Peru Day 6: Aguascaliente

 

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We woke up to the beautiful view of the mountains that surrounded us. After breakfast at the hotel, we went to meet our train, which was easy since we were right there.

The train was the Vistadome, so lots of windows to watch the Sacred Valley go by. I didn’t take pictures of the train today, will do that tomorrow!

Our seats faced a mom and her daughter. We got to talking and talked non-stop the whole trip. A little unusual for us introverts, but the stories were fascinating. The mother was born in the Ukraine and left when she was 9, moving to southern California. She met and married another Ukranian. The daughter was 19, just finished her first year at UCLA. And the rest of the family was hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu as part of a group of relatives who had made the trip. So much to talk about!

We arrived in Aguascaliente, the town that is closest to Machu Picchu, a little after noon. Our hotel met us at the train station and walked us down the hill to the hotel, transporting our luggage to. We checked in, then headed out for lunch, as there was a 2pm pisco sour/cerviche class and we didn’t want to miss that!

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Our hotel, at the end

 

We got caught in a downpour and stood undercover for about 10 minutes to let the worst of it pass. We went into a French bakery for lunch. A tap on the shoulder and I turned around, it was our train companions. So we lunched together, then hurried back for our class.

The class was only another couple and us. The bartender taught us about the different kind of piscos. Pisco is a kind of brandy, grape based and aged in kettles, not oak. The pisco sour is a fairly simple drink, and we have the recipe to try at home. A hotel chef then came in to teach us ceviche, raw fish, lots of lime juice and several other ingredients. Tasty!

We headed back up the hill to town to explore more. We ran into our train friends again (it’s really a small town!). They guided us to a silver store, and Ellen picked up a few things. DSC_0321

We then walked through the central market. It was like most markets in what in sold, meat, chicken, fruits, vegetables. But the stray dogs roamed through it, it didn’t smell good, and I wouldn’t have eaten anything there for fear of getting sick. DSC_0316

We ate dinner at the hotel, it was included in our package. The meal was excellent. For an appetizer, I had quinoa crusted chicken nuggets. Better than any you get at McDonalds! Seriously, they use quinoa for so many things, we need to try to cook more with it.

The hotel secured our tickets for the bus to Machu Picchu and our entrance. Hoping it doesn’t rain, but ready for the experience tomorrow, no matter what.


Peru Day 5: Ollantaytambo

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We said goodbye, for now, to Cusco, and headed down a couple thousand feet in altitude to Ollantaytambo. We took a taxi from Cusco. For an almost 2 hour ride? The fare was $45 including tip. Beat that, United States!

A temple, an agricultural area, a fortress, Ollantaytambo had many purposes over time. Today, it just means SO. MANY. STEPS. TO. CLIMB. Ellen made it about 1/2 way up and wisely turned back. The steps are irregular stones at different heights with no handrail. We do have some advice about visiting Peru. Do it while you are young! The sights and size of Ollantaytambo were amazing though. DSC_0277DSC_0280DSC_0282DSC_0287

I made my way back down from the top. One of the buildings in the rock you can see in the picture above, you could walk up it. Um, no. We had enough climbing for the day.

We walked into the small town, having lunch at the Hearts Cafe. We then took a stroll through the town square. DSC_0292DSC_0294DSC_0295DSC_0288

The rainbow flag here is not a gay pride symbol, it is an Inca representation of the colors of the rainbow.

We stopped for coffee on the way back to our hotel, El Alberque. It is right next to the train station, which is good, because we take the train to Aguas Caliente tomorrow to prepare for Machu Picchu.

Our hotel had the #1 TripAdvisor rated restaurant for this town, so we took advantage of it and ate right on the property. Ellen had lamb with quinoa risotto, I had a lasagna with local vegetables and spices. Both were really good.


Peru Day 4: City Tour

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In most cities, a city tour is a bus ride that shows you the major sites. In Cusco, it’s a trip just a few miles outside of town to some of the most amazing Inca ruins. We visited Sacsayhuaman, Qenko, Puka Pukara and Tombomachay. I’m going to need to work on which is which. I’ve decided from now on, I’ll take a picture of a sign each time we enter a new place.

We had a guide/driver today. Carlos was a man of about 60. He had been up at 6 today to take a class at university before picking us up at 9. He’s a student of history, of the Incas and is studying English to be even more fluent. He’s written a book about Peru and the Incas. He wants to get it into the Library of Congress. We told him how close we lived to there and that we’d help. He said he really likes DC and its monuments. How does he know them? He says he watches House of Cards!

What was amazing was the formations. How did the Incas transport these rocks 22km from the quarry? How did they carve these huge stones? How did they lift them into place? How did they know to arrange them for strength and to withstand earthquakes? How did they fit the stones so perfectly that they’ve stayed in place, without mortar? So here are some of the pictures from the day.

I was no match for the size of some of these stones! DSC_0239

We finished back in the Plaza and Carlos gave us a tour of the Catedral del Cuzco. Pictures were not allowed inside, but it was an amazing church. DSC_0271

At our guide’s recommendation we went to Chicha for lunch. We had a great meal, I had corn-stuffed ravioli. IMG_0763

We did a little shopping, then did something exceedingly rare for us. We went back to the hotel and went to the spa! The hotel has a very large whirlpool and a sauna. Felt heavenly!

Ellen took advantage of the daily free pisco sour again, and then we went to dinner, a pizza place called Justina Pizzeria just two blocks from the hotel. It was a cute, wood-burning fireplace pizza joint. 2 pizzas and a 640ml beer for less than $20! IMG_0765

We leave Cusco tomorrow, but much more awaits!


Peru Day 3: Sacred Valley

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You can’t really catch up on sleep, but we tried. 9.5 hours certainly helped. Great breakfast buffet at the hotel, including baked goods, fresh fruit, eggs to order, fresh juices. A good way to start.

We hired a driver today, as we had designed our own itinerary of sights in the Sacred Valley, and a group wouldn’t have allowed us to do that.Our driver was great, but spoke almost no English. We used what little Spanish we know to communicate. It worked!

We set off for 9 to Pisac. The views were pretty awesome. DSC_0153

We hired a guide at the Pisac ruins. Don’t like doing that, but we wanted some understanding of what we were seeing. He was okay, when he wasn’t trying to sell us wooden flutes, special oil his grandmother made for altitude sickness or figurines.

The Incas used the mountains for agriculture by building terraces.DSC_0165

They buried their dead in holes in the cliffs. DSC_0170

We made it about 3/4 up steep stairs to the top but Ellen stopped and then a little while later I called it quits. The altitude and climbing is tough!

We drove back down to the town of Pisac and the market. Sundays is a food market for the locals, it was fascinating to observe. DSC_0189DSC_0188DSC_0182

On the way back to the car, we came by a cemetery. We’ve seen some wonderful ones, this small one was still fascinating.DSC_0195

Our last stop of the day was Salinas. Crazy place! over 5700 salt ponds, fed by a salty river with twice the salinity of the ocean. They fill up the ponds and let the sun dry up the water, producing 150kg per pond per month. And just what a sight they are! It took some walking down a winding stone path to get there, but it was worth it.
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We made it back to Cusco around 5:30. A brief rest, then we went to the bar at the hotel for our first pisco sours of the trip. So tasty! IMG_0758

Dinner was at Fallen Angel, just steps from our hotel. It came well recommended. Maybe they were having an off-night, but the service was awful. Food, when it came, was very good though.


Peru Days 1 & 2: Getting to Peru

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It was a long 2 days getting to Cusco. It’s a little bit of a blur, but we had some fun along the way.

We were up at 3:15am on Friday, with a 6am flight from National. We had an 8 hour layover in Atlanta, so we decided to make the most of it. We rented a car and went to a Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives place I had visited once before, the Silver Skillet. It is exactly what a Southern diner should be.

Ellen had seen that there was a Chihuly exhibit at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. It was warm, but well worth the visit.

Chihuly

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Ellen had discovered a Delta miracle when she was booking the flights: they were offering first/business class for fewer miles than coach. We of course jumped on that, so were able to use the lounge in Atlanta and fly in sleeper seats. I watched 2 movies on the flight, Eddie the Eagle and Creed. Enjoyed them both.

We arrived in Lima just before midnight local time (Peru is currently one hour behind ET). Ellen’s suitcase came out quick, but mine was almost at the end. A car was supposed to have met us from our hotel, but didn’t, so we’re navigating the chaos of the airport around 1am to get a taxi. We did, we made it to our just-off-the-airport hotel, and tried to get some rest, ahead of a 6:30 alarm and a 9:20am flight.

Flight to Cusco was quick and easy. We got a taxi to our hotel and felt the vacation had finally started. We’re staying at the Casa Cartegena, a luxurious hotel. After being taken to our room, there seemed to be a constant succession of knocks. First, coca tea and juice. Then hotel forms to sign. Finally, a plate of chocolates. We felt welcome!

We grabbed our guide books and then headed out the door. We are not far from the Plaza de Armas, the core of Cusco. But we were just passing through, our mission was to get SIM cards (of course). Despite the employees of Movistar speaking no English, we managed through the multi-step process. I did understand that when they asked if our phones were “libre,” they meant unlocked. After working on SOPs at AAAS for months, I wanted to document the process of: 1. Buying a SIM card 2. Putting money on the card 3. Signing up for the desired data plan. Step 3 can be the hardest because of language, but the woman helping us did it for us, so we left the store with .5GB of data for $11 each.

We found a Japanese restaurant, Bojosan, and had udon soup (Ellen had chicken, I had duck). It was a great meal for weary travels also adjusting to altitude.

Cusco is at 11,152 feet, which I think the technical term is, really high! We both are taking acetazolamide to ease the adjustment. The coca tea is supposed to help too.

Having been fed, we then started sightseeing. We went to the Templo de la Compañía and then Qurikancha. The Incas sure knew their masonry!

 

We took it easy in the evening, part of the acclimation process. So much more to come!

 


Loire Valley Trip: Endnotes

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Monet’s garden in Giverny

Just getting around to summarizing our trip to the Loire Valley, here are some thoughts I am left with:

  • Short trip, but: We hear a lot “you went to France for 5 days?” But you’d go to San Francisco or New Orleans or San Antonio or Seattle for a long weekend. The flight to Paris is ~8 hours, but overnight going and part of a required travel day coming back. We’ve done these long weekend trips before, to Madrid and Barcelona. You can concentrate on a smaller geographic region and not feel rushed to do everything. In fact, this was one of our most relaxed trips, because we kept the distances short and took in what we could.
  • Off-line technology: It might come as a surprise to some, but I like being unplugged sometimes. Hey, the trip to Cuba proved I could be off the internet for 8 days and survive. So I chose to use nothing but hotel Internet (and occasional free hotspot). But being unplugged doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of technology. I used 2 apps for the first time that work with no data connection, and can no highly recommend them. I already mentioned Navmii, which is a GPS app. You can download it for individual countries, which then includes all the maps and points of interest. We used it for driving and walking, and it worked wonderfully. The second app I loved was Microsoft Translator. You can take a picture of text (e.g. a sign or a menu) and it will translate it for you. It didn’t work perfectly, but often gave me the gist of something I couldn’t translate myself. Both apps are free and work without data, that’s great for a traveler.
  • Pack light: We both traveled with nothing but carry-on luggage. I used my new Tortuga backpack. 5 shirts, 2 pair of pants, socks/underwear, t-shirt to sleep in. Only thing I skimped on was only one pair of shoes. But being that light helped since we stayed in 3 hotels in 4 nights. And it meant no time waiting at the airport for the luggage to come out.
  • Get Global Entry: Global Entry really paid for itself this time. Now, at least at Dulles, you don’t even half to talk to an immigration agent. And while the line for Customs looked to be around 100-150 people, there was literally no one in the special Global Entry line. So we whizzed through, saving time and aggravation.
  • Keep traveling: Travel is easiest when you are young and healthy. We are no longer so young, but we want to travel our way (independent of tours) for as long as we can. Which is why we are going to keep doing trips like this as long as our health and money hold out.

Thanks for traveling along with us. Next trip is to Peru in early July.


Loire Valley Day 4: Three Châteaus

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For a day, we visited some picture perfect chateaus. And yes, the picture above is real, the frame is set-up to take this postcard-like picture.

Château de Blois was our first stop. We were somewhat surprised that it was an urban chateau. But we really liked it.DSC_0568

Château de Chambord was just too much. A 420 room “hunting lodge”?  It did have a circular staircase designed by Leonardi di Vinci. Not every hunting lodge has that.DSC_0589

I got the same feeling at Chambord that I got at Versailles. Too much. Just too much. The royals sure lived well, but where did the money come from and how did their subjects live? Europe’s history is full of excess

Leaving Chambord, we headed through the town of Bracieux. We were hungry and found a small place for an excellent lunch. We were the only English-speakers there, which we love. We had passed a chocolate factory just before that, Max Vauché. I’m not sure it was a formal rule before, but when you pass a chocolate factory, you stop. So we went back and bought a little bit. I mean, what the heck, we’re on vacation!

Château de Cheverny was of reasonable size. Nice gardens. And hound dogs!DSC_0596

 

Back in town, we had dinner at L’Epicerie. We had a half bottle of local Loire Valley red wine, salmon for Ellen in a creme sauce, steak for me. Ellen had cheese for dessert.

Sadly, we head home tomorrow. We had a full, but not too full, 4 days. We did the things we set out to do, and had some great non-planned experiences along the way.