Sunday, April 28, 2019

Discovering Machu Picchu

Trip date: January 2019

Is there anything more exciting than standing in front of one of your bucket list sites? I have been to, and seen a lot of this fabulous world, but have very few things I'd consider on a bucket list; Machu Picchu is one of those few things.

Although most of Peru is very inexpensive, going to Machu Picchu is not. We started our day with an early morning taxi from our hotel to Ollantaytambo where we caught our Perurail train. The train goes from Urubamba station, where we were staying, but the cost was significantly more, and the schedule wasn't as good for us. Our trip out was $70USD and our return was $179USD. We had purchased our tickets to Machu Picchu months in advance ($70USD each) and had opted to spend the afternoon there (entrance rules have changed recently and you either purchase a 1/2 day morning or afternoon now).

The train ride to Aguas Calientes on the Vista Dome train is beautiful, but especially if you are sitting on the left side of the train (from the way the train is traveling), where you can see the river, mountains, small villages, and parts of the Inca Trail (the hiking trail for those making the pilgrimage by foot). Food/beverage service is extremely basic so we would have been smart to bring a snack. Luckily it was only about a 90 minute trip.

Aguas Calientes is only accessible by train and is the only way to Machu Picchu if you aren't hiking the Inca Trail. Most people choose to stay overnight here, but with nothing except souvenir shops and tourists restaurants, we decided to take the train back home that evening (and very happy with that choice as you'll read below).

Once in town there are two queues you need to get through. The first is for your bus ticket up the mountain. Everyone needs their passport to buy the bus ticket ($25USD round trip) and the line is actually up a side street, not the one pictured above. When we asked people in the main line if it was for the bus or the tickets most didn't know. I don't believe in standing in a line for no reason!

The 2nd queue is to board the bus for the drive up. It looks long but the buses come one-after-the-other so it moves quick. Optionally, there is a trail if you want to walk up from the town.

We had time before our afternoon entry so we grabbed a quick bite, and a pisco sour, at one of the tourist restaurants before boarding the bus. The ride up is a bit white knuckle, lots of switchbacks and sheer cliffs. And as we peered down onto Aguas Calientes, now just a spec below, we realized how high up we were too!

The entrance was easy and the trail well marked. There were a lot of people there but it didn't feel crushing. As we walked up the path though we again all felt the effects of the altitude. I popped some coca leaves in my mouth thanks to our hotel which provided them for free.

If you follow the Circuit 1 trail up and around to the left after you enter, you automatically start your visit with the famous view of the mountain and the ruins. Even with all the tourists taking photos, it is incredibly beautiful and awe inspiring. Here we were, standing at 7,970 feet elevation, peering out at a city built around 1450.

The city was then abandoned for unknown reasons approximately 80 years later and
remained empty until 1911 when explorer Hiram Bingham discovered it and had it excavated.

For almost 400 years, this city was hidden in plain site!

Not long after we arrived we noticed a large procession of people making their way up the trail. Some were dressed in the traditional brightly hued costumes of the village, but most were dressed in business attire, including women wearing high heels!

It was another parade celebrating the town's mayor like we had seen in Urubamba and Pisac! And they had all walked up from Aguas Calientes! Our timing was incredible!

There's a lot to learn about the Incas and Machu Picchu so most people choose to hire a guide, you can get one right at the entrance. We had heard very mixed reviews about the guides, and hadn't had the best luck when hiring in the past, so Thibault ended up buying a very good self-guided book in town while we waited for our bus.

The book was perfect for us! We followed the main route through the entire ruins with Thibault reading to us what each area was.

This entire city was built without iron tools or using wheels, and the stones were cut to fit together without the use of mortar.

There are about 150 buildings including homes, baths, guard houses, temples, and even this "Mirrors of Water" which allowed the Incas to view the stars reflecting in the small water pools.

The Incas also built about 600 terraces for agriculture. Those are some steep hills to farm on!

We spent about 3 hours exploring this wonder, it's incredibly beautiful as are the surrounding mountains. And then it started to rain. Like torrential buckets of rain! I was soaked through before I could even get my rain jacket out of my backpack.

Luckily we were near the end of the trail when this happened. We made a hasty retreat to the entrance only to find that there were no buses and the queue of people waiting for the ride down was long! The mayor and his entourage passed us on their walk back down the mountain! Peruvians are tough stock I'll say.

We stood in the pouring rain for about 30 minutes waiting for the buses to come up the hill. Everyone was completely soaked. When we got back to Aguas Calientes we had a couple of hours before our train left so we decided to warm up at a pizza place because it had a wood fire grill in the center of the dining room. We all stood around it like we were camping!

When we checked in for our train they told us we were the only passengers and led us to the platform. I thought we misunderstood and they meant we were the only passengers in that particular car. Nope. The 4 of us had a private train home to Urubamba!

Not only that, but our ticket included a 3-course meal with wine! We were definitely not dressed for this, but who was going to complain? haha!

They started us at the bar with a private demonstration on how to make a pisco sour. The bartender was great and gave us all a recipe card as well.

Besides the gorgeous dining room, the train also had a wood and glass observation room and a very elegant bar car. We drank our pisco sours in the observation room and then moved to the bar car for a martini. We were having an absolute ball!

Dinner and desert were fantastic as was our service. This was an awesome surprise to the end of an already awesome day!

We had a driver waiting for us when we pulled into the train station at about 10pm. It had been a very long, very amazing, and at ~ $350USD each, a very expensive day! And completely worth it!

Bucket list √

All photos from Machu Picchu here.

Other posts from this trip:
24 Hours Miami
Lima City of Kings
Welcome to the Jungle
Piranhas and Pink Dolphins
Ringing in 2019 in the Amazon
The Sacred Valley of the Incas
Dining at 11700 Feet
Cusco Daytrip
Return to Lima

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Sacred Valley of the Incas

Trip date: January 2019

Jan 1, 2019 we left the Amazon and flew to Cusco via Lima. We were met at the airport by our driver who had been arranged thru our hotel in advance. Renting our own car was inadvisable, suggested my friends who live there, and as we rode 1 1/2 hours in the dark on very rough roads I was glad we had listened!

We had decided to stay in the town of Urubamba for 4 nights. This would give us a more central base to not just explore Machu Picchu but to hike around other Inca ruins (there are actually 16 others in the area) and also eat at the new restaurant MIL, just recently opened by Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz of Centrale in Lima.

We checked into the Hotel Inti Nan and were shown to our rooms by the hotel manager. When we inquired where we should have dinner that night he explained that most places would be stopping service soon, so he drove us in his truck to a place he knew served late. I think it was 8pm!

It had been a very long day involving a skiff, two seperate 1 1/2 drives on questionable roads, and 2 flights. We were all exhausted and turned in right after dinner!

The hotel provides a great breakfast buffet of yogurt, popped quinoa, fresh fruit, fresh bread, scrambled eggs, cheeses, meats, fresh juice, coffee, and tea. And they have a basket of coca leaves set out that you can help yourself too!

On our first full day in the Sacred Valley we had booked a private tour with Cusco Transport on the advise of a friend who used them the year before. They picked us up in the morning in a comfy mini van, offered each of us a bottle of water, and we were off for the day! First stop, the adorable town of Ollantaytambo and the incredible ruins there. We were able to buy a pass for all the area ruins for 130 Soles (not including Machu Picchu) and it was good for 10 days. More than what we needed but the other option was just a one-day and not as well priced.

At 9,160 ft altitude, it was the lowest of the ruins we visited, but as it was our first day out we all felt the effects of the lack of oxygen! Our guide kindly stopped every once in a while as we climbed up the terraces, to explain about the ruins and to let us catch our breath! And of course I had a handful of coca leaves in my pocket!
This important site included a village with farms and military posts as well as agricultural storage high up in the hill across the way. Our guide also pointed out where the massive boulders came from, across the river, 5km away. Incredible!
He also explained that the modern day village was built on top of the ancient village, with the current homes having Inca foundations! It was such a great introduction to the area, we were excited to see more!

From here we drove back through our town of Urubamba to get to Pisac, as there is only one main road that cuts through the valley. We had to pull over as we entered our town as there was a big parade going on with men on horses, a marching band, and lots of people on the sidelines cheering one particular gentleman who was being showered with flowers.

Turns out that the first days of January are when the new town mayors are welcomed into office. The brightly colored traditional costumes signal which villages people are from. It was really cool to stumble into the excitement!

We arrived in Pisac, which although was much more touristy than we had encountered so far, was still relatively quiet and very pretty. We made it to the town square and to the Pisac Inn where we had a very good lunch at their restaurant Cuchara de Palo. The only negative was that the credit card machines were down, as was the only ATM in the town, so we ended up having to pay with pretty much all the cash we had on us.

Pisac was also welcoming their mayor, and there was a stage set up in the square with lots of speeches being made, as well as a chicken lunch being handed out to everyone in town!

On the way to the town's well-know market, there was a woman dressed in traditional costume feeding her similarly costumed alpaca and baby sheep. She happily posed for photos as long as you dropped some coins in her basket.
After a quick shop through the market, where I bought a gorgeous baby alpaca wool sweater and some super cute gloves, we drove up to the Pisac ruins. Huge terraces reach down into the valley, with small stone villages nestled at the top. It was stunning!

Pisac was an agricultural, religious, and military village. Our guide pointed out hundreds of caves in the walls of the neighboring cliffs, hand dug graves for the ancient inhabitants. I'd never seen anything like it.

We were at 11,293 feet elevation now and it was really tough to climb and catch my breath. This is much higher than we would be at when we went to Machu Picchu! 

Both the sites we toured this day were spectacular! I'd highly suggest taking the time to visit. We were also all very happy with our guide, our driver, and our comfy mini van! I would absolutely recommend Cusco Transport if you are looking for a private guide.

They even stopped on the way home so we could get more cash and grab some groceries for happy hour, which we tried to enjoy outside at the hotel, but were chased off by the resident parrot!

That evening we hailed a couple of tuk tuks and had dinner at El Huacatay, recommended by our tour guide. It was a lovely little restaurant with primarily outside garden seating. All the food was good and I especially loved the Peruvian hot chocolate I ordered for dessert!

It had been a full day and we had another one the next as we'd be visiting Machu Picchu! We were all very excited and headed to bed early!

All photos from the Sacred Valley here.

Other posts from this trip:
24 Hours Miami
Lima City of Kings
Welcome to the Jungle
Piranhas and Pink Dolphins
Ringing in 2019 in the Amazon
Discovering Machu Picchu
Dining at 11700 Feet
Cusco Daytrip
Return to Lima

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Ringing in 2019 in the Amazon

Trip date: December 2018

Our 3rd night on our riverboat, the Cattleya, was spent near the confluence of the Ucayali River and the Marañón River, which then becomes known as the Amazon River as it flows into Brazil. The confluence is really wide and really fast. We took our skif out to the middle and just hung out for a bit, it was pretty incredible being there!

After crossing the confluence, our skif headed deep into the jungle and up a series of small tributaries. It was early evening and again we were watching for wildlife and birds. Our first stop was at a small lake that was almost completely choked with water lettuce, making it look like we were traveling over a large green carpet. We slowly made our way around the shoreline, spotting various birds, until we came to a ranger station and went in for a visit.

The ranger was very excited to have guests as he lives out there on his own. Our naturalist, Hilde brought him a few bottles of water and then he told us about the different wildlife protection programs they are doing in the rainforest. He was living in pretty bare-bones lodging, and I felt a little embarrassed when Hilde showed me his very primitive kitchen. 

Back in the skif we headed even deeper into the jungle. We would be staying until dark to see and hear how the jungle changes at night. We were all a bit nervous! As we continued down smaller and more narrow tributaries, Hilde spotted a snake up in a tree! He kindly mentioned that if it fell in the boat we should move calmly out of the way. Right.
We spotted a sloth (much less scary), lots of birds, and motored past a lot of hanging vines and giant lily pads. It was creepy and exciting! We finally came out into another lake right as dusk set in. There were lots of noises but very little movement, Hilde took out a spotlight and started sweeping it across the lake looking for the yellow eyes of caiman. 

He spotted something and we zoomed across the lake. Hilde dipped his hand in the water lettuce and pulled up a small caiman! It was pretty impressive!
Our way back was in pitch darkness. Hilde held the spotlight on the bow so our skif captain could navigate, and huge bats flew towards it, and us! I'm not a fan!! A river rat also jumped off a low hanging branch into the water and swam in front of the boat. The entire experience was really awesome and also tested my fear levels. 
We finally made it out to the main river and crossed the Amazon in the dark! It was good to be back on the Cattleya! 

The next morning was New Year's Eve! We kicked it off with a jungle hike, this time on the opposite side of Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. It was another hot and steamy day, the mosquitos at full force again, as we hiked for about 1 1/2 hours.

We spotted more birds, lots of different plants/trees/vines, huge termite nests, a tarantula web (minus spider thank god), huge fluffy squirrels, and these beautiful giant lily pads.

We were hoping for more monkeys, sloths, a puma, or even a jaguar. At one point on our hike, with Caitlin and I bringing up the rear, we heard something behind us but didn't see anything. Hilde mentioned that the pumas are very curious and will follow people just to see what they are doing. We heard the sounds a few more times but still never saw anything. It was nerve-wracking to think about being followed by a puma in the deep jungle with Hilde using his machete to make a path in front of us!

We spent the afternoon relaxing as we sailed to our final mooring spot of the trip. We were also treated to a special lunch which used the Amazon fish paiche, wrapped and cooked in banana leaves. We'd learned about the paiche from the ranger the night before, the world's largest freshwater fish that was being overfished in many areas, but this area of the river had strict guidelines in place. These freaky fish actually breathe air and can get to 10 feet in length!
Early in the evening Caitlin, Thibault and I headed out for our last skif adventure with Roy and Hilde. Right away we spotted a very large troop of monkeys making their way from tree to tree through the jungle. 
We hung out and watched them for quite awhile, they were soooo cute! On our way back to the boat we had the makings of an amazing sunset. Fitting for the last day of 2018!
Since the boat had run out of everything except pisco and tonic, we made ourselves sundowners of G&Ts with our own supply of gin. We had also saved one bottle of wine and one of champagne for dinner and had other various flasks of provisions for the rest of the evening. 

Our dinner table was very festively set for our final dinner of the year! And again, the food was very good. Afterwards we had a little pisco sour party with the crew and even did a bit of dancing. 
At midnight we rushed up to the observation deck as we heard fireworks across the river. I think this was the 2nd smallest show we'd ever seen (Phuket was the smallest if I remember correctly) but it's still always fun to have fireworks on New Year's Eve, especially unexpected ones. 
The next morning our packed bags were picked up from our rooms and loaded onto the skif. After breakfast we had one last ride over to Nauta, where we were transferred to our van for the drive back to Iquitos airport. 

All told we saw sloths, monkeys, 3 different types of bats, pink and grey river dolphins, Amazon red squirrels, an Amazon bamboo rat, caiman, an anaconda, a tiger snake, a poison frog, piranha, various ants and butterflies, and 39 different species of birds (we had a log that we kept our day's sightings in)! Pretty impressive!

The cruise and the Amazon jungle were an amazing, and once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it wasn't without some disappointments, such as the oversight in stocking what we asked to have onboard. We did end up negotiating a refunded price with the company we booked with afterwards.

Additionally, the boat itself was run by another company which I would not be able to recommend due to some behaviors that we experienced onboard. I won't go into it here, but if you are considering booking with their boat and want to privately message me, I've be happy to give more information.

We were off to our next destination and to see the Inca ruins!

All Amazon rainforest photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
24 Hours Miami
Lima City of Kings
Welcome to the Jungle
Piranhas and Pink Dolphins
The Sacred Valley of the Incas
Discovering Machu Picchu
Dining at 11700 Feet
Cusco Daytrip
Return to Lima

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