Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Peru & Bolivia Travel Blog

Hola!! I'm back in San Fran reflecting on a fun trip to Peru and Bolivia. I know several people who are considering a trip to Peru, so I thought I'd give some details about what we did in 22 days, a little on how we got places, highlights, etc. But mostly, just a lot of pictures, which because the post is so long, most of you just look at the pictures :) Also, more pictures (read WAY too many) at my flickr account (flickr.com/photos/archean1/).

And here's a map to follow along:

Lima (Day 1 / April 30)
I left for Lima early Monday morning (thanks to Gabe & Rebecca for the ride to the airport!). Flew United to LAX and then LAN Peru to Lima - no points :( Got into Lima that night (actually 12:30AM the next day) and Mel arrived via Air Canada (direct from Toronto) about half an hour later. I made sure my plane got in at the same time as Mel, my personal translator, to avoid having to speak spanish :)

That night we got a mediocre hotel in central district. The hotel wasn't particularily nice, and the area wasn't great, but at 1:30 in the morning, does it really matter?

The next morning we packed our bags and toured (i.e., walked) abount central Lima (with backpacks on our back, which is a rarity). There was a festival or celebration of sorts in the Plaza de Armas (the center square, which every town and city has). Central Lima was okay, but it was hot and muggy (see photo), with backpacks, and we weren't all that impressed. The central Plaza district is nice, but not that great an area (very relative, but for most cities it is often the highlight).

In the afternoon we headed to our new hotel in the Miraflores neighbourhood, which is much more or a trendy neighbourhood (more touristy too, I guess) and also right on the ocean. We walked down to the ocean, walked on the beach, I nearly got run over by a bicycle, the usual. On our return from the beach we splurged and had a very nice meal with wine at an outdoor restaurant (reminded Mel and I of a place we ate at in the Italian District in New York).

On our 2nd day and last day in Lima we headed about 40 km south of town via local buses to visit the pre-Incan (built between 200 and 800 AD) city of Pachacamac. (And when I say local buses I mean vans called combis that I think are all privately owned - buy a van and then drive everywhere honking at and picking up people - it's really rather crazy and random, but also quite functional.) Below is a picture of Mel with one of the ruins in the background. It was very dry here - definitely a desert by any definition. Surprisingly few people here - we were almost literally the only people.

After Pachacamac, late in the afternoon we left Lima on the night bus for Cusco. It was a very nice Cruz del Sur double decker bus with 4 front turning wheels (I found this interesting, Mel less so). We had the front window seats on the 2nd level providing a nice view. There are many bus lines and Cruz del Sur is the most expensive - they video tape all passengers and have pretty top notch bag check in / luggage claim services, so that makes you feel pretty safe (read later stories for other examples of bus service). But in retrospect, we would have considered flying to Cusco as the flights aren't much more expensive and would have saved 20 hours. On the other hand, the long bus ride gives your body some time to adjust as you go from sea level at Lima to 3500 meters in Cusco (we ran into a few people who flew and were quite rough on their first day in Cusco).

Cuzco (Day 4)
We got into Cusco around 3PM and took a cab to a hostel/hotel a short walk up the hill from the Plaza de Armas (chosen from the Lonely Planet). The hotel wasn't anything special except that it had hot showers. It was almost sunset (6 PM) by the time we got out wandering. A pretty easy uneventful wander about evening with some incredible seafood soup that we talked about for days (also some pizza!!).

The next day we had breakfast and started trying to figure out what we were going to do. Cuzco is the launching point for Machu Piccu, either by train or trek. Trekking to Macchu Piccu via the Inca Trail is quite common, but needs to be booked months in advance and planning that far in advance just wasn't in the cards. But there are several other trails, some arguably nicer due to less trekkers, that can be booked one day in advance. The catch is that you really need at least 2 or 3 days in Cuzco to acclimatize to the elevation before undertaking a trek. And the treks are a minimum of 3-4 days in duration. So with travel, getting used to elevation, trekking and then a day at Machu Piccu, we could easily use up 8 or more days of our 21 day vacation. We were concurrently contemplating diverting the trip into Bolivia for either a jungle excursion and/or Salar de Uyuni. So this is what we did...

After breakfast we spent some time talking with a travel agent and decided against a trek, decided on a 4-day Pervuvian jungle trip, and then spent the rest of the day on horse back touring some of the local ruins surrounding Cusco, maybe most notably Sacsayhuamán. Was a nice change to get on horses, though of course our butts paid the price and reminded us of our decision for several days.

The following day we left for a self-guided tour of the Sacred Valley on route to Aguas Calientes (which is the base town for Machu Picchu). We left our big back packs at the Cusco hotel and just took day packs. We took local buses (i.e., no other tourists) and visited ruins along the way. See map of the region below if you want to follow along:

The first bus stop was the ruins at Pisac. We got off at downtown (i.e., where the roads cross) and rented a taxi for a handful of hours to drive us to the ruins (a two hour hike straight up from the town which would have been great, but didn't have time). Turned out to be a few ruins on a couple hills with very nice terraces between. The terraces are grass covered now, but when you get away from the ruins, the terraces are still the way farming is done on the slopes (a little different from Manitoba). They also had some pretty need irrigation systems (see photo of dumb tourist inappropriately using irrigation system to wash mud off of foot).

The other highlight was Ollyantaytambo - a "valley town" (see photo) that is where the road ends (literally) and is therefore the last place to catch the train to Machu Picchu. Turned out to be a very nice town and we wished we had spent more time there, maybe even a night (a highlight was some really great mushroom soup!). It has very nice ruins that over look the town (i.e., the photo). But alas, we had a schedule (due to jungle booking) and took the 8PM train from Olly to Aguas Calientes. This would keep us on track to get to Machu Picchu early early the next morning. Unfortunately the hotel in Aguas had a night club next door, leading a rhythmic night's sleep.

Machu Picchu (Day 7)
We were up at 5 AM to be on the first buses up to Machu Piccu (Mel decided to get up early but then I was up dragging her out of bed!). But very glad we got up early as the crowds are much much more bearable (many people do day trips from Cusco arriving via train at 10:30 AM - resulting in an onslaught of people; others hike up from Aguas Calientes or as coming in from their treks). When we first got to the ruins (the first photo) it was largely fogged in. The fog then cleared a bit and we snapped some general big picture photos (the ones you see on the postcards). We assumed that we'd take more later when the fog was gone, but turns out that later the fog was still there and there were a few thousand people in the ruins, so turns out these morning photos are as good as it gets (the fog kind of gives a nice look as well).

After a couple hours of walking about the ruins, we did a hike up Wayna Piccu (the perfect shaped peak / hill / mountain that you see in the background of many Machu Piccu photos). Was a great decision with great views and some pretty fun trails, caves, outcrops, etc. And good practice for Mel who really doesn't like heights as you may notice in some of her expressions! I was a hero as well and carried Mel's pack since she wasn't feeling well (this came to be more of the norm by the end of the trip!). Look carefully at the first photo and you can see people on the trail winding there way up (click on any photo to see it full size - or about a 1 Megapixel or so photo).

After coming down from Wayna Piccu, it was a little after noon and we found the ruins to now be overrun with people. We toured about a little bit more and contemplated life (deep looking photo).

We felt fulfilled and ran from the crowds (note photographic evidence below that Mel even tried to climb out) and took a bus back down to Aguas Calientes (photo below of switchback road that bus takes to get up). We had a couple hours in Aguas to tour about, shop, get lunch, etc. before catching the 3PM train to Cusco. And the train trip turned out to be very nice. We had maybe purchased better tickets (?) and seemed pretty high end. And there was a fashion show on the train! Quite humorous!

We got back to Cusco around 8PM and checked back into the same hotel. I think we then did some visits to the church, a museum and an art gallery around the Plaza and then a nice Mexican place for dinner. But was also a long day and returning to the same hotel with hot showers and getting our luggage was relaxing.

Jungle Excursion (Day 8)
To set the geography, Lima is in a desert region that runs along the coast (i.e., near sea level). Cusco is several hundred miles inland and in the Andies, which run north south (roughly paralleling the coast) at anywhere from 3000 to 6500 m elevation. As you go further east, you drop back down from the Andies to only a couple hundred meters elevation and the climate turns to Amazon jungle hot and wet. Cusco had a very hot sun and comfortable days, but quite cool evenings (jacket and even touques were worn on occasion).

The morning after Machu Piccu we caught an AeroCondor flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. Was quite a shock to jump on a plane in Cusco and then get off the plane in Puero Maldonado with humid, high 30°C weather! Within minutes we were taken by a funky "jungle bus" to a long boat and then for about 2 hours down the Rio Madre de Dios to the lodge. Not sure what we were expecting on this jungle tour, but definitely wasn't private cabin / huts, super nice meals (e.g., fresh avocado with most meals) and a swimming pool!

That afternoon we took a short boat ride to what the call Monkey Island where we saw, ummm... yeah, you guessed it... monkeys. They were wild, but at the same time, they were tamed.

After dinner we did a night boat trip up river to see caymans along the shore. Very dark on the water and amazing view of the stars. Luckily our cabin had a ceiling fan to help cool us off and get to sleep!

Our first full day in the jungle we got up at 5AM to do a boat ride / trek in mud / canoe / trek / and finally drift in Lost Lake. Was a great morning with lots of wildlife including various birds, caymans, spiders and gigantic snails. Mel was hoping to see a jaguar, but just didn't happen this day :( The paddle was initially through a marsh / creek with monkeys heard though not seen and lots of parrots and such.

The day ended with a hike to river at about 1PM and long boat ride back to the lodge. When we got to the lodge is was 38°C and very humid. Then as we were walking up the dock, the winds picked up and nearly blew us over. Within half an hour the temperature had dropped to below 20°C. Apparently storms / weather fronts like this blow through once or twice a year and we happened to catch one. C'est la vie. Because of the strange & windy weather, boat trip were out of the question for the afternoon, so we did a short hike in botanical gardens learning about medicinal uses and such of various plants (ate some more coca leaves of course).

The 3rd day in the jungle was still very cold. We spent the morning just hanging and talking with our guide (Raphael) talking about his life, Indian life in the junble, legends, etc. (Raphael grew up in a jungle tribe until he snuck away on a boat when he was 11 and has been a tour guide for most of his life). The rest of the day included a short hike, a paddle at a nearby lake and a night time jungle walk (some of which was without lights - no one died).

Our fourth and last day in the jungle was essentially a travel day. We were back in Puerto Maldonado by noon and back in Cusco by 2PM. This left enough time for us to do some shopping (read: for Mel to shop). By this point I had bought essentially nothing while Mel had bought enough to require a 3rd bag (which I usually got to carry around, much to my annoyance!). We picked up our big bags from the hotel, had dinner, and then caught a night bus to Puno.

Lake Titticaca (Day 12)
The night bus arrived in Puno at 5:30AM. Seems brutal, but actually worked out very well. We checked into a nice hosel (with cable tv!), repacked our bags and left for day-long boat tour of the floating islands and Taquile Island by 6:30AM. The islands are in Lake Titicaca, which is the highest elevation navigable lake (3800 m) in the world.

We both found the day to be a little tourist nutso and even artificial, but the floating islands (Uros) are quite unique (a tribe that began building island out of marsh grass / plants many hundreds of years ago to avoid being conquered by the Incas and to this day several thousand people continue building and living on these islands). We were contemplating spending the night on Taquile Island, but decided we wanted to get into Bolivia sooner.

We had a lazy morning in Puno including watching tv and long hot showers and then left for Copacabana, Bolivia in the early afternoon. Copa is also on the shores of Lake Titicaca, just across the Bolivian border. Very surprised by how nice the hotels are, how good the restaurants are, just impressed in general. Hotel is $10/night and maybe the nicest dinner so far costs ~$13 (100 Bolivianos), which includes a bottle of wine!

The first day in Bolivia we jumped on a boat to Isla del Sol. There we did a hike to some ruins, and then for about 3 hours across the island. All very nice. We were waffling as to whether we were going to spend the night on the island, but because Copa was so nice, we decided to just make it a day excursion and caught a boat back.

We spent another night Copa (another great dinner) and woke up the next morning with a decision to make as wot whether we were going further into Bolivia or back into Peru. Ultimately, we decided that we didn't have enough time to really delve into Bolivia and we bought bus tickets back into Peru (to Puno) and on to Arequipa.

Arequipa & Colca Valley (Day 16 / May 15)
We got a bit shafted on our bus (wasn't a direct bus and not very turistico). Anyway, we got into Arequipa at 9:30PM.Checked into a nice hotel in Arequipa and grabbed some street / market food for dinner and settle in to watch a movie on tv. Well, actually, Mel passed out while I stayed up watching some chick flick movie (which was entirely the opposite of normal as usually I'm the one passing out).

We spent a day visiting Arequipa, Peru's 2nd largest city. There was a nice continental breakfast on a patio right outside our room and very nice weather (not to hot, not too cold). The restaurants here were quite impressive and we had many nice meals (was very reasonably priced, but the waist is still paying). There are also several museums, churches and an old convent complex (that was apparently more like a brothel that we visited. One museum had a collection of mummified girls that the Incas had offered to the Gods by throwing them into volcanoes (in the past few years they were found after they fell out of the ice - clearly the offerings satisfied the Gods as the volcanoes haven't erupted!).

On Day 2 in Arequipa we started a 2 day tour of the Colca Valley. Turns out the region is pretty interesting geologically with volcanoes, canyons they claim to be deeper than the Grand Canyon (true, but not as steep or impressive), valleys with cinder cones, etc. etc. We decided on the Colca Valley tour because we only had a couple days and couldn't do everything. Here's some volcano pictures from Arequipa and just on the way out of town (sorry for so many, but I am a geologist):

The Colca Valley and towns travelled through on the way there was all quite nice. It was a 2-day bus tour so it wasn't exactly rough going. Was some neat cultur and saw lots of stuff, not the least being some really neat condors. And everything including the towns, lakes, etc. on this venture were still at over 4,000 meters (almost 5,000 as I recall).

Nazca (Day 19)
We caught the night bus from Arequipa to Nazca and then spent exactly one morning in Nazca, which was exactly enough time t see the Nazca Lines.

Huacachina (Day 19)
Huacachina is a desert oasis town. It used to be a place for royalty where they'd come a bath in the green sliming oasis lake / pond. Now it's touristy and feels like a resort town. You don't swim in the lake, but there are massive (and I mean massive) sound dunes that surround the town like mountains and, here's the best part, you go on dune buggy rides!! Mel was quoted as saying this was her favorite part of the trip (she was likely carried away with the moment). Was some crazy shit, pardon my french. The middle three photos are of Mel sandboarding (those specs at the bottom of the dune are our dune buggies waiting for us).

Paracas (Day 20)
We worked our way out of Huacachina spending the morning lounging and the afternoonin a winery / Pisco distillery. Then we continued working our way north up the coast stopping at Pisco. We had a funny evening as there weren't any tourists here. Until the next morning that is. Pisco is the take off point for the Ballestas Islands and the Paracas National Reserve. The islands are called the poor mans Gallopagos and did not disappoint. You don't get off the boat, but rather tour around going through large rock arches, cruising by the sea lions, and trying not to get bird shit on you. Not a joke. There is so many birds and so much bird shit that they mine it. The value of the bird shit as fertilizer is one of the resources that the Spaniards valued when the colonized Peru. We toured the islands by boat during the morning, then then the park via rented taxi for the afternoon, then caught a bus to Lima in late afternoon.

Here are a couple photos from the evening we arrived in Pisco. This will be the end of the photos as the camera stopped working the next day. (Likely some sand from the sand boarding exercise)

Lima (Day 21)
Was nice to go back to Lima - almost felt like returning to somewhere familiar. We stayed in a slightly different neighbourhood (Baranco) though we walked to the neighbourhood we had been in before (Miraflores) one evening (a couple hour walk though). The hightlight of this return to Lima was the food. We had a couple very nice dinners and a very very nice ceviche lunch at a place the Lonely Planet says is the best in Peru (was getting close to North American prices to prove it). Also caught Spiderman 3 :) We got into town in the early evening and then had one night and a full day in Lima (catching planes near midnight / early hours of the morning the next day). Was just the right amount of time to unwind before heading home.