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Pisac Market and Ruins


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The Pisac Market

Our journey along the Sacred Valley of Peru began with a visit to the Pisac Market. Like Otavalo in Ecuador, there was stall after stall filled with similar touristy stuff. We bought some gifts and wandered the market, as if we were expecting that just around the next corner would be something different and intriguing. Nope.

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The Pisac Ruins

Finished with the market, we wandered to the edge of town and flagged down a taxi to take us up to the Pisac Ruins. It was a pretty site, especially since we hadn´t yet visited too many ruins on our visit. We did a LOT of hiking, and walked back to the road to flag down a taxi (rather than walk another 2 hours back down to the town of Pisac). There weren´t any taxis to be had, but we talked our way into a private car that another couple had hired. Thank god.

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Onward to Ollantaytambo

After exhausting the market and visiting the ruins, we wandered to the edge of town to catch a bus to Ollantaytambo, our next stop in the Sacred Valley. Bus after bus left for Cusco, but none were (yet) headed for Urubamba, where we planned to catch another bus later to our destination, Ollantaytambo. We were approached by a very persistent young taxi driver, and after negotiating for a while we agreed to have him take us all the way to Ollantaytambo. His name was Beltran, and he was a very enthusiastic nice young guy.

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He drove us by his house to show us where he lived. He honked, finally getting the attention of his wife, who joined us in the taxi for the 2 hr ride to Ollantaytambo.

Posted by jtlande 18:02 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Quilotoa Loop


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Hiking from Laguna Quilotoa to Chugchílan

Recovered from our harrowing bus ride to Chugchílan, we banded together with a handful of other folks staying at the Cloud Forest Inn and headed out for the 5 hour hike from Laguna Quilotoa back to Chugchílan. Laguna Quilotoa is a mineral-rich emerald lake in the crater of an extinct volcano, at an altitude of 3,800 meters. We knew it was going to be cold so first we bought some wool hats and gloves sold by the locals back in town.

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Joanna, Jason, Jen, Tim, Lee and Adam, our trekking crew

The hike was really amazing, and had its challenging moments. We climbed up and down some incredibly steep terrain, and at the end of the trek we were exhausted. But along the way we saw some gorgeous landscapes and had to improvise when we discovered two critical foot bridges had recently been washed out by the rains. On top of it all, the route markers that had been placed by the folks at the Black Sheep Inn had all been removed by the local tour guides in a gambit to force trekkers like us to enlist their services! It was really amazing to see the extensive network of dirt paths that the locals used to walk from place to place. Along the way we saw many locals carrying incredibly heavy loads (like sacks of corn and other staples) on their backs, supported by very simple harnesses made from cloth. It makes one realize just how many luxuries, like backpacks and short trips to the market by car, that we take for granted back home.

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This photo of Tim Theis says it all - we all felt like this by time we got back to the warm fire in the lounge back at the hotel.

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The Zumbahua Market
The next day, our hardy band of trekkers decided to head to the Zumbahua market on the way back to Latacunga. Here are a couple of pix from the market.

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Posted by jtlande 20:07 Archived in Ecuador Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Navel of the World

Cusco

sunny

The train finally pulls into Cusco station and the hiking adventure portion of our trip comes to a close. Time for a little rest and relaxation in the lovely city of Cusco. Cusco was the capital of the Incan Empire and was considered ¨the Navel of the World¨by the Incans. We have found it to be lively, beautiful and full of interesting things to see and do.

Evidence of the Incans is everywhere in Cusco. When the Spainards took over Cusco, they destroyed many of the original Incan buildings and built their own on top of the ruins. Many of the buildings in Cusco still have the original Incan walls in the infrastructure - banks, hostels, restaurants, churches alike. Earthquakes that have struck Cusco have destroyed newer architecture but the Incan walls remain.

No, Gracias

Cusco is definitely a tourist city. So many shops selling t-shirts, alpaca clothing, Incan antiques and such, fill the streets of Cusco. There are also many, many people wandering the streets trying to sell you something - massages, finger puppets, postcards, ¨original¨works of art. You can´t buy it all! Luckily, the most simple of learned Spanish, ¨No, Gracias¨works to ward off the throng of vendors.

¨We´re going to Sexy Woman¨, huh?

Among the Incan ruins within a stone´s throw of Cusco is Saqsaywamán. The Quechua name for this ancient fortress sounds very much like ¨sexy woman¨ - talk about confusing. We were told it is one of THE Incan ruins to see.

We took a taxi up to Q’enqo, a sacred area used for rituals to foretell the prosperity of the coming year on the winter´s solstice. Q'enqo is another set of Incan ruins only 1km from the more well known Saqsaywamán. A few tour groups were there and we were eavesdropping on their guides to learn a little something about the site. We were approached by what we thought was just another street vendor, but ended up being a shaman-in-training/tour guide, named Uno (though we called him Crazy Eights). He showed us some of the symbols found within the rock formations, where llamas were sacrificed during rituals, and still even he tried to sell us a marble puma figurine at the end. No, gracias.

We then walked 15 minutes to the nearby Saqsaywamán site. Honestly, at this point, we were all Inca´ed out. The old fortress is quite impressive - three levels of immense stones cut so precisely that mortar was not needed for construction. We milled about for a bit, took the requiste photos and headed back to Cusco.

Ahhhhhh, Masaje
One of the troubles of touring on the advice of a guide book is that the only constant is change. There are plenty of people hawking massages on the street, but you want to know that it will be a good massage. So, we consulted the guide book, found a massage place that sounded like a good option, and headed out to find it. It wasn´t where it was supposed to be. Taking matters into our own hands, we visited one of the MANY other massage spas available just down the street. Within minutes we were enjoying hour-long massages (and for only about $23 each!). Ahhhhhh, why didn´t we do this sooner? (like RIGHT AFTER the Inca Trail?)

Local Flavor
EVERYONE tells us that we have to try the Peruvian speciality, cuy. Yup, your childhood pet guinea pig is considered a delicacy down here. And travelers we met liked showing us their pictures of a whole roasted guinea pig skewered and looking shocked about it (both the guinea pig and the traveler). So, with only a few days left in Cusco, we needed to get our lips around some cuy!

We were slightly disappointed when the somewhat ¨fancy¨restaurant we went to brought the cuy to the table already quartered and sans head. I mean, if you're gonna go for something that most people cringe at, it ought to be truly cringe-worthy, with roasted head and all, no? It was surprisingly tasty - somewhere between pork and hmmmmm, gerbil? The tiny ribs made for interesting eating - it´s a hands-on eating experience.

Keep Your Head Down
One thing about Cusco, being such a tourist-oriented town, is that if you walk down a street with lots of restaurants you must deliberately keep your eyes focused down to avoid catching the interest of one of the energetic young Peruvians that lurk in every doorway, wielding a menu as their weapon. If you catch the eyes of one of these predators you are doomed. "Amigo, tourist menu, 10 soles!" is the innocent beginning. Even if you have the common sense to say "No, gracias," you are in trouble. They will follow you all the way down the street repeating their offer and demanding reasons for your lack of interest. The best thing you can usually do is to say "Mañana". Then they eagerly hand you a flier and (usually) let you go. If you make the mistake of stopping to look at the menu, you are truly doomed. At one place, we were attached simultaneously by two of these "pullers" - one of which was from the restaurant we actually wanted to go to - and they both leapt ahead of us up the stairs. There they both lurked, ready to pull us to the left or to the right, to their restaurant. We bulldozed our way to the right, and even after walking into one place the other guy kept trying to lure us back out and acrosst he hallway to his restaurant. Crazy.

Wine and Couches
One of our favorite places in Cusco was Los Perros Wine and Couch Bar. It's a really neat, cozy lounge/bar with artsy decor and funky music. It's only a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas, but you have to know where it is to find it. We visited Los Perros a couple of times while we were in Cusco. Their food was amazing, and they had a pretty good selection of wine. It kinda made us think of places back in San Francisco where we might head for a trendy and relaxed night on the town.

Posted by joannacez 12:20 Archived in Peru Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

all seasons in one day
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The Inca Trail
The 4-day Inca Trail trek was an amazing experience. We lucked out with a small group of happy and interesting folks, and our guide, Martiza, was really knowledgeable about the plants and Incan history, and did a wonderful job setting a comfortable pace along the way. We hired porters to carry our stuff (except for our day packs which we carried with us with our rain shells, hats and snacks), which was a smart move. The porters in our group were a very shy but friendly, efficient bunch. They marched ahead of us and always had the lunch tent and campgrounds set up for us before we arrived there each day. The loads they carried were impressive (notice the photo down below of one porter carrying a propane tank), and most had only the traditional Andean leather sandals on their feet.

Our arrival on the fourth day at Machu Picchu met all of our expectations, and then some. MP is an incredible, spirtual, beautiful place that should not be missed!

Day 1
Our trek began when the Q'ente folks picked us up at our hotel in Ollantaytambo at 8:30am. To our pleasant surprise, we discovered that there were only 4 others in our group: 3 fellow trekkers (Susie and her daughter, Mia, from the US, and Susie's nephew Carlos, from Lima) and our guide, Maritza.

From Ollantaytambo we drove to Urubamba and on to Piskacuchu (KM 82) and the start of the Inca Trail. This first day was relatively easy. Along the way we visited the Llactapata archeological site. We got to our first camp site, at Wayllabamba, in the mid afternoon and settled in next to the cornfield and a flock of wild parrots who lived there.

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Day 2
We started early in the morning with a yummy pancake breakfast, followed by a group photo with all of the porters. Day 2 has a reputation for being the toughest day on the trek, since you hike up to the very highest point of the Inca Trail. It turned out for me to be not all that bad - once the rain began I just powered my way up and over and made it to the camp site by 11:30am, just after the porters arrived. Joanna followed an hour later and the rest of the group trickled in some time after. I think that if it wasn't raining and we stopped to do more sightseeing along the way, it might have been another story!

Along the way we passed through various microclimates, including some lush cloudforest areas. It began to rain pretty heavily, so soon I went into "robot" mode and started pacing myself behind the porters. I wanted to get to our campground and out of the rain. We crossed the Warmiwañusca pass (also called "Dead Woman's Pass") at 4,200 meters (13,780 feet) above sea level--the highest point along the Inca Trail. I definitely slowed down the higher I got, but didn't otherwise feel any adverse affects from the altitude.

From there we forged onward down the trail and finally to the campsite at Pacaymayo. The rain finally stopped, but as the night approached it began to get pretty cold. We bundled up and relaxed for the rest of the evening.

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Day 3
The third day was all about going down. Down, down, and further down the steep Incan steps. That turned out to be much tougher for me, because of my bad knees, than hiking the day before. But I just went at my own pace, thankful for the hiking poles I'd brought with me.

First we hiked about 45 minutes up to the second highest pass on the trail (3,850 meters) and visited the Runcuracay archeological site. We later passed the Syacmarca and Phuyupatamarca sites, finally reaching the Wiñaywayna ruins, where we spent our last night on the trail.

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Since pretty much everyone on the trail camps overnight at Wiñaywayna before heading to Machu Picchu early the next morning, it's pretty crowded. There's also a full-fledged restaurant, where we hung out that evening and had a few beers before turning in.

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Day 4, Machu Picchu

The original plan was to get up at about 4:30am and try to beat the other groups to the Sun Gate so that we could see the sun rise over Machu Picchu. But it was raining heavily again, so we decided to wait it out for a while at the camp site, figuring that there wouldn't be a sunrise to view this day, so there was no point in hurrying to the Inti Punku site. We were right, and when we made the final leg of the trek to Machu Picchu, we sat in the rain at Inti Punku for an hour waiting for the clouds to break. They didn't (well, only a little), so we made the short hike down to Machu Picchu. We had a good laugh as on the way down we passed a big llama making its way up the path, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Frankly, there, it probably was!

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Machu Picchu was, quite simply, extraordinary. There's an indescribable sense of spirituality and history that hangs over the place like the clouds, and the ruins and structures that remain were truly awe-inspiring. For me, the hundreds of agricultural terraces were most remarkable. When we came back the next day I found a deserted terrace far below the main areas and spent an hour meditating there, without a single other person in sight. When I opened my eyes and saw the cloud-encircled mountains in front of me, it took my breath away. What a fantastic, beautiful and mystical place!

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It really is hard to put into words how amazing a place Machu Picchu is. The scale of the site is at times overwhelming -- it's really difficult to understand from the pictures above how large the area is. Here's a map:

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And to think that this place had been hidden for so long in the overgrown jungle! We were really glad that we gave ourselves time to go back a second day. That way we were able to wander around the first day without worrying about seeing everything that same day. On the second day we returned early in the morning, when it was pretty uncrowded (with only those who had hiked in wandering around in their small groups). I was able to find a secluded spot in which to meditate in peace and silence, and we later hiked up to Waynu Picchu. From there you can see the entire Machu Picchu site.

We also hiked another hour from there to the Temple of the Moon site. That hike was probably more grueling than any part of the Inca Trail! It consisted of many incredibly steep Incan steps and paths...we were both drenched in sweat by the time we got there. And then we had to hike another hour, all uphill, back to Machu Picchu. Ugh. But it was worth it.

So...if you ever find yourself deciding whether or not to go to Machu Picchu, GO! If you have the time to trek the Inca Trail, you should do it. While it's not easy, it's also quite do-able by most folks, especially if you go with a good tour group (we highly recommend Q'ente, who we went with, and others had good things to say about Llama Path as well) that enables you to go at your own pace. And if you do go, be sure to leave yourself the option to stay overnight in Aguas Calientes and return the next day after having had a good night's rest in a real bed. We did, and we're very glad we did so. It made our experience at Machu Picchu that much more enjoyable and memorable.

Posted by jtlande 17:40 Archived in Peru Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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