Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Ultimate Destination

Lima was the last destination of our trip, and it was almost as if we saved the best for last. While Lima's surroundings are dry, sandy desert, the city itself is a rich and vibrant oasis that we were happy to be in the center of. We used some credit card rewards to book our stay in the Gran Hotel Bolivar, which in its heyday in the mid 1900's hosted the likes of John Wayne, Edward II and Robert Kennedy. It was located on a lovely park, and while it could have used some serious renovations, but with its 1920's decor and excellent service, was still a real treat for us compared to backpacker hostels.

Gran Hotel Bolivar
Stained glass atrium in the lobby

From the hotel, we were just minutes from the Plaza Mayor and historic center which offered tons of restaurants and shopping options (mostly shoes). The Plaza itself featured the bright and majestic municipal buildings as well as the main cathedral and presidential palace. At the palace we were luckily able to see the once-a-month special changing of the guard with the national cavalry. Performed only the third Sunday of every month, the show featured a jazz band of riders on horseback playing some upbeat tunes, followed by a series of routines involving dozens of cavalry members trotting around in different formations. It was an interesting show and we had prime seats!

Us in the Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

Cavalry band
Changing of the cavalry

Just off the plaza, we visited the convent of San Francisco which since the 1500's has housed a Franciscan order of friars. Though we're not much for religious artifacts, the tour of the maze-like convent and adjoining church and catacombs was fascinating. We saw a fantastic old library with thousands of books including choral chanting books that were three feet tall and a spinning stand used to hold them. They had magnificent art including intricate geometric cedar wood cupolas, hand-painted Italian tile work, solid gold processional litters, and dozens of oil paintings and murals. The best was one of the last supper that had been altered in order to assist in the evangelization of locals. Jesus and the Apostles feasted on roast guinea pig at a round table with kids and dogs present, while the cherubs looking down had wings of macaws, a local bird. The catacombs were eerie and musty, and held the piled-up, decayed remains of pretty much every Spanish resident from the 1600's through 1821 when a proper cemetery was decreed necessary. The only other fellow traveler on our tour was an older lady from Brazil who at the end began talking to us, almost entirely in Portuguese, although we answered in Spanish. It was amazing that we were able to keep a conversation going with her, and we surprisingly learned she had even visited Detroit once!

Journeying outside of the center, we spent a full day in the Miraflores and Barranco neighborhoods which stretch along the coast of the Pacific. In Miraflores, we had a guided tour of Huaca Pucllana ruins occupied by the Lima and Wari people before the Inca. The ruins were unlike any others we'd seen, featuring a unique building style called librero where adobe bricks were stacked up and cemented together creating a library-like effect which protects the building from seismic activity. The site was a ceremonial temple where sacrifices and burials took place close to the sea which was very sacred.

At the ruins (see library book staking method in the background)

At the top of the temple

Miraflores itself is a modern and upbeat area which would probably be a nice place to live given the concentration of airy apartments, good eateries and vibrant park spaces. It was nice to wander around, it reminded us a lot of Australia or the Western U.S., but didn't have a lot to offer in terms of attractions. Barranco was a bit less developed with even fewer attractions, but still pleasant with many old buildings, ornate houses and beautiful parks. The day we visited, the entire coast was also bathed in a moist, salty ocean fog which meant things were continually disappearing into and out of the mist and we couldn't get a good view of the beaches and coast.

Lima is known as the "gastronomic capital of the Americas" both for its variety of traditional Peruvian fare and its notable fusion dishes with other cuisines like Chinese and Japanese. We certainly tried to take in a variety of culinary experiences. We ate at one of the best (and most expensive) sushi places in the city, Edo, which had some delicious rolls like one with smoked trout cream and fried salmon skin. We visited the Chinatown district, complete with an arch, and had a filling mixed stir fry with two kinds of pork, beef, shrimp and some other unidentified seafood. We also had our share of Peruvian foods like seco de tierno, a tender piece of beef (maybe calf?) with a tomato-y cilantro sauce; aji de gallina, sliced potatoes topped with pieces of chicken and red pepper sauce and causa, a soft potato cake that we had topped with a shrimp salad. Lima is perhaps most famous for its ceviche, raw fish and seafood "cooked" in lime and chile served with onion and cilantro. We weren't too enthusiastic about trying it, but we found that it was surprisingly flavorful and the texture of raw clams was the only really off-putting part.

Chinatown arch

Seafood mixed platter

Our trip also would not have been complete without tasting a Pisco Sour, the national drink made from the local alcohol, pisco. Pisco is similar to grappa, its a strong, clear distilled spirit made from grape skins in, you guessed it, the Pisco region of Peru. The pisco sour is a blend of pisco, lime juice, sugar syrup and beaten egg white with a dash of bitters. These were good, but strong since bartenders tended to be heavy handed with the liquor! We preferred other mixes like a chilcano - pisco, lime and ginger ale - or pisco with maracuyá (passion fruit) juice.

Enjoying a pisco sour

We were surprised at how much we enjoyed Lima. It had a contemporary, developed vibe, but also lots of ornate historic architecture that gave it a sophisticated and regal feel. The temperature was perfect this time of year, hovering in the high 70's, but cool in the shade and with a pleasant breeze from the ocean. The rapid bus system was efficient and easy to navigate. There were abundant parks and recreation spaces, all clean and well-maintained. We felt completely and totally safe, even walking around at night because there was always such a bustle of people. It truly was the ideal spot to end our wonderful trip.

Building designed by Gustave Eiffel in a park in the city

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

We Reached the Top…

…Both literally and figuratively. Upon entering the gates of Machu Picchu, we not only arrived at the end of our painstaking 400 meter vertical climb up the mountain, but also the zenith of our entire trip. This is what it had all been for, everything else was just mostly filler to get us to this most famous and well-known Inca site.

And it was all worth it; the 4 hour bus/train trip from Cusco, the 3:30 am wake up, the 1.5 hour hike in pitch black Peruvian jungle, the $50 entrance ticket. All worth it just to see the mist clear revealing the magical scene of ancient ruins set at the apex of breathtaking mountains. It was even more impressive in person than any photo; the grass greener, the cliffs steeper, the stonework more intricate.

Train along the Urubamba River toward Machu Picchu
Urubamba and beautiful Andes Mountains
What’s interesting and also unusual about Machu Picchu is that no one really knows why it exists. It was occupied for only about 100 years, its inhabitants taking with them their goods when they left. The Spanish never found and conquered it, which isn’t all that surprising since until you actually arrive there, it’s impossible to tell from below that exists. Some think it may have been a testing ground for agriculture, its various terraces providing microclimates for different crops. It’s obvious by the huge temple structure and location that it was a sacred spot, situated among the most pristine mountains in the Andes. 

Ruins shrouded in mist
Nolan at the gate to the city
Llamas hanging out on the terraces
We could have stayed forever just taking in the views, but the afternoon rain clouds were rolling in so we headed down. Note to fellow travelers: rain gear is essential and take the bus unless you want to punish yourself. We were slightly soaked and completely exhausted by the time we made it back to town and on to our train.

City and farming terraces
We spent the night in Ollantaytambo on the way back to Cusco which was worth a brief stop to see their unique ruins which feature another temple, water fountains and multi-story storagehouses. 

Ruins at Ollantaytambo
View from ruins - storehouses in the distance

Monday, April 16, 2012

Center of the Inka Empire

Cuzco is the most visited tourist spot in all of Peru, and as such, it didn’t exactly bowl us over with charm. The main Plaza de Armas, while manicured and architecturally well-designed, was lined with overpriced restaurants, overpriced souvenir shops, massage parlors and tour agencies. Not only the main plaza, but every road leading to the main plaza, had the same toxic combination. The buildings and streets were quaint and well-maintained, but the repetitiveness of the shops and the constant product hawking by vendors got old quick.

That said, after we got past the touristy facade, there were some highlights of our time in the Inca’s center of the world. Our hostel, Resbalosa, took quite a hike to get to up a steep set of stairs from the plaza, but as a result afforded us spectacular views from our room of the city. The owners, a wife and husband, were attentive and friendly, and the hot water and plentiful wool blankets were much welcomed as the temperature never got above 60 degrees.

Plaza de Armas from our hotel room
We ended up having to get a Boleto Turistico, or tourist ticket, that was good for 16 different sites in and around Cuzco. At S.130 it was really expensive, but absolutely necessary since many places included either don’t sell separate tickets or are so expensive separately that it’s worth it to the boleto if you visit at least two places. We took full advantage of the ticket, visiting all the main museums in the city including an evening theatre show of traditional music, costumes and dance routines which was entertaining and fun.

Traditional carnaval dance
Our ticket included some archaeological ruins outside of Cuzco so one day we took a ride into the country to see them. We started at Tambomachay about 10 km from the city, the site of a royal bathhouse for Incan rulers. From there we walked to the nearby Puca Pucara, a more crudely built fortress that housed the army while the ruler was in the bath. We were able to walk, all downhill luckily, through the gorgeous mountains to the next site, Qenqo, admiring llamas and the local flora on the way. There, the Incas had carved caves and ritual chambers into a huge megalith. The last stop was Sacsayhuaman, a major ceremonial center on a scenic point that overlooks Cuzco. They had an impressive plaza with a series of three terraces formed from massive stone blocks fit perfectly together, a building design and style that the Inca’s invented. Some were over 15 feet tall and weighed many tons – hard to imagine how they were so precisely moved into place.

Still functioning ceremonial springs at Tambomachay
Peruvian woman tending her llamas
Pretty big stones
Interestingly, the Spanish were sort of lazy and just built their buildings on top of the original Inca (or in some cases Pre-Inca) stone foundations downtown, also stealing many materials from surrounding ruins, effectively destroying them. In many of the buildings, like the Church of Santo Domingo built on the Qoricancha (Temple of the Sun), you can see the well-fitted bricks below the stucco walls in two distinct layers. The Inca architecture is actually more earthquake resistant, having remained intact after hundreds of years of quakes the Spanish buildings couldn’t handle.

Amidst the hundreds of pizza places in town, we found two great spots. The first, Bodega 138, had a tasty pizza with real prosciutto which came with a free appetizer of warm garlic bread and herby olives. The second, Pizza Carlo, had only 4 tables, so we cozied up to the owner, cook and two fellow diners for an egg and sausage pizza that was equally delicious. There also must be a large Israeli contingent of residents or visitors, because there were many Israeli restaurants, one of which, The Bagel Café, served huge tasty sandwiches on fresh bagels that gave us a much needed break from the local fare.

Of course we tried some of the local dishes too. We enjoyed lomo saltado, which is basically a stir fry of beef, veggies and French fries that was allegedly created by Chinese immigrants to Peru. Lake trout is also common locally, so we tried it both grilled and with garlic sauce and enjoyed both. Alpaca is a popular local protein, so we headed to one of the nicest places in town to try a grilled steak – tender and delicious! Corn in many forms is a popular snack. Boiled ears of corn (choclo) are served with a slice of fresh cheese. Toasted gigantic corn kernels with a sprinkle of salt are a crunchy alternative to chips. And they make a fermented corn beverage, chicha, which is sold on many street corners. Potatoes are also a staple, usually served as French fries that are more like grease boiled potatoes, but still somehow tasty. They also do boiled potatoes with a spicy pepper sauce that is amazing.

Alpaca steak with cabernet quinoa
Cuzco is pretty much a must-stop destination if you are headed to Machu Picchu, so it’s inevitable that most people end up there. But to be fair, the city, if you can get through the tourist crap, is really a remarkable testament to the power and organization of the Inca Empire who ruled from Ecuador down through Bolivia and Chile from this very city center. Their leaders, namely Pachacutec, developed a system of roads, city planning and social organization that was unmatched in their time. Seek out the less traversed spots, and the city will surely please.

Fountain statue of Pachacutec

Monday, April 9, 2012

Life is a Highway

It seemed like a simple plan, get a bus from Cuenca to the border, go through immigration, catch a quick bus into Tumbes, then get on our overnight bus to Lima and another to Cusco. It turned out to be far from simple. Most buses from Cuenca don’t go directly to their own immigration office at the border, which is sort of ridiculous. The bus we got on, a Pullman Sucre, dropped us off on the side of the hot, dusty middle-of-nowhere highway near the border town of Huaquillas where we were instructed to wait for a different bus. So we sat and sweated for 30 minutes as bus after bus passed, all going elsewhere apparently.

Ecuadorian Andes
Views leaving Cuenca
Finally a bus came to take us to immigration. They had a huge new immigration facility, ostensibly to make the process faster, but they forgot something called staff. There was only one person to attend our busload of 60 passengers, so the process took entirely too long. Once we all piled back on the steamy bus, we were at the Peruvian offices in no time. Again, they had a huge new building with one person in it. He told us to go somewhere else, the old shack that used to be immigration since the computers weren’t working. The guy in the shack said the whole system was down so they couldn’t process anything. Seriously?! A major border crossing that is completely shut down?

The guards told the bus driver we could go to another border crossing in a different town, so we entered Peru (I think technically illegally) to get to the other town. This immigration post wasn’t any better. They make everyone get in line to get forms. Everyone tries to fill them out in a race to get back in line. Again there was only one officer stamping our forms. But of course we had to go to another line first where someone else looked at the passport before they could stamp it! The whole time we were packed into a tiny office with no circulation, everyone sweating through their clothes.

By the time everyone went through the Peru line and reboarded, we knew we were going to miss our next bus. We arrived in Tumbes, Peru about 2 hours after we should have thanks to the immigration mishap and in a stroke of wonderful luck, the bus company ended up having a bus leaving 30 minutes later for Lima! We wasted no time getting tickets and some much needed water before boarding our pretty comfy CIAL bus for the 20 hour overnight ride. We were thankful to be on any bus toward Lima.

We heard there were many bus companies in the country offering overnight services but that some were plain horrible. We were planning on taking Cruz del Sur which is supposed to be the nicest and more expensive service. Our CIAL tickets were about 2/3 the price of Cruz del Sur and we were still on a double-decker bus with a/c, movies, reclining seats, and both dinner and breakfast service so we were pretty satisfied. The drive was pleasant. We were along the ocean for most of the trip, passing surprisingly busy resort towns with surfers and tourists galore. We had no idea the north coast of Peru was such a hot beach vacation spot.

North coast
When we woke up in the morning, we were suddenly in the middle of a massive desert. No vegetation, just rolling sand dunes dotted with lonely reed shacks leading down to rocky beaches with magnificent cliffs. It was such a stunning transition, we felt like we were on a different planet, or perhaps in the Middle East. We expected the desert to stop at some point before we got to Lima but nope, Lima is smack dab in the middle of it, an oasis sort of.

Almost looks like a painted background
We arrived exhausted, dirty and cramped with another 20 hour bus ride to Cusco looming ahead of us. We were hoping to just catch another CIAL bus from Lima since we were already at their terminal. Unfortunately, they had no seats left. Disheartened, we walked down the street, loaded up with bags, again starting to feel drenched in sweat, and stopped in every company in a three block radius but no one had seats. We figured it was probably because it was Semana Santa, a big vacation time in Latin America.

CIAL bus with fingerprinting station out front
So we settled for tickets the next day on Tepsa and found a nearby hotel that wasn’t too expensive to spend the night. The area near the bus terminals wasn’t the nicest in Lima, but it was close to a few restaurants, banks and even a grocery store so we refueled and had a wonderful long hot shower. Although we were upset to have to waste a night, we were happy to have a little break in our bus riding.

The bus to Cuzco was all smooth sailing with good service and complimentary pillows and blankets. But we were surprised at how far the desert continued south of Lima, this time the sandy shores were full of restaurants, pristine white vacation rentals and shop selling blow up water toys. It wasn’t until we turned inland that the desert finally gave way to lush green vegetation as we neared the ancient capital of the Incas high in the Andes.

Beach south of Lima

Thursday, April 5, 2012

In the Land of Panama Hats

The bus from Quito to Cuenca surprised us by arriving early, which normally would be good, except that instead of arriving at 7 am it got in at 5:30 am and thus was still dark outside. So we had to hang out at the terminal until we thought our hostel would be open to let us in. Turns out that didn’t really matter since the hostel, El Capitolio, didn’t have our reservation. They sent us to a second hostel with the same name that, likewise, had no reservation and thus sent us to a third hostel, again with the same name. The third one didn’t have a reservation either, but upon showing them my confirmation, they begrudgingly allowed us to stay at our lower pre-approved rate. We weren’t entirely sure whose error it was, but despite walking all over town at 7:30 am, we ended up in a nicer hotel for a low price.

We decided to start off our visit with a bus tour of the city. We normally don’t opt for touristy things like double-decker bus tours, but this one was only $5 and had hardly anyone on it, so we decided to give it a try, and we were happy we did. We started in the main square, surprisingly not dedicated to Simon Bolivar, where the old austere cathedral and the new awe-inspiring cathedral stand. The new cathedral has a famous brick and marble façade with three blue ceramic domes that are instantly recognizable from anywhere in the city and sort of give it an Arabic look. After the square, the bus did a few loops downtown passing a dozen cathedrals, some important museums we took note of and best of all, street after street of beautiful, ornate, “republican” style buildings designed by French architects. The top of the bus was the perfect spot to admire the flower-laden balconies and intricate marble work of the houses of the rich. The city had a completely non-colonial feel which was so refreshing and regal.

New cathedral
Ornate building on the park in the "republican" style
The bus also drove along one of Cuenca’s four rivers, the Tomebamba, which is a pleasantly landscaped river-walk park that separates the old and new sides of town. The new side, although clearly modern, has been constructed mostly in brick to keep with the red-roof tile color scheme of the rest of town, a design technique that actually lends coherence and unity to the city that we haven’t seen elsewhere. Along the river are several layers of historic buildings, unfortunately mostly semi-abandoned, but a few with hotels, cafes and restaurants. We ended up walking down there later and saw a lot of potential. They are in the midst of redoing the sidewalk, so when that’s done, it should spur some redevelopment given that the river is already one of the cleanest we’ve seen in Latin America in a big city.

Hanging out by the river
The only stop on the bus tour was at the top of a mountain overlook called Turí, clearly a spot the rich now dominate with mansions taking in the views. There is a church at the top and a shrine, as well as some artisan and snack shops. The view was pleasant and peaceful, we could see the whole of Cuenca tucked in a bowl of bright green hills with lines of trees snaking their way across the city where the rivers passed. Near the top is the workshop and home of Eduardo Vega, a well-known local ceramicist who in addition to producing lovely Ecuadorian themed household items, also has some huge public art pieces and tiled murals across Ecuador. We got to meet him briefly, but didn’t see much we liked in his shop except things we knew we couldn’t safely get home.

At Turí, overlooking the city
Ceramic mural at Vega's workshop
On the way back to town between almost getting taken out by low hanging electric wires, we drove down the “food street” so called for its many vendors selling typical lunch of roast pig and guinea pig with kernels of hominy, fried mashed potato balls (llapingachos) and other sides. Although we didn’t have time to stop then, we ended up finding a similar scene in a local market and after a free sample of the roast pork, were hooked into sitting down for a full lunch. The pork was tender, the llapingachos creamy, and the hominy crunchy, all smothered in pork juices – a-maz-ing! The adorable chatty woman serving us invited us to take pictures, mistaking Nolan for a Latino and us for newlyweds, aww!

Whole roast pig and our lovely host
The bus tour was a good introduction to the city and helped us get our bearings, but there was plenty more to see and explore in the following days.

Cuenca is the Ecuadorian center of Panama hat creation and distribution. Although the hats originated in the coastal areas where the toquilla straw to make them grows, during an economic downturn Cuencanos turned to artisans from the coast to learn the craft. The Cuencanos were quick learners and soon perfected the art, with women doing the weaving and men doing the shaping and ironing that required more strength. The hats became known as Panama hats during the construction of the canal when they became a popular clothing item due to their light weight and sun protection.

Depending on quality, the hats can take from a few days to almost a year to complete. The finest ones have straw that is as thin as string and is so finely woven it looks and feels like fabric and no light can pass through it. These can cost up to $1,500 dollars and take extreme skill to make. All hats, no matter the quality go through a process of weaving, washing, dying, drying and then ironing/pressing and finishing. We were able to visit a factory in the city that has been around for almost 100 years where we saw the process, met the current owner of the family run business and Nolan bought a new hat. The Panama hat culture is integral to the identity and economy of the Cuenca area and although you don’t see as many people walking the streets with them as you used to, they are still a world renowned symbol of style and class.

Hats drying after different dying processes
Stacked hats pressed and ready for brim finishing
Cuenca also has a unique history due to its location. It was originally inhabited by a native people who thrived before the Inca civilization eventually conquered them. Cuenca was an important spot in the middle of the Inca empire, and was the birthplace of Huayna Capac, the father of legendary Inca leader Atahualpa. Later of course, the Spanish conquered the Inca and then proceeded to build a neoclassic city, so three layers of history exist. At the free museum and archaeological site of the Banco Central, we were able to see the ruins of ceremonial sites, houses and terraced farmlands that served both previous native populations and view some artifacts such as ceramics, clothing and old colonial money.

Us with the ruins of terraced farming land in the background
Our last day in Cuenca was Palm Sunday which was a perfect time to just relax and enjoy the street life and culture of a holiday. We found the flower market where dozens of men and women were weaving intricate palm frond designs and selling dozens of different bouquets that included everything from roses and carnations to rosemary and medicinal plants! We popped into the cathedral only to be overwhelmed with incense and loud music before heading over to the still-abuzz fruit/veg market. We found a great Australian owned café for lunch and wandered along the river in the afternoon, snapping shots of the building and the remnants of a bridge, the other half of which was swept away in a flood in 1950. Although Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador, it felt more like a small town to us, and while we spied a few ex-pats, international tourism seems to have largely passed over the town, making it a lovely place to get in touch with the real Ecuadorian spirit. We liked it so much, we could see ourselves coming back in the not-so-distant future…

Woman weaving palm fronds and selling flowers
Nolan on the half bridge