Thursday, September 24, 2009

Puno & Lake Titicaca

We arrived in Puno on our frigid night bus from Cusco just in time to see (but not appreciate) the sunrise over the smooth surface of the sleeping lake. We took a motorized rickshaw into the center of town, found a hostel through sheer dumb luck, and hit the sack until a more civilized hour (like 9:30-ish).

Puno, located at an impressive 3,850 meters (2.3 miles) above sea level, doesn't have much in the way of entertainment. Its biggest draw is Lake Titicaca (pronounced Tethicalka by the locals). It is the world's highest navigable lake, and the view is stunning if the observer has woken up enough to enjoy it. Puno does serve as an important point of embarkation for many popular excursions, though. The cathedral was worth looking into, but it really only takes about 20 minutes to see the whole thing. If you find that you're spending a day or two in Puno, try to book a home stay on some of the more remote islands of the lake; missing that experience is one of my few real regrets about this trip. I've also heard rave reviews of La Isla del Sol and La Isla de la Luna, but we didn't get to see those either.

Brice and I took a short tour out to Las Islas Flotantes, and spent our day seeing the remnants of the Uros culture up close. The Uros are a pre-Incan civilization who were pushed off of their lands surrounding the Lake and forced to take refuge on the lake itself. To cope, they built islands out of the lake's thick reeds and peat. The islands floated freely for much of their history, but now all 42 are anchored and remain mostly stationary. Any tour company in Puno will sell you a voyage out to the Uros islands, so don't be afraid to haggle or ask them to include transportation to the docks in their fee.

Our excursion began with a bus that took us to the Puno port, thick with lime-green aglae. After a troubadour collected a few coins from us, we began our 30-minute boating trip out to the islands. In fact, I think this troubadour may have been our first and best encounter with the famed Peruvian panpipe flute. He really was the best performer we heard on our trip, even though they all play some variation of the same 2 songs (Guantanamera and Flight of the Condor). Along the way, our guide explained much of the area's history and lore. Traditionally, the people of the Uros islands eat the mallowy core of the lake reeds, fish, and water fowl. They speak a variant of the Aymara language, and - nowadays, at least - tourism is their main industry.

The Uros sustain their islands by constantly drying and adding new layers of totora reeds. Really, the totora is the life-blood of their culture. Without it, they would not have shelter, food, clothing, or transportation. I was amazed by the ingenuity displayed in their many uses for the reeds, even if the examples we saw were geared more towards souvenir shopping than survival. (But really, it's still one-and-the-same for these people; they could not continue to live as they do now without the tourists, but the tourists have warped them into a depressingly superficial facsimile of their former selves. For instance, we were sent away with a somewhat disturbing combination of Twingle Twigle Libble Star and hula dancing, topped off with a round of "hasta la vista baby!") They gave a really interesting demonstration of the peat-cutting and reed stacking process, even allowing us to try a bite of the reeds. It wasn't very flavorful, but I would go so far as to say the textures were quite enjoyable. It was kind of like eating soft sugar cane, minus the sweetness.

Our island hosts took us on a quick trip on one of their traditional reed canoes. They packed about 20 tourists onto that thing; it was actually pretty impressive.

After leaving the lake behind, we returned to Puno and found a decent, albeit impossibly cheap, lunch at the mercado central. The rest of our day passed in a blur, wandering aimlessly in the streets of Puno and wishing we had planned something - anything - interesting to do in the evening. We decided, after about 2 hours of lallygagging, to start making dinner plans. 'Pick the restaurant' was another of those games we could drag out for as long as needed, and we played it often. Since Puno was so much cheaper than Cuzco, we decided to try one of Peru's most iconic (but over-priced) foods: guinea pig, or cuy.

Cuy al horno (whole roast guinea pig) is traditionally served at feasts and carnivals, but the more remote villagers still cultivate them as a major dietary staple since they're both relatively simple maintain and a very cost-efficient protein source. We hoped to try cuy al horno in a small restaurant we found in our wandering, but after a very long wait it finally became clear that they didn't have any of the menu items we were interested it so we paid for our drinks and left. We opted to try for a nicer establishment the second time, and we actually had a pretty decent dinner. Brice ordered a pizza, I ordered an Andean nouveau cuisine take on the old classic, and we split the portions between us.

Instead of cuy al horno, I got deep-fried guinea pig legs, the head, and a salad of boiled potatoes. For the record, guinea pig has the texture of turkey and the flavor of limey sea food. If it hadn't been for the crispy skin, there wouldn't have been more than 2 or 3 mouthfuls apiece. As it was, we were hard-pressed to pick out the small bones, especially arond the rib cage. But still, it was definitely a learning experience for us. I mean, you can't go to Peru and not eat the food, right? Right.

The next morning, we were up bright and early for our Odyssey into Bolivia. I'm not going to get into it right now, but let me prepare you for that post with our motto about Bolivia: When it comes to Bolivia, things could be worse; after all, "a woman could cut off your penis while you're asleep and toss it out the window of a moving car" (Fight Club, 1999).

Machu Picchu by Brice

Brice was nice enough to volunteer his services for a blog post (or two?), because it really is high time I finished this thing. He'll be telling us all about Machu Picchu as soon as he gets around to it. In the mean time, I'm going to cut right to Puno and Lake Titicaca!

* 26 September 2009 - Brice thought about writing his post today.
* 2 October 2009 - Brice didn't write his post today.
* 12 October 2009 - Brice got his journal out of storage today!
* 15 October 2009 - PUBLISHED!

Macchu Picchu.

It was cool.

Have some pics.



We had to get up freaking early, but it was ok because our hotel which was a hostel kinda sucked. I mean, it was cool in that third-world-country walk through the restaurant and up the unfinished back stairs kinda way, but that's all. [On the bright side, it was cheap and close enough to everything. Also, reasonably clean room.]

Anyways, we were planning on catching a bus up before the trains started getting in, along with lots of other people. I just looked up the numbers. 6.30 am, and it was the 15th bus up. We passed the rest on our way up - plenty of switchbacks. Luckily MP is pretty huge up top, so no real worries.

We got up in time to watch the sun rise, which was cool, but not really as awe-inspiring as it coulda been. But since we cut across the front to get to where the best view would be, we ended up doing the entire thing in reverse. [No complaints here; I saved my feet until the worst of the climbing at the end.]

It was cool. They had alpaca's grazing in the middle (and people to yell at tourists who got to close to thier tourist attraction). At one point you could go up to the very top (ray elected to stay near the room showing the earthquake damage) to see the sundial. I met up with some of the people we'd met on the death march up there, and we all caught up some more.

It was finally beginning to get crowded, and we had to wait for people to move out of camera shots, tour groups to pass, or people to stop scaring the animals (scary looking bunny, lizards) away. We did see a cool door though, and then went up to the top. [The top of Machu Picchu (old mountain) was awesome, but I nearly killed myself trying to climb all the stairs and small outcroppings; it would have been more fun to climb the smaller Wayna Picchu (new mountain), but they only let the first few bus loads of tourists into that area of the park, and we didn't feel like wasting our morning at Machu Picchu waiting in line for something we MIGHT be allowed to do.]

The top had more steppes [I think this is the wrong word] [he means terraces / tiered farm land], one of which I convinced Ray to climb, and I wandered out the "back" side on some steppes to capture a few shots of the impressively steep drop off to the river on this side.

We got bored though, and had a few hours before our train, so we went back down, played around on the rocks at the town (washed our blisters in the stream), and perused the market for a while. Ray bought.... a necklace? [Llama charm for my bracelet.] I think a necklace. I do know that is was s/20 [US $6.75-ish] though. I remember all the worst parts.

Ollantaytambo & Taking the Train

Situated in Ollantaytambo for the evening, we bounced around the cobbled, colonial streets, raced our boats, and went to bed. The following morning, our real exploration of the area began. The streets are inhabited by wrenchingly noisy motorized rickshaws and combis; one of the combis we saw had all of the seats removed and a live cow in it! We wandered down a smallish street along the river to the train station - Ollanta is best-known for its ruins, and secondly because it is one of the most popular places to catch the train to Machu Picchu - where we purchased tickets. Tickets for the train are impossibly expensive unless you buy the backpacker class seats; but, in reality, you have to buy whichever seats are available and fit your schedule, so they manage to clean house on the 'prime time' trains. I think Brice and I payed about $100 each for our tickets round trip (ouch). As a further consideration: the ticket office keeps strange hours and their payment options are limited. Plan on carrying a lot of ID, visiting one of the two ATMs in the small Plaza de Armas first, and getting there with plenty of time to track down the office cashiers.

After we figured out the train schedule, we visited the Ollantaytambo fortress. Though Pisac was more complete and much more grandly situated, Ollantaytambo's massive terraces absolutely dwarfed the ones we saw at other ruins. I spared my sore, blistered feet and remained on the lower levels, but Brice climbed up the whole structure, and visited the buildings at the top. People look like ants on the top of Ollantaytambo; when you look up from the bottom, it is absolutely mind boggling to think about how long this place must have taken to build into the mountain side. In fact, if you stand at the base of Ollantaytambo and clap, the echo will cause an effect like an entire concert hall breaking out into applause. It feels like standing in the middle of the world's largest amplitheatre.

Historically, Ollantaytambo's significance comes from yet another skirmish with the Spanish. After the battle for Cusco, the Incan nobility and remaining military retreated to Ollantaytambo. But, unlike the battle at Sachsaywamthe Incas actually managed to turn the Spaniards back at their new fortress. They re-appropriated Ollanta as their new capitol for a short time, but ultimately retreated further into the wilderness to find a more easily defended headquarters and Ollanta was firmly under Spanish control by 1540.

While the main ruins themselves are awe-inspiring, a smaller set of lesser-known storage houses located on the opposite hillside (trust me, if you get to Ollantaytambo and look at the set up, my generic 'opposite hillside' direction will make a lot of sense) are open for more adventurous exploration. After we failed to find a path or staircase towards the smaller ruins, Brice decided to hop a wall in someone's back yard and give it a try anyways. I opted not to join him for that adventure, but I really wish I had. It turned out that there was a path to the small ruins wedged into the back of an alley (Brice found it a few minutes after I left for an Internet cafe), no trespassing required.

We spent the rest of our day lounging about in the Plaza de Armas, visiting the small market stalls along entrance to the ruins, and looking for more delicious Andean pizza. Pizza in the Andes mountains is a treat not to be missed; the only economical way for them to prepare a pizza is with whole, fresh ingredients in a wood-fired brick oven. Depending on the quality of the pizza sauce, many of the pizzas we had in the Andes easily beat out those my father and I tried in the cafes of Rome. Pizza along the Peruvian coast, however, should be avoided at all costs. But eating in Ollanta was generally pleasureable, although we did have one funny moment. Brice and I asked a girl leaving a restaurant if it was any good, and she replied that they were great; the beers were way bigger there than down the street. We had a good laugh at that one.

Most of our time in the marketplace went towards finding Brice a marble sphere; he spent a few days thinking he wanted one as a souvenir, so we enjoyed picking each one up and weighing its pros and cons. Yes, that may sound silly, but if you know Brice and me (which if you're reading this, you probably do) then you know we managed to make it into an elaborate, somewhat offensive game. Luckily for me, I broke down and bought (or should I say that I broke Brice down and he bought me....) myself a dorky-looking, canvas hat at that market; it came in handy on the relatively unshaded tour of Machu Picchu we took the next day.

Once we grew bored with the toursit market, we wandered through some of the little shops along the Plaza. Most of them were horribly over-priced, but I needed bandaids for my feet and had to content myself with paying ten cents per bandage; that's probably a world record, or something. Since we heard that Aguas Calientes could be prohibitively expensive, we wandered back to a small store well away from the tourist areas and let an absolutely adorable little Quechuan girl sell us only marginally over-priced water, crackers, instant ramen, and cookies. She was just too cute to pass up. Brice would just point at things while she very proudly counted out how much they would cost, and then he would reach up and get what he wanted off the high shelves while she smiled the biggest grin I've ever seen and counted out the new total. Ah, nostalgia.

Finally, we wandered back to the train station and boarded our coach for the 2-hour journey to Aguas Calientes. We went from our relatively warm mountain top (at nearly 2,800 meters above sea level) through some frigid, snow-covered peaks, and descended into the sub-tropical jungle surrounding Machu Picchu. I remember thinking then how amazing it was that just several days prior we had been sleeping at a roadblock, looking up at the immaculate night sky, and trying to guess how long it would take us to walk to Cusco. Seeing so much in so few days is a really surreal feeling, akin to something like Rip van Winkle must have felt when he woke up.

Cusco & The Sacred Valley

From the journal of Ray Yaegle...

21 May 2009

I walked 20 miles down a road paved with glass, boulders, tires, livestock, and mobs. I walked 20 miles through red-tiled mud huts, and stinking, sopping pasture inhabited by crazy women wearing Pilgrim hats. I walked 20 miles through feet full of blisters, sunburn, dehydration, and sore shoulders. And you know what? I made it to Cusco with relatively little issue. Sure, I'm essentially lame in both legs, but we still toured most of the churches and some of the ruins in the city today.

I'm getting ahead of myself. We made it to Sammay Wassai, our hostel, at around 4:30 yesterday afternoon, took a shower, ate some recently-remembered granola bars, and went to sleep. I didn't sleep well, but Brice was out like a light within 45 minutes of sleepy small talk.

This morning, after much complaining and lancing of blisters, we went down to La Plaza de Armas and found breakfast. But, on the way, I got to hold a BABY ALPACA. I love you, baby! We washed our eggs and sausage down with Peruvian Gatorade, and walked over to the Cathedral. The Cusco Cathedral is actually a three-church megacomplex, absolutely glorious to behold. The art and architecture blends the European and Andean aesthetic perfectly. From the image of the last supper showcasing Jesus and the apostles eating a guinea pig to the Roman soldiers portrayed in the garb of Spanish conquistadors, the cultural fusion is exquisite. "The Cusco School," they call it; brilliant.

We also toured El Templo de la Compañía de Jesús, which had a hugely elaborate high altar, and climbed the bell-tower for a birds-eye-view of the plaza. I hated myself for trying the stairs, but the view made the pain worthwhile. Unfortunately, the crypts beneath El Templo were closed for rennovation, so we weren't able to visit them. Later, we toured La Iglesia de San Blas (the neigborhood of our hostel) as well. San Blas has the most impressive pulpit of all the churches in Cusco, and there is a pale white skull sitting atop it. Legend says that it's the skull of the man who carved the magnificent, highly-detailed pulpit, and that he dedicated his entire career to finishing it.

As a side note, we scored free passes to El Museo de Don Quixote, which isn't actually about the man from La Mancha, but rather full of sculptures (the most iconic of the windmill warrior and his burro) composed entirely of small animal(?) bones and teeth.

We even made our way over to La Iglesia de San Domingo and the ruins of Qorikancha, which occupy the same space. The ruins and church are indistinguishable at certain junctures, at at others it is painfully obvious that the two are totally separate entities. When the Spaniards overthrew the Incas in Cusco, they robbed away the stones from Qorikancha to build their town, but some of the larger stones and structures were too big to remove, so they became the foundations, surroundings, and adornments of the church instead. A very cool site; I'm sorry I can't say more about it. It's only 7:10 and I'm already starting to nod off.

Stocked up on ChokoSodas in local supermarket.

22 May 2009

We retrieved (Brice did) our laundry from a local washer-woman and purchased our boletas turisticos (edit: you must purchase a tourism ticket to view the major sites in and around Cusco) this morning. We took a taxi out to Sachsaywamán and enjoyed a somewhat limited self-guided tour. The biggest rock at the site tops out at 200 tons; no wonder they say that aliens helped them build it. A man named Joséf sold us a two-hour guided horseback ride of the ruins surrounding Cusco. It wasn't the wisest use of our money, depending on who you're asking, but we had an excellent time seeing more of the terrain without (Very Important) walking. My feet and legs are doing much better today, though. Our ride took us through Pukapukan - a sort of ancient Incan truck stop - and Tambomachay - a site with fully functioning fountains probably used for religious ceremonies.

I'm a bit scatterbrained. I should probably add that Sachsaywamán was the dominant Incan fortress guarding Cusco (their capitol city and the center of the Incan world) from invaders. It didn't work out so well against the Spanish... It housed the valley's army, clergymen, and nobility. When Sachsaywamán fell, so did Cusco.

After viewing the ruins nearest Cusco, we boarded a minibus (not a combi) for Pisac. We ate lunch there - nothing spectacular, and priced for rich tourists - and then hired a car to take us out to the ruins for a couple of hours. Pisac is breathtaking in its enormity; it's an entire complex of ruins, tombs, and agricultural terraces (as opposed to all of the other 'one hit wonders' we saw this morning). It has an entire mountain side of terracing, a fortress (maybe two?), Incan toilets, a ferrous cliff-face full of grave-crannies, and a breathtaking view of the valley below.

1) The Ballsy Tour

2) The small holes are tombs with bodies inserted into them.

3) The valley of Pisac

4) Part of the ruins and a glimpse of the terraces.

Brice took the 'ballsy tour' and I took the 'pussy tour.' We still met at our designated finishing spot on time, but Brice had to do a good bit of free-climbing and hill-side scrambling, while I kept to the somewhat more visible trails in an attempt to save my feet for Machu Picchu. When we finished with Pisac, we took another minibus to Urubamba, travel hub of the Sacred Valley, and then caught a cheap collectivo to Ollantaytambo.

The town of Ollanta, as it is popularly called, consists primarily of a Plaza de Armas, a quaintly cobbled side street (where we were staying at Inca Wassai hostel), a train station, and the massive Inca fortress sitting right outside my front door (literally). Tomorrow we're going to tour the ruins here, and then board a train for Aguas Calientes - the starting point for excursions to Machu Picchu. Right now Brice is trimming his nails and licking his wounds; we made paper boats to race in an ancient-looking drain after dinner, and my half-crumpled boat trounced his sleek, properly folded one in the final stretch to the shock and awe of all involved. I am the paper boat champion! You will bow down before me!