Saturday, October 06, 2012

Peru: Salineras de Maras; Moray
Today was a 5 hour trip through the town of Chinchero to the Salineras de Maras (Maras Salt Mines) just outside of Moray and then to Moray where they have some terraces built in half circles that they used for agricultural experiments. More about that later. Of course as with every tour we have gone on, the guide stops at a series of vendors selling whatever they can sell to tourists. So we stopped just outside of Chinchero on the pretext that some of us might have to use the bathroom and while we are there, the indigenous women will show is how they clean and dye the wool from alpacas (that was so three days ago) but we sat and watched anyway. After that, we browsed through the vendors who were basically all selling the same things so it was the luck of the draw which one got the business. We ended up buying two alpaca sweaters for Robin for 100 soles (less than $50) for both. Of course we could have bought the one they were selling on Peru Rail last night for USD$130.

Salineras de Maras (Maras Salt Mines)
We arrived at the salt mines to incredible heat – scorching, to be precise. I used my umbrella because even with a hat, the sun is too hot. We walked down about 100 steps (there are steps everywhere here so you don’t need much more exercise when you are done for the day) to the actual mine which is outdoors.
The salt mines are very interesting. Geologists are not sure exactly where the salt water comes from but the way it’s mined dates back to the Inca period and the same methods are still used today. The town council gives every male who turns 18 a plot of space to mine for salt. Women do not get any and the rationale is that they want to maintain the traditions of the ancient culture and women were not given plots in those times. Hmmm…. Not sure I agree with that but hey, I don’t live here so I am going along with what the guide said. The salt mine takes up about 5 square kilometers and each little section is about 3 x 4 metres. There is an irrigation system that feeds each family’s plot. The plot is filled up with the salt water flowing from who knows where. Then the water is left to evaporate over several weeks (4-8 depending on the weather). The first set of salt is removed and used for cattle and the second set is the better grade that is used for human consumption.

When asked why the salt is not being mined by more contemporary methods, the guide explained that this way is a means of employment for the people of that village as well as a huge tourist attraction so they are happy to keep it that way. We could not spend more than a few minutes there because with the reflection from the heat of the sun and the reflection from the white salt ponds, it was too hot to stay any longer.
Then off we went to Moray which was about 30 minutes away. By the time we reached there, the wind was gusting to about 60-70kms per hour and the temperature had dropped by about 15 degrees so needless to say, it was extremely chilly. I took a couple of pictures and the guide asked who wanted to go down to the bottom to see the semi-circles. I learned from going to Machu Picchu that looking from the top was much better than looking from the bottom so I took a couple of pictures and declined going down another 100 metres to the bottom in gusting wind and on a very unstable looking gravel path. I had so much grit in my mouth by that time that I could not envision having to come back up in a dust storm. So we went back to the van and it promptly started to rain. I can tell you, I was glad I was not down at the bottom of the rings. Anyway the story about the semi-circular terraces is that the Incas used the area for agricultural experiments and they grew many crops there because of the micro climate which is anywhere from 10-15 degrees hotter from the top. I should have gone down if only to warm up but having to climb up that dusty path again was not appealing so better to wear my jacket than eat dust for the remainder of the trip.    

We came back to Cusco and decided to have a late lunch. Guess where? If you guessed the place where Robin had that giant lamb's leg for lunch, then you would be correct. Guess what we ordered? If you guessed lamb again, you'd be correct a second time. But this time we were smart. We ordered one meal and shared it. Now I know some of you might be reading this and saying: "But she doesn't eat lamb." But this lamb had little or no woolly smell making it okay to eat. I do have to say however, that I am not likely to be doing that anytime soon because I am getting the residual after effects from burping lamb several hours later. We came back and had a quiet evening just catching up on emails and Skyping family - or at least those at home. I'm signing off for tonight. Tomorrow it's off to the Sacred Valley for the day including a buffet lunch. I hope I can stay awake in the afternoon. We leave at about 8 and return about 6:30 or 7pm. On such a day, in fact any day, we have to dress in layers - t-shirt, sweater, shawl, jacket and in our backpack, rain coat and umbrella and in any given hour, we'll be wearing, discarding and wearing most of them. That's all ready for tomorrow so now it's just to get a good night's sleep which has not really happened since we arrived.
By the way, if you're reading, you can let me know by posting a comment or two. Till tomorrow.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Peru: Machu Picchu

This is the day I have been waiting for. I set my alarm to wake up at 4:45am to have a very early breakfast and try to get the 5:45 bus. I met our guide for MP last night and although I checked to see when sunrise would be, (the internet said 5:44am), the guide said that sunrise is usually around 6:50am. He said that these days, it's cloudy and foggy so it's hard to see the sun rise. He also said that it was supposed to rain. Not what I wanted to hear but that was what the forecast said on the weather station too. I went back to my room trying to strategize in my head in the event that it rained. We brought good rain coats and umbrellas but we left them in Cusco and brought the cheap ones we bought on our way to Saqsaywaman two days ago. Don't even ask why I did something so dumb. Well there was a reason. We wanted to take only minimal things on the train so we took two backpacks with our clothes and everything else that we needed for one night. But it was pretty dumb not to have taken our better raingear.
Like I said, I don't think I slept a wink last night but I must have because I woke up about 3:45 to some dripping sounds. I dared not get out of bed but did with a slightly sinking heart. Yes, it was drizzling. Rain. Why did the weather man have to be right today of all days? I went back to bed and willed the rain to stop. By 4:00am, I heard what sounded like water falling hard on cement - you know the kind - that rushes out of a downspout on cement during a heavy rainfall.  Yes again. It was now pouring. I could not believe it. I love rain but only if I am at home curled up in the sunroom under a blanket and listening to the sound of the rainfall in the roof. Some of you may remember that sound growing up in Guyana when the rain falls on the zinc sheets and you can hardly hear yourself think so the only thing left to do is make a big pot of barley soup with chicken and eddoes and dumplings and have a nice steaming bowl while watching and listening to the rain. It was not so much fun when you had to get dressed to go to school and if it was raining hard enough, you got wet going to school and had to stay in wet clothes all day. That was my dread today - that I would get wet (not a problem) and it would be cold and I would have to stay in wet clothes all day till 9pm when we returned to Cusco.
I stood staring at the rain, feeling like my big graduation balloon had just popped. It continued to rain even as we went downstairs for breakfast. I imagined all kinds of horrible things - that my backpack would get wet and soggy, that my flimsy raincoat would rip, that my clothes would be muddy, that I would not be able to take any pictures because my camera was not waterproof and it would not be sheltered by the umbrella sitting in my suitcase in Cusco and whatever else came into my head.
You cannot believe what happened next. We finished eating and the rain stopped. Not to a drizzle but to a full stop. From pouring to full stop as we finished. We left the hotel and walked down to the bus stop to wait in line. That took about 15 minutes and we boarded just as the rain started a fine drizzle. It took another 25 minutes to the entrance of Machu Picchu. By the time we got to the top, the rain stopped but it was overcast with heavy clouds so I was not about to see the sunrise that I was so waiting for. By this time, I was so happy that it wasn't raining, that I was quite fine with the thought of not being able to see the sunrise over the mountains.
Robin and I went in and walked around for about 40 minutes. We were supposed to meet our guide at 7:45 so we had about 1 hour 15 minutes to do our own thing. We passed the gate and as soon as I saw a bunch of stones, I was already oohing and aahing. I could feel the excitement building as I got closer to the formations. Then we crossed over to one section and I could see the area that is referred to as the Principal Plaza. It was breathtaking!!! I have seen lots of pictures but seeing it for the first time was truly splendid. A hundred questions could run through your mind at that time but you would really want to spend no time thinking about how this was created. I just wanted to witness it. And did I witness it. I must have taken two dozen pictures within the first 10 minutes. I looked around and the clouds and fog were so thick, that I felt I could reach out and touch them. We were above some clouds. I kept looking at the sky as if another miracle was going to happen and the clouds would part long enough for me to see the sunrise but I contented myself that I was where I wanted to be right at that moment and if I could not see the sun rise and brighten the Principal Plaza, that would be just fine. The experience was great anyway.
At about 6:48, I could not believe what I was seeing. This huge, thick, grey rain cloud drifted apart as if a magic wand had been waved and there was the sun in all it's glory!  I felt like clapping but I was too busy looking at the rays on the formations. I was grinning and I am sure if anyone was looking at me, they'd think that I won the lottery. And did I ever! We are always wanting to win the lottery - hoping for more money. If only we could count our riches in other ways. we'd see that we are indeed wealthy. The sun rising each day is a richness that we don't always appreciate. Granted that this day it was rising over Machu Picchu. That was a double richness that I want to savour.
The guide took us on a two hour tour of the grounds and explained some of the history which I will write in another post. After he was done, we went to the top at the Guard House (about 400 steps up). That was some walk! but the trick is to walk and when you get winded, stop and take a rest and continue and before you know it, you're there. I kept stopping because I was winded but it also made for a great photo opportunity. I was sure that each step I ascended was the best photo opportunity. Everywhere you turn, you feel like you are in a post card. Every scene was postcard perfect. And I mean everywhere you looked you found something astonishing to photograph. So of course I took about 200 pictures but I won't bore you with all of them (I deleted some because they were very similar).  

Can I just say how lucky we were today? The sun came out long enough for us to take some beautiful pictures and just as it was starting to get hot, the sky got overcast and stayed that way until we were done and went back to the bus. Just as we stepped into the bus, it started to drizzle but stopped when we arrived back at Aguas Calientes. We found a restaurant with a sheltered patio to eat lunch and as we settled at the table, the rain came down again. It rained until we finished lunch and dried up as we walked back to our hotel to get our luggage. It rained when we were sitting in the lobby checking our email and as soon as we were done, so was the rain so we headed over to the train station to wait for the train back to Cusco. Was that a perfect day or what? Yes. Perfect. Super perfect.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Peru: Cusco to Aguas Calientes

Each day since being here is a day closer to Machu Picchu. We had a restless sleep last night. I think the room was too hot especially when there are numerous covers on the bed - a flat top sheet, a heavy blanket, a much heavier duvet and a quilt. In addition, Robin wanted a space heater in case it got cold but it was so hot, that neither of us could sleep. I was glad when morning came.
We went for breakfast at 7am and guess what it was? Give up? See Tuesday's post. Then see Wednesday's. It was the same. At promptly 7:20, the driver came to pick us up to take us to Poroy which was about 30 minutes away. I can't tell you how excited I felt just driving to go to the train station and I had not even boarded yet. When we reached Poroy, I think I had a big grin on my face thinking that in less than 30 minutes I was going to be boarding the Vistadome train.  
When they opened the gate for boarding, I think I was the second person through. I am not sure if Robin was even behind me but he was. The girl who took the ticket had a big smile and said that we had the best seats on the train. And did we ever! We had the two front seats with a perfect window in front of us and one to the side. I think everyone on the train was envious because they had to keep coming to the front to take pictures and there we were - the two of us, just soaking it all in.
Sandra with the perfect seat at the front of the train
The train left the terminal precicely at 8:25am and I think I was a bit giddy by the time the train was about 100 metres from the station. I make myself comfortable and settled in for the 3.5 hour ride. The countryside is as I visualized it - lots of farms seemingly owned/managed by the indigenous people (based on their attire). 

Farmer tending is flock

Peruvian farm

Peruvian farm

The train passed through several small towns like this one but did not stop to pick up passengers until it got to Ollantaytambo (pronounced O-yan-tay-tambo).  
Passing through a small town
At one point, the conductor had to honk the horn quite long because two cows decided that they needed to cross the track at the same time. A few more seconds and someone would be having beef steak for dinner.
Cow crossing - almost
I sat staring out the window not wanting to even glance away in case I missed something. The terrain was spectacular and I felt that I was on some exotic journey. Then I pinched myself and reminded me that indeed I was on an exotic journey - one that I have wanted to do for many years. I could hardly believe that I was on the train travelling ever closer to Machu Picchu.

I don't know about you, but I love trains. They are so relaxing and calming and sitting there is so meditative - well except for when you are staring out the window and see some lights coming towards you and you realize it's a train coming full speed from the opposite direction. Fortunately the speed limit was only 40km per hour and there was a secondary track which our train had to move over to allow the other one to pass.
Train staring me down

I could try to describe some of the scenery but I think my vocabulary would be limited as the words are not yet written.

Rio Urubamba

Urubamba River

Mountainside terraces built by the Incas

More terraces that are now cultivated

When we stopped at Ollantaytambo to pick up some more passengers and then continue for another 1.5 hours, there was a woman selling clothes and another one selling food. It reminded me of when we were little and we used to go to De Kendren for our summer vacation. We'd stop at Mahaica and Mahaicony and we'd stick out heads out the train window and the vendors would sell us food - really good food.  
Peruvian vendor selling her clothes
 Finally at 12:00pm, the train rolled into the Aguas Calientes station. The town is also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo because except for visitors going to Machu Picchu, there is not much else going on here. For a two street town with no motorized vehicles except the buses that take you up to MP, and a couple of trucks, there are no other vehicles. In fact the streets are built with steps and ramps and all paving stones.

We left the station and of course a mercado (market) was strategically placed at the entrance so in order to leave, you are required to be mobbed by vendors trying to sell you anything from a flimsy raincoat to jewellry. We got out of the market without incident because fortunately the vendors are not aggressive and if you say no, they do not try to follow and harrass you and besides there are as many police everywhere (even in Cusco) that they wouldn't dare.

Upon exiting the market area, we had to cross over a bridge (one of three to choose from) to get into Aguas Calientes main area proper. We asked the police officer where to find our hotel and she directed us. We crossed the bridge next to her and made our way up hill to the Wiracocha Inn. The room could not have been more perfect - big and roomy and overlooking the Rio Aguas Calientes. It's as if the creator was looking out for us again and wanting to make the experience perfect.

Room at Wiracocha Inn

View from room overlooking Rio Aguas Calientes
We settled in for a quiet couple of hours and then went to scout out a place for dinner. We found one up the hill from the inn that was also overlooking the river. We got a balcony seat and ordered fish for dinner. Mine was quite mediocre - not very tasty and worse, not warm - in fact, not even cool. Just blah. Robin's was quite good so I had a bit of his. I was disappointed because so far, the food has been great. We went for another walk down and uphill and settled in for the night because we intend to be up at 4:45 to have breakfast at 5:15 and get a bus as close to 5:30 as we can. I would like to be at MP for sunrise but the guide who will be taking us tomorrow said I should not be too hopeful because it's supposed to rain and it is often cloudy when the sun is rising. Well, I am more than hopeful and I won't sleep a wink tonight just willing Pachamama (Mother Earth) to make the sun shine. It just has to. It has to. I can't come this far and not witness a Machu Picchu sunrise. And I am going to will the rain not to fall either. I'll see just how strong my will is. Pachamama won't disappoint me. Not after everything has been perfect so far.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Peru: Cusco; San Blas

We went to bed early last night and spent a somewhat restless night. The room was comfy but chilly so we got a heater and it may have been a bit too warm.
Woke up this morning and went for some cocoa leaf tea before breakfast. It's supposed to help with the altitude sickness but I'm still a bit headachy. We had the same breakfast as yesterday morning and then went off intending to visit some of the museums. I was so completely fascinated by the architecture of Cusco that we just walked, and walked and walked and then walked some more. It is very hilly here so it would be good training for anyone wanting to climb mountains.
Cusco street
San Blas
We went to the San Blas area which is so very interesting. I noticed that there are streets for cars and those for pedestrians. That was great because we could walk along at leisure without trying to dodge traffic. We went to the San Blas Square and sat and absorbed the surroundings. There were lots of Indigenous vendors selling mostly paintings, knits and silver jewellry on the sidewalks. And there are a number of beggars which you have to make a judgment call about whether you are going to offer money or not. The architecture is so amazing. There are huge stone walls and the cobblestone streets are so well made that you can't help but stare at every street. There are narrow ones which seem to lead to nowhere but they are interconnected to the main streets. There are many small restaurants and touristy stores but what is really interesting is that if you look past some of the obvious places and wander into some courtyards, you'll discover that most homes are built so that when you are walking the streets, it's actually the back of the house and the front faces an indoor courtyard - much like the Llipimpac Guesthouse. Some are quite beautiful and some are very basic (aka poor).

Fountain in San Blas square
Market in San Blas
After San Blas, we decided to go to a restaurant that was recommended to us by Catherine for lunch. We walked down this long street called Tullamayo and I have not seen this kind of laborious construction (must be Peruvian style) since I went to India a few years ago. The road was being constructed one wheel barrow at a time. See for yourself.

Road building - Peruvian style
The restaurant was called La Cusquenita on 227 Avenue Tullumayo and ... well let me tell you about this lunch. "Huge" barely describes what we had. The server (may be the owner) told us about the beverages and after trying shot glasses of each of chicha de jora (fermented corn drink) , fruitillada (fermented corn and strawberry drink), chicha blanco (fermented quinoa drink), and chicha morado (fermented purple corn and blueberry drink), we settled for the chicha blanco.
ONE glass of chicha blanco!
Then we ordered lunch which is the main meal here and you have to see this to believe it but here it is. This was the lamb that Robin ordered for his lunch. That was also served with some beans and corn as an appetizer before lunch arrived. The leftover was enough for dinner and then some.

ONE serving of lunch!
All this we did and it was only 1pm. I'll tell you what we did this afternoon but right now, the Internet is slow so it is taking longer to upload the pictures than it is to write! later...