Friday, March 28, 2008

Goodbye Disneyland, Hello Peruvian Family

It turned out I needed some downtime after Machu Picchu. I hung around Cuzco for 2 days and did very little, which is usually hard for me when traveling. I didn't go see ruins or museums or take notes about churches. I slept and did laundry and had dinner with my trekking friends and went to the highest Irish pub on the planet.

Then I headed to a small town in the Sacred Valley to visit an organization that helps and houses street kids from Lima. It was in this gorgeous restored hacienda in a rural river valley. There are 30 kids aged about 5-16 that all go to school together, sleep in dorms, do chores, play music, and do their homework together. It's an amazing project, and all the kids were so polite and vibrant and focused. They didn't have to be told anything, after dinner some just started cleaning right up while while others went to get schoolwork, and they settled comfortably into that rhythm of people working together and enjoying what they're doing. One little boy showed me the horses, as well as the ripe prickly pears, and demonstrated which varieties of fava beans sink in the pond and which ones float.

Have I mentioned how much I love set lunches? Most restaurants have a menu of the day, or Menú, and you usually get to pick between a couple soups and a few entrees, and they can be anywhere from 3-10 soles, or $1-$3.50. Yesterday I found this vegetarian place with a freakin salad bar! In all of my Latin America travels, I have NEVER seen a salad bar at a local place. I was so excited about all the raw vegetables I was willing to take my chances with the lettuce. Then this really good polenta veggie soup came next, with whole wheat bread (also very rare). Then this sort of Indian garbanzo bean dish with rice and SWISS CHARD. Yes, I am really missing green vegetables.

Cuzco was good to me, but I was ready to leave. It's a beautiful town, though can also start to be stiffling and gringofied after too long. As one girl I met on the coast a few weeks ago said (quite distainfully), "It's like the Disneyland of Peru."
So I headed out on the 22 hour bus ride, again. Only this time, we broke down in the middle of the night, and were on the side of the highway for about 4 hours. It was cold in the mountains with the motor off. But when we (FINALLY!) arrived in Lima, it was back to the sweltering heat of the coast. It feels like being in a New York subway in July, the air is so thick and urban.

And I met Peruvian family! Well, the family of an uncle by marriage, but I think that counts. So Ada is my great-aunt's sister-in-law, but with how excited she was to meet me, you'd think I was a long-lost daughter. This woman Ada is a ball of love and intensity, with a deep hoarse smoker's voice that is half caring, and half scary. When I told her I was traveling around South America alone, and taking buses from Ecuador to Argentina, she pounded the table top and howled with incredulous laughter- "Hah! My brother calls me crazy, but you're even more crazy!" "Eres mas loca que yo!!!" We played with her 2 adorable granddaughters, both just over a year old, and ate lunch. She made me promise I would come visit again and stay longer when I pass through Lima again. Man, with that voice and those eyes, there was no way I could say no.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter at Machu Picchu

The last 4 days might have been the best of my trip so far.

I did a trek through the Lares Valley through a tour company here in Cuzco. I originally thought about doing the classic Inca Trail, but I didn't reserve in time (they only give 400 permits a day for the trail, and it fills up fast) but I'm really glad it worked out this way. The Lares Valley is here in the Sacred Valley of the Inca, and is actually a longer trip (52K instead of 33K) and goes over higher passes. It is more of a cultural trek too, going through indigenous villages instead of just a trail. And while on the Inca trail you have to camp in designated spots with hundreds of other people, in Lares it was just our little group. Also, horses aren't allowed on the Inca Trail, but our porters could use them, meaning they could carry a lot and we didn't have to.

My group consisted of 5 New Zealand women, a couple from Holland, a British man who lives in Sydney, myself, and our guide Javier, who is fluent in English, Spanish, and Quechua. The first day we left Cuzco early and wound our way up into the valley by bus. At one point the road was so muddy that the bus couldn't pass, so we got out there and started walking to the trailhead. It was a steep, beautiful climb up the treeless hillside, definitely hard to breathe at over 11,000 feet. We got to a lake which was our lunch spot and rested while the cooks cooked. I was shocked when we rounded the corner and saw the table, tablecloth, and chairs set up for us in such a remote place. It was surreal. We drank coca tea and had a delicious meal of fried garlic bread, asparagus soup, veggie stir fry, avocado salad, beef, and rice. Another steep hike led us to a pass of 4,400 meters, or over 14,000 feet. Along the way we passed local kids, around 5-12 years old, many of whom were tending the family llamas, walking by themselves over these massive hills. Javier talked to them in Quechua, their first language, although they also speak Spanish from learning it in school. We gave them school supplies and candy, which they promptly tucked under their ponchos. To adults we passed we gave a handful of coca leaves, universally chewed and appreciated. When we got to camp, our tents, pads, and sleeping bags were already set up, as well as warm bowls of water by our tent to wash up with. The night cooled off quickly and they set up a dining tent, warm and light inside, and we drank hot chocolate and ate popcorn before dinner.

Our 5:30 wake up was a little easier with hot tea brought to the tents. Little details like that made the trip so luxious. We had some crazy temperature extremes, as seems to be the theme down here. By mid-morning it started pelting rain, and as we crossed the next pass, was snowing. But then by early afternoon it was hot and sunny again and at lunch we slathered on the sunscreen. We passed chinchilas, and I learned to tell the difference between llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas. We got to the highest point I've ever been, 14,800 feet. As we descended toward camp in the hot sun, we mentioned how nice a cold beer would be, but of course there are only stone huts, animals, and fields of high altitude potatos in these parts. Lo and behold, when we got to camp, the local women had set out their usual artisan wares on the grass, as well as bottles of beer next to the scarves. It was a funny place to find a bar, but we weren't complaining.

The 3rd day was a lot of walking in the hot sun, but mostly downhill as we headed to the town of Ollantaytambo. We had a feast of chicken noodle soup, fried eggplant, cheesey potatoes, beans, fried rice, chicken breast stuffed with cheese and roasted red peppers, and peaches for dessert. We said goodbye to the cooks and porters who had made this such a ridiculously comfortable trek. From there we caught the train to Aguas Calientes, or Machu Picchu city. We had dinner, took showers, and went to bed early.

We got up at 4:30 in order to get to Machu Picchu well before sunrise. We all wanted to climb Wayna Picchu, which is the big peak you see towering over the ruins. They only allow 400 people up there a day, and sometimes by 9am the trail has already met this quota. So we tromped up there early, climbing the steep, original Inca stone steps to the top where we had an Easter morning picnic. I think it's very symbolic of South America that we went to Machu Picchu on Easter- the combining of Christian with indigenous.

A little about the place... it was built by the Inca (really the Quechua people, Inca is just what the kings were called and so the Spanish started calling the people that too) in the 1400's. It was abandoned when the Spaniards came in the 1530's, perhaps even before. Local farmers knew of it, but it wasn't officially "rediscovered" until an American professor stumbled upon it in 1911. 70% of what we see now is original, the rest has been restored. The name Machu Picchu means Old Mountain, while neighboring Waynu Picchu means Young Mountain. Make sure to pronounce both cc's in Picchu, like Pikchu, otherwise you are really saying penis in Quechua. There are architectural designs that coincide with the light from both the summer and winter solstices. One of them is a sun dial that casts a shadow over the eyes of a stone puma on the winter solstice. Unfortunately, Cusqueño beer company filmed a commercial there a few years ago, and a camera fell on the sun dial and broke it. So now no more precise solstice shadow.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Details!

After the last few entries, I still feel like there are so many aspects of being down here that I haven't even mentioned. One big one is how crazy the transportation is. Everyday it feels like a miracle that I haven't been in a car accident or hit by one while trying to cross the street. I don't know how the roads here function, but somehow they do. People constantly will turn through a whole lane or two of traffic that is going straight, and somehow don't crash. Then there is taking long-distance buses. I've actually been sort of surprised at how good the bus lines are, for South America having notoriously sketchy buses. It is the rainy season in the mountains though, and there have been several times going through mud or streams with steep dropoffs and no guardrail and local people crossing themselves that have been a little unsettling. There are double decker buses too, which are nice, but when you are sitting so high up and winding through the mountains, I start to doubt the safety of such a top-heavy vehicle. The 22 hour bus ride from Lima to Cuzco was pretty pimp though, even though I was only riding semi-cama (seat reclines into a partial bed). These buses have tray tables, meal service, blankets, pillows, billingual movies, and we even all played Bingo together!

And then of course there is the food. It seemed like there was more variety in Ecuador, though maybe we were just eating at more international places. Ecuador has really yummy lorca, potato soup with cheese and avocado. Here in Peru, I've been eating a lot of rice and chicken. Actually, I'm to the point where when Serena asks what I want for dinner, the answer is anything but rice and chicken. There is really good seafood here though- I have only had delicious ceviche. Ceviche is usually fish, but it can be any seafood, which isn't technically cooked but marinated in lime juice so that the citric acid cooks the meat. It's really light and refreshing and has this great sashimi texture. They eat less yucca in Peru than Ecuador, but it seems like more sweet potato and regular potato. And in both countries, guinea pig is common. I have yet to try it but I want to, though it's usually a little expensive. Oh, and they have crazy varieties of corn. Not like the sweet corn on the cob in the states, this stuff is big, hearty, and starchier. And there's a drink made from blue corn called chicha morada, it tastes like hibiscus juice and is really sweet but good. Ooh, I also had a warm quinoa drink, surprisingly juicy and flavorful and really good too. I am definitely missing vegetables, but at least there are a lot of new fruits to make up for it. A lot of times when I get juice I don't even know what kind of fruit it is, and same with this ice cream that is a fruit that tastes like buttered rum but I don't even know what it looks like.

And then there's the Spanish. I didn't realize how Mexican my Spanish was until coming here. The accents are easy to understand, but they use so many new words I have never heard. Suddenly they are calling avocados paltas instead of aguacate! Suddenly I can say "coger" (to catch, take) even though in Mexico it's a very dirty word. In Mexico, local buses are "bus" and long distance ones are "camiones", but here they are all bus and only trucks are camiones. I had to change my standard "how cool!" from Que chido! to Que chevere! There are a million more differences, but I think you get the idea.

Lows and Highs of Huaraz

Huaraz sits in the Codillera Blanca (white spine) of the Andes mountains. It is supposedly the second highest mountain range in the world, after the Himalayas, but we can't see anything! It is back to cloudy wintertime as we headed back to the sierra. When we got to our bed and breakfast, the first thing the señora did was bring us coca tea. I am pretty sold on this stuff. Not only does it have a deep earthy flavor, it helps with altitude sickness, naseau, digestion, fatigue, and diarreah. We were all ready to go see some ruins the next day, but I woke up in the middle of the night and started puking. There were a few hours when I couldn't keep any liquids down... not a fun night. Serena was still a little sick too, so the whole next day was recoup for both of us. I was so much better by the next day, so we headed to Chavin, which are ruins that are over 3000 years old. We had to cross a crazy pass to get there, climbing up switchbacks to about 14,000 feet, then going through a tunnel, then coming out to a huge statue of a white Christ before descending.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Vamos A La Playa!

It's been 2 weeks of jackets, scarves, and long underwear. We got to Peru with no problems and to a sweltering summer heat. Here in Mancora it's a coastal desert and rarely rains, making it a popular vacation spot for Chileans and Peruvians. It's a really cute little surfing and fishing town that reminds me a lot of Sayulita in Mexico. We've been busy doing all the typical activities- laying in hammocks, eating seafood, bodysurfing, nightswimming in phosphoresence, dayswimming with dolphins in view, meeting people at beach fires, and trying not to get sunburned. All we have wanted for weeks is warm weather, but now that we are here, it is a pretty intense change.

After Mancora we headed south to Trujillo, which has several important pre-Incan ruins. One is Chan Chan, which was the largest adobe city in South America, and the capitol of the Chimu empire, coastal people who were right before the Inca. We also saw the Huaca de la Luna, which was a ceremonial temple of the Moche people. It is almost 2000 years old and still has tons of the original yellow, red, and black paint visible! They built the temple for one king, then they would just build over that temple to make one for the new king, thereby protecting the walls. A few years ago, Huaca de la Luna won an international award for the best preserved archeological sight. And they only just started excavating it in the 90's, which is crazy. It is incredible to me that in this day and age huge ruins are still just barely being unearthed.

I also have to mention these 2 Italian men that we keep running into. We met them for the first time in Baños weeks ago, and had kind of an awkward convo because it was a really loud bar and, uh, they don't really speak English or Spanish. It took 10minutes to exchange names and where we were from, and finally ended up typing our names on one of their phones. Then we saw them in Cuenca (at the exact moment I ran into Devon, weird), then at the beach in Mancora, then in Trujillo! Let me point out, our interactions don't get any less awkward, but I feel increasingly obliged to talk since it is so coincidental. Then we saw them for THE FIFTH TIME yesterday. It's getting ridiculous. And they are going to be in Cuzco at the same time too.

We also had to say goodbyes- Erin took the bus to Lima to fly home today ): It was awesome traveling with her, and now our little group is just a pair. Serena is here for 10 more days, and then I will be on my own.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Cuenca of a Small World

We were reluctant to leave Baños, but had the quaint colonial city of Cuenca to look forward to. We had just arrived, and were on our way to eat lunch when we rounded a corner, and who do I see on the street but a friend from Seattle! I went to college with Devon, and knew she was down here, but last I heard she was all the way in Cuzco in southern Peru! And she thought I was in Quito. I love this travel trail, how the world constantly morphs in size to make you marvel at the incomprehensible grandeur of things, or put you on the same little block as a friend. We are doing the same route as each other (Quito to Buenos Aires) but the opposite direction. She was leaving the next day, but at least we got to catch up over mojitos.

She had some crazy travel tales and a lot of good advice. I was really glad to talk to her about the border crossing between Ecuador and Peru. The more inland crossings are fine, but the one we want to do closer to the coast is supposedly pretty sketchy. But we want to do this crossing so we can go to the beach! Part of the problem is that there is a point to exit Ecuador, then it's 3 kilometers until the actual border, and then another 4 kil. to the Peru entry point. The buses from Cuenca just drop you off in the border town, and you have to figure out how to get through everything via various buses and taxis, possibly with a random border 'helper' that will expect some undisclosed amount of money for his services. Luckily, we discovered a couple bus lines that go directly into Peru, and wait for you at the border so you don't have to move your luggage. Unfortunately, this line only leaves from Machala, which is where we are now.

This is one funky, out-of-the-way little town off the coast in southwestern Ecuador. So far we have been on a bit of a gringo trail, but here we haven't seen one other white person. Machala feels mundane and run-down, though at the same time the streets are really lively and the huge market is so packed and vibrant it seems about to burst. As we wove our way through market stalls to our hotel, we created quite a ripple effect- stares, shouts of "allo!" and "Americanas!" and one boy taking a picture with his camera phone.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Baños and Waterfalls

Besides the severe weather, it also turns out that Volcano Tungurahua near the town of Baños is active again. There was a huge eruption in 1999, and they had to evacuate for 4 months. It has been active on and off since then, which has greatly affected the tourism in this fairly touristy little town. We didn't know if we would be able go, but finally got reports that it was safe. We stared in awe while the bus wound past the smoking mountain as we pulled into this adorable town smacked between the steepest hillsides you've ever seen. It's also much warmer here. Not hot, but really pleasant and without the bone chill of Quito.

It's called Baños for all the geothermal pools there, some which are hot, some warm, some said to have healing properties. Now they are all public bath houses, and we went for a night-time hot soak at one that is at the base of a waterfall. There is also this great little hippie cafe that feels like it could be in Ballard or something, with good vegerian and vegan food, a book exchange, and movie nights. I had sweet and sour papaya chicken, and this morning the gringo grill, which is the best hangover breakfast- fried eggs, beans with cheese, potatoes, avocado, fresh tomatoe, and sauteed red peppers. Fabulous coffee too.

I went on the best bike ride ever. We rode 20 kilometers down from the town and toward the Amazon basin. The two lane road follows a deep river canyon of dark chocolate brown water. There are 3 different waterfalls along the route. On the road we also passed cows, pigs, donkeys, chickens, orchids, wild bromeliads, bright bouganvillea bursting over fences, fruit stalls where oranges hung in skinny bags like large beads on a string, and kids catching fresh water crabs in a box. We ate grilled plantains with fresh white cheese inside, and roasted corn kernals with tomato and onion. At the end we had tamarind popsicles and then caught a ride in the back of a truck back up the big hill to Baños.

The next day was a trip into the jungle! We left early in the morning to head east to the edge of the Amazon. It was definitely like another world. The loud buzzing of insects and the sweet earthy smell is overwhelming. Here in this jungle ants taste like lemon (yep, I had to try them), trees have roots above ground and can walk, and the dragon blood tree bleeds black sap. We had a pretty knowledgeable guide who told us the names of various plants in Quechua and their traditional medicinal uses. Lunch consisted of fresh talapia fish that we watched a guy catch hours before, fried, along with rice, avocado, boiled yucca, and vegetable soup. We also went on a downriver canoe ride and swam in a... you guessed it, another waterfall.

Somehow, after the long day, we managed to still go out at midnight, which is when the hoppin' nightlife in this little town gets going. These local boys are amazing salsa dancers, and dance we did until the wee hours.

Invierno en Quito

I tried to escape the Pacific Northwest winter by coming to South America. Instead I find myself in the midst of one of the worst winters that Ecaudor has had for a long time. It is colder than usual, and the massive rains have created flooding and mudslides near the coast. Apparenty there are mountains around the city, but I have yet to see them through the clouds. Hotel rooms are cold and damp, and wet things don't dry out. So basically, I feel right at home.

We are staying in the Mariscal district of the New Town, which is a ridiculously hip and international area. With the signs in English, the fondue bars, fancy restaraunts, ecotourism agencies, and gear stores on every corner, I don't feel like I'm in Ecuador. The Old Town of Quito couldn't be more different. It was the first UNESCO World Heritage sight, and the colonial architecture is stunning. I have never been so excited about balconies and doorways. The downside of my time in Old Town was ordering a cafe con leche at lunch. Usually it's drip coffee with a little milk, but this time they brought out a whole cup of steamed milk, and pointed to a glass jar on the table. It was shots of espresso that had been sitting out for who knows how long, and we were supposed to add it. The barista in me that was taught to use shots within seconds just couldn't drink it.

We wanted to check out a fútbol game, and we heard that there was a free game that night because it was a national holiday. Perfecto! Of course it started pouring when we got off the bus, and by the time we got to the stadium were already pretty wet. When we tried to go in, they asked us for a colaboracion. Sidenote: I had never heard this word before, and just learned it in Otavalo when some musicians were playing in a restaurant and then came around saying something about a colaboracion. I thought they were talking about a collaboration album. Fooled by a false cognate! No, it turns out it means donation. Anyway, at the futbol game I was surprised they were asking for money, because we thought it was free! I asked how much we should pay. "No, not money, you have to donate food, like rice or sugar." What? So we tromped back out to the store for some goods. We finally got in, 3 wet and perplexed gringas proffering cooking oil and with no idea what teams were even playing.