were not able to stand and I was crouched down on my haunches. Amber followed behind me. The wind was at our back pushing through the cave. Once our eyes adjusted to the dim light, Amber saw that I was crouching next to a fresh pile of human feces recently deposited in the narrow cave. It was about the same time that the putrid smell also reached my nose. The cave was not more than one meter across at its widest point.

Amber in a state of alarm yelled at me to hurry up and get out of the cave. The exit of the cave was much smaller than the area we had been in. It required that we be in a push up position and walk our hands out of the exit. It took some effort to exit the cave. The whole time I was exiting, Amber was yelling at me to go faster. All four of us had to pass through the cave. It was not a pleasant experience, but we all laughed when it was over. Once on Wayna Picchu there are no restrooms, and because it is so steep and jungle like it is hard to leave the path. Someone just had to go, even if it was a very poor choice of locations.

Once we were all out of the cave it was a short jaunt to the very top. We stopped and rested for a while looking at the amazing views of Machu Picchu. We started our descent of Wayna Picchu. There were some very steep exposed sections. Heather was moving slower than Amber and me. Just below the summit Amber and I stepped off the main path on to one of the many terraces overlooking Machu Picchu to wait for the rest of our group. I took the brief opportunity to ask Amber to marry me! I even gave her a ring. She said yes with lots of "really?" and "are you serious."  A few minutes later Heather and Dwight rejoined us, and we told them the news.

I had tried to get a ring in Anchorage, but was not able to get one set in time before we left. I got a simple ring in Aguas Calientes before we left for Machu Picchu. I did know Amber's ring size so I had to put one of her rings on my pinky finger and see how far it would go down my finger to estimate Amber's ring size.

The day was one of the most amazing in my life!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Machu Picchu, Peru Part 1

Amber: Peru has been amazing!  I have been so excited to come to South America, especially Peru. Ever since we were little kids, my sister Heather and I have dreamed about going to Machu Picchu.  It's the most visited ruin in South America, possibly the world, so we obviously aren't the only ones that share this dream.  During the high season, May through September, 2,500 people arrive daily.  Thankfully, January is the low season, so the masses would be far fewer.

When we arrived in Cuzco, we booked the train from Ollantaytambo to Auguas Calientes as well as our ticket to Machu Picchu and up the dramatic peak Wayna Picchu.  Only 400 tickets are sold daily to Wayna Picchu.  200 people climb up at seven am, and another 200 at ten am. To summit Wayna Picchu, it is a very steep, narrow set of stone stairs up and down, so only so many fit at one time.  We opted for the second time slot as we wanted time to get the classic post card view; a dramatic sunrise pictures from the Guard Tower that over looks Machu Picchu, Wayna Picchu dramatically poised behind the ruins.

As we booked our tickets, we were told that due to high rains, a large land slide had totaled the road going up.  Not just covered the trail, but taken out a chunk of the road.  The only way to reach Machu Picchu was to climb an hour and a half straight up through the jungle.  Being as we had opted to not actually hike the Inca Trail, I was already voting for the short climb.  I was rather horrified as an American couple in their late 40-early 50's stood in line at the ticket counter and after much debate opted to not see Machu Picchu due to the bus not being available.  They appeared to be in decent shape.  Hike slow!  Had they not flown all the way to Peru to see Machu Picchu?  Heather, Dwight, Tim and I were pretty sure it was a decision that they would regret for the rest of their lives.

There are six of us Alaskans traveling in Peru together. Due to the Machu Picchu web sight having a glitch that we couldn't seem to work out, Tim, Heather, Dwight and I were unable to book our tickets to Machu Picchu while in Alaska.  During the high season, we would have arrived in Cuzco and been completely out of luck.  Thankfully, there were still many tickets available for Machu Picchu as it was rainy January, but Wayna Picchu was sold out for the day our friends Jerami and Eloise had miraculously been able to book while still in Alaska.  In addition, while trying to book the tickets while we were in Cuzco, we had received a text from Jerami saying that their flight form Alaska had been delayed, so they weren't sure when they would actually be reaching Cuzco.  Tim, Heather, Dwight and I opted to book a day later and make the climb up Wayna PIcchu.

The train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calentes was beautiful!  The sun shone as we followed the river Rio Urubamba as it wound through the jungle, past Inca ruins, and under steep, dramatically high mountains.  It was definitely a good idea to do during the daylight hours.  It was breath taking.

After a restless night sleep in a small, noisy hostel in Aguas Calentes, it was time to climb Machu Picchu!  We got up at 4:30am.  Stepping out of our room, I could hear rain.  Heavy rain!  It was pouring out!  We dressed in shorts, water proof hiking shoes, and capline tees, under our rain coats.  Fingers crossed that the sun would break through the clouds, we had a hurried breakfast of bread and jam, and stepped outside.

The rain had cleared to a light drizzle.  It was warm.  We hiked through the small town of Aguas Calentes and up we went.  It was a steep, hard climb.  We were still not used to the altitude and it was hard to catch your breath in the humid, steep jungle.  Finally, after about an hour and a half of huffing and puffing, we reached the top and were able to go through security, Heather pulled her huge Nikon camera out of her back pack, and we were at the ruins!  We found the trail to the Guard House, and waited for the sun to brighten the ruins.  It was beautiful without the sun, but boy did it just pop when the sun came out!  If I could have picked in my head the picture of Machu Picchu that I wanted, it would have been the one I got (see the first photo in the post).  Wayna Picchu shrouded in mist, Machu Picchu in bright sunrise lighting.  My trip to Machu Picchu was complete, the rest was all bonus as far as I was concerned.  And boy did  I get a surprise bonus!!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Second Day of touring the Sacred Valley

Tim:  Our friends Jerami and Eloise joined us from Anchorage last night bringing our Alaskan group to six. Their first day we relaxed with a few sights around the city of Cusco. The next morning after Jerami and Eloise arrived we arrange for a private van tour of more sights in the Sacred Valley.

Our tour would take us from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (the village where we would board the train bound for Machu Picchu). Along the way we would stop at several sights in the Sacred Valley including: Sacsayhuaman Chinchero, Moray, and Salinas. The village of Ollantaytambo also has very impressive ruins of an Inca fort overlooking the village.

Sacsayhuaman overlooks the city of Cusco and was our first stop. It is an Incan fortress with some of the most amazing stone architecture in the world. Some of the stones are more than 28 feet tall and perfectly carved to fit the rock next to it. Some of the stones weigh more than 120 tons making them some of the largest carved stones that were ever moved in human history. Pondering what it took to move and carve stones of that magnitude with only simple tools and no wheel is mind boggling.

Moray is a large setting of circular Incan terraces built into a natural depression in the mountains. The Incans are thought to have used this area as a trial area for different plants as the average temperature changed several degrees depending on the level. It was definitely and impressive site.

The next stop was the salt terraces of Salineras. These are man made terraces built to collect mineral salt deposits from a natural hot spring that contains very high levels of salt in the water. The water is diverted into hundreds of small terraced pools. Once the water evaporates, a layer caked salt is left. The salt is mostly used for animal salt licks. It is an amazing place to see that seems almost unearthly.

Our tour van dropped us off in the village of Ollantaytambo. After checking into our hotel, it wasnt hard to find the Incan ruins as they overlooked the village just a few hundred meters from the village central square. These were the must impressive Incan ruins we have seen yet. This was also the site where the Incan King fled to escape invading Spaniard Conquistadors. There was a fierce battle here that marked one of the few Incan victories against the Spaniards.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

First Day in Cusco and the Sacred Valley

Tim:  We are on a tight travel schedule. After just one full day in Lima we left for Cusco. Our flight left at 6:00 AM. We were up at 3:40 AM to get to the airport on time. The flight was a short 1 1/2 hours. It took two attempts to make the landing because of cloud cover. Most of the flights into Cusco are in the morning because weather conditions are such that often flights cannot land later in the day.

Cusco is at 11,000 feet above sea level and altitude sickness is a concern if you arrive here from sea level the same day (which we did). All of the guest houses provide coca tea which is suppose to help combat the effects of altitude sickness. I have about four cups every morning. For the most part none of the four of us have experienced any acute side effects except for the occasional huffing and puffing when hiking up an incline.

After arriving in Cusco at 7:30 AM, we got settled at our guest house, Mama Samona Guest House. We really like it here. Our room with a bathroom cost $27 USD a night. Only one room was ready when we arrived so the four of us (Amber, Heather, Dwight, and I) stashed our back and set out to make arrangements for Machu Picchu. This required that we make train arrangements to get to Aguas Calientes the village below Machu Picchu. The only transportation available to get into Aquas Calientes is by train, and the train company has a monopoly. 

Once we had arranged the train tickets we went to book our entrance tickets to Machu Picchu to include hiking Hyna Picchu, the mountain next to Machu Picchu wich allows for the amazing view overlooking the whole site.

Although we were all tired from our early morning wake up, we arranged for a day tour in a private taxi of several sites in the sacred valley right outside of Cusco. Our first stop were the ruins at Pisac. The weather was very pleasant around 68 degrees with light clouds. The amount of sunlight made for great photos. The site at Pisac was mostly empty. There were only about 8 other tourists at Pisac so we had the huge site to ourselves. We opted for a guide as well.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

21 Hours Later: We Made it to Lima, Peru

Amber and I had just 25 hours in Anchorage after returning from our climbing trip to Joshua Tree before getting back on a plane bound for Lima, Peru. Our routing took us from Anchorage to Denver to Toronto, Canada, and finally Lima. The Toronto to Lima section was obviously the longest leg, about an eight hour flight. Traveling long hours is never particularly fun, but it manageable.

We arrived in Lima at 1:30 AM. We had already arranged for our Guesthouse to send a car to pick us up. We found our driver holding a sign with our name on it in the arrivals area. A 25 minute ride and we reached our Guest House in the Miraflores District. The streets were surprisingly deserted at 2:00 AM considering Lima is a city of more than eight million people.

We slept in till 9:30 the next morning; had the simple complimentary breakfast provided by our guest house. Our guest house called Open Guesthouse was $26 USD per night with a shared bathroom located adjacent to our room.

For the day we opted to take the advice of our guidebook and do a walking tour of the historical area of downtown Lima. We negotiated for a taxi to the origin of our walking tour. We visited several Catholic churches including the Iglesia de la Merced and La Catedral de Lima. The highlight of the walking tour was our visit to the Monasterio de San Francisco. The Monastery had bone filled catacombs that are estimated to hold more than 25,000 bodies. The area had been excavated a archaeologists had piled the skulls and other large bones in orderly piles. Kind of an eerie experience. Sorry they would not allow any photos.

We waited for almost an hour in the blazing sun for the changing of the guard at the Palacio de Gobierno (Presidential Palace) along the Plaza de Armas. The event was suppose to happen at noon, but it look like something else was going on as there was a large group of people standing in front of the palace with police everywhere. The police had shut down the entire Plaza de Armas to vehicle traffic. After acquiring sunburn from to long in the sun we continued our walking tour without seeing the changing of the guard.

Our taxi ride back to our guest house in the late afternoon took a while as traffic was gridlocked. Also our taxi driver did not know where our guest house was even though we were able to provide an address and a map with the location of our guest house pointed out. We eventually made it back and took a nap to help us get of the jet lag. After waking up at 8:30 PM we prepared to head out to find some dinner when Heather (Amber's sister) and Dwight (Heather's boyfriend) walked in having just returned from a two day tour of the Nazca Lines and other site near Lima. The four of us are set to meet up with our friends Jerami and Eloise once we reach Cusco.