Sunday, May 29, 2011

Machu Picchu

The first thing that comes to anyone´s mind when someone mentions "Peru" is of course the most famous of all Inca ruins, the beautiful Machu Picchu. The site is located 2,340m above sea level (in fact lower than Cusco, and too low to likely cause altitude sickness), and is about 80km from Cusco. Nobody really knows the origins of Machu Picchu, or exactly what the site was used for, but the popular theory is that it was created for the Inca emperor Pachacuti sometime between 1438 to 1472. The Incas abandoned Machu Picchu about 100 years after settling there, during the time of the Spanish conquests. The site was "discovered" again in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham, and by discovered, I of course mean that he was the first white person who came to the site who, instead of looting the place as his predecessors did, he actually decided to document it in history books. Bingham did still take a number of artifacts from the site and brought them to Yale for studying (with the intention of bringing them back to Peru after a couple of years), but those items are still at Yale today, and the Peruvians are more than a little peeved about this. Enough of the history lesson, Machu Picchu is also a badass travel destination that will always have a special place in mine and Lydia´s hearts, but more to come of that later.

So off we were on the Hiram Bingham train to the gateway town of Aguas Calientes. We decided not to do the Inca trail, as I had already managed to destroy Lydia with the Lost City hike, so we had no need to go through that again. The train ended up being an enjoyable hour and a half ride that weaves through gorgeous mountains, following the Inca trail and some raging rapids.

The town of Aguas Calientes has a bad rap of being a tourist trap, necessary for those heading to Machu Picchu. We found, to the contrary, that the town was actually quite the beautiful place, full of friendly people and cute dogs practicing their MMA skills (see below video)!

Picture from the Aguas Calientes hot springs.

The downside to Aguas Calientes, however, is its namesake, the hot springs. Although situated in a beautiful setting (see above), we found the Aguas Calientes hot springs to be far from desirable. People go to hot springs to relax and soak up the medicinal minerals of the thermal pools. The hot springs in Aguas Calientes, however, are so full of people (quite literally shoulder to shoulder in every pool) that it is impossible to relax. As far as the medicinal minerals in the hot springs, the only thing that Lydia and I could detect was the pungent aroma of urine wafting up through the masses. I´m no doctor, but I´m pretty sure that aside from killing foot fungus, bathing in other people´s urine can´t be too healthy :(

The goal of this trip was not to go to Aguas Calientes, however, it was to reach Machu Picchu, and so on our second day there, we woke up freakishly early (around 3am) and started trudging through the rainstorm to make it to the bus to take us to the entrance of the ruins.

*Travel tip - if you are planning to go to Machu Picchu, you will have the option of either walking to the ruin´s entrance or to take the over priced bus to the entrance. TAKE THE BUS! Everyone we know that walked to the entrance said that it was nothing special, and that they were totally exhausted by the time they got to the ruins. Believe me that you will have more than enough walking to do once you get there, so spring for the extra $15 and take the bus!

When we first arrived at Machu Picchu, it was cloudy and pouring down with rain. This gave the ruins a rather mystical look, as the fog rolled over the ancient temples. Luckily, the rain stopped after about an hour of walking around the ruins, which made for some better hiking weather.

10 points if you can spot the llama in the above photo.

Most people who go to Machu Picchu know about Wanu Picchu, the high peak beside the ruins in all the photos of Machu Picchu. It is a steep 45+ minute hike straight up that only the first 400 people get to do. The hike is done in two shifts of 200 hikers, so it can get pretty busy from what we have heard. An often neglected peak, that not too many people know about, however, is the peak of Machu Picchu itself, which actually towers over Wanu Picchu (it's about twice as high). Lydia and I got to Machu Picchu early enough to get tickets to Wanu, however, we decided to take the road less travelled, and go to the top of the top by doing Machu Picchu..... also, I thought it would be good to get some privacy for the coming couple of hours...

It takes a bit of work to get to the top of Machu Picchu (about 1 and a half hours straight up), but the amazing views, beautiful smells, and stunning flowers (see above and below) help to keep the spirits high during the slog:

This one looks like a crying lizard!

After a hard 1.5 hours of steep hiking, we finally made it to the very top of Machu Picchu (the top of the top is pictured above). Much to our surprise and to my benefit, we quickly found that we were the only people there. We timed it so perfectly that we remained the only ones there for the next two hours! This gave me ample time to take care of some much overdue business.

Looking down on Machu Picchu and sitting on top of the world was how I had envisioned proposing to Lydia for the past 2 years. Ever since we planned this trip, I knew that this would be the place, so by the time we finally reached the top, the ring was burning a hole through my pocket!

The view from the top (pictured above) is really quite intimidating. Looking over the edge, one realizes that in this spot, they are floating above the clouds. This was a bit much for Lydia, when we first arrived, so as she sat down to get used to the height, I told her that I was going to go look around. I had previously purchased a stone case that resembled an Incan relic to house the ring, so once Lydia was ready, I called her over to the edge, exclaiming "I think I've found something!" (having previously planted the seed that Machu Picchu is so big that people are still finding relics all over the place). When she came over to me, the ring case was by my knee, and the proposal was made.

She said yes!

and she seemed somewhat excited at the time, so as far as I could tell, everything went well;)

The first picture of Tyrone and Lydia (soon to both be) Austen!

I had a bit of a concern bringing a proper engagement ring with me on our year-long travels through South America.... call me crazy! Back in August, I had purchased Lydia's engagement ring, but I just couldn't risk taking it, so I had to store it at my parents house (unbeknownst to them) and come up with a way to improvise a bit on the ring. What you see above is a hand carved (by me of course;), Ecuadorian chocolate farm, palm nut engagement ring (how many good Canadian girls can show one of those bad boys off to their friends)! I carved it back in Puerto Quito as a makeshift engagement ring with the help of our host family. It ended up fitting perfectly if I do say so myself!

After the proposal was through, we were able take in the sights from the top of the world (with shaky legs mind you, both from the height and from the excitement of the proposal).

An angel posing in heaven.... cue the "aweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees"!

Shown here is the peak of Wanu Picchu towering above the ruins of Machu Picchu, taken from the top of Machu Picchu.

We picnicked and took in the sights of the top of Machu Picchu for about 2 hours, and after, with a bit of extra skip in our step, we came back down the mountain to check out the ruins.

Not surprisingly, the ruins themselves are also breathtaking.

You have to pay close attention to the details and layout of the buildings, as often times they are aligned to represent greater objects like the man's head above. There's also crocodiles, condors, and other building/rock designs within the designs.

This ruined building looks just like me!

By the time we were finished walking up Machu Picchu and up and around the ruins (which is a feat within itself due to the steepness of the sight), both Lydia and I were completely drained. The previous night, we had stayed in an OK hostel, but what Lydia didn't know, was that while we were gone, I had hired someone to move our belongings over to a nice resort suite where we would be spending the next couple of days! This remained a surprise to Lydia right up to the point where I walked her through the door of our new hotel, as I continually kept saying to her to keep going a little further to get to our hostel, telling her that she was lost and didn't know where she was going!

Our upgraded room!

Also included in this surprise was an AMAZING room service dinner (pictured above), and a couple of fine ladies to massage us to sleep in our beds that night. It was a really rough day after all!

For so many reasons, our Machu Picchu experiece will forever be a lifetime hightlight! Not only was it a beautiful location drenched in history with magestic scenery, but it will forever be the place where I got to tie down my love FOREVER! That's right hun, NO ESCAPE! In all seriousness though, I couldn't be luckier, happier, or any more in love!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cusco - Part 1: Around the City

After our quick stop in Nazca, we boarded a bus the next night to head to Cusco. It was a grueling 18 or so hour ride, but the bus was rather comfortable with semi-camas and small meals served in transit.

Upon our arrival, we quickly found a great little Spanish school in the San Blas Plaza area and signed up for a few weeks of courses. After a day of apartment searching, we thought we had a great little flat just a few flights of stairs up from our school. However, when we went to see if it was move-in ready (the owner promised to finish it within a few days to make it livable), we found that absolutely no work had been done... We then remembered that promises aren't taken very seriously in Peru and were very glad that we hadn't put any money down. So, we sadly had to move on and found a decent hostel with nice views (yet very poorly run) up the hill that gave us a discount for a month-long stay. Luckily, it came fully-furnished with pets, so we felt a bit at home!

The San Blas area is absolutely beautiful, set atop a hill with a great panoramic view of the city and with Cusco's oldest church from the late 1500's (sorry, we were prohibited from taking photos of the elaborate work inside) and this gorgeous water fountain outside. The bad part about the area is that because it was the rainy season during our visit, this particular area of Cusco had water restrictions... Yes, water restrictions because there was too much water... We are still trying to figure that one out! So we would have tap water between 6 and 9 am, then if we were lucky, between 9 and around 11pm at night. We survived with the aid of a large bucket in our shower! Yet, this fountain continued to run all day long...

Part of the San Blas Cathedral.

When we first arrived in Cusco, we purchsed the two available bolleterias (passes) for city attractions. The Lonely Planet advised that these tickets were good for a month, as they include a large number of sites and museums, but we found they were only valid for 10 days (not the last time the Lonely Planet lies to us during our trip). Thus, our first week in Cusco was a whirl-wind of visiting as many sites as we could to get our money's worth!! This first site is Sacsayhuaman (pronounced almost like "sexy woman"). It was the first of many Incan sites we would soon visit!Some pretty flowers hidden beside the stones.We met a couple of interesting characters along the way!It started pouring with rain when we arrived at these Incan baths of Tambomachay, so we felt as if we had been swimming like the Inca's did by the time we took this photo.A courtyard in one of Cusco's many beautiful museums (and quite frankly, the most interesting part of this particular one)!A city view at dusk.Cusco has many surprises and breathtaking views around each and every corner. However, due to its hilly layout, even a casual stroll is like walking on a stairmaster!
We were lucky enough to catch Cusco's version of Carnival. This consisted of a parade with floats, traditional costume and dress, beer, foam and water balloons!A traditional Cusquenian - drinking a Cusqueña cerveza!

The crowd gathered in the Plaza de Armas to watch the festivities.

We ventured to two of Cusco's art museums. This one had some very interesting biblical depictions...
...And this one had some very interesting works as well... What an odd aspect of life to find inspiration for a, uummm, masterpiece! The Plaza de Armas is a beautiful place to sit and people watch. It isn't overly relaxing for tourists, as you get bombarded with people selling mass-produced paintings, trays of candies, shoe shines, and really annoying nut cases that they click in your face like false teeth. Yet, as you can see, the locals can relax and even find enough peace for a quick nap. Fountain in the Plaza de Armas.
This is a giant monument on the outskirts of town that can be climbed for a nice view.

This is a nice view from the monument of a Peruvian coat of arms carved into the hillside.

Plaza de Armas at dusk.
The main Cathedral haunts the square at night.

We were very lucky to catch a song and dance performance at the Cusco Native Arts Centre. The band was fantastic, and the dancers\singers were captivating!

This is part of one of the 3 types of traditional Peruvian Marinera dances (the most romantic one - maybe we should break it out at the wedding! Wait, haven't gotten that far yet...).

This was a folksy native dance, which consisted of lifts and yodel-like noises by the ladies!

Tyrone felt inspired by the performances, so he decided to change up his look with a 'stash and sport his panama hat...

So I fed him some crack nuts, which brought him back to reality...

Unfortunately, one of the resident dogs also got into the crack nuts and decided to steal a box of our Kraft Dinner and roll around with it in general happy-doggy manner.

Another of our adopted pets, Licky Skittles from Huanchacko, spent most of his time sitting on the balcony and admiring the view.
Licky wanted to send a special shout-out to a friend and give you guys a look around Cusco:

Another pet, Rambo, liked to laze about on the porch as well during the afternoon sun.

Our adopted kitties, Rambo and Rosie.

We made it to a soccer game in Cusco - the local college team, the Ciencias, played another Peruvian team, from where we cannot remember.

The Ciencias mascott (or biggest fan, not sure which) dressed up in traditional gear and threw candy and cheers into the crowd.

A very supportive fan.

Tyrone captured the shot that got the Ciencias their first GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLLL!!!!

When we left in October, many people told us to "enjoy the spam and water back-packers diet"; however, we have eaten no such things!!! (Well, water, of course...) Anywho, we had some of the best food we have ever eaten in Cusco and were informed that the best Peruvian chefs go here to cook, most likely due to the tourism.

This particular meal, a take on an English breakfast, filled even Tyrone up to the brim of his wellies!

Real gourmet Peruvian dish: alpaca meatballs with honey-balsamic glaze.

My favourite: Asian chicken with yoghurt dressing on a bed of yam chips... drooooooool!!!