Monday, February 29, 2016

Well, hello again: Post-Haitus Update

Hello again,

It's been a couple months since I have posted anything on here, mainly due to a hectic work schedule and the fact that I haven't had very many exciting trips recently. Since Peru, I've been here in the states, except for a weekend in Sweden (tickets were less than $350 r/t) and Disney World (if you don't count that as the US). It's been pretty quiet and I rounded the year out with a total of 46,855 miles flown. That makes 2015 the most traveled year since 2011.

Over the next few months, travel will be limited to flights back up to Seattle, but this fall I have one major trip on the horizon: My honeymoon. Naturally, you don't get this excuse to travel every day and this is going to be on amazing trip. Over the course of two and half weeks, we'll visit the Aitutaki in the South Pacific, New Zealand, Singapore, and Bali. In all, we will make a big pacific loop and fly just shy of completely around the world.

This is Aitutaki

The total cost for airfare and hotels for this 19 day trip was $2,225 per person, or about $120 per person per day ($4,450 total for all hotels and flights). For a comparison, a seven day tour of Paris excluding airfare to Europe can set you back $2,000 per person. For just a little more, we will be doing the entire trip and some of the hotels we will be staying at are splurge hotels (~$325/night), such as the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore and a beach front cottage in Aitutaki. Over the next couple posts on the blog, I'll talk about how this happened and what goes into planning something like this.

On another side, this year is going to be very exciting in terms of photography. I just upgraded to a Canon G9X premium compact, and I have three specialty cameras ordered and (hopefully) on their way to me soon. You will start seeing full spherical photos on here, along with better quality as well. So far, I have been using the G9X and like it quite a bit. Here are some sample photos from the weekend:

Overall, I'm impressed with it. I could have gone with the G7X, but looking forward to the honeymoon trip I wanted something very compact and that had multiple options for charging. While I would have enjoyed the lens on the G7X better, being able to charge via USB like you can on the G9X will be exceedingly useful.

As for other cameras, I should have before the honeymoon a Narrative Clip 2, a 360cam, and a Panono. These are all specialty cameras. The Narrative Clip is wearable camera that snaps a photo every 30 seconds or so. This gives you a stream of moments that you can go back and look into later, without having to explicitly worry about snapping a photo. I am looking forward to using it for timelapses. Meanwhile, the 360cam is all about 360 degree video. This space is getting a little more crowded, but the 360cam looks like a pretty solid product: The video stitching is done on the camera and quality seems to be on par with something like the Nikon Key Mission 360.

However, those two gizmos are not as exciting as the last one: The Panono. The panono is a spherical camera that uses 36 cameras to create the shot. The main advantage? Quality and size. Most of the other cameras on the market use one or two sensors, plus fish eye lenses, to create the shot. As a result, you get distortion and blur at the seams/edges, plus low resolution. In other situations you can get "ghosting" or parallax errors, which don't look that great.

The Panono, on the other hand, spits out a 100MP image and avoids a lot of the pitfalls of other options. The 36 cameras fire off at the same time so the whole scene is captured at the same time, and the resolution is pretty great. Check out this example and be sure to zoom in. It will be a unique way to capture places and it is on the way to me right now. I am pretty excited.

And there you have it. Next time I'll go into how I planned the honeymoon and why it was so cheap.

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.