Monday, September 29, 2008

Getting There is None of the Fun

At last the time arrived for the focal point of our trip, the one part that made everything else just warm up: Machu Picchu. Planes, trains, scary automobiles, sketchy hotels, all in service of getting to the Eighth Wonder of the World. We double checked our train tickets, paid the hotel bill in advance and scheduled a 4:30 AM wake up call for a 5:00 AM cab ride to the train station.

Naturally I got sick the night before. While brushing my teeth I zoned out, got absorbed in routine, and rinsed my mouth out with tap water. Apparently toothpaste does not have all the antibacterial qualities one might hope for. The results were unpleasant. You might call it "Manco Inca's Revenge." So I skipped the very nice spread Hostal Sauce set out for us, eschewing even coca tea, on the theory of "no garbage in, no garbage out." Then it was out to the cab in the cold dark of predawn, standing in at the ticket counter, fending off the early morning vendors and cramming our luggage into the overhead rack on the Backpacker to Aguas Calientes.

They say the train ride is breathtaking, that there's plenty to see: the Urubamba river tumbling over rapids, ancient ruins along the Inca Trail, rugged mountains. I wouldn't know, I didn't hardly look out the window. They also say the bus ride from Aguas Calientes up to Machu Picchu itself is harrowing. I'll admit it has its share of switchbacks and it's a bit narrow in spots, especially for two way traffic, but I had full confidence in our safety. After all, they wouldn't invest in plush Mercedes buses, with air conditioning even, if they planned to let the drivers throw them off a mountain on a regular basis. Besides, those bus drivers didn't have half the guts of the Cusco cabbies. Nevertheless, Wendy chose to focus her attention on the uphill side of the bus ,where there were fewer steep drop offs to be found, until we arrived at the top.

While everyone else headed for the entrance we headed for our hotel. Oh, you thought there were no hotels at Machu Picchu? Not quite true, there is one, the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. It's a decent enough place, has its own charm, not too expensive. In the off season the nightly room rates even fall into the mere triple digits, and that'll be in American Dollars please, not Peruvian Soles.

Having allowed the hotel manager to fill out our check in forms for us, entrusted our gear to the staff, fortified ourselves with coca tea (and two Immodium for myself) and strapped on our photo gear we headed off to the park proper.

What, no pictures? Nah, you didn't want to see photos of any of that stuff anyway. Trust me on that. We'll have some pictures next time, I promise.

Monday, September 22, 2008


I saw a house for sale today. The yard sign had one of those little tack on signs on top, the ones that usually say something like "Great Upgrades!" or "Price Reduced!". This one said "I’m beautiful inside!" I think that's hilarious. They anthropomorphized the house to sound like a desperate, whiny teenager that can’t get a date. I can just picture it with pimples on the stucco and braces on the front door, whining “Why don’t any of the buyers like me? I’m beautiful on the inside!”

Maybe next week it’ll say "I have a great personality!" or "My owner says I’m a catch!" or "My builder says I am the coolest house on the block!"

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Salt From the Earth

The Incas were quite adept at channeling the water from mountain springs, and they used that skill to good advantage at Salinas. The Incas discovered a salt water spring in the mountains. Rather than dig up the mountain to get the salt, they let the spring bring it out for them.

They built hundreds of collection pools and connecting channels down the mountainside from the spring. They'd fill a pool, then redirect the water elsewhere. Then they just had to wait for the water to evaporate in the dry mountain air, leaving behind the salt. I've never worked a salt mine, but I've got to imagine it's a lot harder than that.

The area seems like an incongruity, an inexplicably snowy slope in the middle of an arid dry-season landscape. In reality everything is blanketed in a thick layer of blinding white salt crystals.


The pools are constructed with the signature Inca stone work. It rarely peeks through the layers of salt though.

The whole area is open for tourists. You can wander out among the pools, walking on the narrow pathways between them. It feels precarious, until you remember that the pools are only inches deep. Still, it's another reminder of how things are different than the USA. There's not a rope, guardrail, guard or personal injury lawyer in sight.

Despite the non-stop stream of tourists, Salinas is still a working industrial operation. Workers amble around the narrow walkways between pool tending to the operation. Some were breaking up the crust of salt on top of pools so evaporation could continue, others scraped dried salt into big bags.

The bags are hand carried from the pools up the hillside, where they are loaded on donkeys and carried away. The salt is eventually marketed worldwide as Peruvian Pink Salt. It's unsurprisingly pricey; $37/pound.



I've got more crystallized photos that go well with popcorn, check 'em out.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Peruvian Drinks

The "national drink" of Peru, at least as claimed in the tour books, is the Pisco Sour. Pisco is similar to brandy in that it's a liquor distilled from grapes, but it's less sweet. The sour part involves Peruvian lemons and egg whites, among other things. I must admit I wasn't a big fan of Pisco or the Pisco Sour.

The Peruvian lemons are pretty good without the egg whites though. They're small, green and intense, not far off from the limes we get in America. They also make fantastic lemonade. I ordered it several times, and it was consistently a treat. I think it was made fresh every time I ordered it. It looks pretty tasty too -- I'm disappointed that I didn't get a photo of it.

Fruit juices are more widely available in Peru than in the US. Most menus had strawberry juice, papaya juice, and others. Wendy's favorite was strawberry juice. As served there it's a thick, sweet beverage almost like a milkshake. But since it wasn't called a milkshake we can pretend it was healthy.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Nice Boots

While waiting for my flight in the Lima airport lounge I bent down to tie my boot. As I was doing so a man walked by, wearing the exact same pair of boots. I looked up just in time to see him turn around, grin at me, and say "Nice boots!"

Nice boots indeed and an odd coincidence as well.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


We left Cusco by colectivo, basically a taxi acting like a bus, and headed to Ollantaytambo. Despite its expansive name Ollantaytambo is a relatively tiny town. It sits at the confluence of the Urubamba and Patacancha rivers. Of the five towns and cities we visited Ollantaytambo was definitely my favorite.


One of the advantages of this tiny town is that everything is nearby. The largest set of ruins was only three blocks from our hotel. That easy access allowed me to make three trips to them, including one pre-sunrise excursion, even though we were only in town for two days.

The ruins here were well preserved and have been further restored. There are several large expanses of terraces with their associated buildings.

Above the terraces is the partially finished Temple of the Sun, so called because it is oriented to catch the first light of dawn. This part of it is made from eight foot tall, 30+ ton blocks of rhyolite that were quarried near the top of the mountain across the valley, moved here and then fitted together nearly perfectly. They actually have fittings you can't see that hold them together through Peru's relatively frequent earthquakes. The structure is almost 500 years old, but I doubt you could get a sheet of paper into the seams.

Further up the hill is the Incahuatana ("lashing place of the Incas"). Researchers speculate that prisoners were lashed into the west facing doorways here. It's perhaps a 20-minute climb to get here so it's much less crowded than the Temple of the Sun. I saw only two others even try to get here.

The valley floor is covered in farms now. I'm told that the Incas rarely farmed the valley floor even when they could have because terrace farming was actually more productive.

Due to their higher altitude the terraces receive more sunlight than the valley floor. The sun shining on the sides of the terraces warms them, speeding the growth of nitrogen fixing bacteria as well as plant roots. The warm earth also keeps the surrounding air warmer, protecting the plants from frosts. Finally, could be irrigated easily using channels fed by mountain steams while remaining immune to flooding.

It took quite a bit of knowledge to build the terraces effectively. The Incas used multiple layers of gravel, clay, different soils and even imported topsoil to promote drainage, protect from ice damage and achieve optimal yields.

There were other ruins on other hillsides which we didn't have time to explore. I wish we had had another day here. Maybe next time.




While I was off looking at piles of old rocks, Wendy was off exploring on her own. We got surprisingly different photos, considering that we went nearly everywhere together. 

What she was primarily doing was indulging her fascination with llamas. They are kinda cute, I guess, but holy cow do we have a crapload of llama photos.

Llamas look rather odd when scratching their heads. This one has hid head turned sideway so he can scratch his jaw. Sometimes they their head on the ground so they can scratch their ears.

Wendy also observed the locals a bit. This little boy demonstrates that some facial expressions transcend language and culture.

He appears to have recovered quickly though.



This posts has gone on long enough, but there are more photos up on my SmugMug site. But credit where due, even though they're on my SmugMug site a lot of the photos are Wendy's, particularly the photojournalistic ones and anything involving cute animals.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Better Late than Never

"Welcome to Lima, Peru. The local time is 5:35 AM and the temperature is 36 degrees. Your may claim your checked luggage from the American Airlines luggage office in the Denver International Airport in three weeks. Thank you for flying Delta."

The major blot on our trip to Peru was that our one checked bag, containing nearly all of Wendy's clothes, never showed up. We tried to chase it down but never succeeded. After we got back to the US, still sin equipaje, we pretty much gave up on ever seeing it again.

Lo and behold it actually materialized from the airline aether, three weeks to the day after we first checked it in. It's not even much worse for wear, and, even more amazing, appears to have everything in it.

Better late than never.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cusco Local Color

Cusco served as our introduction to the Andean love affair with stairs. Most of the important Inca ruins are in an area called the Sacred Valley. Unsurprisingly, that means there are lots of steep inclines to be found. Although the Incas were quite ingenious they has not gotten around to inventing the escalator, so you end up climbing a lot of stairs.

There are stairs everywhere. Stairs to get to the hotel, stairs to get to the church, stairs to get to restaurants, stairs to go to the ruins, stairs to go the bathroom, stairs stairs stairs. Then some more stairs. If it ain't got stairs then it ain't worth going to. Those hours on the Stairmaster at home definitely were not wasted.

Wendy claims to have seen two women walked around Cusco in high heels. I cannot comprehend the depth on fashion-obsession that would require someone to attempt a difficult and potentially ankle-breaking journey through the cobblestones and stairs of Cusco on heels. But then there is much about women I don't understand.


This little girl was playing peekabo with us as we walked by, passing a slow afternoon I suppose. Well, I doubt she was playing peekabo. More likely it was some Spanish word I don't know.


Apparently the Simpsons are popular everywhere. I knew there was a Simpson's episode in Brazil, but I missed the Peruvian episode. Regrettably we never found out if The Simpsons has been translated in Quechua.


Everyone loves a swingset!


Peruvian pigeons are some of the most fearless I've seen. Probably something to do with surviving all the dogs that are running loose. But they're still scared of little kids.


Friends, Peruvians, pigeons, lend me your ear!


P is for Peru!


I'm crazy Peruvian guy, gimme some candy!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Our trip began in Cusco. That is, it began in Cusco twenty hours, four airports, one lost bag and our first cup of coca tea after we left home. So thus we stumbled out of the airport a bit sleep deprived, a bit culture shocked, and a bit short of breath due to Cusco's 11,000 foot altitude.


We proceeded without pause to the waiting taxis where we were promptly ripped off, paying thirty nuevo soles for a ride I later learned should cost no more than eight. But this was our first driving adventure in Cusco so I was happy to pay anything to get there in one piece. I've used taxis in Rome, which was exciting, and Rio, which is an even higher level of urban rally racing enjoyment. Peruvian driving is like Brazilian driving times three, with cliffs and narrow streets, nary a seatbelt to be found, and always partaken of while in the back of stripped down secondhand Daewoo Tico.

I think we counted three streetlights in Cusco, one or two lane markers, and no stop signs. The number of lanes is determined by dividing the width of the road by the width of the cars on it at any given moment. The right of way is apparently negotiated solely on the basis of who has more speed and less to live for. And a curve without squealing tires, well, that's no kind of curve at all! These rules held everywhere we went in Cusco and even applied to our sixteen passenger tour bus later in the trip. But I must compliment them on their use of the car horn - it is truly a device for amicable communications rather than an outlet for aggression.



The old section of Cusco dates back hundreds of years. This lends it a great deal of character as well as steep, narrow streets. The photo above is the intersection nearest our hotel, Hostal Amaru. The hotel is up the hill, just past the blue window boxes. Having climbed those stairs a few times, I can tell you that it's far steeper than it looks, but far from the steepest in the area. Also notice that the street is just wide enough for a car, and the sidewalks aren't quite wide enough for two people. That's fairly common - you get very used to looking both ways before steeping into the street to pass another pedestrian. What you can't see is that those cobblestones are very, very old. So old that they are worn smooth enough to be reflective, smooth enough that my sticky hiking boots would slip on them even when dry.


But Cusco is not all near-death automotive adventures. The downtown has a lot of character, and we took a number of walks to explore it.


These ladies are pretty much everywhere. I'll talk more about them later.


There was some sort of parade going on in the town square, complete with crazy costumes. I'm not really sure what the reason was, but it was entertaining.


Many doors are brightly painted. Balconies are usually brightly painted or very elaborately carved. This also shows the lax attitude towards construction -- notice the stairs leading up to the door are only half width, and curve significantly despite their limited height.


Walking the stairs at night.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

... and we're back


Back from where? Peru. Wendy & I went for 12 days. Of course it could not help but be an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime trip. We experienced a completely different culture, met new people, toured ancient ruins and even had some new alcoholic beverages.

We're not too much worse for the wear. I've got some huge bites from some kind of nasty insect that we've dubbed the Llama Fly, and had a brief bout of Inca's Revenge (much like Montezuma's Revenge, but Peruvian). Wendy's luggage has disappeared, most likely never to be seen again. She seems most broken up over what was apparently the best swimsuit ever produced. Between us we seem to have misplaced a few thousand dollars somewhere along the way. If you find it be sure to let me know.

We also took an absolutely ridiculous amount of pictures 3600 photos, over 40 GB worth. I'm only just getting a grip on this mass of photos, but I expect them to start showing up here sometime soon.

As great as the trip was, it's great to be back too. After a while you start to miss things like clean clothes, potable water, traffic laws, heating and the English language.