A Travellerspoint blog

Peru

Cuzco & Farewell to Peru!

sunny 70 °F

After hiking through the Colca Canyon and climbing Machu Picchu, I was ready for a nice, relaxing walk through a modern city. Unfortunately in Cuzco, it wasn't going to be that easy.

Here are a series of interactions between me and the local street walkers:

Vendor holding open a portfolio: "Painting? My work! 1 sol! Free to look!"
Me: "You are very talented, but no thank-you."

School age boy: "Postcard? 3 for 1!"
Me: "No thank-you."

Older woman: "Blanket? Alpaca wool, very soft!"
Me: "No thanks."

5 year-old boy: "Cigarettes? Cigarettes?"
Me: "No."

Young woman: "Massage?"
Me: [Stares blankly past girl in attempt to ignore.]

Older woman: "You want bowls?" [clacks bowls together loudly in an attempt to catch my attention]
Me: [Scowl and shoot a dirty look.]

5 year-old boy's friend: "Shine shoes?"
Me: "Don't think of touching me with that nasty brush."

Woman in traditional get-up: "Picture? Picture?" [offers baby alpaca]
Me: D*mnit! NO! ARRRRGGHH! [Punches lady. Punches alpaca.]

Repeat each of the above 100 times. Cuzco is a beautiful city filled with many churches and pretty parks. However, it also filled with obnoxious street vendors that incessantly nag you to buy their worthless crap. At first I was polite in refusing, often offering a little smile while saying "No thank-you". It quickly turned to a desire to punch every street vendor in the face after having dirty, cheap souvenirs shoved in your face (saying no didn't always work, especially with the shoe shiners who would try to grab your foot and wipe it with the dingiest brush known to man). I began to feel like a giant $ sign walking around, and every person in the city was out to get their piece.

Not every vendor was an evil, blood-sucking, tourist leech. After politely refusing a man selling paintings (I hadn't reached punching women and children level yet), he showed us to a nice cafe to get brunch. One little boy sat down next to me on a bench after I refused to buy some cigarettes to practice his English and look at the pictures in my guidebook (his English phrases were "Washington is the capital", "Barack Obama is the president", "I am 7 years old", "give me money since you are a tourist"). Anyways, here is a picture of us eating breakfast.

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Cuzco really is a pretty city. Houses climb the hills creating a nice backdrop. Buildings had a Spanish feel with white exteriors and red tile roofs. Fountains were in the middle of parks, often decorated with colorful displays or ornate statues. Churches were everywhere (4 in one corner of the main square alone)!

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The cathedral sits just off the main square in Cuzco. There are also churches on either side of it. At some point after the cathedral was build, the Jesuits came in and decided to build the most grand church in Peru. The bishop thought that nothing should be more grand than the cathedral, and petitioned to have the church's building plan revised. The issue escalated all the way to the pope, who sided with the bishop. However, the Jesuits church, Iglesia La Compañía de Jesús, was already completed. Megan and I looked inside, and the entire area behind the alter was covered in gold. I'd say the Jesuits accomplished their goal. The first couple pictures are of me in front of the cathedral (and the two other churches).

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And here are some pictures of the Jesuit church sitting not 50 yards away.

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While standing in between the churches, a mini-parade came through carrying a large cross. I'm not sure what they were doing, but mass didn't start for another hour and a half. They were brave souls to be walking down the middle of the street.

We decided to hike up the hill to see the artistic area of San Blas, which supposedly offered great views of Cuzco.

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After a leisurely 30 minute hike straight uphill, we ran out of road. Megan stopped to get a water, and when she was only charged S/.1, we realized we had wandered out of the tourist area. I walked up a side street to take in the view of Cuzco.

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You can see the belltower of San Blas in the background of that picture, so we backtracked a couple of blocks. Several artists had set up in the courtyard, and we browsed through their paintings (it was nice not being hounded and badgered into buying something). San Blas looked nice, but I didn't quite see why it was such a large attraction (it had its own section in the guidebook).

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We walked back down through the Plaza de Armas and made our way to the other side of Cuzco. We passed by several more churches and convents. I woudn't be surprised if there was more than 20 churches in a mile radius of the main square. I really wanted to go into one of the churches that was completely covered in mirrors on the inside, but the church wasn't open when we went by.

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One thing that intrigued me about clothing stores in Peru is that they often had mannequins out front of their stores modeling their clothes. US stores do the same thing, but the US mannequins are often featureless and a single color. Mannequins in Peru are fully painted and posed, looking like giant Ken and Barbie dolls. One mannequin in particular caught my attention. I don't know what clientele the store was looking to attract, but it must be the mullet-sporting, gold-tooth, overbite plagued redneck market. Just look at the picture (with me doing my best impression, it's a shame you can't see the mullet or overbite).

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Megan and I also took pictures with a baby alpaca, but immediately regretted it once the woman started complaining that S/.2 was not enough for two pictures.

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To end our trip in Peru, Megan and I decided to get a nice dinner. Megan had claimed she was going to eat a guinea pig, but she ended up "chickening out", literally. It was actually a delicious meal. I ended the night with a "Choco Princess".

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We made our way to the airport and prepared to say our farewells to Peru. I had saved some cash so that we could pay our airport taxes. Peru has this absurd policy of charging non-residents a tax for every airport they go through. For the domestic flight from Cuzco to Lima we had to pay $7 a piece. I knew we would have to pay the tax again when we got to Lima (and that it would likely be more expensive since we were leaving the country), so I had a cool $61 in my pocket. We get to the tax gate in Lima when I find out that the departure tax is $33 a person. I went up to the service window and tried to explain that I only had $61 to my name, and that I had no way of getting any more cash (since Peru does not accept credit cards). The woman at the window seemed sympathetic and called her supervisor over. The supervisor turned to me and said, "You can't leave, you are $5 short. Maybe you go beg, it is only $5." ARE YOU KIDDING ME! It's one thing to tell me that I don't have enough money, but you don't have to tell that I need to beg. We went back into the main terminal. My plan was to use my credit card to buy someone's souvenir in the gift shop in return for the cash. We found a nice British woman who gladly gave us $5 (it was a pretty humiliating experience). All the repressed frustration at being treated like an easy source of money while in Cuzco started resurfacing. I paid the $66, and without a cent to my name, made my way to customs. We were ushered to the front of the line and I presented our passports. The customs agent looked at me and asked for my "piece of paper". I had no clue what he was talking about, so I gave him the only paper I had, the crumpled receipt from dinner. He frowned at me and said, "No. Important piece of paper." I started to lose it, I had no clue what this man wanted from me. He kept repeating "important piece of paper" over and over again. Megan pulled out the stub from her customs form we had received 8 days ago, and his eyes lit up. He flipped it over, smugly presented it to me while pointing to the obscure fine print. "Please retain stub." Well, I didn't have it. I threw away the seemingly useless paper that had my name and job description (in my own writing) in the first available trashcan after entering Peru. Just as I was about to go to the back of the room and rip off the stub to a new customs form, he turned to me and said "You no leave." The supervisor came over, and she also tried to get me to read the fine print of Megan's stub. She then informed me a new policy, where $5 could clear me through customs. I absolutely lost it at this point, and I made a scene, full of desk-slapping and foot-stomping fury. I refused to pay another dime (one, because I didn't have any cash, and two, out of principal). As I was making it known to the entire airport that I was now a permanent resident of Peru, Megan ran to the only person waiting to clear customs to "borrow" five more dollars. Once the bribe was paid, I grabbed our passports and made the way to the gate.

Peru was a great country to visit, but thank goodness I could finally head home.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 06:13 Archived in Peru Tagged churches travel_trouble world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Machu Picchu

overcast 65 °F

We are finally going up to Machu Picchu! It is one of the new 7 wonders of the world and the main drawing point to Peru (for us at least). Our goal was to get up early so that we could see the sun come up over the mountains and climb the mountain peak overlooking Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu (only the first 400 people can climb Huayna Picchu daily). The first bus left at 5:30 am, so we planned on getting to the bus stop a little before 5. Despite getting there early, 250+ people were already in line ahead of us waiting for the buses. I tried to patiently wait for the buses to start running, but I couldn't wait to get to the top!

The buses finally started to run, and Megan and I attempted to calculate exactly how many people were ahead of us (really it was the only thing to pass the time). We boarded our bus and took off up the zigzag path up the mountain. It seemed like I wasn't the only one who was nervous and excited about reaching the top, as almost everyone was anxiously snapping pictures as we went up the mountain. People weren't taking one or two pictures, but filling up memory cards constantly taking pictures of the EXACT SAME SCENERY. It was a half hour bus ride, zigzagging up the side of a mountain, but people kept taking pictures, and taking pictures, and taking pictures. It was a cacophony of beeps from digital cameras. I tried taking a couple pictures, but it was a fruitless endeavor as they ended up being blurry or blocked by a tree. I upped my game and took a video between two of the turns up the path.

We arrived at the front gate and rushed to join the long line of people waiting to get into the park. Everyone who was in line in front of us for the bus was now waiting in front of us at the gate. Two men were making their way down the line to hand out passes to climb Huayna Picchu, and Megan and I got our entrance tickets stamped. I decided to make a quick pit stop to "drop the kids off at the pool" since the only bathroom was outside the front gate. I paid the S\.1 bathroom entrance fee and ventured in. However, just like everywhere in Peru, there was no toilet paper, and I decided to hold it.

I rejoined Megan in line, got stopped by security because I didn't sign my name on my ticket (I didn't get the point, no one collected my entrance ticket, so why did it matter if I signed it?) which was a pain since I didn't have a pen. After getting into the park, we followed the people in front of us to get to the guard house, which was supposed to be one of the best places to watch the sunrise. However, the people in front of us had no clue where they were going either, and we ended up on the path to the Sun Gate (which was an hour trip hike to the far end of the the site). I decided it was time to be ultra-tourist and pull out the map. By coordinating with our lost companions and using 3 different maps, I was able to point us in the right direction. We made it to the guard house and got the grand view of Machu Picchu just as the sun was rising.

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As you can see, it was a little cloudy early in the morning. We hung out for a while at the guard house to appreciate the view and to see if the clouds cleared. Every time the clouds cleared, several oohs and ahhs came from the people seeing Machu Picchu for the first time. It was really an impressive sight, albeit a cloudy one. You could barely see Huayna Picchu in the background. A couple of llamas were hanging out inside the guard house, so we posed for a picture. Here is also a picture of Megan walking up the hill to the guard house.

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The clouds didn't really clear out, so we decided to start making our way around. A misty rain started to fall, but it only lasted for about 5 minutes (you can tell when it is raining in the pictures because we put our jackets on). We entered through the front gate and walked toward the royal quarters. They believe the royalty lived in this section of Machu Picchu because they would have had the first access to the clean water, the rooms are large, and it is next to the "most beautiful wall". All the stones in Machu Picchu were carved out of granite, not molded like bricks. This means every stone was shaved down using hammers and rocks to get their shape. The "most beautiful wall" is a wall where all the stones are roughly the same size, perfectly smooth, create nice straight lines, and is literally the most beautiful wall in Machu Picchu. As we passed the wall, the "most beautiful man" took a picture with the "most beautiful wall".

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I also stopped to take care of business on the real royal throne.

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Before I go any further, let me explain something about the "mystique" of Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu first started being built in the 1400s. Several people have asked me if it was a defendable fortress. While it is secluded and has some natural defenses (like cliffs on three sides), it is not really a fotress. The city walls do not resemble medieval castles and could easily be hopped over. There were sentries, but as it took a week to hike to Machu Picchu, an approaching army would be easily spotted. There were no barracks or stockpiles of weapons found at Machu Picchu. The largest evidence against Machu Picchu being a fortress was that people abandoned the site once the Spanish invaded (instead of retreating there). Cuzco was the capital of the Inca empire, and it is more likely that Machu Picchu was a holy site and retreat for royalty. Remember a couple entries ago when I listed the things the Incas found most sacred? Mountains, earth, the sun, and water (especially water coming from a mountain). Well, Machu Picchu has all 4, including a year-round source of water coming from the mountain. Every other building at Machu Picchu is a temple of some sort. Well, that's what the experts think. EVERYTHING about Machu Picchu is an educated guess. The Incas have no written history, and the Spanish never knew that Machu Picchu existed. It sat unoccupied for 500 years before accidentally being found in 1911. The "mystique" of Machu Picchu is that it could have been anything. It could have been a site to communicate with aliens for all we know. However, in this entry, I'll stick to what the "experts" have agreed upon instead of creating my own theories.

We left the royal residence and walked down the stairs by the fountains. I stopped for a picture next to the llama, and as I was slowly moving in closer for a better picture, the llama whipped around and went eye to eye with me. It may not look like it the picture, but llamas are big, and they spit. The llama let our a huge fart, started pooping on Machu Picchu, and emphatically let me know that I was encroaching on his territory. I sheepishly backed away and joined Megan at the bottom of the stairs.

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We followed the path laid out by the guide book, walked by the Temple of the Sun, took in some of the views through the Temple of the 3 Windows, and paused a minute to rest in the courtyard.

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The coolest part to me about Machu Picchu (and this may be because I'm an engineer) was how the Incas carved useful objects out of huge pieces of rock, integrated the natural shape of the mountain into their buildings, and somehow everything remained perfectly intact for 500 YEARS with NO maintenance. Here is a picture of a torch holder carved from a huge rock. You can also see in one of the pictures how the carved the stones to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The only collapsed wall I saw during the whole day was in the Temple of the 3 Windows, and that happened when the Incas were still living in Machu Picchu.

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We made our way up to one of the most holy sites at Machu Picchu, Intihuatana (meaning the "Hitching Post of the Sun"). If you look at the main picture, it is the pyramid in the back left corner. At the top of Intihuatana is a carefully carved rock. Initially this site received its name because it was believed that during the summer solstice (the most holy day) that the sun would align directly over the site and create no shadow, as if the sun was resting all its weight on the rock. More recently a new theory has arisen. Now it is thought that the Intihuatana stone is actually an abstract representation of Huayna Picchu (which rises directly behind the stone), since the rock closely mimics the shape of Huanya Picchu (see picture below). There are also several other examples across the Inca Empire where the Incas paid homage to the mountains by carving replicas (like the rock in the Colca Canyon).

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I mentioned earlier how Macchu Picchu has cliffs on 3 sides. Well, being on top of a mountain, they had to use every available space. The cliff next to Intihuatana was terraced and used for farming. I could barely walk down the steps, much less carry anything down them. I am only 3 steps down and can reach straight out to touch where I started.

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We walked down from Intihuatana and walked to the far end of Machu Picchu near the base of Huayna Picchu. The most anticipated part of the trip was climbing Huayna Picchu, but the rain had made everything super slippery and we wouldn't be able to see anything from the top anyways (even from the top of Intihuatana the rest of Machu Picchu was lost in a cloud). We ended skipping the trail up to Huayna Picchu, although I think it may have been closed anyways (I didn't see anyone make their way up). We walked down past the artisan's wall (giant wall that even had rain spouts) and past the wall that supposedly had a bird in it. I think the experts are really reaching on this one, check out the picture of Megan pointing to it, you can supposedly see the beak, the head (with a little bird on top of it), the neck, the body, and the tail feathers. I also added a picture of Megan walking through a double doorjam (an entry way with two door frames) which usually signified you were entering an important area.

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We walked through some more temples (every room that had a large, carved, flat rock that was supposedly an altar was named a temple). There was a room with some bowls carved out of stone floor. Some think that they were used for smashing grain (but why not use a regular bowl) and some thought it was for carving stones (but why not do that in the quarry area). The consensus is that no one has any clue about their purpose. I took a picture with them anyways. Megan took a ride down the creatively named "slide rock" and walked down stairs carved into the mountain where they also conveniently carved a hand rail. I also took a shot looking back up towards Intihuatana.

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We were at another one of the cliffs of Machu Picchu. Check out this view and how steeply the land drops away (and my nervous expression as I stood on the wet grass).

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We were getting close to completing our circuit of Machu Picchu, but there was one spiritual rock we hadn't seen yet (although I had almost had my fill of rocks). It is directly underneath Megan in this picture.

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I found a pathway that led through one of the storehouses.

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However, the path ended just outside another storehouse. I convinced Megan that we could climb around the outside of the storehouse and down over the rocks to the lower level. She was skeptical, and stayed back as started my descent. I carefully and very slowly started down the rock face, but then I suddenly slipped. I could barely heard her yelp as I fell off of Machu Picchu...

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This picture was obviously a reenactment after I didn't die. Megan rushed around to look down the slope where I had miraculously landed on my feet and prevented myself from tumbling down the slope. This is what it looked like beneath me.

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Megan made it safely down "slippery rock" and we headed towards "spiritual rock". It was not nearly as glamorous as I expected. It was yet another rock carved to mimic the mountain backdrop.

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We climbed back up to the residential area and then went back down to a cave carved into the side of the mountain (down a gentle slope this time). The Incas used this tunnel to detect the summer solstice. First they carved the mountain ridge far off in the distance so that it would pass through a sliver of morning light. Next they carved a tunnel the back of the cave. When the light passed through the notch in the distant mountain ridge and reached the back of the cave, the summer solstice had arrived triggering a series of religious activities. I climbed to the back of the cave to check out the view from the other side.

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Our last temple was actually the coolest. It was called Temple of the Condor because, well, it looked like a Condor. The head was carved into the floor of the temple while two rocks extended like wings in the background. Caves extended under each wing to subterranean rooms.

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My favorite room in all of Machu Picchu was located underneath the Temple of the Condor. This room was where they kept the guinea pigs, which were eaten on special occasions. I doubled checked to make sure that there weren't any hiding way in the back of the holes where they were enclosed.

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We had completed our circuit of Machu Picchu. We took a break on some authentic furniture (of course carved out of rock) while we deliberated about climbing Huayna Picchu. We had expected to spend the whole day at Machu Picchu, but it was only 1 pm. We had read every page and followed the trail of the most in depth guide book available, so we decided we had seen all there was to see. We took one last look, and said goodbye to Machu Picchu.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 07:58 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains animals historical world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Aguas Calientes

overcast 70 °F

Having left the Colca Canyon and Arequipa behind, we landed in the city of Cuzco. Cuzco had a very different feeling about it compared to Arequipa. A McDonald's ad, a Coca-Cola ad, and a Cusqueña ad were displayed above the airport and were the first things you saw when coming in for a landing. Walking in from the gate, at least 10 different tour companies had booths set up around the baggage claim carousel, and all were clamoring for your attention. Since the trains could no longer make it all the way to Cuzco due to the mudslides, we had to find a way to get to Piscacucho to catch the train. We started a bidding war between several companies to see who would drive us to the train station (as well as arranging to stop by the Western Union so I could pick up the money my dad sent). A lowest bidder finally surfaced, and away we go!

Well, almost. The lowest bidder drove us to a somewhat sketchy part of town (there were no tourists and skinned snakes, pig heads, and plucked birds hanging from shop windows). We were then transferred to a van with 10 other Peruvians. Our guide book warned to not get in a cab with other people and only ride in marked taxis as there had been an increase in driving tourists to remote areas, robbing them, and leaving them stranded. Here we are, squished in a van with a bunch of Peruvians, and about to embark on a 3 hour drive to Piscacucho. Megan turned to me and whispered, "Is this OK?" I confidently answered "of course", but internally I was sizing up the other passengers and preparing myself to fight for the money I had just received from Western Union. The van pulled out of the garage and slowly made its way out of Cuzco. Most of the other passengers started to doze off, but I remained on high alert.

I pulled out the guidebook and tried to follow along in a map to make sure we were headed in the right direction. However, when driving on dirt roads there aren't really any road signs, and there was no way for me to know where we were headed. Shortly after leaving the outskirts of Cuzco we were stopped at a security checkpoint. A police office came up to the window, checked the driver's papers, checked out all the passengers, and then waved us through. I didn't know whether to be relieved that the police didn't see any reason to hold up the van or be worried that we got flagged down in the first place. After about 90 minutes a largish town appeared in the valley of a mountain. Once we got to the main street, half the passengers filed out of the van. I let loose a huge sigh of relief as most of men got out of the van. There was only 3 women and 1 man left, and I felt if worse came to worse, I'd be able to take them. About 40 minutes down the road, the rest of the passengers got out, leaving only Megan, me, the driver, and another girl assisting the driver. Assuming we hadn't reached our destination because they didn't shoo us out of the van, we sat tight. After another 30 minutes we arrived in Ollantaytambo and the van parked. The girl assistant opened the van door and pointed at another van. I guess we were transferring. The new driver looked like he hadn't slept in days and sped off down the single lane road. Kids were walking home from school along the road, but our driver just laid on the horn and zoomed past them all (as kids dived off the road and shook their little fists at us as we passed). The van stopped, the driver motioned for us to get out, and then gestured further up the road. From here we walked.

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We came to the rail station, and being about an hour early, we were the only ones there. Megan passed the time by playing games on my iPod, I passed the time by counting my blessings that we weren't raped or robbed on the way up here. About 20 minutes before our train left, other buses began dropping off passengers and the train employees arrived. We boarded the train and took off for Aguas Calientes.

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The train was pretty nice, with huge windows that allowed us to take in all the views. The train had to stop periodically because kids would stand on the tracks and beg. Automated messages warned the passengers to not throw money out the window. However, our conductor threw snacks from the food cart to all the kids. After about an hour train ride, we arrived in Aguas Calientes.

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Aguas Calientes had no cars as it was only reachable by hiking or by train (in fact Aguas Calientes only had one real street). A river gushed through the middle of the town. The town got its name from the hot springs present at the top of town, but honestly I wasn't too eager to check out more "hot" springs. We decided to do a hike up one of the mountains close to town to get our first view of Machu Picchu from afar. I had read about an aggressive hike on TripAdvisor that included climbing multiple 100 foot ladders to reach the summit. 4 of these ladders were lined up together, making a 400 ft ascent. I found a picture of it online, and couldn't wait to climb them.

We dropped our bags off at the hostal and walked down the railroad tracks to get to the trail. This trail was much different from the Colca Canyon as visibility was reduced to only our immediate area. Heavy foliage, vines, and trees surrounds the trail. Everything was slick, which made the steep steps a little tricky.

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After about 30 minutes of hiking, we came to our first ladder. There was only one of them, but it whet my appetite for reaching the rest of the ladders.

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Here is the picture I found online of the ladders (see how the ladders are almost stacked one on top of another).

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Here is what we actually found when we reached the bottom of the ladders.

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They were destroyed by a mudslide! ARGGHHHH! I was not happy at all. Megan was already a little antsy about climbing down slick stones, so I knew it was a losing battle to try and convince her to use the rope to climb around the ladders. I made the best of the situation and took a picture of Aguas Calientes, and headed back into town.

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Once getting back into town, we did a little exploring. We came across the church in the main square, along with the main tourist office for purchasing Machu Picchu tickets, and the main bus station. The thing that really caught my attention were these two Inca statues standing beneath a giant Inca statue. I think the smaller statues were supposed to be doing something (like carrying something), but their hands were empty. This left them looking a little awkward, so of course we took pictures with them. The male Inca statue looked like he was saying "You want some of this?!?", so I mimicked the pose.

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Walking through the main street of Aguas Calientes was analogous to running a gauntlet. Every restaurant had someone standing out front to shove a menu in your face and badger you into coming inside. So every three steps you had to say "no, thank you" to a new person. It was even more frustrating when you actually wanted to look at the menu, because committing to look at one menu meant that you would be hassled extra hard for the next 30 feet. Looking at the menu proved pointless as every single restaurant sold exactly the same things. Pizza, mexican, italian, burgers, chinese, guinea pig, and every other food under the sun was available. We eventually found a classy place that had a giant parrot out front. We chose to sit out on the balcony as no one was actually inside the restaurant.

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As there wasn't much else to do in Aguas Calientes, we ended up sitting on the balcony for a couple hours. We tried the local Inca Kola (which tasted a like a sweet cream soda to me), and eventually got a couple beers. Then menu listed the beer selections as Small Beer, Medium Beer, and Large Beer. When I tried to ask what types of beer they had, the waitress looked at me with a confused expression. She slowly backed away smiling awkwardly, and came back with a bottle of beer and presented it to me. I realized that they only had one type of beer, Cusqueña. Thankfully it wasn't bad. A local band setup right next to our table and began playing some tunes (as were were the only two patrons on our section of the street). Several locals came over and sat down at the tables next to us to listen to the band. It was the perfect way to spend the evening. The band tried to leave after 3 songs, so I put S\.10 (about $3) in their tip jar and asked for "uno más". They quickly set back up and started playing again. After the song, one of the band members made some type of comment (he said it in Spanish, and like I mentioned several times, I'm not fluent) along the lines of "if we get tips like this we will play all night". I thought he was mocking me, but they kept playing and playing and playing. I didn't complain. Here is a video of them playing.

After two medium beers, we called it a night and made our way back to the hostal. Tomorrow we are going to Machu Picchu!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 05:31 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains hiking train Comments (0)

Condors and Arequipa

sunny 75 °F

As the adrenaline rush of successfully making it out of the canyon wore off, our sore feet and tired legs made my heart leap as I saw Roberto waiting with the van. I drank a cup of coca tea for breakfast, building up energy for the rest of the trip through the canyon and back into Arequipa. Our first stop was the biggest attraction in the canyon, Cruz del Condor.

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This cross doesn't seem too special, but people don't come to look at Cruz del Condor. They come to the area for the amazing view of the canyon, and to see the largest South America bird in flight. At 8am every morning a family of Andean condors rides the rising air currents, sometimes flying within feet of the spectators (we saw at least 6 different birds flying through the canyon beneath us). Here is Megan with the view in the background, and a picture/video of the condor flying directly over our head (enjoy the quality of the video as it starts half way through, Megan thought she was taking a picture).

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After appreciating the condors for 30 minutes, we set off back towards Chivay. We stopped off at a couple spots along the canyon for Roy to point out some interesting sights. One of these sites featured burial sites in the canyon wall from the time of the Incas and the pre-Incas. These burial sites were literally on the side of the canyon wall, seemingly unreachable by people. The sites were carved out of the cliff face, the body was placed inside, and then sealed in by packing rocks in the opening. They are hard to see, but in the picture below you can see 8 burial sites on the far left sitting on the white rock about 20 feet above the vegetation hill (they look like stacks of pebbles). A much larger and more important site is visible in the center of the picture. You can tell it is important because of its size and because it has been painted red, which over time has stained the rock beneath the site.

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While looking at the burial sites, we also spotted a viscacha (cousin to the Chinchilla that the residents will catch and eat). The viscacha scurried away when we tried to get closer, and Roy noticed a rock sitting on the canyon rim. It turned out to be a very special rock, as it had been carved centuries ago to mimic the landscape of the canyon. The Incas and pre-Incas worshipped 4 primary things: the earth, the mountain, the sun, and the water (especially water flowing from a mountain as this is where the gods lived). Sacred objects often blended several of this spiritual objects together. This rock was likely sacred because it combined the earth and the mountain (since the rock had likely fallen from the mountain and was shaped to resemble the terraced land), and because of its proximity to the burial sites. From this picture you can also see the extensive modifications the Incas and pre-Incas made to the canyon to make it inhabitable and farmable. Terraces extended as far as the eye could see and are still in use today.

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While Roy was climbing back up from the rock, a man passed with his herd of goats and sheep. I had no clue where he was going. I couldn't remember any pathways leading off the road for miles. The reason I took this picture was to document the world's worst herding dog. The man was constantly running around the road keeping the herd together and beating the heinies of stragglers. His dog on the other hand, leisurely strolled up the pathway.

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A little further up the road we came to another small town. This town had a large, beautiful, white church. Roy dropped Megan and I off to explore the area. It was hard to tell how old the church was, but one of the bell towers had 1865 written on it. The inside was decorated much differently than my church back home. There were no windows and the walls were covered with tall wooden structures with pictures and mannequins of saints. The paintings and mannequins were very graphic, Jesus often being blood covered with gaping wounds. Mirrors had been inserted decoratively between the paintings. I later found out that people originally put mirrors in the churches to entice the locals to come into the church.

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We left the town, stopped in Chivay for lunch, and then headed back to the tops of the mountains. At the highest point of 16,000 feet, we stopped to take some pictures. Mounds of stacked rocks surrounded the area (these stacks had sacred meaning because they mimicked the mountain and were often created to bring good fortune to the person who made them). As was the case anywhere a tourist might show up, women sat on the side of the road selling their wares.

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From here we had several hours of driving ahead of us, mostly through the dusty highlands that we had passed through on our first day. 3 days of hiking and waking up at 3 am caught up with our group, as Megan, Roy, and I all took naps.

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As we came back into Arequipa, it was hard not to see the gigantic eyesore on the horizon. A giant concrete plant sat right off the highway. It used the volcanic ash and rock rich land to produce the concrete.

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Arequipa sits directly in the middle of 3 volcanoes, some that have erupted recently (and threaten to erupt again soon). The volcanic rock surrounding Arequipa is white in color, and Arequipa is called the "White City" because these bricks are frequently used in construction of buildings. Now, when I hear "White City", a grand image of a majestic city comes to mind. However, no buildings in Arequipa were very majestic, a large majority seem run down. Nothing was over 2 stories tall, and everything looked old. If I had to name Arequipa based on appearance, it would be something like "Dusty, Gray City with trash littering the road side). I was surprised at the appearance of the second largest city in Peru, it seemed much smaller than I expected (especially for being home to a million people).

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Half of all Peruvians live beneath the poverty level. The average income for a Peruvian is $50 a month. Driving into Arequipa these facts really hit home. The "houses" were basic at best. The buildings did turn a little nicer as we got more into town.

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One thing that did not turn nicer as we came into the city was the traffic! Street lights were infrequent, but I don't think it would have mattered as no one paid attention to them anyways. It was a free-for-all, as drivers flew through blind intersections trusting that a meager horn blast would protect them from a collision. Pedestrians played Frogger as they dodged traffic. I was incredibly thankful that we opted for a private guide instead of renting a car as we originally intended. There was no way I would have survived driving in this city.

We were dropped off at our hostal and made our goodbyes to Roy and Roberto. The hostal was fantastic. It had two open courtyards and everything had a rustic authenticity. It also had hot-ish water for showers!

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I made a quick phone call to my dad to make arrangement to have money wired to me in Cuzco (our destination for tomorrow). After reassuring him that I had not been kidnapped and that he wasn't paying a ransom, he agreed to send the money. Megan and I ventured around Arequipa and looked for a place to eat. We saw a sign that said "salad" on it, and thinking that they may have an English menu, we went in. Well, there was no English menu, and the waitress knew no English. After making several chomping motions with my mouth and repeating "sí" to every question we were asked, the waitress left awkwardly. Eventually a mystery meal was brought out to us. It consisted of some type of fried meat, sitting on top of a bed of lettuce, cucumbers, and broccoli. It was delicious. We spent nearly 2 hours at the restaurant, but not once did another patron come in. This would be a common occurence throughout our stay in Peru, I'm not sure how much Peruvians actually eat out. Someone suggested that everyone eats a big buffet lunch and then only snacks lighty at dinner.

We walked back to the hostal, took showers, and then passed out. We had a 5am flight to the tourist capital of Peru, Cuzco (and eventually up to Machu Picchu).

Posted by Mike.Flynn 06:10 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains churches animals historical world_heritage_site Comments (0)

Colca Canyon

sunny 75 °F

So let me paint a picture for you. We just completed a 20 hour plane journey through 3 airports and a 6 hour car ride over a bumpy, dirt road. We are at an elevation of 10,000 feet. We each have 30lb packs on our back. It is 5pm and the sun is setting over the mountains. And we are about to hike to the bottom of the deepest canyon in the world.

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So maybe it wasn't the best trip planning to do the most physically demanding part of our trip immediately after arriving in Peru, but we had limited time and a lot we wanted to see. We were amped up on adrenaline and excitement and coca tea, we were ready for anything. After a 30 minute hike, we reached the canyon rim. The views were amazing! From the rim of the canyon you could look straight down to the canyon floor 4,000 feet below (the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet tall). The walls of the canyon were incredibly steep, and it was dizzying to look straight down.

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The "trail" was not much of a trail, but rather a series of steep steps over loose gravel and sharp rocks that hugged the canyon rim. Each slip on the gravel made you feel as though you would plummet over the side. You think going downhill would be easy, but imagine going down a set of very steep stairs that constantly shifted with a 30lb pack on your back while looking at a 4,000 ft drop square in the face. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the best footholds were filled with donkey poo, so it was either sure footing or poo-free boots. The donkey poo didn't just magically appear, it was dropped by the donkeys walking up the trail. The trail was barely wide enough for me, much less for a donkey, so it was a tight rope act when passing a donkey train. Roy warned us to make the donkeys walk closer to the cliff's edge so we wouldn't accidentally be knocked off. Well, it will come as no surprise that the donkeys didn't want to be near the edge either, so it was often a wrestling match to see who got the inside track.

In the last picture above, you can see where we would be sleeping the final night. This area is called the Oasis because of the hot springs present at the bottom of the canyon. If your eyes are really good, you can see the zigzag trail leading down to the Oasis that we would take tomorrow (the more zigzags, the steeper the trail). About half-way down the canyon wall, we were presented with views of the towns we would be walking through the next day.

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After rounding a corner, we could see the village we would be sleeping in that night, although it looked like it was directly beneath us.

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Not long after that point it got too dark to see. We flipped on our headlamps and continued the rest of the way by flashlight. We could no longer see how far the drop was (which was somewhat comforting), but you also couldn't tell how much progress you were making. The trail seemed to go on forever. My legs were tired, each step was strenuous. It was the toughest hike I'd ever done (excluding the glacier hike). I think the altitude and travel exhaustion had finally set it. After 4 hours we reached the bottom of the canyon and began the hike back up the other side. We finally reached our destination, and it felt great to finally sit down. Our hut was a square, brick room with a thatch roof, a dirt floor, and a large stone that served as a night stand. I didn't care, there was a bed. After a quick meal prepared by Roy's mom, I slumped into bed. Megan came in and screeched, she had spotted something about a foot from my head.

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I was too tired to care and just rolled over. She loudly insisted that I squash it immediately. She then proceeded to throw the covers off the bed and check everywhere for more scorpions. Satisfied that the bed was scorpion free, she passed out within 30 seconds of laying down.

The next morning we woke, drank as much of the purified water as we could stomach (it took 4 hours for my purification tablets to work so the water had to sit overnight), ate a quick breakfast, and snapped a couple pictures. The first picture is the view from our room of Roy's pet alpaca. You can also see me standing outside the kitchen and a picture of the room we slept in. The last picture is a view of the last 30 minutes of the hike down the previous evening, notice the zigzag path.

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The trail was more level today, as we laterally made our way through multiple villages along the canyon. Roy explained that most of the people were moving out of the canyon, so there are more houses than people. The first village we came to had a population of 20. There is a school for children aged 4-12, but for further education the children had to go to Cabanaconde or Arequipa. Once the children left, they only came back occasionally to help with farming or to come home for festivals. Most of the people we saw were extremely young, or extremely old (older than 65).

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Roy began to point out various plants and features of the canyon. He didn't speak perfect English, but he was able to get his thoughts across. He really like to make a generic statement, like "See this insect egg, it is used for women's cosmetic" and then before we could ask a question, he would ask for us "Why?", and then give the answer, "because when crushed it turns pretty red". It also seemed that a majority of Peruvian culture dealt with the llama (he pronounced it yama), alpaca, potato, and tomato. Along the trail he gave us some of the local fruit. One was plucked straight off a cactus and a had a sweeter flavor. Another looked like a green banana that had a coconut texture and giant seeds. A third was extremely sour and used occasionally as a mixer in alcoholic drinks.

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We hiked up into the second village, which was a little larger than the first (had around 35 people). This village had a single room hospital (which was built 9 years ago) which also had electricity (brought in 2 years ago). Here is Roy standing outside the hospital.

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Walking into the village we passed a large cross which had been decorated with flowers and painted red. Roy explained that for the festivals the crosses were decorated. There was a church with a largish courtyard that was used for the main festival. There was also a larger school with 12 kids, which even included a basketball/soccer field (although I'd hate to be the one to chase a long rebound down the canyon).

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After passing through the village we curved along the canyon wall before coming to a lookout point. Here you could get a great panoramic view of the canyon. We could see the villages we just walked through, part of the path from the day before, and a view down into the Oasis.

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We could also get a view of tomorrow's trail leading out of the canyon.

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We crossed the river at the bottom of the canyon again and walked into the Oasis. We reached our destination and it felt good to take off the hiking boots. We had about an hour before the sun set, so I decided to take a dip in the "hot" spring. The pool was a concrete bowl that had mountain water running into it (straight from the mountain, no pump necessary). A pipe in the bottom drained the water out to the pools below. The "hot" spring was hotter than any water I had felt in Peru, but it was still like jumping into a swimming pool in April (pretty darn cold). Megan eventually got in waist deep, and Roy flirted with girls by twirling a hula hoop on his neck.

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Our hut was made of bamboo this time, and still had a dirt floor and a stone serving as a night stand. It was a little more breezy than the first night. We ate dinner next to the pool and then hit the hay early. We were exhausted, and our hike out of the canyon started at 3am.

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We were a little worried about making it out of the canyon. Remembering how difficult it was to hike into the canyon, I didn't want to think about hiking back out. I hired a mule to carry our bags and save our legs as much as possible (and also carry us if we got too tired). We strapped on our headlamps and began that long hike out of the canyon. It was strenuous, but I felt much better than the first day. We made it about a third of the way up the canyon before Megan decided she wanted to ride the mule. While I was happy that Megan wouldn't be too worn out for the rest of the trip, I dreaded her decision because that meant I had to carry my pack. I continued up the path, trying my best to stay upwind from the mule. Eventually the sun came up, allowing us to see back down into the canyon.

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After 3 1/2 hours, we reached the canyon rim. We were all exhausted, but it felt exhilarating to reach the top. Here is me, Roy, and Megan at the top (Roy is average height for a Peruvian and is 26 years old).

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We headed into Cabanaconde for a quick breakfast, and then hurried over to see the main attraction for the Colca Canyon, the flight of the majestic Andean Condor (the largest South American bird).

Posted by Mike.Flynn 05:06 Archived in Peru Tagged mountains hiking local_food Comments (0)

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