Sunday, May 30, 2010

Machu Picchu Man

Time for a change, mi amigos. For the last year, Lyz and I have been meeting up every 3 months approximately like clockwork. I get 3 vacation weeks a year so I leverage a week plus weekends minus travel time for at least a week together. Not perfect but thems the breaks. But this time, since she is coming to the US soon (!), I wanted to get her out of her comfort zone a little and have her travel outside of Colombia for the first time (San Andres Isla sorta counts since it is in the Caribbean but it is still a Colombian territory), so Peru was on my list and close to her, so hey, why not?

After all, Peru is considered a cool place to hang out and whatnot based on the fact that Machu Picchu is considered a lifetime must do. In short, arrangements were make for both of us to fly and meet up. Couldn’t arrange to arrive on the same day but close enough. And in our research, of course, the iconic Incan sanctuary of Machu Picchu, had to be on the agenda. Long story short, we were luckily able to book to go there. And it ain’t easy. Why? One, there had been a major, major set of mudslides in late January in the canyon leading to it that wiped out parts of the rail line, the only way to get there (ie: no friggin’ roads-that is how inaccessible it is). Therefore, ALL access from late January to late March had been closed. I mean, you could not get there at all (the National Park that houses it was completely closed to all visitors) and they had to evacuate all residents and locals of the area by helicopter about 20 at a time because no supplies could get it at all. No train, no bus, no car period.

However, they managed to fix some of the rail by the end of March and reopen the final stretch from Pisco Cucho where the last real road is. Therefore, you can still NOT take the full rail from Cusco in the way it used to be (and as shown on No Reservations a few years back with the soft lifestyle loving Anthony Bourdain). Anyway, I digress, let’s start with our original arrival in Lima a few days before Machu Picchu (ie: MP)…

Back to Lima. Lima is on the coast. It doesn’t really rain here. Yet Lima is grey based on some sort of microclimate I guess (like Paris, one of the places on earth with the worst climate, food, culture and people-yes, I digress yet again-but seriously, I was in Paris in 2004, thought it would be worse than it was but it is grey and ugly and boring and the women think they are fashionable but they are so spastically ugly, at least style-wise, it is time to agree that France may have had it’s heyday-about 50-200 years ago) and bland and not much of anything.

We went from the airport to pick up or car rental on a Sunday and proceed down the coast to the area called Miraflores and our hotel. My understanding is that Lima Centro is so sad that most every “turista” stays about 15 miles away in Miraflores, a more upscale and “safe” locale.

Miraflores is fine but the feel and architecture is wanting. In short, it’s a little leafy and serviceable but that is it.

That’s OK. I didn’t want to see Lima-I want to see Lyz! We drove along the coastal parks and then got some rest before heading to our reservation at the Huaca Pucclana Restaurante at the ancient ruins (from about 500 AD) of the same name:

Peruvian and particularly Liman cuisine have a great international reputation and for good reason. In Portland, Andina is great and in San Francisco, Limon is also awesome. Ceviche is the starting point (google it if you are not familiar with it) and the cuisine is generally seafood oriented and very fresh. This place has a great reputation and it is deserved. The quinoa (probably the healthiest grain on earth) and bean/queso salad I ordered as an appetizer was world class-almost a meal in itself with a universe of flavors.

However, our seafood dishes were not standouts and the coup de grace came with the bill. There was an item on there called a “cubierto” of about 15%. Essentially it means a “cover” and specifically in Peru it means a “silverware” fee I have learned through multiple local sources. In essence, it means everyone is paying for the “cost” of stolen silverware. I kid you not. I am not a millionaire, but I have never, ever stolen silverware at nice restaurants and I have been to tons. And I assume the other folks at these restaurants don’t need to do the same. Yet, this is the rationale. Well, when it came to tip time, instead of writing in numerals I wrote “cubierto”. I feel sorry if the servers got screwed but if so that is on management and I sent them an e-mail to such effect and, of course, they have not responded almost a month later. This is something that HAS to be communicated upfront and in advance. It is not an Anglo concept for sure.

So we got some rest and headed to Ica. Sunday traffic in Lima is manageable (after all, it's a nominal Catholic country and Domingo aka Sunday, is a supposed day of rest)., Monday morning trying to get out is a total nightmare. Peruvians of Inca descent are generally tiny (think Vietnam where I am a tall Mofo-it's the same here as I am short but tall by local measures). But they drive like they think they are 6'6”. At least in Lima, but my standards (and I have driven all over the world and can deal with most anything) this is depressing. Stop signs?! Ignore them at all cost. Actual traffic light? Well, they are mostly respected. I do argue that the average sad and soft American driver (the biggest pussies on the planet, natch, I curse them daily on our easy highways and freeways) in the middle of third or second world driving would, within 10 minutes, pull over and start crying and abandon their rental car. As I said, pussies/putas.

I can deal with it but Lyz thinks I am nuts. But I can deal with these folks. But I am not happy about it. I am supposed to be on VACATION. In due time, we exit Lima on the way to Ica (200 miles away) and all is “claro”. We are on the famous Pan American highway and all is well. Screw Lima. We are heading to Ica. Land of Sand And Sand And Sand. I can “dig” it.

On the way down the coast we encounter some pretty desolate sand. And more sand. Did I say sand?

At times we slowed down in local towns like Chincha. We bought some Pisco (essentially a liquor distilled from grapes-thanks to the Spanish who obviously were here and needed to get wasted and named after the very nearby city of Pisco that we drove by but did not have time to get off the Pan American highway and visit and where a very nasty earthquake hit three years earlier) for Lyz's papi. In short, I was digging the landscape as I love the open feel of a desert as opposed to the closed feel of big conifers and whatnot.

In Ica, we stayed at the noble and established, El Carmelo (not Anthony) Hacienda. Check out the website:

This dude has established a total compound to be sure with a mini-zoo, I kid you not and some of the most amazing cacit ever-I am a cacti fiend now that I live in the SW and I would kill for some the strains I saw and that I documented in my photos on my Webshots link.

It was off season (which it seems to be wherever I travel) and I think we might have been the only folks who checked in on that Monday or even the past week. This place is on the outskirts of town which is good and bad. This place has 50 or so rooms and we were at the end near the zoo yet it was still noisy. It has a pool which looked nice but maybe being in the desert water is a big commodity and the water was a little green and sitting at the pool we got a full afternoon sound of construction on one of the units where they seemed to be installing a new toilet. Lovely. So relaxing.

That night we drive into the Centro of Ica and park at the main parque. We need comida (food). We are definitely outcasts (a vanilla and a chocolate in the land of who knows what) here even though the Oasis at Huacachina (a few miles away) draws loads of turistas. We find a local restaurant with some local cuisine and I do try this pretty cool mix of arroz and frijolies called “Tacu Tacu” which consists of a rice and beans pancake, a thin "sábana" (sheet) of steak and some pickled red onions.

The next morning we are heading off for the event of the day. Dunebuggying and sandboarding at Huacachina-a real desert Oasis. Now I have been on rollercoasters. Cedar Point. Ohio. (BTW, the worst State in the nation for sure. But I digress yet again). I like rollercoasters. You feel like you are going to vomit. Vomiting is cool. But screw rollercoasters. Once you have been at the top of a sanddune strapped in and the guy drops you down the dune with his buggy, all rollercoasters are completely soft after that. There is no going back. This is the best ever. WOW. What a trip and at only about $15 per person for over an hour of manic fun. And don't ever get me started on the loco sandboarding. That is the bomb AND included in the preco. It's like skiing but not like skiing. It is all loco downhill action without the back and forth. I approve.

So we have to get back to Lima so we can fly out to Cusco in the morning. After getting pretty lost, we find and the car rental place and barely make our flight on Taca Airlines, a Central and South American line that has great prices, at least for this trip ($75 R/T each for an hour flight each way). We arrive in Cusco after some amazing Andian montana scenery and the altitude hits immediately-we are at 11,000 feet more or less.

We adjust and taxi to central Cusco to meet Julian, a German family friend of my parents who I have only e-mailed with before who is doing the young college student hangout thing of sorts, at a pizza place for lunch before transporting to Ollanta and our rail trip to Aguas Calientes (Warm Waters-or Machu Picchu town as it is now known). We arrange transport and manage to get to Ollanta just in time for the Perurail bus to Pisco Cucho . The temperature is cooling and we have to drag our bags down to the rail line. Pisco Cucho is far from a major rail station. We make it and we get to our seats and we are finally off to our destination. It was not easy but it worked somehow but not without some trepidation.

We arrive and check in at the Rupa Wasi Inn/Ecolodge

It's a cool place and they messed up our reservation (they didn't have our room ready so we got a free meal at their restaurant-the guy who runs it is a chef and the food was absolutely amazing-better than Huaca Pucclana in Lima-the alpaca was great-tastes like chicken!).

So we ate and were happy and were tired and ready to head to Machu Picchu in the morning (We bought our tickets that night-it ain't cheap $45 a person) and everyone says to go early to avoid the crowds and the sun so we were up at 5 am to leave at 6 am to get there before 7 am.

Of course, we had morning clouds but once we did the walk up, well, it was spectacular. I mean, an amazing combination of setting and history and architecture. The photos I have posted can not do it justice. It is simply awe inspiring. I have nothing else to say.

We did a group tour around and then had some time to hang with the llamas. The llamas were cool. We stayed about 4 hours and got tired out and headed back by bus to Aguas Calientes.

We proceeded to eat a faux Mexican lunch (every place in town advertised Mexican cusina-I guess because of the gringo crowd) and rest some more. The altitude was not good for Lyz (she took the appropriate medication in advance) but she did OK.

In the evening, we went to the official “Aguas Calientes” spa and it was fine but a little less than impressive. And we ate at the Treehouse yet again. I had an great quinoa risotto and Lyz had vegetarian lasagna.

The next morn we headed back by train to Cusco-another whole day event as we hooked up for transport with some Dutch doctors we met at MP and they already had transport arranged and paid for-we pitched in.

However, instead of high tailing it back to Cusco they are had some side trips arranged that “killed” some time for Cusco. We hit some natural salt flats. They were salty and dull. We then drove to a “moray” where the Incas developed some micro climates by creating some terraces down in a valley of sorts. While great feats of engineering, the diversion out of the way was just not worth it and left us with little time in Cusco as we had hoped to get there by 4 pm but now it was 5:30 when we arrived at El Balcon, our latest hotel. And we were supposed to meet up again with Julian at the Plaza de Armas at 6 pm so the timing was very tight and, of course, we were a little late.

But it all worked out. We started to make plans for dinner. But first I had to buy an alpaca sweater and I got a completely sweet one for about $15. So we headed to dinner and I ordered a platter of carnes including “cuy” better known as guinea pig (tastes like chicken!). After that we hit this totally locals place were we had pitchers of a hot local brew (remember it is 11,000 feet and pretty darn cold at night) that I think cost about $5 a pitcher or less than a dollar per dose! Then we hit this loco shot bar where we did shots. It was muy mal:)!

And then we hit this really nice disco where the techno was blasting in the best way possible and I could actually dance to music that was not stupido. I was able to stay up until almost two but after being up from about 5 the morning before I was toast. We got 3 hours of sleep and, unfortunately, had to fly back to Lima because that is how the flights were aligned. But remember, we paid $75 each R/T and yet we paid $96 each R/T just to go about 20 kms from Pisco Cucho to Aguas Calientes on a train each way. Talk about monopolies.

We went back to Miraflores in Lima and hit this famous restaurant called La Mar.

The seafood (calamari and cebiche) was great (and the owner is a bud of Anthony Bourdain-see season 4 of No Reservations) but the service was a mess. I ordered some sushi to go and it took 50 minutes to prepare! Luckily, our waiter was great and was also upset over the situation so the sushi was comped as well as dessert. This place is only open in the afternoon (ceviche is supposed to only be consumed in the afternoon as the acid in it is supposedly bad for sleeping) so we had plenty of comida for the evening before an early night of sleep.

The next morning, we got up very early (Lyz's flight on Copa thru Panama City was at 7 am) and headed our respective ways. In closing, right after we got back home, Lyz got notification that my application for her visa was approved and the next step, as expected, was for her to get her interview in Bogota at the US Consulate. They have until 8/12 to have her interview. We think she will get it in July and then once approved on the spot she can come right away. Then she should be here no later than late July and all will be cool. I am needing to see her bad!

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