Sunday, August 09, 2015

Peru ... the whirlwind tour.

Alex vs 'Sexy Woman'.
Our aim was to get to Ecuador by Christmas time, but we were running out of time. So, having already done Peru a couple of times, we decided to make our way directly to Cuzco. Home and base to the infamous Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, yes it's touristy, but it never disappoints. We got in nice and early, as ridiculously early.  We dumped our stuff in  a cheap and cheerful hostel and then made our way to Saksayhuaman (known as Sexy Woman on the gringo tourist trail). A two kilometre uphill climb from (the already high 3300 metre high) Cuzco, the sprawling Inca site is truly impressive and offers arresting views over Cuzco, especially at dawn when we arrived. Whilst Cuzco is gorgeous, the government has totally jumped on the tourist bandwagon and charges an arm and a leg for everything! Not if you get there early and evade the opening times though!

Sacsayhuaman with Cuzco below. 
Central square, Cuzco.
Saksayhuaman was eerily peaceful and tranquil so early in the morning, and although we were tired it seemed to recharge our batteries.  I have always maintained that the energy around Cuzco is simply amazing. Despite its monstrous size, today's visitor still sees only about 20% of the original structure. Our friends, the Spaniards, tore down the walls soon after the conquest and used the blocks to build their own houses in Cuzco.  Despite this, the town of Cuzco is simply delightful.  It's aesthetically gorgeous!

Alex and Paula eating some fresh corn.
We decided to skip all of the paid and touristy stuff on this trip, but still delighted in walking around the town and doing a few other things close to town. We found a brilliant vegan restaurant called Green Point, close to where we were staying, where the food was so good and well-priced that we went back several times.  Sooooo good that I believe that they opened up their second store in March of this year. Let me repeat, soooo good, that even the carnivores were going back for more!!!! I am not going to lie, after months of mostly below average food in Bolivia ... fried food (which I mostly don't eat), bread and pasta (which I don't eat), fried chicken (which I don't eat) ... this was like the bomb! The market food, juices and produce was also great here. Ah, to be able to eat well again.

Folkloric dancing.
A hub of cultural activity, one night we went to a free concert presented in one of the halls in the central plaza of Cuzco.  Put together by the Faculty of Geological Engineering and organised by the Cultural Group of Folkloric Dances the event was called "Dances of my country". It was a great night!

Cuzco by night.
The salt ponds of Maras.
Over the years I have been back to Peru, and especially Cuzco, several times. I have been fortunate to have done the Inca Trail twice and Machu Picchu three times. I had never seen Maras and Moray, so in a bid to do something a little different, along with our Brazilian friend Paula, who we had met up with again in Cuzco, we visited them both.  About 40 kilometres from Cuzco, the road passes through the infamous and breathtaking Sacred Valley, the heart of the Inca Empire. Maras is known for its salt ponds perched up on a hill.  Used since Incan times, they are still being used by locals today. You can also buy the rock salt from them, which leaves most of the packaged stuff you buy today for dead!  Moray, on the other hand, is a set of concentric circles, or depressions, which were most probably used as an irrigation system in Inca times.  Unfortunately, we only got to see the latter from the side of the road, as we were not allowed to purchase a ticket just for the one site, and the administrators were adamant that we should pay the USD$27.00 to see the site!  The ticket was to enter four sites, but I had already seen the other three over the years.  Yes, I did strike up an argument!  How unusual! Over the years the Peruvian government has become very greedy, and it would be fair to say that prices, especially around Cuzco, have jumped up exorbitantly! Even the locals were telling me that it was a rip off.  Ah, the price you pay for tourism!

The concentric circles of Moray.
Pisac ruins.
Pisac, about 33 kilometres from Cuzco and in the Sacred Valley, is also a spot that never disappoints. Sunny Pisac is a bit lower than Cuzco at an elevation of 2715 metres.  It has traditionally been known for its market (which has become way too touristy for my liking!) but its real pull are the ruins and Inca Fortress perched up on the hill above the town. This Inca citadel lies high above the village on a plateau with a plunging gorge on either side. There's a steep path running to the top ... we know, we did it! But if there was ever a worthwhile sweat it out walk, this had to be it!  The views were nothing short of WOW! And so few tourists or travellers actually do it, unlike Machu Picchu, which I have been told is coated with tourists 24/7. We felt like we had the entire place to ourselves.

Around town we visited the fascinating Coca Museum history.  Where else would you find a one-stop-shop on the history, use and influence of the coca leaf? No visit to Cuzco would be complete without walking past the infamous 12-sided stone, probably the finest example of Inca masonry. Having said that, we could do without the dude dressed up as an Inca!  He's there all the time, and I reckon he's making more money from photos than his Inca counterparts ever were!

Our first few nights were spent in a hostel whose owners really had no idea about, well, how to run a hostel!  We got pots with holes in the kitchen, and the rain almost flooded out our room one night!  We did have spectacular views of the city from the rooftop though as well as meeting a gorgeous German family travelling with their two kids, whom we really hit it off with. Florence and ....... were about six months into a two year trip around the world with their kids.  Travellers from way back they had decided even before they had children that they would 'invest' in the travel experience when they would have kids by travelling around with them.

Alex and Sonia.
We ended up moving to Casa Sihuar, owned by our lovely friends Sonia and Luis and run by their family. The hostel is up the hill near San Blas, in a gorgeous neighbourhood.  It had been years since we had seen Sonia and the gang.  It was lovely to hang out with them and reminisce. As always, they treated us like family.  We spent a few days there hanging out, cooking, chatting and drinking coffee.  It was here that we met Antonio, an Italian who was starting up a pastry business with some of the gang at Sihuar ...Ayni Pasticceria Fina is an Italian/ Peruvian fusion. Whilst we were there we tried their panettone (a traditional Italian sweet bread) ... it was to die for.

We could have spent another few weeks here, but time was flying, and Christmas approaching.  We had originally planned to stop in Lima for a few days (it has never been my favourite city!), but after a night bus over and it taking us a couple of hours just to get from the outskirts of Lima to the central bus station we decided to move on.  Lima is usually busy, but with Christmas less than two weeks away it was mad.  People, buses, everything everywhere.  Where to next? We asked a few questions and buses were filling up fast, with some destinations already virtually impossible to get to.  We looked at our map and decided on Chiclayo That would take us close enough to the Ecuadorian border.

Valley of the Pyramids.
I had been to Chiclayo before, but it was Alex's first time. After Cuzco's cold climate, Chiclayo was sunny and warm and only 13 kilometres away from the beach.  It was a nice spot to stay in for a few days. The city centre is colonial in style and lovely to just walk around and absorb the culture. Its real drawcard, though, is the surrounding archaeological sites. We spent a day at Tucume, the Valley of the Pyramids. A short bus ride from Chiclayo, it's actually the largest pyramid complex in the world. It covers an area of over 540 acres and encompasses 26 major pyramids and mounds.  Of course many of them cannot be clearly seen.  The site pre-dates the Incas and was occupied by the Lambayeque/Sican (800-1350AD), Chimu (1350-1450AD) and finally the Inca (1450-1532AD). We spent an entire day walking around 'some' of the massive site, and although tiring it was well worth it.

The Valley of the Pyramids, Tucume.

Pimental Beach.
We had to go to the beach ... or did we?  We ended up at Pimental and spent a couple of hours there, walking along the beach.  I thought it was a great place to take in the culture and watch the fishermen, but as far as a beach goes ... I am a snob!  I am Australian!

And so, it was time to go to Ecuador!  After a bit of a runaround in Chiclayo as to where we needed to catch a bus from to get to Ecuador, we finally made it, only days before Christmas! Northern Peru is very, very, very arid!  The odd thing is that literally as soon as you cross the border the scenery changes dramatically to lush.  It was also interesting to note Peru's very poor north to Ecuador's rather comfortable south.

Let the Ecuadorian adventure begin!


'We met for a reason, you're either a blessing or a lesson.' – Frank Ocean

Crossing from Bolivia to Peru.

The many colours of Bolivian corn.

These little piggies went to market.

Porridge with coca leaf powder.  No, it's not cocaine!

Cuy ... pet or dinner?


View from Maras.

With Sonia, Casa Sihuar.

With the family at Casa Sihuar.

New friends in Cuzco.

Goodbye Sonia ... I will miss you!

Finger Lickin' Good ... Peruvian chocolate!

Peruvian street art.

Fishermen on Pimental Beach.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Lake Magic at Copacabana!

Lake Titicaca magic!
Island of the Sun.
Who could ask for more ... at the Copa, Copacabana!  But it's not what you think.  Bolivia has its very own Copacabana  (Copa to the locals!)  ...  it's the main Bolivian town heading north towards the Peruvian border and the town that lies on the rim of Bolivia's side of the infamous Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Again, one of those places I had done before but was so happily about to do again! Lake Titicaca straddles the border between Bolivia and Peru in the Andes Mountains and at 3182 metres above sea level it really does feel like you are on top of the world! It is said to be the highest navigable lake in the world. At 190 kilometres long by 80 kilometres wide there are spots whereby, once on the actual lake, it is so big that it appears to be like an ocean; you really can't see the shore! It's said to be the birthplace of the Incas, and with its many scattered ruins it really does have that mystical feel about it.

Spectacular Lake Titicaca.

Meeting the locals.
It was upon arrival, that we would meet Paula, our new friend from Brazil whom we would spend the next couple of weeks travelling with. We hit it off instantly and as she and Alex chatted in the plaza, I went and looked for a place to stay. After checking out numerous places I decided on Hostal Sonia, cheap, clean, comfy and with amazing rooftop views.  It had a kitchen as well, which is always a bonus as we do a lot of cooking in-house. I'm not going to lie, Bolivian food has mostly done nothing for me; chicken, chicken, chicken, rice, beans, lots of fried food an negligible salad or veggie portions!  Adversely, the markets have an amazing array of both fruit and vegetables; they became my best friend in Bolivia! My checking of hostels had provided me with a mini-tour of the town.  It was really just as I had remembered it, but with more shops and more tourists!  This is what happens, hey!

Temple of the Sun.
We spent a great few days here doing everything from the infamous Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) to the less travelled to Isla de la Luna (Island of the Moon).  I had not been to the latter before. The Island of the Sun is a short boat ride away and despite its proximity to the mainland can still only be traversed by foot, no roads or cars and only paths to walk on, which is what makes it special really. The terrain is rocky and the island is inhabited by the traditional Aymara people.  Scattered with ruins, it is a delight to walk around. Upon arrival by ferry at the dock village of Yumani, you are greeted by a lovely hanging garden along what is known as the Escalera de la Inca (or Inca's Staircase) culminating in a beautiful rolling waterfall.  And it just gets better from there really! A walk around the island will make you feel like you are the Queen or King of the Castle and that you own the world.

Temple of the Virgins, Island of the Moon.
Much less visited, but I was determined to do it this time, was the Island of the Moon.  Much smaller than the Island of the Sun, this island is known for its mythological significance to the Incas and is home to the ruins of the Temple of the Virgins.  It is inhabited on the Western side by a small village of about 80 people.  The locals are friendly, the atmosphere tranquil and quiet and the island is still without electricity.  Both islands have places to stay, which was definitely not the case on my last visit.  One can only hope that tourism 'progresses the cause' and does not damage it.  We can only hope ... and wait and see.

At the top of Calvary Hill.
We also did lots of things in and around Copacabana. No trip to the area would be complete without a walk up to the top of Cerro Calvario, or Calvary Hill. Close to the centre of town it's approximately a 30 minute walk up the steep hill.  The steps make it a little more comfortable but it's steep nonetheless.  The views at the top are extraordinary!  In front of you lies Lake Titicaca in all of her splendour and glory!

Calvary Hill views.

Blessing of the cars.
It's impossible to escape the imposing Moorish-style Church of the Virgin of Copacabana.  It's one of the most important and visited churches in Bolivia, its construction having been started in 1601. Some days, and particularly weekends, are devoted to the
'Bendicion de Movilidades', where people go to bless their cars.  It truly is a sight to behold!  Each day cars jam the cobble stoned streets, decked out like children awaiting baptism, and a priest walks around sprinkling water on them. Once the ritual is complete the owners crack open a bottle of champers and head down the road with a renewed sense of well being. Given the country's crazy traffic and cliff-hugging roads, its understandable that some may want to seek divine intervention!

Virgin of Copacabana church.
Chani Islands.
One of my favourite spots was the Horca del Inca, a pre-Inca astronomical observatory built in the 14th century. Visited by very few tourists, it's a climb that requires both decent fitness and shoes, but oh what a view!

We also visited the floating islands of Chani, very close to the town centre.  Not nearly as big or as touristy as those in Puno, on the Peruvian side of the lake, they were still pretty and worth a look see. Surrounded by some pretty high rocks, we scrambled up some of them for yet some more rewarding views.  the locals make a living here by feeding the locals fresh fish direct from the source!

A world with a  view, Chani Islands.
With the Uruguayan travellers.
Another day was spent walking along the shore of the lake and chatting to the locals as well as the 'foreigners' who had come across the border from Peru.  We also met a Uruguayan couple travelling South America in their little car.  Love these moments.

We had had so much fun in Bolivia! An amazing country with so much to offer, the highlight was the many amazing people we had met and shared good times with.  It's hard to believe that we had spent almost two months here.  The next country awaited us.  Peru ... are you ready for us!!!


Peru ... here we come!
"Live each day as if your life had just begun." – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Next:  Peru ... the whirlwind tour!

Bolivian street art.

Island of the Sun.

With Paula on Island of the Sun.

Island of the Sun.

Being offered beer by the locals.

Travelling the world.

Life is for living!

The highest navigable lake on Earth.

Festivities in Copacabana.

The festivities continue ...


Blessing of the cars.

The Fountain of Youth, Island of the Sun.

Cholitas, Virgin of Copacabana church.

Travelling with my soul mate.

Bolivian pride.