Monday, September 21, 2015

Peruvian Journey Part 4: Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the crown gems of Peru's historic sights. Surround by a deep valley on three sides, nestled in the mountains, and effectively one massive construction, this is a ruin to see. Without a doubt, this ranks as the most impressive man-made sight I have seen (modern or otherwise).

Machu Picchu is a full city, which would have supported an active and diverse population. The terraces around the city (such as see on the west side of photo above) were used for agriculture while the center of the city included homes, an area for workshops, and religious/government/commerce functions.

In addition to having all of the infrastructure for supporting urban life, there is also the fact that Machu Picchu embodies an utterly stupefying amount of effort and will. Terraforming a mountain top into a set of terraces on all sides with massive stone buildings would be a challenge using today's technology, but Machu Picchu is over 600 years old. It must have taken an army to build (most likely not all were volunteers). The amount of rock moved by hand to build this is unfathomable...

...and yet people abandoned it. The reason for Machu Picchu being left to be covered by jungle is lost to history. Most likely it had to do with the sudden collapse of the Inca empire and the mandated adoption of European norms, but it seems unbelievable that an investment of this magnitude would simply disappear after people shrugged their shoulders and left. It is truly a sight to see and fully unforgettable.

I spent two days in the ruins, so I had a pretty good opportunity to walk around twice. Getting there is easy enough: Once you have your Machu Picchu tickets in hand (buy them online here well in advance or work with a local to buy them for you), you simply hop on one of the extremely easy to find and obvious buses in Aguas Calientes and enjoy the 20 minute drive up the mountain. You can hike it, but this does not look like an enjoyable to me: It is directly up the mountain and features numerous road crossings with buses. Also, don't forget the altitude! If you were going to do the hike no matter, I would take the bus up and hike down instead.

At the entrance, you'll find the Belmont Lodge, which is your tourist buffet brunch. The offerings are actually pretty good, but it is pricey. On the other hand, this is it for food up here and you are technically not supposed to bring stuff in to the park (Be courtesy and pack it out!). In practice you can bring whatever you want in, and I highly recommend plenty of water, something energy packed to eat, and protection against the sun.

From the main entrance, the main view you are seeking is up the path. Take the first left and go up and you will be welcome by the classic view below.

My absolute favorite parts of Machu Picchu, however, were both big and small. It was fun to feed the llamas that are wandering about and the stone work of the temples (see above) are mind boggling impeccable, but what I suspect I will remember the most are two things. The first is a lesser traveled area below the "industrial" area (below). Fewer people come this way and it is an ideal place to take a break or a even a nap. It is quiet, natural, and very peaceful. The ruins here exhibit less manipulation and restoration than some of the other areas, and you get a better feeling of being away from everything.

The second thing that I will remember vividly is a single wild strawberry that I found. I love wild strawberries. As I have talked about before, wild strawberries (aka "smultron" in Swedish) are a rare treat for me and connected with wandering around Sweden as a kid. This single strawberry found on the hillside of Machu Picchu connects back to all that in addition to being delectable. I also only found one single berry while I was there. The taste, surprise of encountering the berry in prime ripeness, and the location is something I won't forget as well. 

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Peruvian Journey Part 3: Ollantaytambo

Ollantaytambo is a small town nestled in the mouth of the valley that leads to Machu Picchu. Even though it was a brief overnight stop, this was actually one of the highlights of the trip. It was peaceful and quiet, despite being at the cross roads of a wide array of interesting archaeological sights. If I could take the trip again, the main thing I would have changed would be to stay two nights here instead of one.

Hostal Iskay was my accommodation here (pictured below) and was a very pleasant place. Built on two terraces and directly adjacent to the old part of town. Much of Ollantaytambo dates back to the Inca empire. While the title says "hostel", in reality this was a very nice little bed and breakfast. The rooms were comfy and clean, and the breakfast included some very fresh eggs and with an array of local teas.

Of course, by "local tea" I mean coca tea. It is served everywhere in this part of Peru and the leaves are widely available. It is simply part of the culture, as much as coffee is in Seattle. Coffee is after all a completely addictive psychotropic drug... it just happens to be our drug. While I did not have any while I was there, I am told by a trusted friend that there is no euphoria associated with it but that it is actually very good at combating altitude sickness.

The main draw for most tourists is the terraces of Ollantaytambo. This were the site of the final victory of the Incas over the Spanish. The victory was short lived and the Inca forces withdrew to a city deep in the mountains (not Machu Picchu) after it became clear that they would not be able to hold out forever.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Peruvian Journey: Part 2 - Up to the Sacred Valley

While Lima is the capital of Peru, the heart of the country is the Sacred Valley. This is where the heart of the Inca Empire was based and that history and culture is still a source of pride for many Peruvians. The evidence of that civilization and the testament to their building prowess is easily visible at the many ruins in the valley. 

For tourists, Cusco is the gateway to the Inca ruins. The city sits more than 11,000 feet above sea level and is a quick 40 minute flight from Lima. Ticket prices are surprisingly reasonable and flights are frequent. LAN provides the most mainstream service with the best planes. Other airlines like StarPeru and Peruvian (which I flew) provide decent service and lower prices... but with a few trade offs. For example, this is a fine specimen of a 737-200 has been around for quite a while. It may very well be as old as I am. 

Once in Cusco, the most sensible thing to do is leave, immediately. It is not that the town is a bad plus, but the the high altitude is likely to have an impact. 11,000 feet up is the same as standing on top of Mount Hood or Mount Fuji. Other towns in the valley are actually lower altitude and better suited for adjusting to the thin air. In my case, I stayed in Ollantaytambo.

For transportation, nothing prearranged is needed. Ignore the taxi hustlers that speak excellent English when you first step out; They are just trying to get you to pay four times as much as you should. They originally offered $60 to drive out to Ollantaytambo (1.5 hours), which by US standards is great, but you can hire a private cab at the collectivo terminal 15 minutes away for $18. Or take a collectivo for the whole journey for a couple bucks!

Ultimately, I took the short local cab to the terminal and bought a seat in the cab. The cab normally takes four people and their stuff for a trip and leaves when full, but I opted to by out the middle seat for a more comfortable ride. I highly recommend this. In total, I spent $9 for two seats and an hour and a half trip through the Scared Valley.

This was the first view of Ollantaytambo (above). If I were to do the trip again, I would stay here and use this as the launching point for touring around the Sacred Valley. The place we stayed at Hostal Iskay was really nice and relaxing. Fortunately, there will have to be another time because there is much left unexplored.

Next time: The ruins of Ollantaytambo and More from Cusco!

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Peruvian Journey: Part 1 - Lima

Welcome to Peru! My most recent trip was back to South America (by way of Toronto) for a journey up to Machu Picchu. Naturally, the first stop for virtually any trip to Peru is going to be Lima, the capital city and main international airport for the country.

If you are traveling to Lima, a couple pieces of advice: From the airport, you are going to want to grab a green cab. There will be a huge group of them and for airport to the city, the is the easiest option. In terms of expense, it's about $18 from the airport to Miraflores or Barranco, where you are likely staying. The price is fixed and tipping is not expected, however before you run off be sure that you check the sign and confirm the price. If not, then you may end up with a guy that tries to get a couple extra bucks out of you. Not the worst in the world, but it ends up being an ignorance tax.

The city itself is on a bluff next to the Pacific Ocean and is massive. More than ten million people call Lima home, which gives rise to some very stark contrasts between the haves and have-nots (as everywhere). Areas around Centro and closer to the airport are going to show a much more modest version of Peru, while Miraflores and some of the surrounding neighborhoods are lush and high end. Miraflores and Barranco both felt perfectly safe to walk around, even at night. Some of the other areas were obviously places that I wouldn't want to be out there as a tourist. As for when to go, summer in Lima means rain in the Sacred Valley, while dry season in the Sacred Valley means grey days as seen above. It is still warm, but it's not especially pretty.

I was in the city for a total of two and a half days. By far, one of the more interesting places that I visited was the Larco Museum, which houses and extensive collection of Inca artifacts. I'll go more into my thoughts on the Inca empire in another post, but this was what wet the whistle. The level of creativity and playfulness on display was very cool.

In addition to the pottery, there is also examples of the gold working of the Inca empire. One thing that I learned from this was that most of the gold on display that impressed the Spanish so much (and triggered a bloody subjugation driven by their greed of the native people) was actually thin sheets of a gold alloy. In reality, it really wasn't the solid gold treasure that we hear about.

Larco Museum is also home to a collection of very NSFW clay pottery in another section. Obviously, pictures are not forthcoming, but it is pretty obvious that the Inca relationship with sex was not the same as after the Catholics got there. Not at all.

In the next post, we'll take a look at some of the tastes of Lima, including Amaz, Pan de la Chola, La Lucha, and the fantastic Ayahuasca bar.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

McDonald's Around the World: Toronto - Featuring the McLobster!

Ah, Toronto. The last time I was here, it was 20 below and freezing. This time around I was here on a layover and had a couple hours to run into the city. Naturally, I wanted to check a couple local specialties off my list, which happened to include a peek into McDonald's to see if they had one of the great myths of Canadian McDonald's: The McLobster.

 Oh. There it is. Is there anything else that I can do double down on the Canadian-ess of this meal?

Maple bacon McDonald's poutine? Don't mind if I do! Naturally, I have to say that this was for the experience. I mean, non-breaded and fried seafood at McDonald's? That just sounds a bit risky, but the McLobster exists and I had to tried it.

First up, the appetizer. There's real maple syrup on there, in addition to the bacon, cheese, and gravy. Overall, it might not have been that bad without the maple syrup. Or if you were horribly drunk and stumbling home, I imagine.

Truth in advertising here: "Get ready! You're about to try something new!"

I really didn't know what a $7 lobster sandwich from McDonald's was going to be like, but here it is. It exists. The lobster meat is cool, rolled around in mayo, with bits of standard MickeyD's lettuce. Did I try it? Yes. Did I finish it? After this, I had a 9 hour flight ahead of me and the last thing I needed was a parting gift from Canada that involved getting sick, so I was satisfied with my three bites.

Maybe things will be better at McDonald's where I'm off to next?